Yemen: The Persian-Arab Proxy Battle

9 MINS READSep 1, 2009 | 12:08 GMT
The Yemeni government on Aug. 31 summoned the Iranian ambassador over alleged media bias toward Shiite rebels clashing with government forces in northern Yemen. That same day, the Gulf Cooperation Council restated its support for the Yemeni government in fighting the Shiite unrest and said Yemen's security is inseparable from the region's security. As tensions in the region escalate over Iran's increasing influence, Yemen is becoming another battleground for the Persians and Arabs.
The same day the Yemeni government summoned the Iranian ambassador over alleged media bias toward Shiite rebels fighting Yemeni government troops, the Arab powers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Aug. 31 reaffirmed their support for Yemen in tackling the Shiite unrest, asserting that Yemen's security is inseparable from that of the region. Yemen has no shortage of domestic ailments, but with regional tensions escalating over Iran's growing influence, the country is developing into yet another hot proxy battleground between the Persians and Arabs. Sanaa has long struggled to contain an insurgency in the country's northern region waged by militants belonging to the al-Huthi tribe of the Shiite Zaydi sect. Yemeni Shia comprise about 40 percent of the country's 20 million citizens, and the Zaydis, which are primarily concentrated in Yemen, belong to one of three main Shiite sects (the other two being the Ismaili and Twelver sects). The Zaydis had ruled North Yemen off and on until the 1962 coup led by current president Ali Abdullah Saleh. A crackdown swiftly followed the coup, and the northern Shia were forced into a corner. By 2004, the Zaydis built up their strength again and launched a rebellion with attacks on Yemeni army positions in the north. Ever since, the Saleh government has faced an uphill battle in trying to clamp down on the Shiite rebels who are accused of taking Iranian support in trying to re-establish a Shiite imamate in the north that would break Yemen apart. With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, the Iranians have moved aggressively to reassert Shiite influence throughout the Persian Gulf region. Yemen is no exception. Forming the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen was the perfect place for the Iranians to poke their Saudi rivals from the rear. Indeed, STRATFOR sources in Hezbollah claim that several of their own military trainers, as well as Iranians belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have perished in the fighting between the al-Huthis and the government in the past three months. (click image to enlarge) Given that a minority Ismaili Shiite population is concentrated in the southwestern Saudi provinces of Najran and Jizan near the Yemeni border, the Saudis are naturally alarmed at the thought of Iranian-backed militancy spilling into the kingdom. As fighting has escalated in recent weeks, Saudi fighter jets taking off from Khamis Musheit air base have been routinely bombarding Shiite rebel positions along the border. Furthermore, according to STRATFOR sources, the Saudis are covering the bulk of the costs in Sanaa's war against the al-Huthis. The Saudis also are allegedly giving Saleh money and weapons to distribute to the Murad, Hashid and Nahm tribes in Yemen to encourage them to take part in the fighting against the al-Huthis. To keep a lid on Shiite unrest within its own borders, Riyadh recently has been involved in several initiatives to provide developmental assistance to the Ismaili Shia in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to block the Shiite rebellious contagion emanating from Yemen. The Saudis are also taking the lead in branding this offensive against the al-Huthi rebels as a pan-Arab front against Shiite expansion in the region, with the GCC now making public statements reaffirming Arab support for Sanaa's fight. The rhetoric is starting to escalate now, but the Arab powers have been at work for several years in quietly trying to prevent Iran from establishing a foothold in Yemen. In fact, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a key factor that enabled the Arab states to help solidify Sunni control in Sanaa and boost the Yemeni government's counterinsurgency capabilities. After Hussein's ouster in the spring of 2003, many of Iraq's Baathist army officers loyal to Hussein fled mainly to Damascus, Dubai and Amman to escape the U.S. dragnet. The Yemeni president and his Arab neighbors were quick to recognize an opportunity in the U.S.-led de-Baathification campaign. While countries like Syria sheltered many of these Iraqi Baathists as a bargaining tool to use in negotiations with the United States, Saleh invited many Iraqi officers to come to Yemen to train and organize his country's army and intelligence apparatus in an effort to counter the hold of the Salafists and jihadists within Sanaa's security establishment. Most of the senior Iraqi officers who first arrived in Yemen were either in the Iraqi military command or the defunct Iraqi Republican Guard. Once these commanders got to Yemen, they got a number of junior officers to leave Iraq and join them in Sanaa via Amman. The Iraqi fighters were instrumental in helping Yemen revamp its security and improve its counterinsurgency tactics, especially as the Iraqi officers had experience in fighting in the mountainous terrain (the topography of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, where these officers fought, is similar to the Saada mountains in northern Yemen that provide refuge for the al-Huthis). In this latest spate of fighting, scores of Iraqi officers have taken part in the Yemeni government's offensive against the Iranian-backed al-Huthi rebels. These Baathists have plenty of motivation to fight against Iranian proxies given the rise of the Shia in their own country and their loss of power in Baghdad. The Iranians were not happy seeing their militant proxies in Yemen getting beaten back by the Saudi air force and Iraqi-led Yemeni army contingents. According to a STRATFOR source, before the death of Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim — whose family is tightly linked with Iran — the Iranians had him send a message to Yemen, offering assistance to Saleh in putting down the Shiite rebellion by inviting the al-Huthi rebel leaders to the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf for mediation. In return, al-Hakim demanded on behalf of Iran that Saleh discharge the Baathist officers working with the Yemeni army and deport them. According to the same source, Saleh, not trusting Iranian intentions, categorically rejected the offer. The Iranians have now threatened to escalate the level of their support for the al-Huthis. Farther to the west, a number of retired Yemeni military officers and southern Yemeni politicians sitting in Damascus are starting to make plans as they watch this struggle play out in northern Yemen. The Syrian regime is Alawite (an offshoot of the Shia, like the Zaydis) and has a potential interest in supporting the al-Huthi fight against Sanaa. There is no indication yet that the Syrians have entered the fray in any significant way, but the Saudis are already privately calling on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to curb the activities of Yemeni officials residing in Damascus who may have an interest in throwing their support behind the al-Huthi insurgency. The Syrians, always ready to exploit any flare-ups in the region, refused to make any commitments to the Saudis to stay out of the conflict, and will use the threat of supporting the al-Huthis to extract concessions from the Saudis and the Americans in ongoing negotiations aimed at bringing Syria back into the moderate Arab fold. While the regional players are busy stirring the pot, the security situation in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating. Battles between the pro-government Hashid tribe and the Sufian tribes, which support the al-Huthis, are escalating, and there are signs that the Yazidi Yakil tribe (the second-largest tribe after Hashids) is preparing to get involved in the fighting on the side of the al-Huthis. Many Yazidi civilians have been caught in the crossfire as the government has tried to drive a wedge between the Yazidis and the al-Huthi forces. With the government engrossed in trying to put down the Shiite rebellion in the north, Yemen's other sore spots are starting to show again. Just a couple of months prior to this latest al-Huthi uprising, the Yemeni government was bogged down in trying to put down a rebellion by secessionists in the former Marxist south. These southern secessionists were silenced after a fairly tough fight with government forces, but can now use the distraction in the north to ramp up activity again. More importantly, Sanaa's array of security dilemmas is providing Yemen's jihadist node with ample opportunity to expand its network and carry out attacks. Earlier this year, the Yemeni al Qaeda franchise announced its formal integration with the traditionally Saudi-dominated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), spreading fears into the Saudi kingdom that Yemen's security problems could start spilling over the border and revive al Qaeda's Saudi node. Confirming these fears, the suicide bomber killed in the Aug. 27 AQAP assassination attempt against Saudi Arabian Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef — the first attack targeting a member of the royal family — had arrived in Jeddah from Yemen's jihadist hotbed in Mareb, east of Sanaa. Saudi Arabia has shown that it is unwilling to tolerate a surge in Iranian support for Yemen's al-Huthi rebels. Not only does Riyadh, as the Sunni hegemon of the region, have an agenda to uproot Iran's foothold in Yemen, but it also cannot risk seeing a bigger jihadist contagion spread throughout the region again. The escalation of the al-Huthi insurgency, the rumblings among the southern secessionists and the simmering jihadist threat on the Arabian Peninsula are altogether too much for the Yemeni government to handle on its own, and Sanaa will not be shy in asking for further Saudi support to keep Iran at bay. Whether by choice or not, Yemen is being pushed to the forefront of the Persian-Arab struggle, putting the stability of the country, if not the wider Arabian Peninsula, at stake.

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