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Why military intervention won't end Yemen's crisis.

Military strikes alone will not solve Yemen's complex internal crisis, even if the offensive by a coalition of 10 Muslim countries eventually contains the advancing Houthi rebels. Yemen may seem remote. But the world should care about this land of rich Biblical history, exotic architecture, and ragged mountains for four reasons that extend beyond the current conflict.

First is the failing status of a country that produced one of the Arab Spring's rare successes in 2011--and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the process. Nonviolent protests ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 22 years in power. Yemen was, briefly, a nascent democracy and a rare exception in an Arabian Peninsula dominated by autocratic monarchies.

The crisis that has flared in recent days is fueled partly by Mr. Saleh's attempt to return to power. He is exploiting a rebellion by the Houthis, a movement he once tried to repress, for personal political gains. He apparently hopes it will help leverage a comeback.

Second are the political implications. Yemen's failed transition echoes the discouraging message out of Libya and Syria: Change creates chaos. Democracy may not be worth the price.

For Yemenis, the message may be that return to strongman rule is the safer route to stability.

Third is the danger of spillover. Yemen's disorder threatens the stability of neighboring countries whose oil resources the world relies on. Yemen's 900-plus-mile border with Saudi Arabia is quite porous--and has long been penetrated by illegal immigrants and extremists.

Since it was forced out of Saudi Arabia a decade ago, al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has thrived in pockets of Yemen. U.S. drone strikes have killed some of its leaders but not the movement. Islamic State is also reportedly making inroads.

Washington has pulled out its diplomats and special forces, so the United States has fewer means of countering the array of threats. Even under autocratic rule, terrorists used Yemen as a base. In 2000, an al Qaeda-launched dinghy laden with explosives crashed into the USS Cole, killing 17 and wounding 39 American sailors. The "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was radicalized in Yemen and became part of a plot to blow up a commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009. Chaos in Yemen would offer new space for extremists, much as Afghanistan did for al Qaeda in its early days.

The entire peninsula will not be safe as long as Yemen is unstable. The same is true for the rest of the world.

Fourth is the pitiful prognosis for Yemenis. With more than 26 million people, Yemen is the most populous country in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also the poorest ofthe 22 Arab nations. Per capita income is less than $7 a day, compared with $86 a day in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Basic resources, most notably water, are in short supply, which threatens future conflicts.Since they merged in 1990, Yemen's two halves-the pro-Western north, with its capital in Sanaa; and the communist south, ruled from Aden-have been in a precarious union. Issues extend beyond recent borders or old divisions among Sunni and Shiite sects. Rivalries also run deep among ancient tribes and clans over Yemen's limited resources.

The many layers of Yemen's crisis are unlikely to be solved by military means. In the 1960s, a protracted civil war was fought by Yemeni royalists and republicans. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were enmeshed in that conflict-though on opposite sides-and at a steep cost.

Now, as then, settling Yemen's conflict will require political resolution; this time, that includes a formula that redresses Houthi grievances and restores legitimate rule in Sanaa in a (long-illusive) unity government.

Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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Title Annotation:Commentary, text and context
Author:Wright, Robin
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Apr 3, 2015
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