A decent metric when evaluating the Middle East and North Africa these days is, however bad things are at the moment, they can get worse. These days, they often do.
After just over a decade of on-off insurgency against the central government of Yemen, Houthi rebels – backed by Iran – consolidated their control over the capital city of Saana in January, fracturing the country into two rival governments, with the US-backed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi establishing a second government in the southern port city of Aden. The Houthis began advancing southward toward Aden, prompting President Hadi to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
In response, the Saudis established their own Sunni Arab “Coalition of the Willing”, and began an airstrike campaign against Houthi targets last week – Operation Decisive Storm – and declared that the campaign will not cease until the country is “stable and safe”, which has a charming note of optimism to it. The Saudi-led force are backed by Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan, with the US providing surveillance intelligence to coordinate airstrikes.
Fundamental to understanding the conflict, however, are two competing visions of regional order. The first is the pan-Shiite, Khomeinite ideal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, versus that of the Sunni Arab states. Over the past decade, Iran has been continually expanding its regional influence through a myriad of Shiite non-state actors, predominately in Syria and Iraq, but also the heterodox Shiite Houthis in Yemen, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), which is headed by “The Shadow Commander”, Major General Qassem Suleimani.
The outside interventions from both sides of this conflict, has transformed a historically domestic conflict, into a regional one, with the possibility of escalation ever-present. Similar to how Russia viewed the coup d'etat in Ukraine, the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, view the expansion of Iranian-backed Shiite power on their doorstep as threatening to their own national interest; old fashioned power politics at play.
Iran has a strategic interest in the war-ravaged country of Yemen. With a sizeable Shia population (35 per cent), and on the southern border of The Kingdom, a Yemeni regime friendly to Iran could provide a viable base of Iranian operations in their ongoing strategic rivalry. As Reuters reported last week, anonymous US officials claimed that the IRGC-QF have been training and equipping Houthi units, and have sent advisors (including Hezbollah operatives) to assist in their campaign.
Equally concerning for the Saudis is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have also benefited from the recent instability in the country. Long considered the most dangerous al Qaeda franchise – along with the so-called Khorasan cell in Syria – due to the innovative nature of their bomb-making operations, AQAP carried out a major attack in Saana in January and enjoy relative freedom of movement in areas under their control.
What President Obama calls “The Yemen Model” for dealing with transnational terror groups has fallen apart, with no viable partner on the ground to conduct operations against them. Predictably, the Islamic State (IS) decided to enter the fray, seemingly ever-content on fighting wars on multiple fronts, conducting five large suicide attacks on 20 March against Shiite mosques; a classic piece of their modus operandi since its days as al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with his strain of sadistic hatred toward Shia Muslims remaining an integral part of the groups ideology.
The Soufan Group published a commentary piece on 27 March that warned against the regional powers turning Yemeni conflict into a larger regional sectarian war. I'd argue that particular horse bolted some time ago.
Joseph Power is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
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Image Credit: IRIN Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)