Yemeni rebels: the international dimension

The international dimension of Yemen’s Houthi rebellion came to the fore yesterday when Iranian media reported claims of Saudi military involvement.

Yahya al-Houthi (a brother of the rebels’ dead leader) told Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency that Saudi Arabia “has gone so far as to deploy warplanes in Yemen to bomb opposition strongholds”. He said Saudi warplanes had also been used against the rebels in 2004.

This brought an angry response from the Yemeni defence ministry which said: “This news is totally incorrect and baseless as a whole … Yemeni military forces are independent and competent to perform their [responsibility] and tasks and confront any attempt targeting security and stability of the country.”

The ministry “expressed dissatisfaction” with the Iranian media for publishing “such false news” and hinted at ulterior motives.

The Houthi rebels are Zaidi Shia, and there has long been speculation about links with Iran. However, the Zaidi sect differs in significant ways from the type of Shia Islam practised in Iran.

The Sunni-Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia is obviously concerned about having a Shia rebellion on its southern doorstep. It became especially worried when the rebels extended their influence close to the border, and the Khaleej Times says this “led to increasing Saudi pressure on the Yemeni government to deal with situation”. This may be one factor behind the military onslaught launched by the Yemeni forces last week.

The Khaleej Times article, by Nicole Stracke of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, continues:

Both the [Yemeni] army and the government feel embarrassed and humiliated by the growing confidence and success of the Houthis and the apparent inability to find a political solution to the problem.

The government feels it has to react if it wants to survive. It cannot appear to be weak in the face of the growing challenges being posed by the Houthi rebels, the threats from al-Qaeda, and the challenge of the separatist movement in the south. If it wants to stay in power, it has to prove that it is able to control the situation in the north, if not through a diplomatic solution then by military means.

Stracke points out the risks of this strategy:

In the past, the Yemeni army’s ability to counter the rebellion has been limited. The army has difficulties in sustaining attacks in the long term, and the Houthis have used the tactical advantage provided by the mountainous terrain to their benefit, using ambush tactics and snipers to inflict huge losses on the Yemeni army.

These difficulties probably lie behind the reported authorisationfor the mediating committee to resume negotiations with the rebels. Quoted in The National newspaper, Faris Mana’a, head of the committee, said: “There are promising signs of an agreement between the two sides to [bring an] end to hostilities. We hope there will be a breakthrough soon.”

A key sticking point appears to be the government’s demandthat the rebels “disclose the fate” of six kidnapped foreigners, because the rebels say they were not responsible for that.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 August 2009.