Friday, January 23, 2015

Chaos in Yemen

Hadi Resigns - Huthis Solidify Position in Sanaa
Yemeni President Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned on Thursday, deepening the chaos that now reigns in Sanaa. The Huthi insurgents who had stormed presidential palace on Tuesday are now solidifying their position as the new rulers in the country’s capital, something their leader, Abd al-Malik al-Huthi, had all but declared in a televised address earlier this week. They are now in control of government institutions, including military and security forces.

Huthis, predominantly members of the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, are strongly backed by Iran’s Quds Force, who has provided them with military and financial aid needed to expand their insurgency against the pro-Western government of former president Hadi. It is not clear, however, if the Iranians directed or even expected the Huthi sweeping move into Sanaa in September, which took many by surprise, like ISIL’s march into Mosul last June. It appears any armed group, Shia or Sunni, with strong will power and some local support can march into a major city in the region there days and not expect any stiff resistance from the militaries and security forces! The Huthis certainly did borrow a page from ISIL book of conquest.

But the Iranians are using the Huthi victory and rapid pace of the events in Sanaa to solidify their own position in Yemen. This could be the first Islamic Republic-sponsored regime change in the region. It is also a payback time. Iran’s supreme leader had recently accused Saudi Arabia of manipulating oil markets to bleed Iran financially. Now Iran can threaten Saudi influence in the region through a Huthi-led government in Sanaa. Ironically the death of Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah came on the heel of Hadi’s resignation. The Saudis on their part accuse the Huthis of being a proxy for Shia Iran intent to undermine Saudi security on its southern border with Yemen. But it is not clear if the Huthis can be regarded as an Iranian proxy in the same way as Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. But they now depend on Iran to solidify their position in the country’s capital.

Events in Sanaa could most likely send the country into a full-fledged civil war, threatening a Syria-like disintegration of Yemen with different sects, tribes and groups fighting each other. The Zaydis, now in power in Sanaa, constitute only a third of Yemen’s population of 24 million, which is majority Sunni Muslim, in a predominantly tribal society. The Quds Force is expected to implement its successful Syrian and Iraqi tactics in Yemen: significant arms shipment; financial assistance; deployment of advisers and senior officers; providing training and strategic planning; and transforming some 50,000-strong Huthi fighting force into semi-official Shia militia to take the lead in military and security operations in the coming civil war.

Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful branch of the terrorist organization, is based in Yemen, and enjoys the support of some of the tribal leaders, especially in Ma’rib, the city in the country’s heartland with its own oil and gas industry. The Huthis probably want to control the oil infrastructure of area, including the oil pipeline, to expand their hold on central and north Yemen. The AQAP and the tribes close to it will, however, most probably will put up a fight to keep their influence Ma’rib. AQAP will also use the chaos in Sanaa to advance their position in the country. The Hadi government had worked closely with the U.S. in waging an offensive against AQAP in recent years, including continuous drone attacks against their positions and leadership. With Hadi’s resignation and the Huthi takeover in Sanaa, that threat against the AQAP might now diminish.

Meanwhile, the southern Yemen, once independent under a socialist government, merging with the north in 1990, could witness a new separatist movement. In fact, the Yemeni army’s 4th Military Regional Command, based in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, is apparently the only military unit that is opposing the Huthi insurgency.

Photo credit: A Huthi fighter mans a checkpoint in Sanaa; 21 January 2015 (Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters/Al-Minitor)


Anonymous said...

I believe it is a bit disingenuous to claim that the Zaidis or Ansarollah are backed by Iran. They are now the majority of the population now and have had historical grievances against the Wahabbi tribes of the east backed by Saudis who have discriminated against them historically.

Even the US has not provided any concrete evidence that the Ansarollah have received Iranian military support or the ubiquitous "Qods Force" patronage, which has its hands full against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq anyway. The Zaidis now have the upper hand because, politically astute, organized and are better fighters that anyone else in Yemen. In the 1960's Nasser of Egypt had committed 3 divisions and even used chemical warfare but could not subdue them even after committing mass atrocities, so I doubt that anyone could defeat the Ansarollah today. Yemen is chaos due to corruption, poverty and Saudi meddling, even an invasion a few back which was beaten back by the Zaidis who inflicted heavy losses on the Pakistani mercenary "Saudis" who lost a few border villages in the process too. The Ansarollah in Yemen are a political and domestic phenomenon that is here to stay.

Nader Uskowi said...

Zaydis constitute a little less than a third of the population of Yemen. They have been a minority under pressure from the Sunni majority and discriminated against for a long time, with legitimate complaints about their status. But that does not make them a majority as you claim.

As I said in the post, the Huthis are probably not proxies of Iran in the same way as the Shia militias in Iraq and Syria are. But that does not mean they do not have a very close relation with the Quds Force, and had not been supported by them through arms transfer and financial aid in the past. I do expect that the level of support will dramatically increase now that the Huthis effectively have taken power in Sanaa. The Quds Force will deploy advisers and and senior officers to Sanaa, increase arms shipment and financial aid, and will attempt to transform the Huthi fighters into a semi-official organized Shia militia force in the country. This is how the Quds force operated in Syria and Iraq, and they are expected to follow their successful experience in Yemen.

Mark Pyruz said...

Ansrurullah is more like Hezbollah in that it fields a paramilitary force and seeks a political veto status within the national government of an established country.

This is unlike ISIL which seeks a newly established, throwback-form of governance.

Unlike Hezbollah, it appears Ansrurullah sought Iranian support by means of exhibiting success on the battlefield, which is something of a reverse of what transpired for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I would disagree that "any armed group, Shia or Sunni, with strong will power and some local support can march into a major city in the region these days and not expect any stiff resistance from the militaries and security forces," as this has certainly not been the case with Damascus and Aleppo.

Interesting that again in the ME region, this time in Yemen, the United States finds itself on the same side with ascendent forces supported by or seeking support from Iran, in a conflict with Al-Qaida.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is time to revisit a census in Yemen as most sources give an estimate of 45-50% and like most regional data even that is highly suspect because the Wahhabi regimes play-down Shia demographics just like the Maronite in Lebanon used to until Hezbollah with superior numbers, excellent organization and firepower toppled them from the French installed perch. Last reported census in Lebanon was in the 1960's and Yemen never had a credible census. In any case the Zaidis now hold most of the routed army's military equipment and even the US is still maintaining intelligence contacts with them regarding the AQAP threat in the eastern mountains.