A Slow-Motion Coup in Sanaa

Four months after sweeping into Yemen's capital, rebels seized the presidential palace, but didn't overthrow the president.

On Tuesday, an ongoing battle in Yemen between Houthi rebels and government forces culminated in the capture of the presidential palace by the rebels. The development was the latest in a four-month standoff that started when the Houthis, a Shiite group from northwestern Yemen, took over large parts of Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, back in September.

One irresistible frame for this conflict revolves around patronage: The Houthis are backed by (Shiite) Iran and have been battling the government intermittently since 2004. Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is backed by (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's arch-rival. Hadi is also an important ally in America's efforts against al-Qaeda's powerful branch in Yemen. As the Houthis consolidated power, the Saudis suspended their aid to Yemen in December.

However, the Houthi advance has been marked by a strange sort of ambivalence that has made it hard to discern a sense of the group's ultimate goals. Over the course of the past few months, the rebels have continued to sign (and break) power-sharing deals brokered with the government and accompanied by the promise of constitutional reform.

Indeed, early on Wednesday, the group denied that it had carried out a coup even as reports detailed its defeat of the president's guards and suggested Hadi was being held by Houthi militiamen. "For now at least they appear to have decided to stop short of overthrowing Hadi," Reuters noted, "possibly preferring to exert control over a weakened leader rather than take on the burden of power."

For the Houthis, becoming responsible for Yemen, which faces staggering poverty and instability, isn't a particularly attractive option either. As Zack Beauchamp at Vox noted, Yemen's "poverty rate hit 54.5 percent in 2012, and 45 percent of Yemenis have trouble getting enough food." He added that, according to an organization that monitors governmental transparency, "the Yemeni government is the 10th most corrupt in the world."

In recent months, Yemen has been in the news mostly for the battle against al-Qaeda taking place in the country's south. President Obama even touted the success of the American campaign against al-Qaeda there as he announced a new military initiative against ISIS in September.

But by December, the headlines from Yemen were different. Luke Somers, an American photojournalist kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2013, was killed there along with a South African hostage during failed rescue operation. And, earlier this month, Yemen's al-Qaeda branch took credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Late on Wednesday, the Houthis and Hadi announced a new deal to end the most recent violence in Sanaa. With the capture of the presidential palace, a fuller picture of Yemen's struggles may finally draw attention.