The Middle East is currently the arena for a cross-border sectarian war. The weakening or collapse of repressive regimes has unleashed a fierce war for succession between rival populations, with Shia and Sunni Arabs the main protagonists. This process is playing itself out in Iraq and Syria, with Lebanon increasingly drawn into the vortex of conflict.
The regional rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia further fuels this conflict.
The Iranians are the central pillar of the united and cohesive Shia-dominated bloc which includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon and its allies, the government of Iraq and the Shia militias in that country.
The Saudis are now the main force seeking to stem the Iranian advance. The anti-western Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance is also an important element on the Sunni side.
The clash between Shia and Sunni and between Riyadh and Teheran is not limited to the geographical area comprising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A largely ignored but vital additional arena in this conflict is Yemen.
In this regard, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia has made very significant gains in recent weeks, largely ignored by the western media.
The Houthi militia, which has been engaged in an insurgency against the government of Yemen since 2004, launched an offensive in September. The movement’s fighters advanced rapidly, and on September 21st the Houthis entered the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.
The Shia militia then announced an ultimatum to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, giving him 10 days to form a new government (that would include representation for the Houthis) or face unspecified ‘other options.’
As of now, the situation is unresolved, and Houthi militiamen remain deployed across the capital. They are deployed, according to reports, outside the central bank and a number of key ministries. The Houthis have also taken a large port town on the Red Sea and have seized a border post on the frontier between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The government of Yemen, which was installed three years ago as part of a peace plan backed by Riyadh, has been exposed as helpless by the actions of the Houthis in recent weeks.
In addition to the Shia rebellion coming out of the north, Yemen is beset by a powerful al-Qaeda Sunni insurgency in the south. There is also a separatist movement in the south, that seeks to break away from Sana’a.
Fighting has now broken out between Houthi rebels and Sunni tribesmen backed by al-Qaeda in the area south of the capital. The town of Radda has emerged as a point of contention. Over 250 people have been killed in the fighting, according to a report by Associated Press.
Yemen has a 1,100 kilometer border with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh’s concern at the advance of the Houthis is not hard to understand.
The links between the movement and Teheran are clear. For public consumption, the Houthis deny links with Iran. A senior leader of the Houthis, Hasan al-Saadi, told Bloomberg news earlier this week that the Houthis ‘respect Iranian resistance and the movement of Ayatollah Khomeini,’ but do not agree with Teheran in all respects.
In reality, there is ample evidence of direct Iranian aid to the Houthis. Most tellingly, on January 23rd, 2013, the Yemeni coastguard apprehended an Iranian ship, the Jihan 1, which was carrying weapons, explosives and other military equipment from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, intended for delivery to the Houthis.
Iran has a number of reasons for supporting the Houthis. Alliance with a restive armed Shia group that controls border areas facing Saudi Arabia is a useful tool of pressure on Riyadh.
Also, Yemen has a significant section of the Red Sea coast which Iran seeks to control as part of its broader goal of acquiring control of the sea lanes from the Persian Gulf.
The latest events in Yemen are once again testimony to the unsurpassed skill that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps displays in the practice of political and paramilitary warfare in the Middle East.
This ability to develop and maintain proxy political-military forces has been an asset in Iranian hands since the birth of the Islamic Republic – with the Lebanese Hizballah the first fruit of it.
In the current context of the break up of formerly strong regimes in a number of Arab countries and the outbreak of war between would be successor groups, this ability is at a premium. The Iranian skill in this regard is what preserved the Assad regime through the creation and mobilization of sectarian military groups in Syria against the Sunni insurgency there.
Teheran appears currently to be repeating this process in Iraq, where brutal Shia militias are playing an ever more important role in the fight against the Islamic State.
In Yemen, a similar dynamic is emerging.
The Saudis simply have no parallel ability to use clients. They consequently prefer to invest in regular state military forces. Where the state is a real and a strong one, as in Egypt, this orientation can pay dividends. Where the state is largely a fiction, as in Yemen, Riyadh and its money power is of limited use.
This applies also to the Lebanon example (in Iraq and in Syria, the ‘state’ is on the pro-Iran side. )
Events in Yemen ought to concern the west because they demonstrate once again the skill and determination of the Iranians in the game that matters most right now in the Middle East.
At the same time, Teheran appears to be well on the way toward nuclear weapons capability, because of the fecklessness of western policy. This will pave the way for a yet more aggressive Iranian push to hegemony in Yemen and beyond it – throughout the Gulf, Iraq and the Levant.