By – Ahmed Atta
Writer and political analyst
The beginning and the emergence of sectarianism
Under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the group emerged as a Zaydi opposition to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they charged with massive financial corruption and criticised for being backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States at the expense of the Yemeni people and Yemen’s sovereignty. Resisting Saleh’s order for his arrest Hussein was killed in Sa’dah in 2004 along with a number of his guards by the Yemeni army, sparking the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Since then, except for a short intervening period, the movement has been led by his brother Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.
Like many Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthi movement attracts its Zaidi-Shia followers in Yemen by promoting regional political-religious issues in its media, including the overarching US-Israeli conspiracy and Arab “collusion”. In 2003, the Houthis’ slogan: “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”, became the group’s trademark rallying cry. Houthi officials, however, have rejected the literal interpretation of the slogan.
Iran Developing Houthis as its Long-Term Asset
In the beginning of current Yemeni conflict Iran was not providing substantial assistance to Houthis but recently Iranians have started pouring significant resources into Yemen. The Islamic Republic has provided the Houthis with various small arms like AK-47s, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and Iranian copies of American and Russian antitank weapons. It has also equipped the Houthi insurgency with suicide boats and drones as well as roadside bombs which are used by Iranian proxy Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) in Iraq. What has garnered the most publicity however, is Iran’s role as force multiplier for Houthi missile capabilities.
Given the fact that Yemen has no known history of producing its own ballistic missiles, let alone extended range Scud versions, the emergence of the Qaher and Burkan missiles appears to support the claims made by the Saudi-led coalition and US officials that Iran is extensively involved.
In addition, Houthis use a number of short-range Iranian missiles and rockets, most notably Borkan-1, Borkan-2, Qahir and Zelzal-2 missiles. None of these missiles are known to have existed in the Yemeni arsenal before the conflict. Iran is not just sending weapons, it is transferring the know-how to the Yemenis. Iran is also using Yemen as a testing ground for its missiles. The Iranian advisors who are helping the Houthis to operate various kinds of missile systems are basically testing their accuracy and efficiency as well as their performance against the missile defence systems the United States has deployed in Saudi Arabia.
The comprehensive Iranian backing for the Houthis is not peculiar. What is however surprising is that the Houthi militias, who claim to be fighting to liberate Yemen in the guise of Yemeni nationalism have blindly chosen to take orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards even when these orders completely contradict their agenda.
Al Houthis are a mere tool in the hands of the regime in Tehran which it can use anytime to further its regional aspirations. Iran has always taken advantage of chaos in any country where it created proxies like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Iran will never let Yemen be stabilised and has an interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so it can control it through its proxy militia. Houthis need to become introspective and decide if they are a real nationalist movement or merely an Iranian proxy.
Saudi and Iran are a great game in Yemen through strategic rivalry.
Reminiscent of the “Great Game” played out in Afghanistan between Great Britain and Russia more than a century ago, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in their own decades-long strategic rivalry for power and influence in the Middle East, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf and Arabian Sea. It is built mostly along sectarian and ideological lines – Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran as the bulwark of the Shia Muslim world.
While recent high-level discussions between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers would suggest a possible thaw in icy relations, the fact of the matter is, too much bad blood exists between them for any meaningful, long-term rapprochement, at least in the near future. The more likely state of affairs is that they are simply reassessing their strategies, taking into account all the events in the region, and preparing their next moves on the Middle East chessboard.
Inside Story – Yemen: New balance of power?
In playing their Great Game, Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a series of proxy wars to undermine each other, some hot and some cold, throughout the Middle East. In Lebanon, it is the Iran-backed Hezbollah. In Syria, it is the longtime Iran-backed Assad regime. In Iraq, it is an Iran-backed Shia government which was, prior to the US invasion in 2003, solidly in the Sunni camp.
In Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Iran works behind the scenes to undermine those governments through the Shia communities, a threat Saudi Arabia takes so seriously that it sent military forces into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell the Shia uprising there. And then there is Yemen. While its culpability is debatable in its support for the Houthi uprising, the sudden turn of events on the ground there does play favourably into Iran’s hand. But why?
Iran’s long-term strategic interest in Yemen is simple. Located on the southwestern tip of the Gulf peninsula, Yemen is a poorly governed, fractious country straddling Saudi Arabia’s southern border, which can be likened to a sieve in terms of ancient smuggling routes still used by those wanting to covertly enter the kingdom. And with a population that is 35 percent Shia, Yemen could serve as a potentially friendly base for operations in Iran’s rivalry against Saudi Arabia. For Iran, easier access to Yemen means easier access to Saudi Arabia. But is that really Iran’s intent?
In a March 2012 article, The New York Times cited claims by unnamed US military and intelligence officials that the Quds Force, an elite arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) was smuggling significant quantities of AK-47, rocket-propelled grenades, and other arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen. And in January 2013, a cache of weapons seized from a ship off the coast of Yemen was reported by CNN to have Iranian markings. It included surface-to-air missiles, C-4 explosives, and other weapons, all allegedly destined for the Houthis.
For Saudi Arabia, which shares a porous 1,770km southern border with Yemen, the stakes are high. According to a November 2013 article by Middle East Voices, Saudi intelligence officials consider Yemen to be the weakest security link in the Gulf and “easy prey for Tehran to penetrate and manipulate”.
The Saudi-Yemen border also serves as the primary point of infiltration for AQAP, which is still considered the biggest terrorist threat to the kingdom. For both those very reasons, the Saudis have been providing significant financial and military support to Yemen’s central government, and even conducted their own ground and air strikes against the Houthis and AQAP on the Yemen side of the border.
The Saudis are still reeling from the loss of a longtime ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down as Yemen’s president in 2011. From the Saudi perspective, Yemen has been on a downward spiral ever since.
A New York Times article on the recent rebel gains in Yemen, quoted Ibrahim Sharqieh, a researcher at the Brookings Institute in Doha, as saying: “In the regional cold war, this has strengthened the position of the Iranians. For the Saudis, the Houthis arriving in Sanaa is definitely not good news.”
As an indication of Iran’s newfound influence in Yemen, Reuters reported that three IRGC and two Lebanese Hezbollah operatives held captive there had been released since the Houthis came to power. Asharq Al-Awsat also reported that IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives were actively engaged with Houthi rebels to tighten their grip on Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa.
Saudi and Iran line in the sand
So what does this mean? Is Yemen really that important to Saudi Arabia and Iran? The short answer is yes, and each side seems prepared to draw their proverbial line in the sand. For Saudi Arabia, what happens south of its border is a matter of grave national security, particularly now that the future of Yemen is in question. It cannot allow instability there to give Iran a strong foothold on the peninsula or give AQAP free movement northwards.
Iran’s line in the sand is Iraq and Syria. Both countries serve as buffers between Iran and the Sunni Middle East, so having stable and dependable Shia-led governments in both countries serves as a strategic objective that is non-negotiable for Iran. Which brings up the Yemen card, a strategic bargaining chip that Iran may now be holding vis-a-vis the sudden rise of the Houthis and anticipated domestic chaos that is sure to plague the country for the foreseeable future.
By playing it, Iran would seek to pressure the Saudis to tread lightly in Iraq and Syria or risk a concerted effort to further undermine it from its southern border. The question now is, will the Saudis make their stand in Yemen or blink? And so, the Great Game goes on.
Why can’t the United Nations bring peace to Yemen?
The roots of UN involvement: 2011-14
In Yemen, unlike other countries described as being caught up in the rejuvenating Arab Spring, the UN’s political institutions have been actively involved since 2011. The popular movement opposing the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh had its own specificities: unlike the situation in Tunisia where the army was weak and in Egypt where it supported ending Mubarak’s rule, in Yemen the military effectively split. With fairly evenly matched forces on either side, clashes in 2011 left the country on the verge of a civil war.
From early 2010, with the creation of the Friends of Yemen, including all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the main western States, the EU and the UN, a group of resident ambassadors met regularly in Sana’a to monitor and influence developments and in April 2011 the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Advisor on Yemen. This coincided with a fundamental change in the momentum of the popular uprisings, when military confrontations started. The international community, represented by these ambassadors, concluded that the Saleh regime was no longer viable and needed to be replaced by rulers who would implement the neo-liberal economic agenda and focus on counter terrorism.
Despite its claim of supporting a Yemeni-led process, UNSC Resolution 2014 gave little attention to the economic and social issues which were far more important for Yemenis.
As the crisis deepened and Saleh refused to quit, the UNSC adopted resolution 2014 in October 2011 calling for “an inclusive, orderly, and Yemeni-led process of political transition”, while still paying much attention to the issues of “the increased threat from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula”. Despite its claim of supporting a Yemeni-led process, UNSC Resolution 2014 gave scant attention to the economic and social issues which were far more important for Yemenis.
Alongside other pressures, Saleh finally signed what became known as the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement on 23 November in Riyadh. Its ‘Implementation Mechanism’, signed by all parties on the same date, includes the provision that “the Secretary General of the United Nations is called upon to provide continuous assistance, in cooperation with other agencies, for the implementation of this agreement”. This justified the UN’s direct involvement in internal Yemeni politics.
The transition initiated by the GCC agreement was due to last two years, starting with the election of Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to the post of President on 21 February 2012. The UN Special Adviser, as well as the group of ambassadors, were active participants in the process in the following years, thus sharing responsibility for the outcomes of security sector reform.
Constraints imposed by UNSC Resolution 2216
Resolution 2216 determines UN actions in Yemen to this day, despite the fact that, more than 1000 days into the war, the UN has been unable to achieve any success. Hence, the need to understand both the constraints imposed by the resolution and the environment in which the UN operates. What does 2216 say?
It recognises the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in support of the Hadi regime and “reaffirming its support for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi”. It demands that the Houthis “withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sana’a”, and “relinquish all additional arms seized from military and security institutions, including missile systems”. It calls for a return to the GCC agreement and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and requests further intervention from the UN Secretary General.
Most importantly and relevant to what has been happening in the past 1000+ days, it decrees an arms embargo against the Houthi-Saleh alliance which includes the requirement that states “inspect, in accordance with their national authorities and legislation and consistent with international law, in particular the law of the sea and relevant international civil aviation agreements, all cargo to Yemen, in their territory, including seaports and airports”. This is the justification used by the Saudi-led coalition for its blockade of Yemeni ports and for preventing the flow of essential supplies to the country. Finally, it imposed sanctions on Abdul Malik al Huthi and Ahmed Ali Saleh.
UN Res. 2216 is the justification used by the Saudi-led coalition for its blockade of Yemeni ports and for preventing the flow of essential supplies to the country.
A quick analysis of this resolution demonstrates why it cannot be the basis for a solution. The Houthis believe they are on a winning streak. Firstly, they have transformed themselves from a small marginal group in 2004 to an organisation which now controls two-thirds of the country’s population and the capital. They have also consigned the transitional government into exile and, most recently, they have killed ex-President Saleh, their original main adversary and, more recently, ally. And for good measure, they have even managed to fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Given this record, they are unlikely to accept conditions which amount to surrendering, namely the withdrawal of all their military forces and a return of their armoury to a regime which is in exile.
By insisting on the return of Hadi as president in Sana’a, Resolution 2216 ignores some basic facts: firstly, since being ousted, Hadi has hardly set foot in Yemen despite his temporary capital Aden and much of the country’s area, if not population, having been ‘liberated’ since the end of July 2015. In 2017, he even failed to turn up in Aden for the 50th anniversary of southern independence. Of the 883 days between the liberation of Aden and the end of 2017, he spent a total of 167 days in Yemen.
Secondly, as discussed above, his ‘legitimacy’ is open to debate and finally, his government simply does not govern as most of the ‘liberated’ areas are under the control of a wide range of community-based local authorities, including jihadis in some cases. When ministers visit, they rarely venture beyond their enclave in Aden.
What the UN and the international community could do better
The Special Envoy’s task is to achieve a negotiated settlement. But the constraints under which the UN has to operate are a guarantee for failure. To begin with, UNSC 2216 only recognises two parties to the conflict (the Houthis and Hadi’s internationally recognised government) while in reality there are a multiplicity of relevant political entities throughout the country including tribal and other social groups, the General People’s Congress (likely to restructure and become an important political party after Saleh’s death), youth, civil society and women, southern separatists and other groupings.
For any negotiations to be successful, all Yemeni forces must participate and their concerns addressed. Also, as discussed above, currently neither of the two officially recognised parties is willing to compromise. Hadi’s insistence on the ‘three references’ is a formula to prevent talks from even starting, while the Houthis are not facing defeat. Another consideration is that the UK is the ‘pen holder’ for Yemen at the UNSC and is very responsive to Saudi positions, thus giving Saudi Arabia undue influence in this forum. The UK has not put forward any draft resolution in the past year despite increasing public pressure; Saudi Arabia fears that a more neutral resolution might question its role in Yemen.
Finally, Hadi, whose sole remaining claim to his position is that he was named as the ‘legitimate’ president of Yemen in UNSC 2216 is obviously determined to prevent any change which would most likely end his tenuous hold on power.
 Martin Reardon
Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a strategic security and intelligence consultancy.
 UNSC Resolution 2014 (2011), 21 October 2011 p 3
 UNSC Resolution 2014 (2011), 21 October 2011 p 2
 Agreement on the Implementation Mechanism for the Transition Process in Yemen in accordance with the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued on 23 November2011, para 29
 The three references are UNSC 2216, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference and the GCC agreement.
 UN News, 28 December 2017 Statement on behalf of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, on mounting civilian casualties.