Iran’s proxy war in Yemen, a nightmare for Saudi
Yemen’s Houthi rebels dissolved the country’s parliament on Friday 6 2015, and announced a five-member presidential council that will act as an interim government for a period of two years, until a new parliament can be formed. The Revolutionary Committee replaces Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government. Hadi resigned along with his entire cabinet on Jan 22 following a prolonged standoff with the Houthi fighters.
Impoverished but strategically important, the tussle for power in Yemen has serious implications for the region and the security of the West. Yemen is in the grip of its most severe crisis in years, as competing forces fight for control of the country.
The move raised concerns of civil war in the country and saw United Nations’ envoy Jamal Benomar rush back to Sanaa, where he announced that he had convinced country’s various political factions to sit down and talk over the future of the country.
The mass resignation by Hadi’s transitional government left the country without a functioning government. The latest turn of events — described by locals as a coup — has raised broad fears about the potential breakup of the country and generated ongoing protests against the Houthi power grab. The group previously demanded integration into the country’s army and police as a condition for the release of Hadi and his Cabinet members from house arrest and now appears poised to unilaterally seize power.
Now the main fight is between forces loyal to the beleaguered President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Mr Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.
Houthis’ political views are as complicated as the historical origins of their movement. In short term, they oppose Hadi’s plan to divide Yemen into six federal states. They have repeatedly rejected a full restoration of the historical Zaidi imamate, the Shia political institution that dominated the country for nine centuries.
Instead, the Houthis are seeking a new constitution that guarantees them a representative political voice and guards against the kind of persecution their community has endured since 1962. In the meantime, the prolonged conflict has claimed thousands of lives and displaced an estimated 250,000 people in northern Yemen. No end appears in sight.
But the Zaidis are no small sect – they make up one third of the population of Yemen and have ruled northern part of the country for 1,000 years until the early 1960s’; Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the head of the rebel movement and it’s Saada province heartland, led an uprising in 2004 and has long sought to protect his clan from what some Shias see as an encroachment by the Sunni groups.
It was the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the perception by Al-Houthi that the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was not doing enough to prevent its violent, sectarian views about Zaidi Shias that prompted the Houthis to advance from the north and take Sanaa in 2014. They placed Hadi under arrest and quickly consolidated their rule.
But it was also long-held feelings that the government in Sanaa was not sharing the country’s resources evenly since the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi, in 2011. The Houthis hate Hadi – on whose head they recently put a $100,000 bounty on – and kept him under house arrest after taking Sana’a in January until he fled in February. Now Hadi is believed to have left Yemen by boat.
Yemen’s security forces have split loyalties, with some units backing Mr Hadi, and others the Houthis and Mr Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained politically influential. Mr Hadi is also supported by a militia group known as the Popular Resistance Committees in the predominantly Sunni southern part of the country and some local tribesmen.
Both President Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has staged numerous deadly attacks from its strongholds in the south and south-east whereas; Islamic State, seeks to eclipse AQAP and claims to have carried out a series of suicide bombings in Sanaa during March 2015.
The situation has got worse after rebel forces closed in on the president’s southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Mr Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets. The coalition comprises five Gulf Arab States, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.
The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is also seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. Gulf Arab states have accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran has denied this, while they are themselves backers of President Hadi.
Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the World‘s oil shipments pass. Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear a Houthi takeover would threaten free passage through the strait.
The degree to which the Houthis are being funded by Iran is unclear, although most Yemen watchers believe Tehran is funneling both weapons and military advice to the rebels. Just like its backing of Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, the Houthis make an excellent proxy on the border of Iran’s most significant ideological and geopolitical enemy, Saudi Arabia.
But analysts equally see the hand of Saleh behind the Houthi advance, which may also serve to explain why the Houthis have been willing to spread so far from their north-western heartlands.
Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly agitated by Iran’s regional adventurism. With Iran-backed Shia militias bolstering the Iraqi army against IS, Hezbollah propping up the Assad regime in Syria, ongoing tension continuing between the government and the Al-Wefaq party in Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s own restive Shia population in the Eastern Province remaining a consideration, Iran is now cultivating a new front in the Kingdom’s south.
However, Iran may not have as much influence as it seems to the case. Global Risk Insights spoke to Middle East Institute scholar and Yemen specialist Dr. Charles Schmitz, who affirmed that the, “The relationship between the Ansar Allah and Iran is not clear. I suggest there is financial support because Ansar Allah has money to pay for militias. But Ansar Allah is also collecting taxes and controls the qat trade, so there may be significant local revenue as well. The Iranians may also be giving logistic support.”
While the Houthis downplay their ties to Iran, high-level officials from the IRGC al-Quds Force gush how they are modeled after the Lebanese Hezbollah as a combined military and social movement.
A Chance for Peace
A ceasefire could pave the way for lasting peace talks as well. The U.S., a permanent Security Council member, is providing logistic support to the Saudi-led coalition. The U.S. prefers Hadi, a strong ally in the region, to stay in power. The United Kingdom’s deputy representative at the Security Council expressed his country’s support for the Saudi coalition as well.
Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia from Aden on March 25 when it became clear that the loyalist forces were losing their fight against the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and its allies hope to restore Hadi to power, but the Houthis reject that prospect.
Houthi rebels in Yemen are ready to talk peace with the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as long as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia agrees to halt its air campaign against the rebels based in northern Yemen. A representative of the rebels told Reuters they wanted negotiations to be broadcast on Yemeni television and mediated by foreign states with no stakes in their outcome.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said the kingdom will accept such negotiations if the meeting is held under the supervision of the Gulf Security Council (GCC).
The request comes as the Saudi-led coalition is bombarding rebel positions for a 12th straight day as part of Operation Decisive Storm to combat Houthi expansion and Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. The airstrikes are also targeting forces loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the United states recognize Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate leader but the rebels oppose his return to power.
An agreed-upon draft of Russia’s resolution is expected on Monday following weekend negotiations. It is unclear what Hadi and his government sought to win through negotiations, as many experts agree Hadi must step down to avoid further escalation of violence.
The United Nations brokered peace talks between Hadi’s government and the Houthis in September last year, but that felt apart shortly afterwards and violence resumed. Russia presented a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, which was backed by the Red Cross.
That ceasefire would allow foreign states to evacuate the last of their citizens from Yemen, which many have been doing over the last few months as fighting escalated. More than 500 people have been killed and 1,700 wounded in the last two weeks.
“We stand by our position on dialogue and we demand its continuation despite everything that has happened, on the basis of respect and acknowledging the other,” said Saleh al-Sammad, a senior Houthi member and former advisor to Hadi, adding that Yemenis do not want Hadi back in power.
As the fight for Aden and elsewhere intensifies, local tribes have mobilized to counter Houthi and pro-Saleh forces around the country. In Aden, tribes are heading there to defend the city, and further north, tribes of the Marib governorate, which are in central Yemen, east of Sana’a, have mobilized 35,000 men for battle.
Aden is crucially important to both sides because of its strategic position on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the choke point between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This is one of the World’s most important shipping lanes and oil routes. If Iran controls the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, then it will cut off Saudi Arabia on both sides and control the World’s oil market.
Sammad denies, however, that the Houthis want to take over the south, insisting that their mission is to confront al-Qaeda, which is based in the south. While most attention has been paid to the Saudi-Houthi conflict, AQAP seized Mukallah, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout, late last week, a day after freeing hundreds of prisoners from government buildings.
Despite calls to cease violence in Yemen, Aden’s importance will likely drive the Saudis and Houthis to continue fighting. The timing of the Houthis’ request for negotiations – when they control Aden and pro-Hadi forces are preparing a counteroffensive – could be a strategic ploy to preempt a possible military defeat with a diplomatic outreach in hopes of keeping the city. The Saudis will not let this happen; however, indicating that violence in Yemen may just be getting started.
Editorial by: SS.Fahad Hussain – Deputy Editor in Chief of The Oslo Times International News Network.
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