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Evan Horowitz

What happened, and what’s next in the Yemen conflict

Members of the Yemeni security forces and tribal gunmen, both loyal to the Huthi movement, brandished their weapons during a gathering Thursday in Sanaa to show support the Shiite Huthi militia and against the Saudi-led intervention in the country. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The country of Yemen has been engulfed by war, threatening the balance of power in the region and imperiling a key ally in the United States’ fight against terrorism.

In the last few days, Iranian-backed militias have expanded their control, the Yemeni president fled the country, the United States evacuated its special operations forces, and Saudi Arabia launched a series of airstrikes against the rebels.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who are the key players?

Houthi rebels. The Houthi are an insurgent group who follow an offshoot of Shia Islam. Last September, Houthi militias seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. At first, they called for a new, more pluralist government. But within months they had dissolved parliament and forced the resignation of the president. Over time, they have been amassing territory and consolidating their control of the northwestern part of the country.

President Hadi. Elevated to power in 2012, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been struggling to build support in his fight against the Houthi. Having abandoned the capital, he first fled south to a city called Aden, where he reassumed his power as president. Then, just today, he left Yemen for Saudi Arabia.

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Former president Saleh. Before Hadi took power, Yemen was ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Like a number of other autocrats, he was driven from power during the Arab spring. Yet he seems to have maintained the loyalty of the military, and while he has so far aligned himself with the Houthi, he is very much a wildcard in the unfolding violence.

Iran. As the leading Shia power in the Middle East, Iran regularly provides support for other Shia groups (including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the government in Iraq). Throughout this conflict, Iran has been aiding the Houthi.

Saudi Arabia. Lined up against Iran is the region’s leading Sunni power, Saudi Arabia. They share a long border with Yemen and a long history of involvement. To support President Hadi and fight off the Houthi, they’ve been assembling a coalition of mostly Sunni states.

The United States. Yemen has long been on the front lines in the US war against Al Qaeda. For years, the United States has been providing military aid to the government and carrying out drone strikes against presumed terrorists.

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Al Qaeda and ISIS. The branch of Al Qaeda that operates in Yemen, AQAP, is considered one of the most dangerous. To date, they don’t seem to be playing a pivotal role in the Yemen war, but their future involvement is uncertain. ISIS groups, by contrast, claimed responsibility for a recent series of bombings in Shia mosques.

What’s happening now?

Houthi militias have been getting closer to Aden, the capital-in-exile where President Hadi had been residing. On the way, they captured an air base that had been used by American forces, triggered an evacuation of US personnel, and drove President Hadi out of the country.

To stop the Houthi advance, Saudi Arabia and its partners organized a series of coordinated airstrikes with targets that include a major airport and the one-time presidential complex.

Not surprisingly, those airstrikes have provoked a heated response from Iran.

What happens next?

The Saudi-led airstrikes may mark the beginning of new phase in this proxy war, where nations across the Middle East openly commit military resources to their favored fighters. The Saudis have reportedly massed 150,000 troops. A force of that size would radically shift the balance in Yemen, with consequences that are hard to predict.

An earlier resolution from the United Nations security council called for a negotiated solution, and there are plans to host negotiations in Doha, Qatar. But the terms of any negotiation — even the willingness to negotiate — likely depends on how things develop on the ground.

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How will this affect the US?

There are a number of ways this struggle could spill out of the Middle East and affect US policy and even daily life.

For one, political instability is often a boon to terrorist groups, and another failed state in the region only complicates US security policy (particularly since the United States has had to evacuate personnel and give up those vital eyes on the ground).

Depending on how Iran responds to the Saudi airstrikes, their response could interfere with the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

And finally, oil. Low gas prices have been cheering drivers and buoying the US economy for months now. However, news of last night’s airstrikes were followed by an upswing in oil prices. Any further escalation could ripple all the way from the battlefields of Yemen to the pockets of US consumers.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz