Since the seizure of the capital Sana’a by the Houthis back in September, the situation in Yemen has rapidly deteriorated. The Yemeni government’s military not only had to deal with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but also the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. While the United States had previously had troops stationed in Yemen to help the government forces battle Al-Qaeda, the US has officially withdrawn all personnel from Yemen.
As of this weekend, Houthi rebel forces seized the city of Taiz in the southwestern part of Yemen. Taiz is on the road which leads from the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a to the country’s second largest city and current loyalist capital, Aden, where President Abd-Rabbo Mansur Hadi relocated after the fall of Sana’a to the Houthis. Last Thursday, special forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has openly supported the Houthis, attacked the airport at Aden, leading to a protracted battle between troops loyal to President Hadi. After 13 deaths and 21 injuries, the pro-Saleh troops were forced to retreat after pro-Hadi armor arrived to reinforce the defenders. Two Houthi-controlled combat aircraft also sortied from the Al-Hanad airbase only 50 miles from Aden to bomb President Hadi’s private compound, though President Hadi was able to flee to safety.
The Islamic State claimed credit for suicide bombings targeting two major Shia mosques, and not to be outdone, AQAP raided the southern pro-Hadi city of al-Houta, killing around 20 Yemeni soldiers. Back during the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, Al-Qaeda utilized similar tactics in southern provinces, temporarily seizing control of Abyan and Shabwa.
In response to the Houthis’ advance, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting, condemning the aggression by the rebels and stating that the Houthis ignored earlier demands by the Security Council. UN special envoy Jamal Benomar stated that the conflict was bound to become long and destructive, citing that neither faction held a decisive advantage over the other at this time. To that end, Benomar reiterated that a complete cease to the hostilities in favor of the constitutional consultation process to address issues was the only proper and humane means of dealing with the conflict.
Despite the U.N. effort, Iran is continuing to pursue its own agenda by providing additional aid to the Houthi rebels. Last Thursday, an Iranian cargo ship arrived at the port of Saleef to deliver around 185 tons of weapons and equipment to the Houthis. This comes in the wake of an economic partnership between Iran and the Houthis, with Iran promising a year’s worth of petroleum and a 200 megawatt power plant.
Though American efforts in Yemen have been centered around preventing Al-Qaeda establishing Yemen as a safe haven, we should be wary of the Iranian effort to subvert Yemen. Yemen is a key location for exerting control over shipping routes from the Mediterranean into the Persian Gulf, and together with Iran’s expanding influence in Africa any Iranian attempt to control that passageway should be taken seriously.