Yemen on the Brink: As Houthis Rise, The State Unravels

The fight for the unity of Yemen will be both a struggle for the survival of the present Yemeni state and a battle over control of resources.

Is Yemen coming apart at the seams? This seems to be the case with the Houthis’ gradual devouring of the Yemeni state. This state meltdown is strengthening Al Qaeda could possibly bring an end to a United Yemen as the South renews calls for independence.

The confrontation between the state represented by President Abdu Mansour Hadi and rebels from the Houthi religious minority is coming to a head.

Last week, Houthi leader Abd Al Malak Al Houthi “categorically” rejected a plan reached last year to install a federal governing system by dividing the country into six different regions.

Recently, Al Houthi challenged Hadi's legitimacy by claiming that he is beholden to both foreign interests and local corruption. This escalation of rhetoric is mirrored by developments on the ground wherein the state within a state the Houthis have been building since their takeover of the capital city, Sanaa, is morphing into a full-fledging coup. Three months after storming Sanaa, the Houthis now seem to be moving to complete their takeover by seizing control of important state apparatus, including the media.

For all practical purposes, the Houthis are now the real rulers of the Yemeni state. They have a veto on every government decision. Through their “Popular Committees” and implanted overseers, they impose their will on the work of almost all ministries. They override government decisions and challenge President Hadi on key issues and appointments by blocking the work of the government unless they approve the decisions. They prevent appointed civil and military officials from taking up their posts and replace serving governors with their own supporters.

The Houthi militia is still refusing to return the weapons they looted from the army when they overran Sanaa and other parts of the country. They are using these weapons to subdue tribes and seize new territory under the guise of fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda. Yemeni officials say the group now has more weapons now than the Yemeni army itself. There were even reports that they attempted to gain control of the Yemeni “strategic missile” brigade.

The Houthis’ alleged alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still has support within the army, weakened the military and turned it into a hollow shell. Their attempt to incorporate their own militias into the army without government approval propelled the sponsors of the Gulf Initiative—the formula whereby 10 regional powers oversee and guarantee the Yemeni political process—to insist that this cannot happen before the Houthis return the weapons they nabbed from the army.

The Houthis are also encountering significant resistance at home. In fact, the expansion of Houthi rule in Sanaa and other areas of the country might signal the breaking point for the united Yemeni state by accelerating a confrontation with those voices in the south who are increasingly calling for “independence” or "secession.”

Iran’s role:

One place the Houthis do have support is in Tehran, as their ascension to power has significantly expanded Iran’s influence in Yemen. Iran’s relationship with the Houthis has been growing for decades, and rebel leader Hussain Al Houthi, the father of the current Houthi leader Abd AL Makak Al Houthi, has a street named after him in Tehran.

In recent years, however, Iran has been increasing its support for its Yemeni allies, providing them with ever more weapons and training.

Notably, as the Yemeni press has pointed out, this has caused the Yemeni government to change its tune when it comes toward Tehran. For example, whereas the Yemeni government had long criticized Iran’s role in the country, the foreign minister recently described Yemen’s relations with Iran as "brotherly” after the Iranian ambassador’s house in Yemen was bombed last month. More tellingly, presidential advisor and former Prime Minister Abdel Karim Al Eryani recently elaborated on Iran’s influence on the Peace and Partnership Agreement that was signed last September. Specifically, he recounted how the government negotiated with the Houthis in Sanaa over the text, and although it was accepted by the Houthis, the final answer came from Tehran via the Omani mediator in Muscat.

But the most consequential Iranian support for the Houthis comes through the transfer of weapons. Al Sharq Al Awsat reported last month that shipments of heavy weapons believed to be coming from Iran reached the Houthis through the Midi and Hudaidah ports on the Red Sea and the Al Khoukha seashore, which are under the Houthi control.

Similarly, Reuters reported last month that Iran has not only supported the Houthis with weapons, but that it is training Houthis in Iran and Lebanon, in addition to the few hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) personnel it sent to Yemen to train the Houthis. Nor is any of this particularly new; Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis were first reported at least two years ago, and the Yemeni press has even claimed that Hezbollah and IRGC militiamen are fighting and dying with the Houthis in Yemen.

Yemen unravels:

The developing Houthi control of the Yemeni state has major strategic implications for Yemen and the region primarily because of two issues: the war with Al Qaeda and efforts by the south to regain its independence from north Yemen.

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