A military vehicle belonging to the presidential guards, which was seized by Houthi fighters during clashes, is seen outside the Presidential Palace in Sanaa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels are on the verge of a coup in Yemen as Sunni rivals within the country and regionally seem helpless to stop them.
Sunni countries in the region are distracted by more pressing instability at home and of the threat from Islamic State and other radical groups. The West, focused on Islamic State and its coordinated action in Syria and Iraq, sees Yemen as a side show.
“GCC [the Gulf Cooperation Council] must intervene now to save Yemen,” the UAE-based Gulf News headlined its editorial on Tuesday, in a sign of the shock of Yemen’s Sunni Gulf neighbors.
“Al Houthis already control 14 provinces out of 21,” the paper noted, adding that “the GCC cannot watch idly while the Iran-allied Al Houthis terrorize a neighboring country and flex their muscles in a region already riddled with conflicts.”
If the Houthis are able to solidify control over the Arabian Peninsula’s southernmost country, which abuts the Red Sea, whence ships travel to and from Eilat, Aqaba and the Suez Canal, they could endanger Israel’s and other countries’ sea traffic.
On display across Sanaa, the group’s slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel” is modeled on revolutionary Iran’s motto, and many Yemenis draw parallels between the Houthis and another of Iran’s Shi’ite protégés – Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Yemeni and Iranian officials say Iran supplied military and financial support to Houthi forces both before and after their takeover of Sanaa. A senior Houthi official denied this.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters last year the pace of money and arms getting to the Houthis had increased since their seizure of Sanaa.
“The GCC took its eye off the ball in Yemen. It let its own backyard go up in flames,” David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“By fiddling while Yemen burns, the Saudis have given Iran a huge new advantage along its southern border,” he said.
“The Saudis are now confronted with Islamic State and Iran-backed Shi’ite insurgents on their northern border, and hegemonic Houthis as well as AQAP on their southern one,” he said.
Some of the Houthis’ greatest advances took place while the regional and international attention was focused on the expansion of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Weinberg.
He noted that during that same period, the GCC was busy trying to patch up the dispute between Qatar and the other Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
“Given that the Qataris played a leading role in persuading Yemeni strongmen Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up power in 2011, the Gulf states were in less of a position to exert leverage in Yemen without Doha being prepared to take part,” continued Weinberg.
Weinberg said it may be too late to push the Houthis back.
A military intervention backed by Gulf states might turn the Houthis back, “but the Saudis tried that in 2009 and found themselves embarrassingly defeated,” he said. “Now the Houthis are only stronger.”
Oren Adaki, a research analyst of the Arab world at the same Washington-based think tank who closely follows Yemen, told the Post that “Saudi influence in Yemen is at an all-time low.”
“The Houthi takeover of Yemen means absolutely everything to Iran. They are watching events unfold there like an investor watching his investments return hefty dividends,” said Adaki.
“Iranian officials could hardly contain themselves during the first days following the Houthi seizure of Sanaa in late September. They openly boasted that Sanaa had fallen into their sphere of influence and eagerly announced that they support the Houthis.”
Reuters contributed to this report.