As the Houthi rebel group in Yemen fights over major cities and regions, Iran attempts to increase its reach as a regional power. A victory for the rebel group over the Yemeni government would be a success for Iran, which seeks to put Shia Muslims in power throughout the Middle East. Though it denies any involvement with the Houthis, Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah have met with Houthi leadership in Yemen, supposedly to create strategies for combat against the Yemeni government. Hezbollah’s leaders have also been accused of training the rebels, while Iran is accused of aiding them with weapons and additional financing.
With the 100,000 fighters amassed by the Houthis and their sophisticated weaponry, Iran and the Shia opposition in Yemen have been successful as of late. Within the last few months, the Houthis have caused the parliament to dissolve and Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to resign. The group currently occupies much of northwest Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, in addition to the several cities in the south. The group’s role in forcing out current government personnel poses major threats to the country’s stability and has the potential of changing the legal structure of the nation.
Proxy War: Saudi Arabia vs. Iran
The conflict between the legitimate Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel fighters seems to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the largest Sunni power and the largest Shia power in the region respectively. As the nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran approach the March 31 deadline, the Saudi perspective has become increasingly clear: if Iran is able to continue its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia wants to match it. If Iran ever develops the capacity to develop a bomb, the Saudi’s may develop their own or even purchase the technology from a country that already has it.
The conflict in Yemen escalates the existing tension. Even though the conflict is primarily between the official Yemeni government and the Houthis, the Saudis are using it as a way to fight Iran and express their opposition to Shia rule in the Middle East. Since March 26, the Saudis have led a coalition of other Sunni Arab nations to fight off the Shia forces. They have been hitting Houthi targets aggressively for several days, opposing Iran’s interest. Due to the extent of the greater conflict, it seems that the main reason the Saudis are fighting is to counter Iran and are only secondarily fighting for the good of the Yemeni people. It would also hurt Saudi Arabia if a stronger Shiite force developed, which is certainly possible if the coalition does not continue to fight the Houthis.
Strong Support on Each Side
Even though it is important for the 22-nation coalition backed by the United States to counter the dangerous rebels, additional force against the Houthis poses a constant threat to expanding the conflict. There is strong military support on the Saudi side, but there are also strong opposition forces that can easily grow with additional Iranian support. While it is in the best interest of most countries in the region and the United States to reject the Houthis, it would be perhaps equally as dangerous to allow the conflict to grow in size, especially considering the rebel groups in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
The coalition must keep in mind that while supporting the legitimate Yemeni government can harm the Houthis, it can also lead the opposition to attract equal support, in this case from Iran. Equal support on each side can leave neither side with an advantage, while increasing the death toll and escalating the conflict. In Syria, The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) grew partly because of their role in combating the Syrian Assad regime. While I believe that some rebel groups should have been given aid, I realize that the extent of funding on each side of the conflict contributed to ISIS’s present strength.
As the coalition tries to prevent the Houthis from gaining more power, it must look at what is developing on the other side. If it’s not careful, the coalition could have a role in strengthening the very force that it’s trying to destroy.