Add Yemen to the Growing List of Fragmented Mid-East States
It is now very clear that the Saudi announcement on April 21st of the conclusion of Operation "Decisive Storm" in Yemen was a declaration devoid of all content. The fighting in Yemen is continuing.
The geopolitical significance of events in this poorest of Arab countries is meanwhile increasing.
Yemen is the most visible venue for the Saudi-led Sunni Arab mobilization against Iranian attempts to advance across the region. Events in the country are showcasing both the extent of this mobilization and the limitations inherent in it. Yemen is also highlighting the contradictory and problematic nature of U.S. regional policy at the present time.
What has precipitated the current events? It is important to understand that the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (Houthi) rebels were engaged in a gradual expansion of their power for some years prior to their seizure of Sana’a last September.
It was the Iranian element which, in addition to the Houthis’ own patience and determination, enabled them to emerge as the dominant force in Yemen.
Taking advantage of the chaos engendered by popular unrest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis seized Hajjah Hajjah governorate in northern Yemen in November, 2011. Amid the excitement of the "Arab Spring," this development was little noticed at the time.
Control of Hajjah, however, gave the Houthis access to the port of Midi, and therefore to the sea. In the intervening years, Ansar Allah received regular shipments of weaponry from Iran, enabling it to build up the arsenal necessary for its attacks in mid 2015.
According to the Sharq al Awsat newspaper, the transfer of arms was only possible because of the strange relationship that developed between the Houthis and the deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Saleh is a member of the same Zaidi Shia sect to which the Houthis profess allegiance). Saleh’s loyalists in the security forces, according to Sharq al Awsat, enabled the quiet transfer of weapons to Teheran’s clients.
Iran in the intervening period also trained Houthi fighters in Eritrea. So when the Houthi coup against President Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi began in August, 2014, it was after a long period of preparation and assistance.
The Houthis are now in firm control of the capital and are pressing southwards. The Saudi air action which commenced on March 25th was intended to stop the march of the Shia rebels southwards to the Gulf of Aden and the strategically vital Bab el Mandeb Strait.
The trouble is that as the Saudis have re-discovered, air power by itself is not enough. And as elsewhere in the region (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon), when it comes to proxy ground forces of the type that engage in the current wars in the Middle East, the Iranians have a clear advantage over their Sunni foes.