Houthis Press South, Analysts Say Assault on Aden Unlikely

While Yemen’s Houthi rebels advance, an assault on the remnant government in Aden is unlikely.

A pair of Serbian MiG-29 figher jets, also in service with the Yemeni Air Force, is seen at the Batajnica Air Show, April 7, 2012
A pair of Serbian MiG-29 figher jets, also in service with the Yemeni Air Force, is seen at the Batajnica Air Show, April 7, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons/Srđan Popović)

Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Wednesday seized a military base some 55 kilometers from Aden, the city where the country’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, has holed up since February. They also made territorial gains in the Al Hawtah District in the southwestern Lahij Governorate.

The same day, warplanes attacked the area where Hadi is residing for the second time in a week.

As last week, when a plane first targeted Hadi’s hideout, it was unclear if the Houthi or supporters of his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, were behind the attack.

Hadi fled to Aden after the Houthis dissolved parliament in Sana’a last month. They originally stormed the capital city in September and had held Hadi and his ministers under house arrest.

Saleh, who had been in power since Yemen was unified in 1990, was forced out of office in 2012 amid fears of an “Arab Spring”-style uprising in the impoverished Arab country. His faction has tacitly supported the Houthis since by refusing to take sides in their disputes with Hadi. Earlier this month, the former leader called on Hadi to step down.

The Shia rebels rejected constitutional reforms proposed by Hadi under which the former North Yemen would have been split up into four autonomous regions. Leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said Hadi’s plan would have strengthened Sunni and pro-Saudi fiefdoms at the expense of Yemen’s unity.

Although the violence is escalating, the United Arab Emirates’ The National believes it is unlikely the Houthis will try to conquer Aden.

Such an act would intensify calls from the international community for intervention which is something that the backers of the Houthi rebels — in particular, Iran and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — don’t want.

More likely, they intend to use the threat of an assault to force concessions from Hadi’s remnant government, the newspaper said.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister warned on Monday that the kingdom could take “necessary measures” if diplomacy failed to resolve the crisis.

Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud blamed Iranian “aggression” for the unrest in Yemen. Although it is unclear to what extent the Houthis coordinated with Iran before they took over the capital, the Shia state has helped its co-religionists consolidate their position. A delegation of Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran earlier this month. Iranian medical supplies arrived in Yemen a day after the two regimes signed an aviation agreement.

Hadi’s foreign minister urged nearby Arab Gulf states to intervene in the conflict on Monday. American officials told the Reuters news agency the following day that Saudi Arabia was moving armor and artillery to its border with Yemen although they cautioned the military movements could be for offensive as well as defensive purposes.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Jon B. Alterman argues that neither side is likely to prevail any time soon.

Rugged geography and broad spaces will make it hard for any side to hold land and poor populations with little to lose will find themselves used as cannon fodder by one side or another. Jihadi groups of various stripes are bystanders to the principal fight between the rump government and the Houthis but they will surely benefit from the widespread suffering.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by experts to be the international terrorist organization’s most lethal branch, could take advantage of the chaos, as could militants newly affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Like The National, Alterman doesn’t believe the Houthis will be able to extend their control effectively beyond their tribal heartlands. But neither are Hadi loyalists likely to push them from control of the north. What is needed, he suggests, is “a hard-minded deal that circumscribes the influence of all, inside and outside of Yemen, and grants some degree of autonomy to the various populations in the country.” That would require some form of cooperation between Iran and the Sunni Arabs on the other side of the Persian Gulf who currently see themselves locked in a struggle for regional hegemony.