On September 22, the Zaydi Houthi movement in Yemen seized control of the capital, Sana’a. This came after a week of clashes with the Yemeni government that reportedly killed up to 340 people. The Houthis, a Shi’a tribal group, have been fighting with the Sunni-dominated government for representation. The Houthis as a group are generally despised by most of the rest of the Yemeni population.
As Yemeni security forces vanished from the streets of Sana’a on the 22nd, the Houthis seized government buildings, military hardware, and burned the state-owned television-station buildings in an attempt to seize the station. They raided the homes of two of the major Yemeni government advisors, both supporters of the ruling Sunni Islah party. Following the capture of the capital, the Houthis’ campaign continued—capturing the port of Hodeidah and the central city of Dhamar by October 14.
On October 31, the Houthis issued an ultimatum to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to form a new government (including the Houthis) by November 10 or face “other options.” A new government was sworn in by President Hadi on November 9, but both the ruling party and the Houthis have rejected it, the Houthis demanding the dismissal of cabinet members they deem unacceptable or corrupt.
Clashes have continued, such as the dispute over security at Sana’a Airport on November 10, which left two people dead. The Houthis have declared travel bans on a number of government officials, and have increasingly been interfering with Yemeni security forces in Sana’a, enforcing their own rules at gunpoint.
However, the Houthis’ primary adversary has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis are Zaidi Shi’a, part of a minority Shi’a group that actually ruled northern Yemen for over 1000 years prior to the 1962 revolution that formed the country of Yemen as it exists today. Marginalized ever since, they’ve been fighting for more power and influence in recent years. These events are only the latest episode, and, so far, their most successful. However, while the Houthis’ disputes concerning power are largely regional in nature (the north was traditionally the center of power in Yemen before the 1962 revolution, and President Hadi is from the south), it has turned sectarian due to the continuing Sunni-Shi’a regional war that is raging most publicly in the north, in Syria and Iraq.
As an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, AQAP has adopted the Al-Qaeda strategy mostly pioneered by Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq of exploiting sectarian conflict in order to advance their strategic goals. While the Houthi military campaign has encroached on AQAP territory in central Yemen, the growing AQAP offensive against the Houthis may well have to do with the overall dispute between the Shi’a and the Sunni Salafists.
Whether or not the Houthis intended to become embroiled in this regional proxy conflict, they have begun receiving Iranian aid, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force has begun funneling them weapons and ammunition. The Yemeni government has been claiming Iranian interference since 2004, but until recently it was dismissed by most foreign intelligence services as propaganda.
The seizure of a cargo of bomb-making materials intended to aid in the construction of explosively formed penetrators (shaped charges that allow roadside IEDs to penetrate armor plating) by Yemeni government forces in 2012 shined a light on Iranian involvement. It was accepted that many of the EFP materials being smuggled into Iraq for use against Coalition convoys were coming from Iran, as well.
As Iran struggles to keep Assad in power in Syria and keep Daash at bay in Iraq, it is entirely possible (and is, in fact, believed by the Saudis) that they are supporting the Houthis to open up another front in their regional war with the Sunni Salafists. The more fronts for the Salafists to cover, the more dispersed their efforts may become. American drone strikes against AQAP in Yemen have been an open secret for some time now, with one of the latest believed to have killed two major AQAP commanders—Shawki al Badaani and Nabil al Dahab in early November. With AQAP being degraded by American airstrikes, the Houthis have an advantage on the ground.
While it hasn’t received much coverage in the news, the focus of both Iran and Saudi Arabia on Yemen makes it an important front, even if it isn’t as high-profile as Iraq and Syria.
(Featured Image Courtesy: NBC)