Let the Houthis slug it out with al-Qaeda. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Why does the United States want to be fighting both the Houthis and al-Qaeda when the Houthis, now a major force in Yemen, are strongly opposed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? With help from us (or at least a tacit break with the Saudis and Egyptians), the Houthi militants could smash or at least minimize the threat of al-Qaeda to Yemen and to us.
True, Iran backs the Houthi forces and is funding and possibly providing both direct military hardware and tactical leadership to them. But the U.S. and Iran are in fact battling alongside each other in Iraq against a common enemy. Why not also in Yemen?
The Houthi are not Hezbollah. Hardly just Iranian proxies, they operate much more independently in Yemen than Hezbollah in Lebanon and the various Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. As Muslims of the Shia persuasion, they take Iran’s money and arms but do not fully share its approach to world affairs or necessarily follow its political lead. Moreover, their rule in significant portions of western Yemen has been reasonably responsible and effective. They have perpetrated few if any atrocities in the manner of Islamist fundamentalists such as Islamic State, or ISIS, militants in Syria and Iraq.
The Houthis have spouted anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments as a matter of course, but they seem motivated much more by long-term grievances against Saudi Arabia, and against discrimination against them by the former Yemeni state. Ali Abdullah Saleh, its onetime autocratic ruler, and a Zaidi Shiite who had the support of key Sunni leaders, is now, in a marriage of convenience, their committed ally. They array his forces alongside their own against common enemies.
But the Houthi did oust President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Sunni president whom the U.S. helped to install in Yemen after having helped to ease out Mr. Saleh, his long-serving, heavy-handed predecessor.
It would now be extremely awkward, likely impossible, to try to unwind the Saudi and Egyptian intervention against the Houthis. After all, they are determined to keep Yemen in the Sunni camp, and to reduce Iran’s influence there and in the region.
But surely al-Qaeda is a bigger threat to the West, to the Middle East, to Yemen and even – if they think about it – to the Saudis? Houthi military forces, if properly assisted, could flush many, if not all, al-Qaeda operatives and followers out of the settled parts of Yemen and relieve pressure on the U.S.
Let’s try to find a diplomatic solution which saves Mr. Hadi and the port of Aden to which he and his followers have fled, which acknowledges Saudi and Egyptian efforts on the part of the Sunni majority in Yemen and which limits Iranian hegemony while preserving the Houthi ascendancy. If those very ambitious goals can be achieved, the Houthis can then be unleashed on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A military solution is unlikely. To overcome the current Houthi predominance in Yemen will take more than destructive Saudi and Egyptian bombing raids on Sana and blockades of the Yemen’s ports. It could require boots and tanks on the ground, something which only Egypt could supply in any depth.
But is Egypt ready to intervene fully in Yemen as it failed to do successfully in 1990s? Are the Egyptians ready and willing to do more than bomb? Are they and the Saudis prepared to undertake a ground offensive in the Houthi heartland that might take months to complete? After all, the Houthi would be defending their very existence, not only their recent takeover of the Yemeni state.
Admittedly, a Houthi victory would also mean a victory for Iran, and give Iran greater standing in the Middle East against the prevailing hegemony of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and their allies (including the U. S.). Shia dominance of Yemen is anathema to those Sunni states.
But should the U.S. care whether Yemen is ruled by followers of the Shia persuasion rather than Sunni? Should the U.S. risk propping up the weak rule of Mr. Hadi, who is destined to be defeated anyway? Should American prestige and policies be tied to a losing cause?
The overriding concern, surely, is peace and stability in the Middle East and in Yemen. The best chance of achieving such aims is to remove the threat of al-Qaeda offshoots in the Yemen, as in Syria, and to find efficacious ways of providing a lasting peace in dangerous places.
Backing the Houthi is one way, even if it means persuading the Saudis and Egypt to change course and even if it means joining forces with Iran. Accomplishing all of those counterintuitive shifts might also help the West to cut a good nuclear deal with Iran.
This post first appeared in the Globe and Mail, on April 1 under the same title.