Yemen changes hands. Will an Iranian stronghold emerge near the entrance to the Red Sea?
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
This past month, Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, was transformed. September 26 was supposed to mark the 52nd anniversary of the 1962 revolution that toppled – after an eight-year bloody civil war - the Zaydi Imam Muhammad el-Badr. Muhammad el-Badr was the last king of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, established in 1918 and known widely as "the Imamate."
Instead, in a revolutionary development, Zaydi Shiites from the Houthi clan, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of Allah), took control of Sana'a. The Houthis clan, from northern Yemen, is not supported by all Zaydis.
Who are the Zaydis of Yemen, and why are they significant on the geopolitical map of the Middle East?
The Zaydis, also known as "Fivers," represent a branch of Shiism that differs from the majority in Shi'i Islam. While the majority of Shiites revere the Twelfth Imam, who was the twelfth descendent of Ali (the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad), Zaydis adhered to a different line of succession in the imamate, and chose Zayd ibn Ali as their leader (and not his brother) after the death of the Fourth Imam.
While the Zaydi Shiism practiced in Yemen has differences that distinguish it from the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran, in recent years Iran has sought to bring the Fivers under its wings. It was reputed that a key Zaydi leader, Hussein Bader al-Din al-Houthi, who launched what is known as the "Houthi Revolt" and was killed in 2004, used to visit the Iranian Shiite religious center in Qom.
By 2007, the Yemeni government accused Iran and Libya of supplying Zaydi rebels with arms.
One of Hussein al-Houthi's disciples professed in a 2009 interview that the Houthi movement was influenced religiously and ideologically by Iran. He asserted that Hussein Bader al-Din al-Houthi's successor, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, was close to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Sa'adah district, where the Zaydis are concentrated, is located along Yemen's northern border with Saudi Arabia, making it an ideal bridgehead for an Iranian campaign of subversion against the Saudis.
In 2009, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent Yemeni troops into the Sa'adah district to curb Houthi activism and contained the power of the movement. Thousands of Yemeni soldiers were used as were tanks and fighter aircraft. A Qatari mediated cease fire was not implemented and new Yemeni military operations were launched. By 2010, the Yemeni Government appeared to be well on its way to putting down the rebellion.
In recent years the Yemeni government suffered from widespread popular dissatisfaction after it failed to address rising fuel prices and suffered from incompetence and poor performance. This summer, after the government cut fuel subsidies, fuel costs shot up 90 percent. Houthi leader Abdulmalek Al-Houthi resurrected the power of the Houthi movement with organized strikes, peaceful protests, and even armed skirmishes to destabilize the central government. Al-Houthi rallied the support of the population and succeeded in delegitimizing any intervention of the army. His forces were able to storm and control the capital Sana'a on September 23 without any major opposition. Indeed, Yemeni sources claimed the army command was in "connivance" with the Houthis and issued orders to "withdraw, stop resistance and hand over camps to the Houthis."
In a rapid move comparable to the Islamic State's takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Houthis seized vital government facilities, took control of the international airport, raided homes of government and military officials, and replaced government-paid preachers from local mosques with their own. Although al-Houthi signed a deal with the government, thousands of armed Houthis remain in the capital, manning checkpoints, controlling access to government buildings, and asserting control of government institutions and finances.
As a result, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa resigned and, according to reports, popular committees are overseeing ministries, especially the finance ministry. Under duress, Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed to appoint the Houthi Saleh el-Samad as his new presidential adviser. As a major gesture to the public, the government agreed to cut fuel prices by 25 percent, retreating from the decision to raise prices on which the Houthis had capitalized.
The Background to the Rise of the Houthi Movement
The current Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi was born in 19826 in the northern province of Sa'adah. He was the youngest of eight brothers and grew up in the shadow of his father, Badreddin al-Houthi, a well-known religious scholar of Yemen's minority Zaydi Shia sect (Zaydis, a majority in Sa'adah, make up around 30 percent of the population).
The Houthi movement was launched as a mostly religious movement that actually preached peace and tolerance in the early 1990s, according to Professor Ahmed Addaghashi, author of Houthis and their Political and Military Future. The Houthis originally held a considerably tolerant educational and cultural vision. A religious group affiliated with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, the Houthis maintain control of the northern province of Sa'adah today.
The movement split into two internal factions; the first called for more openness, while the second urged sticking to the traditional legacy of the Shia sect, Professor Addaghashi explained. Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi, founder of the group, appeared at first in favor of the moderate line. But his positions changed over time. Many Zaydis were undoubtedly affected by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. A Saudi journalist has notes that Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi wrote a book in which whole sections were devoted to Ayatollah Khomeini, with al-Houthi extolling his "divine character and standards."
The movement took up arms in 2004 on the grounds of self-defense when the first war with the government began. Tensions between Yemeni security forces and the Houthis erupted when the group's supporters protested in mosques in the capital, Sana'a. Then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh viewed the protests as a challenge to his rule. Saleh ordered the arrest of some group members, and urged their then-leader Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi to stop the demonstrators from bothering worshippers.
Hussein, the founder of the Houtis in 2004 and a member of parliament, was a vocal critic of President Saleh and his perceived pro-American stance after 9/11. The government accused the Houthi leader of setting up unlicensed religious centers and trying to install a Shiite theocracy in the north of the country. A bounty of $55,000 was offered for Hussein's capture, and a military operation was launched to crush his alleged rebellion in the north. Hussein al-Houthi was killed in 2004.
After Hussein's death, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi was called on to lead the military campaign against the government. The 23-year-old proved to be a strong field commander and an able tactician. Using his knowledge of Sa'adah's mountains and sand storms, al-Houthi held off the government forces' attacks. When his father passed away in 2005, al-Houthi became leader of the movement, but it wasn't until the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, analysts argue, that he began to embrace his role as leader.
Al-Houthi is often compared to the charismatic Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah. Al-Houthi has gathered a large following of young, devout men who see him as a religious and political authority figure. At the same time he has capitalized on social and sectarian complaints of discrimination. The underlying grievance of the 40 percent Shiite Zaydi minority is the Houthis' conviction that their Zaydi religious identity has been under threat by the expansion of Salafism in Yemen. In recent years, the Houthis have become more radical, perhaps as a result of late Houthi leader, Hussein al-Houthi's time in Qom, Iran in the mid-1990s. He returned to Yemen to lead a more aggressive level of activism.
The International Dimension of the Yemen Conflict
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ironically himself is a Zaydi, launched six wars against the Houthis since 2004, which had disastrous consequences for the Zaydi population in northern Yemen, particularly in the Houthis' Sa'adah stronghold. This increased support for the Houthis even among some Yemeni Sunnis. Saleh also partnered with Salafists and former jihadists who were implacably opposed to Shiism, allowing pockets of extremism to grow, and never really thwarted the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
The Houthis have gathered momentum both as a fighting force and as a political movement over the past three years. They took advantage of a security vacuum created by the country's 2011 uprising in the context of the "Arab Spring" and utilized the political deadlock that followed. However, in the course of their confrontation with the regime, the Houthis have accumulated enemies in Yemen, especially among Sunni Salafist/Islamist forces, the military, and Yemeni tribes.
The Houthis' political rival, the Islah party, has charged that the Houthis are surrogates of Iran and are trying to restore the Zaydi imamate that ruled Yemen until 1962. Islah has repeatedly accused the movement of creating unrest in Amran and other regions as part of a plan to seize control of the capital, Sana'a.
These suspicions about Iranian influence on the Houthis have been borne out by recent developments. On January 23, 3013, the Yemeni Coast Guard intercepted the Jihan 1, a weapons ship carrying 40 tons of military supplies from Iran and bound for the Houthi rebels. At about the same time, Yemeni diplomatic sources accused Iran's Revolutionary Guards of training Houthi rebels on Red Sea islands belonging to Eritrea. By May 2013, the pro-Saudi Asharq al-Awsat was reporting that hundreds of Houthi rebels had been recruited by Iran and Hizbullah to train for operations in the Syrian civil war, where they were expected to fight on the side of Syria's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad. Reports of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah assisting the Houthis in Sana'a were published in September, 2014, as well.
Since October 2013, this growing Zaydi-Sunni animosity has been marked by limited-scale warfare, leading to open armed conflict between the Houthis and Salafists in Dammaj, a Yemeni town in the Sa'adah district with an important Salafist school. The fighting spread throughout various regions in the north and dragged in tribes, prominent family clans, Islah members, as well as government troops. Houthi control of the capital today and the takeover of major Salafist institutions by the Houthis -- the Islah Party headquarters and the demolition of the homes of prominent leaders; al-Iman University, representing the stronghold of hard-line Salafi cleric Abd al Majid al-Zindani; and the headquarters of the First Armored Division under the control of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar -- are the clearest signals of who won the battle for the capital.
The accession of the Houthis is a turning point in Yemen's history, and the issue is definitely not strictly a Yemeni affair. Indeed, the event is of interest to the international community since its significance goes far beyond the future of Yemen. With an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) insurgency in the country and a growing southern secessionist movement, a redistribution of power has international consequences. A further weakening of the state, which already had only limited control outside of the capital, leaves room for AQAP to claim further territory in the country. The Cold War between Saudi Arabia, Iran and their respective allies, and a re-balancing of the Sunni-Shia power dynamic in the country has regional consequences, despite the fact that Yemen does not have a history of the sort of sectarianism that is currently ripping Syria and Iraq apart.
Yemen and the Red Sea
The Yemeni conflict has an important strategic dimension as well. While over the last few years international attention has been drawn to the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, public discourse in the international community has not been focused on the Bab al Mandeb Strait at Yemen's southern tip, which serves as the outlet of the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Iran has been positioning itself to build up its presence in the Red Sea region for many years. A Houthi-controlled Yemen could evolve into a full-scale Iranian stronghold in the future and threaten the freedom of movement within vital sea routes between Europe and the Far East.
The Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC's) interior ministers have warned that the organization will not stand idly by and observe events in Yemen. They had previously stressed that the Yemeni Republic's security is part of the GCC's security, but short of going to war, the only option for the GCC is to try to rally and support the anti-Houthi forces. However, the Gulf countries that want to help Yemen are relatively helpless. They do not have a presence on the ground, nor do they have any proxy at their service. They cannot wage a war on the Houthis similar to that waged on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The GCC's situation in Yemen is difficult precisely because for decades the GCC had always relied on political and economic aid alone in order to wield its influence. The Gulf States chose to listen to popular demands and convinced then-President Ali 'Abdullah Saleh to step down following the 2011 disturbances, after a tyrannical rule of 33 years. They succeeded in preventing anarchy and mutual killings by the various parties, and they backed the project to form a transitional government until the Yemeni people could choose their leaders.
With the Houthi takeover, choices for the GCC are limited. Direct military intervention is not being considered, and the options are limited. A political solution remains the best option for bringing together the various Yemeni forces, and to unite them against the Houthis and al-Qaeda by adopting a political project that excludes the rebels and their supporters and punishes them economically. The second option that could complement the first would be to back the Yemeni army by restructuring it, arming it, and enabling it to regain the cities from the Houthis.
With this background in mind, Yemini writer Khalid Al-Karimi21 recently wrote, "It is hard to imagine a Yemen even weaker than the country Yemenis were left with following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that saw the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule." Salah, who played his political rivals and allies against each other, is perceived to still be one of the strongest political players in the country. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that ended the uprising and laid out a plan for the country's political transition granted Saleh full immunity from prosecution, and did not stipulate exile as part of the agreement, "Al-Karimi explained. "In fact, the former ruling party, Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC), was granted half the seats in Parliament as part of the transition deal, with the other half allocated to the opposition parties."
The international community received news of the current upheaval in Yemen with a measure of indifference. With the exception of a few press releases from Western countries "expressing alarm" at the situation on the ground, the takeover has been met quietly. The U.S., Europe and their allies are all too busy fighting the Jihadist movements in Iraq and Syria, while Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic have claimed world attention. However, on the ground, it appears that AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) is the one group that has been seriously alarmed at the Houthi expansion. On September 28, a suicide bomber targeted a group of Houthis near a hospital in Marib, killing 15 and wounding at least 50. One week earlier, a suicide bomber targeted the house of a leading Houthi figure in Sa'adah. AQAP claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Various Scenarios for Yemen
In an analysis of scenarios for Yemen's future, Abdulbari Atwan, editor of the English-Arabic Al-Rai Al-Youm newspaper, suggested four options:
Indeed, despite not having as sectarian a history as many other Arab countries in the region, Yemen may well follow the path of other Arab Spring countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. The current conflict in Yemen is but another expression of the wider sectarian struggles currently destroying the Middle East's heterogeneous nation-states and could foreshadow the emergence of new political entities based on political Islam and in some cases along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.