Amid talk of the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — two pro-al-Qaeda groups — in Syria, al-Qaeda in Yemen committed a heinous massacre involving three separate attacks against members of the Yemeni security forces in the south of the country. Although some do not see this as indicative of a link between the activity of al-Qaeda in the two countries, when the battle between different factions and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in 2011, al-Qaeda in Yemen was trying to tighten its grip on several regions. It even declared two Islamic emirates in Abyan and Shabwa, in the south of the country, before the Yemeni army regained control. This was an attempt to fill a power vacuum in the country and establish an Islamic state.
Recently, when the United States, Britain and other countries threatened to strike Damascus, the stances of different Yemeni factions changed vis-à-vis the Syrian situation. Those Yemenis who had maintained a moderate or even uninterested stance toward Syria became more involved in the course of events there. While the main parties were divided between the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported the revolution against Assad, and the Houthi movement's completely opposing stance, another stance appeared: that of the regular people, who despise radical fanaticism in favor of one party or the other. This third category saw the situation from a different perspective, one stemming from a common national feeling between the Arab countries and based on the historical background of Western-Arab relations. It takes into consideration the bias of the West, especially America and Britain, in favor of Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is still the pivotal Arab cause. At the same time, the subliminal talk of extremist groups calling for jihad in Syria could be heard in the pulpits of mosques, reminding us of jihadists' work in Afghanistan during the past century against the Soviet Union.
An elderly man sitting in a coffee shop on one of the narrow side streets of Sanaa recalls that the Syria and China were the only countries that did not close their embassies during the blockade on Sanaa in the 1960s. He notes, “Can any rational person compare the stances of Syria and any other country — like Saudi Arabia, for instance?”
His friend, sitting beside him, adds, “We do not need to go far. It is enough to restore the punctured Arab memory to reinterpret the Iraqi incidents … it is the same as the current scenario in Syria. Didn’t the United States destroy the Iraqi army using deceptive and fake pretexts?”
Some Yemenis believe that Syria is the first country in the confrontation with Israel. After the fall of the Iraqi army and considering the impartiality of the Egyptian army based on the Camp David Accords, the Syrian army was the only one that maintained a defensive national stance and maintained good training, even if it did not match the power of the Israeli army. Moreover, Syria still aims to destroy the Israeli army, according to this group, which cites the West’s support for the Syrian opposition, including al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra), and Israel’s recent strike on Damascus. Other Yemenis believe that Syria is a dictatorship allied with Iran under the umbrella of the axis of resistance that oppressed Syrians’ freedom more than anything else.
Contrary to public opinion — which could stem from support for Syria itself, not for Assad’s regime or for its opponents — there is a severe rift between two main parties in the Yemeni equation. The split widens with the escalation of incidents revolving around Syria.
The Muslim Brotherhood — which is part of a regional alliance that extends between Ankara, Doha, Gaza, Sanaa and until recently included Cairo — was the first party to reject Assad and his regime, and the ideology of Baath Party first and foremost. None of these countries hesitate to remind us of Assad’s massacre against the Brotherhood in Syria in the early 1980s. Better yet, they can list the blunders of Assad’s secular regime that encouraged immorality and obscenities in Syrian society. They go on to give the death toll that amounted to thousands who died in the past two years in the bloody battles between Assad and his opponents — battles that culminated in Assad using chemical weapons against his adversaries, they say.
The Houthis are the other party that constitutes an extension of the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah coalition. They believe that Assad is the last standing Arab president that opposes the United States and Israel, the primary enemies of Islam and Muslims. Moreover, they believe that the Syrian incidents are a conspiracy plotted by an internal party represented by the Brotherhood in Syria and al-Qaeda terrorists, which are made in the United States, and a regional party embodied by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization.
They all orbit the United States and carry out its plans to control Arabs, divide their nations and undermine their positions to the advantage of Israel. Thus, anti-Assad Syrians “deserve to be killed.” The Syrian army victory has pushed the United States to defend them under the pretext of the use of chemical weapons, which — according to them — was a story fabricated by the CIA.
Other factions in Yemen are taking up with these two camps with regard to the Syrian situation only. Thus, as a result of domestic conflicts between different parties in Yemen, former chief of staff Yehya Saleh, who is also the son of the brother of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, visited Damascus and declared his support for Assad’s regime.
Saleh is known for his anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance, especially following the ousting of his uncle in 2011.
Moreover, Naef al-Qanes, a Baathist leader and former spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), of which the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party is seen as the largest component, visited Damascus as well to express his support to Assad, contradicting the position of his Muslim Brotherhood allies.
One can say that the Muslim Brotherhood, along with an independent segment of the Yemeni people, support an American strike on Syria. Nevertheless, the Houthis feel they have achieved a victory against the Muslim Brotherhood in their systematic campaign to mobilize supporters. They saw that victory in the opposition of the Yemeni public to the strike on Syria, regardless of the motives behind it.
However, the battle between the conflicting Yemeni camps was not limited to contradictory opinions. Indeed, clashes between anti-Assad and pro-Muslim Brotherhood factions dragged on for weeks in parts of the Amran governorate, where both camps share control in the weak presence of the state. Clashes culminated when the United States announced its intention to strike Damascus. Mediations between the two conflicting camps in Yemen did not ensue until after Washington and Moscow agreed on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons.
We ought to recall the mutual accusations between the two factions regarding sending Yemeni fighters to Syria. While the Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of sending mujahedeen to support the Free Syrian Army, the Houthis have been blamed for sending militants to back Assad. Both camps provided evidence to uphold their claims, and local newspapers published several reports to this effect a few months ago.
Some Yemenis believe that the US monopoly on leading the world following the fall of the Soviet Union has inflicted great damage upon the Arab region, in terms of wars and bloodshed. Thus, Moscow’s recent stance against the strike on Syria once again evoked the sense that Russia — the Arab’s old friend — is closer to Arabs than the United States and Britain. They believe that unlike the United States and Britain, Russia does not seek to manage the entire region and direct it according to its own interests.
On the other hand, many Yemenis do not find a logical explanation for the US stances on Syria. Indeed, the United States is in the same trench with al-Qaeda against Assad, while on the international scale, it is leading a war on terrorism. This is in addition to Yemen being hit several times by drones under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda there.
In any case, the United States continues to be accused of taking sides with one party against the other, even if such accusations are made to criminalize such factions and to confirm their allegiance to this conceited world power, which employs all means to serve its vague objectives and strengthen its ambiguous alliances and positions.
On the other hand, Russia’s stock is high due to its position on Syria and non-participation in any battle against Arab countries. Russia is only opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been against it since the era of the Afghan jihad against “atheist and communist leaders.”
Yemen affected by Syria
Yemeni officials continue to be cautious about their position on the Syrian events. The Syrian Embassy and cultural center in Sanaa continue to operate normally and Yemen is still receiving Syrian refugees from both sides of the Syrian conflict.
It should be noted that any change of balance in Syria could lead to intensifying competition in Yemen between the Tehran axis and Ankara and their local and regional extensions.
However, not much will change in the balance of power on the ground in Yemen. Perhaps pro-Assad factions will receive wider sympathy, not because of their support for Syria, but because many Yemenis would support Syria itself — the country they once knew and where many of them graduated from college, including Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated students.
Eventually, as long as Doha and Riyadh continue to join hands against Damascus, the map of local conflicts in Yemen will not change substantially.
Farea al-Muslimi is a Yemeni youth activist, writer and freelancer. His work has appeared in The National, Foreign Policy, As Safir and many other regional and international media outlets. On Twitter: @AlMuslimi