The toppling of the Yemeni government by Iranian backed Shi’ite Houthis has upped the ante in the regional sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite struggle.
Yemen is perfectly set to become a sectarian war that will see millions more in foreign funds transferred to various proxy forces in the country, as in the case of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Sunni states are likely to dramatically increase support for their brothers in the country, not holding back funds from jihadists and other Islamists, just as has been done in Syria.
Iran and its allies in the region are not going to sit by either.
And then there is the question of the world superpowers, which we can expect will intervene as they have in Syria, with the US increasingly favoring the Shi’ite axis, led by Iran, as it does not want to ruin ongoing nuclear negotiations with the country. It also seeks to use Iran to counter Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State and al-Qaida. Recent reports reveal that the US is cooperating with the Houthis to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Sunday for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen after the country’s dominant Houthi movement dissolved parliament on Friday.
“The situation is very, very seriously deteriorating with the Houthis taking power and making this government vacuum in power. There must be a restoration of the legitimacy of president [Abd Rabbuh Mansur] Hadi,” he said.
The Gulf Cooperation Council has accused Shi’ite Houthi rebels of staging a coup in Yemen after they announced they were dissolving parliament and forming a new government, Kuwait’s official news agency said on Saturday.
The opposition of the GCC, a six-nation bloc comprising energy-rich Gulf states, may signal growing isolation for the impoverished Yemen and reflects the hostility of its Sunni- majority neighbors toward the Iranian-backed Houthis.
“This Houthi coup is a dangerous escalation which we reject and is unacceptable. It totally contradicts the spirit of pluralism and coexistence which Yemen has known,” the GCC was quoted as saying by KUNA news agency.
The situation in “Yemen is already like Syria,” Uzi Rabi, a Yemen expert and director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post
“Yemen is a failed state, and this was even before the 2011 Arab uprisings,” said Rabi, adding that the Houthi coup is a “watershed event.”
Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East will need a long time to recover from the current strife and return to how it once was, he explained.
Sunni al-Qaida Islamists are active and based in the south; Zaidi Houthis from the north have moved into Sanaa; there are a number of armed private citizens; and then there is an assortment of tribes, with each contemplating where its interests lie, said Rabi.
This situation is a theater where the Sunni-Shi’ite battle is being played out in the region, with the Saudis on one side and the Iranians on the other, he continued, adding that the country also is a gateway to Africa and the Islamist terror there.
Iran sees itself as the rising power in the region, Rabi told the Post in December, adding that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard official was quoted as saying that the Islamic Republic of Iran now controls four Middle Eastern capitals: Sanaa, Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus.
The conflict in Yemen “won’t end any time soon,” Rabi concluded.
David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that the Gulf monarchies are terrified about what is going on in Yemen and at the thought of directly intervening militarily there.
“Saudi Arabia tried going to war with the Houthis in 2009, and they got clobbered,” said Weinberg, noting that “well over 100 Saudi soldiers were killed, and the debacle ruined the career of Khaled bin Sultan, a Saudi prince who had been one of the kingdom’s top security chiefs at the time but is now largely out of the picture.”
The last thing King Salman wants is to “stake his legacy and authority on a direct military intervention in the quagmire of Yemen,” he said, adding that AQAP and the Houthis are stronger now than they were the last time the Saudis got involved.
The Saudis, who have already cut off aid to the Yemeni government, are going to look for other ways besides military action to change the situation there, such as by supporting proxies, asserted Weinberg.
He speculated that the Gulf states may even seek a solution that involves redividing Yemen into north and south, since the Houthis are much weaker in the south, but this also has its disadvantages.
“The Gulf monarchies were distracted by Iraq and Islamic State when the Houthis launched their offensive this summer, and then they were focused on resolving their internal spat with Qatar during the fall.”
“In the meantime, much of Yemen fell to Iranian-backed radicals who hate the Gulf states, hate America, and explicitly hate not just Israel but specifically Jews as well.
Yemen is bad, bad news these days,” said Weinberg.
Reuters contributed to this report.