Yemen, gripped by war, just experienced a major twist. While the country’s devastating humanitarian situation has caused international concern, the internal and geo-political dynamics of the conflict may have just changed course. The destination? No-one really knows. But since the start of fighting between the previously aligned Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh led to Saleh’s demise, the consequences have been deliberated; particularly in light of Saleh’s history and influence.
The implications are not just for the Zaidi Shia Houthis and Sunni Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi; these developments may affect regional players. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition in support of Hadi with bloody results and has imposed a crippling blockade. The Houthis, often described as ‘Iranian-allied’, ‘Iranian-backed’, ‘Iranian proxies’ or ‘supported by Iran’, have previously retaliated against Saudi Arabia by firing missiles into their territory. Saudi has reacted to such measures by accusing Iran of “direct military aggression.”
What will the new developments mean for the region? The Iranian spoke to five experts in Yemen and on the Middle East and North Africa for their thoughts.
Prior to his death, Saleh was willing the Saudis to end attacks in return for peace. How might Saudi Arabia react to Saleh’s death toward Iran?
Joost Hiltermann, Programme Director for the Middle East & North Africa region at International Crisis Group:
“If Saleh had prevailed, the Saudis could have claimed an important win in what they see as a regional superpower struggle with Iran, whose ascendancy they fear.
“With Saleh’s demise, however, the Saudis are pressed more deeply in their corner. Although there is no sign that Iran was in any way involved in the fighting in Sanaa, the Saudis see Iran’s hand everywhere, and they’ll be ever more spooked now.”
Ryan Boleh, Middle East and North Africa Analyst for Stratfor:
“The Saudis already see the Houthis as an Iran proxy, so without Saleh as part of their alliance, they’ll view the Houthis as less restrained by Saleh’s Yemeni nationalism and more dominated by Iran. In all likelihood, they will see Yemen as more in danger of falling under Iranian influence, not less, so they will step up their efforts to defeat the Houthis. We’ve already seen more air strikes in Sanaa, for example.”
Kierat Ranautta-Sambhi, Regional Security Analyst for Le Beck International:
“It’s important to remember that Saleh dissolved the alliance with the Houthis days before his demise, with some suggesting the plan had been in play for months. Furthermore, Saleh’s son, Ahmed, although a somewhat divisive choice of potential successor, was reportedly involved in discussions of a deal with Saudi, which means that there is still a potential for such an agreement.
“Given that the Houthis are faced with a significant loss of military might and, consequently, a vital bargaining chip, they may come to realise that negotiations are the way forward regardless. Nevertheless, they are likely to look even more to Iran should the conflict continue due to the loss of their Yemen-based ally and, potentially, in order to improve their bargaining power by, for example, solidifying their control over the capital.”
“What is happening on the ground is far more complex than media reporting conveys. There are many more actors than just the Saudis who may have the common objective of wishing to remove the Houthis from Sanaa but they all have differing strategic objectives.
“Saleh had a complex relationship with all of those involved, in particular with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia are relatively uninformed, their foreign intelligent service is weak, unlike Iran’s, and are unaware of the minutia on the ground. They will probably not associate Saleh’s death with Iran and won’t take any action in response.”
What involvement does Iran have in Yemen? And what’s their strategic influence there?
“As far as we can tell, Iran’s role (directly and via Hezbollah) has been very limited. Some arms support, some training, some technology transfer perhaps.
“For Iran, Yemen is important only in the ability it offers to give Saudi Arabia a bloody nose at very little cost to itself. Iran supports the Houthis but doesn’t seem to be able to control them. The Houthis are fighting a uniquely Yemeni fight and like external support only if it comes without strings attached or pursuit of a regional agenda.”
“It’s hard to tell exactly how much Iran is supporting the Houthis. We know they get equipment like weapons and UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] from the Revolutionary Guards, and their bigger missiles probably come from Iran. But there’s less certainty if Revolutionary Guardsmen or Hezbollah are on the ground as part of the war effort.
“Regardless, the Houthis exist because of problems in Yemen, not because Iran created them. Tehran’s ability to direct them is more limited than what they can do with Hezbollah.”
“Recent evidence, including from the UN, suggests that Iran has (at least) been involved in supplying missile components and know-how to the Houthis in Yemen. The conflict has also importantly provided it with an opportunity to entangle its regional rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a long and costly war, highlighted by the fact that the short-term engagement that Saudi envisaged in March 2015 is now reaching its 33rd month.
“As of yet, the Houthis have managed to remain somewhat independent of Iran – it would be wrong to refer to them, for example, as a proxy akin to Hezbollah – yet, it remains to be seen whether they will choose to allow increased Iranian influence following the disintegration of the Saleh alliance. If so, Iran may find itself with an extended opportunity to further bog down its regional rivals, as well as to increase its strategic influence in Yemen by presenting itself as an indispensable regional power.”
Adel Doshela, a Yemeni researcher and freelance writer:
“Iran has two strategies. The first one is the ideological strategy. The Iranian regime wants to export his revolution to the countries of the region. It also wants to spread its sectarian ideology to the countries of the region and then to Africa.
“Secondly, Iran has a political and economic strategy. It is clear that the Iranian regime wants to control the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab in the red sea and lines of international navigation in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. If the Iranian regime achieves these two strategies that means America will negotiate with Iran. Moreover, Iran will become the dominant force in the region.”
“Iran do have a hand there, to what extent though, this is unclear. There is no evidence that Iran has any assets on the ground. But Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s [IRGC] commander, did say that the [IRGC] has an advisory role in Yemen. It’s unclear as to whether he meant in country or from afar, however.
“The Iranian government may have also provided advanced technology to the Houthis and are probably helping them assess intelligence. The IRGC however are pulling the Houthis in a different direction and attempting to radicalize them, something that will intensify since Saleh’s death.”
How do you see Saleh’s death affecting the conflict in Yemen?
“Conflict will likely increase, as Yemen faces growing fragmentation and Saleh’s supporters will be keen to exact revenge. A sensible way forward before and still now, would be for the Saudis to sit down with the Houthis and negotiate a deal. But Saleh’s death has made this a lot more difficult for the Saudis.
“How could they sell this at home? The prognosis, unfortunately, therefore is of more war, and more suffering in a country that is already a horrifying humanitarian disaster zone.”
“The Houthis have lost an important ally in Saleh, so they’ll probably lean more on Iran for support now.
“That will worry Saudi Arabia, who will try to get Saleh’s followers, including his son Ahmed, to join their war effort. Saleh’s troops were the best equipped in Yemen, so it’s possible they help turn the tide more in their favor. It will certainly see an escalation in fighting as the Houthis and Saudis try to gain an advantage after Saleh’s death.
“Yemen has long been crucial in Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s game plan: he is perceived as the architect of the conflict, which is more broadly part of attempts to roll back Iranian influence. The ability to claim some kind of success in Yemen will be vital, whether it is increased military action or attempts to negotiate with Saleh’s successor. Either way, Yemen will continue to be a key theatre in which Saudi-Iran power dynamics are played out.”
“Actually … the victim of this proxy war is the innocents. The real conflict is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The sectarian militias of Al- Houthi want to rule the people by force. These sectarian militias do not believe in plurality and even human values. Al-Houthi has moved our country very fast into a proxy war. In fact, his military coup guided the country to doom and destruction.
“Today, the Arab coalition does not have any choice except to support the Yemeni legitimate government or we have to accept the second scenario which is Iranian domination.”
“The potential for political compromise is now more difficult. I’m not under any illusion however, that Saleh would have necessarily been successful in achieving peace with Saudi. Saleh was a wheeler dealer type and he made one deal too many. The other side did not have any faith in him.
“People are also underestimating the strength of the Houthis who are very powerful and have staying power. Even if Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition take over the capital, the Houthis won’t be disappearing anytime soon. In addition, they operate from a favorable political position – their ideological forefathers used to rule Yemen where the Imamate system was prevalent in the country and they currently enjoy broad political support. Iran’s involvement is rational here and it can be questioned what the Saudis are hoping to achieve.”
Saleh’s death may cause an intensity in the war and already the Saudi-led coalition has started more airstrikes. The key objective however, is to remove the Houthis and reinstall Hadi, which may not mean immediate posturing against Iran. While Iran has a hand in the conflict and wants to influence the conflict, the Houthis have less desire for this although they will accept some support. However, despite the regional outcome, success for either side won’t come soon. And in the midst of internal and regional power games, the biggest losers are Yemen’s civilians.