Blowback in Yemen: Houthi Advance Is a Saudi Nightmare

10/20/2014 01:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nothing illustrates the free-wheeling chaos of the Middle East better than what is going on in Yemen.

A small Iranian-backed North Yemeni militia, modeled on Hezbollah and from an offshoot of Shia Islam, has walked into the capital Sanaa, taken over Hodeida, Yemen's main port on the Red Sea, and is now advancing southwards towards one of the most sensitive straits for oil traffic in the region. Cut off Bab al-Mandab, or the Mandab Strait, between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa and you make the Suez Canal redundant.

The Houthi offensive, complete with chants of "Death to America, and Curse on the Jews" is being conducted under the nose of a US military base in Djibouti from where drones operated by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command base attack Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis are even protecting the US embassy in Sanaa.

Whatever the original demands of the Houthis were -- they took part in the 2011 uprising and held non-violent protests against social injustice and economic corruption -- today they look and act like a well armed, ideologically motivated force bent on seizing control. They have the capital, North Yemen's main port, and they are now attacking Safir, Yemen's largest oil company.

The chaos factor gets worse when you take into account the mounting evidence that United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia's closest ally, sent the Houthis on their way. The Houthis were unopposed because government forces still loyal to the former Yemeni president and strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh abandoned their bases. The Houthis were literally handed the capital on a silver plate.

I can reveal the existence of a meeting which took place months before the offensive, which might explain why Saleh's forces melted away as the Houthis approached.

The information comes from sources close to Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, whose presidency has been hollowed out by these events. Hadi has not been slow to point the finger of blame.

According to the sources, Hadi claims a meeting took place in Rome in May between the Iranians and Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was commander of the Republican Guard and is Yemen's ambassador to the UAE. The Iranians told Ahmad that they were willing to endorse his position in Yemen, if government units loyal to his father did not oppose the Houthi advance.

Hadi said he was informed of the meeting in Rome by the Americans, but only after the Houthis had captured Sanaa.

The Iranian backing for the Houthis is no longer a subject of conjecture. Senior Iranian advisers have few qualms today about claiming the credit for the Houthi offensive. Ali Akbar Velayati, one of the Supreme Leader's loyal lieutenants, and a former foreign minister of 16 years standing, said he hoped the Ansarullah (Houthi) group would play the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.

Ali Reza Zakani another Tehran politician close to Ali Khamenei boasted a month ago that Sanaa was the fourth Arab capital -- after Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut -- in Iranian control. For two years, US military and intelligence officials have been saying that significant quantities of light arms and rocket propelled grenades have been smuggled in with the help of the Quds Force. Last month two alleged members of the Iranian elite force were deported from Yemen to Oman.

A well connected Iranian writer and analyst Muhammad Sadiq Al-Husseini interviewed on Al-Mayadeen TV said:

" We are the new sultans of the Red Sea; we the new sultans of the gulf. We, (I mean) the axis of resistance: Tehran, Damascus, the (southern) district (of Beirut), Baghdad and Sanaa. We are the ones who will create the map of the region and we are also the sultans of the Red Sea. Remember Sayyid Hassan Nasrullah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah and the master of the resistance, when he said two years ago, I think: "We are now coming out for you from the Mediterranean. We have not yet come out for you from the Red Sea."

Al-Husseini described Saudi Arabia as a "tribe on the verge of extinction".

" Now, the one who is mighty is the Yemeni and the one who is poor is the Saudi. This is not in financial terms or in terms of weaponry and international ties but terms of creating geopolitics and making history. We are now in a state of transformation."

The Iranians are long term planners. The Saudis, in contrast, are anything but. Considering they now have an active, armed and trained Iranian proxy on their vulnerable southern border, their initial contacts with the Houthis now seem like a bet which has gone wildly wrong. From the Saudi perspective, the Houthi advance into the Sunni heartland of Yemen is a text-book example of what the CIA calls blow-back.

I first reported a year ago that the Saudis had opened contacts with the Houthis (with whom they once fought a bitter war) by flying the Houthi leader Saleh Habreh via London to meet with Prince Bandar, who was then Saudi intelligence chief. Saudi ambitions had been tactical and probably limited. They were aimed primarily at crushing Islah, the political Islamist group with whom Hadi was sharing power.

However, the Saudis may never have intended the Houthis to walk into the capital unopposed. They calculated, wrongly, that Islah would have stopped the Houthis long before they were at the city's gates. They assumed the Houthis and Islah would cancel each other out.

Islah did not play ball. They refused to confront the Houthis saying that this was the task of the government. By allowing, or at the very least, doing nothing to stop the Houthi offensive from taking place, Riyadh has opened the door to a much bigger and more destabilizing struggle taking place -- a conflict involving al Qaeda and the southern Yemeni tribes that has already become sectarian.

As the Zaydi Houthi movement advances into territory and cities which are traditionally Sunni, al-Qaida militants have launched car bombs against Houthi targets. A car bomb targeting a house sheltering Houthi militiamen in the western province of al-Bayda killed 20 on Monday.

Considering how much effort the Saudis put into keeping Saleh in power for 33 years, Riyadh's loss of control in what they have always regarded as their back yard must be regarded as one of the worst blunders in recent memory. They should be asking themselves: "Who lost Yemen ?"

Are they rethinking their disastrous, short term, policies? A high-ranking Yemeni general, regarded as close to Islah, Gen Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, took shelter in the Saudi embassy as Sanaa was falling. He was smuggled out of it and is now in Jeddah. Are they going to use him to regain influence? It would be ironic, to say the least if that were to be the case.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are trying to fight back using other more traditional methods. Letting the price of oil fall, is one way of hitting back at Iran and Russia and letting them know that there is a price to be paid for surrounding the kingdom from the north and the south.