“God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The slogan of Yemen’s Houthi rebels is short and to the point. President Obama has cited America’s efforts in Yemen as an example to follow in tackling the threat of ISIS, but the Houthis this week have pushed into Yemen’s capital Sanaa. As Al Jazeera English reports:
“Hundreds and hundreds of Houthi fighters are now in the capital,” [the Al Jazeera correspondent] said, adding that the regular security forces appeared to be standing on the sidelines of the fighting between the rebels and pro-government Sunni fighters.
In the last few days, the Houthis have been targeting buildings owned by the Sunni Islah party, including the Iman University, which has been surrounded.
“This is something very serious in a country that is divided along sectarian lines,” our correspondent said.
“This could push the Islah party to mobilise its own people and that could result in an all-out sectarian war here in the capital.”
Many Americans think of Yemen as a failed state in the style of Somalia, Yemen’s neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, and could write off “all-out sectarian war” as old news. But Yemenis don’t think of themselves that way, and until now that outcome seemed unlikely. As Nils Gilman, Michael Grosack, and Aaron Harms wrote in The American Interest last year, Yemen views itself “not [as] some fringe backwater of the Muslim and Arab worlds, but is rather at the heart of both as an exemplar of religious heritage and tolerance.” Despite the decades of conflict there and the ethno-religious-tribal complexities of Yemen, Yemen hasn’t before broken down along strictly sectarian lines in the Shia/Sunni power struggle that is engulfing other parts of the Middle East.
The Houthi gains could change that. The Houthis have deep, longstanding ties with Iran. As the New York Times reported back in 2012, Iranian aid then consisted of “a relatively small but steady stream of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, bomb-making material and several million dollars in cash.” Their attacks also seem to be directly aimed at provoking a reaction from the Sunni Islamist Islah faction.
The Houthis are Zaidi Shia, a sect that is essentially unique to Yemen, where they form 30 percent of the population, mostly in the north, and until now have been well integrated into Yemen’s political life. Although President Hadi is Sunni, the former president and much of the army are Zaidi. The Zaidis have important religious differences with the Twelver Shiism espoused by the Iranian regime, but sectarian distinctions within Shiism have certainly not stopped Iran from backing Syria’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime.
The Saudis, who have sent huge amounts of money and materiel to the government in Yemen, now worry about an Iranian puppet operating with impunity along their southern border. While the United States doesn’t have a true ally in the Yemeni government, we’d certainly be worse off if that government were to fall or the country to descend into sectarian chaos. It remains to be seen how much direct control Iran can wield in this new front of the Shia-Sunni wars, but if the Houthis succeed it will be hard to see it as anything other than a victory for the Iranians.
Updated, with thanks to the commenter below.