Yemen in Crisis: A New Middle East Proxy War?

On Sunday, September 21, Shiite Houthi rebels from the north of Yemen stormed the capital Sana’a, seizing government facilities and forcing a conciliatory ceasefire agreement from the Sunni central government led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

To understand this conflict, it is critical to know who the Houthis are. They are followers of a branch of Islam known as Zaidism. The Zaidis ruled northern Yemen for nearly 1,000 years, with their reign coming to an end in 1962. The name “Houthi” comes from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led a Zaidi uprising against the Yemini central government in 2004 to win greater autonomy for the Houthi’s home province Saada. After he was killed in 2004, his family led more than five uprisings in the ensuing five years.

In the current crisis, the protestors, upset over decreased fuel subsidies and demanding a more representative central government, swiftly overran the capital, bolstered by the support of the rogue Fourth Army Brigade.

A tenuous transitional government has led the country since the Arab Spring uprising that resulted in the overthrow of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. The most recent assault plunged the country back into a political crisis, with the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Basindwa.

In the broader geopolitical climate of the Middle East, the Houthi uprising comes at a critical juncture. The current Sunni government in Sana’a is widely seen as being close to Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf monarchies. The Shiite Houthis, by contrast, are seen as having ties to Iran, another Shiite nation and regional rival to Saudi Arabia.

For years, Saudi Arabia relied on the Yemeni government to clamp down on extremism, as the two share an approximately 1,100-mile border. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the region, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is based out of southern Yemen, and is widely considered of the various Qaeda franchises to be the most competent and most interested in launching foreign terror attacks. The threat posed by AQAP and other regional Jihadi groups was serious enough for the United States to launch a covert drone war in the country with the goal of eradicating the terrorist group. This was done with the close partnership of the Yemini military. With the military in disarray as a result of the Houthi assault, the future of that partnership is murky, and the implications for America’s global war on terror are significant.

Another crucial player in this crisis is Iran. Recently, there has been something of a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as both see the rise of the Islamic State militant group as threatening their respective interests. This has led to a series of meetings between Iranian and Saudi officials, culminating with a foreign-minister level meeting between Mohammed Javad Zarif, of Iran, and Prince Saud al-Faisal, of Saudi Arabia – the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2013. However, if it is determined there are significant Iranian links to the Houthi seizure of Sana’a, such a move could jeopardize this thaw between the two regional powers’ relationship and potentially harm their coordination on dealing with Islamic State.

With terrorist threats persisting across the Middle East, the Houthi seizure of Sana’a threatens the budding relations between the major regional power brokers – Iran and Saudi Arabia, and may significantly hamper American military efforts in the region.

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