Shiite rebel forces captured new territory in Yemen on Sunday after a call to arms from their leaders, pressing south toward the headquarters of the country’s embattled president and pitching the country further toward sectarian war.
Local officials said Houthi forces had seized the airport in the central city of Taiz, sparking concerns that they were planning a push toward Aden, the port city 120 miles further southwest, where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has set up a rival governing authority after being driven out of the capital.
After a week of escalating conflict, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday to address the crisis, which has resulted in the United States withdrawing its remaining military personnel from the impoverished country.
The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned at the meeting that events appear to be leading the country “to the edge of civil war” and urged all parties to step back from the brink and resolve the conflict peacefully, the Associated Press reported.
Benomar stressed in a video briefing from Qatar that neither the Houthis nor their opponent, Yemen’s president, could realistically expect to establish control over the whole country.
With rival regional powers of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia backing opposing sides, the struggle has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone, stoking fears that Yemen is becoming the battleground for a proxy war between the two countries.
The instability also has given extremists linked to al-Qaeda an opportunity to step up attacks, with fears that Islamic State militants may also exploit the unrest after an affiliate took credit for the Friday bombing of two Shiite mosques in the country.
“It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous downward spiral than we have seen in Yemen in the last six months,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “The sectarian divide is widening; a geographic chasm has opened between North and South; the proxy battle ground there between Iran and Saudi Arabia has intensified; and al-Qaeda and [the Islamic State] have a new opportunity to grow in this vast ungovernable space.”
The fighters who entered Taiz, both by land and air, were special forces from the Ministry of Interior, which is under Houthi control, said Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Othman, a prominent anti-Houthi politician in Taiz.
Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, is known for its anti-Houthi sentiment, and footage from the city showed large demonstrations near the seized airport Sunday, before tear gas was used to disperse crowds.
“The people of Taiz refuse to have their province used as a starting point for a war against the south,” Othman said. “[The Houthis] want it to be a starting point for their attack on Aden, since it is considered the main gate to the south.”
The push came a day after the Houthi rebel movement called for “a general mobilization” against Hadi’s forces.
“Yemen is definitely closer to hell than it has ever been,” said Farea al-Muslimi, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center, adding that Taiz’s only strategic significance was its position on the road to Aden — and the president’s headquarters.
A security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed theories that Houthis were planning a move south as “rumors” and said that special forces in Taiz were merely providing reinforcements against al-Qaeda.
Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said in a televised address that the mobilization of security forces was in order to fight al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, not the people of the south, though he dismissed Hadi as a “puppet” of the extremist groups.
As sectarian rhetoric gears up, the beleaguered president has branded the Houthi actions a coup and described the rebels as proxies of Iran.
Iran weighed also in Sunday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian declaring that the “expectation” is that Hadi should resign “to play a constructive role in preventing the breakup of Yemen and the transformation of Aden into a terrorist haven,” the state news agency IRNA reported.
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh also has been accused of conspiring with the Houthis against Hadi, with the State Department on Saturday calling on the ousted leader to cease “violent incitement” as it pulled out the last of its troops.
The move has raised concerns that it will undermine counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local affiliate of the terror group, which uses Yemen as a staging ground for attacks against the West.
(The Washingtom Post)
Yemen is a battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran
The latest atrocity in Yemen, which claimed nearly 150 lives on Friday, appears part of a proxy war between the Middle East’s two superpowers
Armed Yemeni soldiers stand guard at the entrance of a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen, on the day after suicide attacks targeted two Houthi mosques in the city Photo: YAHYA ARHAB/EPA
The deadly series of suicide bomb attacks in Yemen on Friday, which are reported to have claimed the lives of nearly 150 people, is just the latest brutal manifestation of the Sunni-Shia conflict which has resulted in rival forces inflicting widespread bloodshed throughout the Arab world.
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain are among the many Middle Eastern states that have been badly affected by the deepening hostility between rival Sunni and Shia factions. And at the heart of a conflict which threatens to transform the political landscape of the modern Arab world lies the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution.
The Saudis have been on a collision course with their powerful Shia neighbours ever since it was revealed more than a decade ago that the ayatollahs were working on a clandestine programme to develop nuclear weapons. Acquiring an atom bomb would allow Iran to achieve its long-standing ambition to reclaim its position as the region’s undisputed superpower, thereby enabling it to intensify its efforts to export the principles of the Iranian revolution further afield.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions have not surprisingly been bitterly opposed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region’s most powerful Sunni state, with the result that both countries are now engaged in fighting a proxy war for supremacy throughout the Arab world.
Yemenis and members of the Houthi militia inspect the scene of a suicide attack a day after it targeted a Houthi mosque in Sana’a, Yemen
And nowhere is this bitter dispute more keenly felt than in Yemen, a nation that holds the unwelcome distinction of being the Arab world’s poorest state. For decades Yemen was regarded by most Arabs as Saudi Arabia’s back garden, such was the influence the Saudi royal family had brought to bear on Yemen’s internal political and economic affairs since the 1930s.
In particular Riyadh demonstrated its stranglehold over Yemeni politics by supporting the rise to power in 1978 of Ali Abdullah Saleh as the country’s powerful president, and then helping in 1990 to negotiate the second reunification of a country that includes the former British protectorate of Aden.
Under Saleh’s rule Riyadh generally enjoyed cordial relations with the Yemeni government in Sana’a. But two key developments have dramatically changed this cosy arrangement during the past decade. The emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an off-shoot of Osama bin Laden’s original terror Sunni-based movement which was founded by a group of Saudi dissidents, helped to provoke ethnic, tribal and social tensions that quickly returned the country to a state of open civil war.
These tensions, moreover, were further exacerbated by Iran’s decision to support the Houthi rebels, the Shia minority in the north of the country, a decision that has helped to further destabilise the country after President Saleh was forced from office in the wake of the original Arab uprisings in 2011.
For the past four years the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been smuggling weapons to the Houthis, as well as providing expert military training, with the result that the Shia Houthi militia finally succeeded in seizing control of the capital Sana’a last year, forcing the Western-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to seek refuge in Aden.
Last week it was claimed that Tehran was increasing its support for the Houthis with the delivery of a 185 ton shipment of weapons and other military equipment.
The Iranian-backed takeover of northern Yemen certainly represents a major setback for the Saudis, who have a 1,000-mile porous southern border with the Yemenis to protect. The establishment of a pro-Iranian, Shia regime in Sana’s has also been met with deep resentment by the country’s militant Sunni population, which in recent months has seen AQAP – once regarded as the region’s most deadly terrorist organisation by Western intelligence agencies – being replaced by supporters of the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State (Isil) movement, which in the past year has seized control of large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria.
While there have been reports of tensions between Isil and Aqap, there can be little doubt that Sunni extremists were behind this week’s deadly suicide bomb attacks in Yemen, which were deliberately targeted as Shia mosques in the country frequented by Houthi militiamen, who comprised the majority of the victims.
An injured Yemeni boy sits in a wheelchair is surrounded by adults in a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen (YAHYA ARHAB/EPA)
There will inevitably be speculation that the Saudis were in some way involved in the atrocities, particularly as the suicide attacks coincided with the Houthis mounting aerial bombing raids against the Aden headquarters of President Hadi.
The group that claimed responsibility for the attacks, the previously unknown Sana’a branch of Isil, justified its action by claiming “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of Islamic State will not rest until they eradicate them…and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” No one in Riyadh is going to argue with that.
The Saudis have certainly proved adept at protecting their interests against Iranian incursions in the past. When Iran tried to provoke Shia dissidents in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain to overthrow the kingdom’s Sunni monarchy, the Saudi military quickly intervened to crush the protest movement.
Whether the Saudis initiate a similar military operation in Yemen will depend to an extent on the outcome of the talks currently taking place between the U.S. and Iran over the future of its nuclear programme. U.S.
President Barack Obama is said to be keen to cut a deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who yesterday claimed that the talks were taking positive strides and that “there is nothing that cannot be resolved.”
But the talks are being viewed with deep scepticism by the Saudis and other countries in the region, including Israel, which fear that Mr Obama is preparing to do a deal that would allow Iran to retain the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons, even if Tehran gives commitments not to do so.
And if that is the outcome then the Saudis will want to have a nuclear deterrent of their own, with the result that a conflict that is currently being fought with proxies might one day escalate in an all-out nuclear war between Sunnis and Shias.