The ongoing conflict in Yemen is quickly devolving into a wider regional conflagration, pitting Shiite Iran and an allied Houthi militant group against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that came together to launch airstrikes on those Houthi militants. The airstrikes by Saudi Arabia against Iran-backed Shiite rebels in turbulent Yemen have added a regional dimension to the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country. The country plunged further into chaos with Abed Raboo Mansour Hadi, its internationally recognized president, had fled the country. All of this violence and instability is occurring within a larger regional frame in which arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are sparring over their interests in the country. The regional brinksmanship, with all its inherent dangers, is being played out as Yemen disintegrates into a series of shifting power blocs split between duelling presidents and a trio of militant groups. After consolidated their gains in Sanaa, Houthi Shia militia is now advancing south in a bid to takeover the rest of the country. The Houthis, who are a Zaydi-Shi’a group and receive some support from Iran, have been aided in all of this by former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down in February 2012 after 33 years in power. The Houthis decision to stage an offensive into the south is likely to further inflame tensions between the two regions north and south. There is high possibility that as soon as the Houthis declare victory, then the real fighting will start, which is guerrilla resistance across the south.
Iran’s government is widely believed to be providing support to the Houthi rebels, though the extent of that support is unclear. Yemeni and Western officials say their intelligence indicates Iran has been training the fighters as well as sending them weapons and cash. Reuters cited one senior Iranian official as admitting this was indeed the case, although the Houthis themselves deny they are receiving Iranian help. It is highly speculated that the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for the last four years 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. The prospect of growing Iranian influence in Yemen has deeply worried Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great regional rival and Yemen’s neighbour. So after realising that Iranian backed militia is closer to take full control of the country Saudis reacted with airstrikes against Houthis. The strikes were a startling turn of events that came as the Houthis, in control of Yemen’s capital for months, barreled south toward the coastal city of Aden, seizing an air base along the way that was evacuated by U.S. Special Operations forces.
The Saudis have certainly proved adept at protecting their interests against Iranian incursions in the past as well. 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. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear that the Shiite advance in Yemen is putting that strategic country on the southern Saudi borders into the control of Iran. The Houthis and Iran both deny Tehran is arming the rebels. Still, a direct air route recently opened from Tehran to Sanaa, which has been held by the Houthis since September, officially to being aid and medical supplies. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his allies say the heavy air traffic along the route is delivering Iranian weapons. But with Hadi driven out, there isn’t a clear front line for international intervention to support. Any intervention would likely be in the name of restoring Hadi but doing so with airstrikes alone would be a difficult task. So Egypt and Saudi Arabia were considering an intervention on the ground, aimed at giving the president Hadi a secure foothold to return to the country, while backing Sunni tribesmen to fight against Shiite rebels and their allies. It is belived that ground deployment by troops from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other allies would come after airstrikes have weakened Houthi-Saleh forces sufficiently.
But there is no guarantee that the Saudi-led military alliance will win a quick and clean victory in Yemen or that its intervention will demonstrate the strength and competence that it hopes will deter Iran. A Saudi failure, stalemate or escalation could boost Arab anxieties over Iran or spark wider clashes across the region. Iran, for its part, may not sacrifice its Houthi chip quite so easily it may be tempted, instead, to suck the Saudis deeper into a costly Yemeni quagmire. We’re not going to be able to see any stabilization in Yemen unless the Saudis and the Iranians find a way to be able to talk to each other, rather than to fight each other through proxies. It should be clear to all major powers that they have to sit across the table in order to be able to find a new equilibrium in the region through diplomatic means, rather than thinking that it can be achieved through military means. Unless the Saudi-led intervention transitions rapidly from military strikes to inclusive diplomacy and governance, Yemen will face further destruction, decay and radicalization, adding to an already formidable array of challenges from the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIL to impoverishment and environmental degradation. Even if the regional contest playing out in Yemen can ultimately be managed by the external stakeholders, it is likely to come at the expense of the long-suffering Yemeni people.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)