Yemen: As Saleh falls, Iran will push forward
In a conflict as complex and underreported as Yemen’s, nothing is this simple. It was confirmed on Monday that Saleh had been killed in fighting that rocked the capital, Sanaa, in the past week.
Saleh's death comes as fighting erupted between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh on Wednesday, intensifying over the weekend. In light of Saleh’s shift away from the Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition stepped up its bombing of Houthi positions in Sanaa once again, adding to the bloodshed in the already ravaged country.
There was intense fighting, with families taking futile shelter in their homes as explosions rocked the city, residents told Reuters. The Saudi-led coalition pounded Houthi positions with air strikes in an apparent attempt to assist forces loyal to Saleh.
At least 125 were killed in the fighting on Monday, residents and medics told Reuters.
"No one is safe in Sanaa at the moment. I can hear heavy shelling outside now and know it is too imprecise and too pervasive to guarantee that any of us are safe," Suze van Meegen, Sanaa-based protection and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AP.
Forces loyal to Saleh lost significant territory in Sanaa on Monday, the sixth day of heavy fighting against the Houthi rebels.
My sources: Tarek Saleh's house guards in the Diplomatic district (around 50) fought fiercely for over 48 hrs non-stop killing & injuring scores of Houthis until they ran out of ammo. As soon as Houthis took over, coalition jets obliterated the house with tens of Houthis inside.— Ammar Aulaqi (@ammar82) December 4, 2017
The Saudi-led air campaign has killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians in Yemen since its campaign began in 2015 when the then-allied Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh took control of the capital.
A Saudi soldier fires a mortar towards Houthi movement position, at the Saudi border with Yemen April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
The Saudi-led campaign is focused on raining hell from the air; however, it has expanded into ground operations. Nevertheless, the campaign has failed to make any major gains or consolidate significant territory in the struggle to restore power with Yemen's internationally recognized president, Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi.
The killing of Saleh has removed the best-connected players in Yemeni politics from the fray, and if anything, it will push a resolution to the conflict even further out of sight.
Although a discourse of saddened shock prevailed in the media with Saleh’s death, he was still a violent man who held a dictatorial grip over Yemen for over three decades, and undoubtedly committed war crimes during his alliance with the Houthi rebels.
Despite this, Saleh arguably died a popular man – a man who stood in-between Houthi aggressive arrogance and the immoral Saudi bombardment. Many people saw him as the only hope to defeat the Houthi rebels and end the capitulation of the country.
It is unnerving that no one knows what the conflict will look like without Saleh. A powerful ally of Iran’s Houthi rebels in Yemen, Saleh gave hope to the anti-government effort and Iran, while digging his nails into the side of the Saudi-led coalition.
Typical of conflict in the region, the civil war in Yemen is part of a broader struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been at loggerheads since 1979. Saleh’s death is likely to escalate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have clashed indirectly in Yemen.
His death has likely kicked up dust between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Who the situation favors will only become apparent with time.
Iran’s friends in Yemen
Iran’s position in Yemen is looking as stable as it is unstable.
The Houthi’s have extended their control into the south of Sanaa in recent days, with reports indicating that they have taken de facto control of the capital. While the Saudi-led coalition steps up its attacks of Houthi positions in Sanaa, the Houthi rebels still have the upper hand.
By all accounts, the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia inside Yemen is set to intensify in the coming days, weeks and months. Iran is committed to the Houthis in Yemen, and Saleh’s death could prove to be a turning point in the war.
The Saudi-Yemen border has in some places become a front line between the kingdom and Iran-allied Houthi rebel group. AFP
In recent weeks, the Houthis have claimed responsibility for rocket attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of which the evidence allegedly pointed towards Iran as the source. This only intensified the aerial bombardment as a Saudi-led blockade was enforced over Yemeni territory, furthering instability in all its forms.
Never forget that the Islamic Republic of Iran thrives on instability. The modern state of Iran was founded on instability as millions of people forced the old to make way for the new; for the Pahlavi dynasty to make way for Ayatollah Khomeini and political Islam.
“Iran works best in chaotic environments where sectarian passions are inflamed; stoking or maintaining such environments is far easier – and cheaper,” wrote Kyle Orton for the Henry Jackson Society in 2017.
The Quds Force is the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) specialized in international missions, providing training, funding and weapons to extremist groups throughout the region and the world.
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016. AFP
The IRGC and Quds Force have supplied weapons, money and training to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as Tehran creates new hotspots in its regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia, and to export its political Islamic ideology to Yemen.
Observers point to the “Jihan 1” ship as evidence of Iran’s support as far back as 2013. The ship was seized in 2013, allegedly containing weapons sent from Iran to local Houthi rebels.
The cargo included “Katyusha rockets M-122, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, RPG-7s, Iranian-made night vision goggles and ‘artillery systems that track land and navy targets 40km away’,” Reuters reported in December 2014.
“There were also silencers, 2.66 tonnes of RDX explosives, C-4 explosives, ammunition, bullets and electrical transistors.”
The IRGC has also been accused of providing Houthi rebels with the long-range missiles they have used against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Islamic Republic’s military aid to the group is readily apparent, and … [the Houthi’s] display and deployment of rockets that feature the same name and number as Iranian rockets further serves to strengthen those ties,” wrote Behnam Ben Taleblu and Amir Toumaj for the Long War Journal in 2016.
Houthi supporters perform the traditional Baraa dance during a gathering ahead of the birth anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed in Sanaa, Yemen November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
It is evident that Iran has entrenched its position in Yemen under the guise of the Houthi rebels, but how will this translate to the post-Saleh era?
They say that to look forward, you must first look backward. Luckily in the case of Iran, there have been several occasions in recent history where the loss of a leader has made way for the green, white and red of the Iranian flag.
The assassination of Rafik Hariri, then-Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005 proved to be a turning point in Lebanese politics.
“The murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri… caused a political earthquake in Lebanon and ignited several years of violence and government deadlock,” wrote Nicholas Blanford for Foreign Policy in 2010.
An international tribunal investigating the assassination indicted five Hezbollah members over his killing.
Hezbollah, a Shi'a Islamist political party, terrorist and militant group based in Lebanon that wields vast power throughout the region, sits under the thumb of its masters in Iran. It remains the most significant example of an Iranian proxy in the region, and the source of terrorism and tensions since its formation in the early 1980s.
A man shouts for help after the Beirut car bombing that killed Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
With his assassination, Hariri’s voice of moderation was removed; his assassination distorted and transformed Lebanon’s internal dynamics. In a country where conflict and assassination have become commonplace, the hope that Hariri’s assassination could be forgotten about quickly did not prevail, and over a decade later, the country is still feeling the effects.
His death paved the way for Hezbollah to increase its influence in Lebanon through both political and physical mechanisms, as it emerged as the most powerful political and military force in the country.
In the 11 years since the July 2006 war – a successful war by Hezbollah’s account – the group has expanded its domestic influence while becoming entangled in regional conflicts.
After Hezbollah initiated clashes in Beirut in 2008 against government supporters, negotiations with the government led to Hezbollah acquiring a significant veto power in the cabinet, which it has used to great extent – most significantly to prevent the election of a Lebanese president it does not favor.
The current Lebanese president is Michael Aoun, a veteran of the civil war and, in adherence with Lebanon’s confessional political system, a Maronite Christian. Yet, his cooperation with Hezbollah exemplifies its influence in all spheres of government.
As one strong leader fell from the mantel, another rose from the ashes. Hezbollah has long been a powerful force in Lebanon and the region at large, but the removal of Hariri provided the removal of the figurehead, the unifying force that kept the system in place.
Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border, July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
“Hezbollah today is a very, very cogent mix of different facets of power. It’s a very skilled terrorist group, it’s a very formidable guerilla organization, it’s the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, and it’s a large social provider,” counterterrorism expert Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said during an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations in 2008.
With the fall of Nouri al-Maliki in 2014 from the premiership in Iraq, Iranian influence cemented itself in the country. However, this transpired for different reasons than in Lebanon.
Iran has long held influence in Iraq owing to the large Shi’a population, and especially since 2003, when it established loyal and powerful militias in the country to advance Tehran’s interests. This influence was consolidated with the formation of Hashd al-Shaabi – the Popular Mobilization Forces – in 2014.
With the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to seek out and legitimize a new source of security for the country. In June 2014, he signed an official decree that consolidated a plethora of paramilitaries under one distinguishable body.
This move directly violated the Iraqi constitution. “The formation of military militia outside the framework of the armed forces is prohibited,” Article 9, paragraph B of the Iraqi Constitution reads.
As Maliki’s leadership became increasingly authoritarian, systemic polarization of existing groups within society, along with the marginalization of the Sunni minority, fueled discontent with the ruling elite in the Sunni community.
U.S. security officials warned Maliki in 2014 that his government was causing worrying levels of animosity, which would only fuel discontent and empower violent militant groups. Yet, as an ally of Iran, Maliki’s fueling of sectarian tensions has only advanced his and Tehran’s goals.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shi'ite militia fighters from the south of Iraq and Kurdish peshmerga forces walk with their weapons as they take control of Sulaiman Pek from the Islamist State militants, in the northwest of Tikrit city September 1, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal
Militia groups such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq served Tehran as Iranian proxies during the U.S.–led occupation and continue to do so now under the guise of Hashd al Shaabi.
Hadi Al-Amiri is the commander of the Badr Organization and a close friend of Qassem Soleimani.
Amiri, alongside the administrator of the PMF, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, wield the greatest power in Hashd al-Shaabi. Their relationship with Tehran is closer than that with Haider Al-Abadi and Baghdad, and they channel the state finances to their chosen Iranian-allied groups.
The Iranian-allied militias gain military resources from Iran, while Baghdad provides political legitimacy and financial support.
In contrast to Maliki, the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, opposes the influence of Iran in Iraq, especially within the official security apparatus. Thus, the militias allied with Iran will likely attempt to operate autonomously, much like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“One of the greatest risks that Abadi faces is the steps that he might take to hinder the influence of the militias,” said Dr. Ches Thurber, professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, to Egypt Today.
Although Iran doesn’t have an ally in Abadi like they did in Maliki, they have something better. The changing leadership in Iraq made way for a leader who stands in stark contrast to Maliki in terms of his attitude toward the militias and Iran.
While Hashd al-Shaabi has continued to grow in strength as the Iraqi army completes its recovery after 2014, the militia stands for something different to the national leadership and represents an alternate pillar for Iraq’s majority Shi’a population to support.
Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighters demonstrate their skills during a graduation parade in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed
While Hezbollah gained greater influence with the assassination of Hariri in 2005 as a result of political turmoil, Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq have gained greater influence because they offer a different solution to Iraq’s political woes than the current political establishment.
The militia in Iraq played a significant role in defeating ISIS in Iraq, as well as taking control of important cities and towns in the disputed territories on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan after the Kurdish independence referendum on September 30.
Thus, it has already gained popularity and esteem among Iraqis.
With the upcoming national and provincial elections in Iraq in April 2018, it will be a major challenge to prevent the Tehran-allied militias gaining political influence.
“Now, a plethora of newborn parties have entered the electoral scene, since Iraqi law bans armed militias’ participation in elections,” wrote Mustafa Gurbuz with the Arab Center Washington D.C. in 2017. “Dozens of small parties have registered for municipal elections, most of them associated with certain PMF militias.”
This move will only help Maliki, who has long been supportive of Hashd al-Shaabi, is an ally of Amiri and Tehran, and is ambitious to return to the premiership.
“Given that the United States has strong concerns about the future of the PMF as an independent body in the mold of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, Washington and Tehran are on opposing sides in Iraqi elections – a historic first since the American invasion in 2003,” Gurbuz continued.
Although Saleh has not been the leader of Yemen since early 2012, Hadi has failed to act in a position of strong leadership since his ascension to the presidency.
As Saleh once said, running Yemen is like “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Since Saleh and his Houthi allies – at the time – took control of Sanaa in 2015, Saleh continued to charm in a pit of snakes. Saleh has played a far more influential role than Hadi in the snake pit, until he was bitten on Monday.
Smoke billows behind a building in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 3, 2017, during clashes between Huthi rebels and supporters of Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. AFP/Mohammed Huwais
As history has shown us, when a powerful leader has fallen, Iran has proven successful in manipulating the situation to its advantage. Yemen will likely prove no different.
Although the Houthi rebels are finding themselves increasing politically and militarily alienated, the space has been opened for the Houthis to act as the dominant force opposing the Saudi-led coalition – that is if the forces loyal to Saleh continue down the road he opened on Saturday.
Whatever potential there was for the Houthis to establish total control of a legitimate state in Yemen in the immediate future, this has been kicked to the dirt. But the immediate future is not where Iran looks to. In a country as volatile as Yemen currently, no-one can predict tomorrow.
What is certain is that Iran is obliged to take a significant step forward in Yemen.