Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen have signed a deal for a new unity government, little over a month after organising the first armed protest camps in the country's capital, Sanaa. The events have left the city's residents in shock, as Iona Craig reports.
Squeezed into the back of a pick-up truck around an anti-aircraft gun, while parked outside Yemen's parliament, three young men stuff green khat leaves into their mouths.
Chewing the mild, narcotic plant is a daily routine for most Yemenis. The men have curved daggers at their waists and AK-47 rifles resting in the laps of their traditional long, loose robes. The plate on the back of the sand-coloured truck says "al-Jaysh" - the army, but these men are not soldiers.
"Where are you from?" I ask. "Saada," comes the reply.
Saada - a northern Yemeni province, sharing its border with Saudi Arabia - is the stronghold of the Shia Houthi movement, whose militiamen have fought six wars with the government in the province since 2004.
"What are you doing here?" I ask one of the men, who has a rocket-propelled grenade propped up next to him.
"We are here to protect the building," he says, gesturing towards the parliament with his hand clutching green twigs.
The usual contingent of soldiers tasked with guarding the parliament and nearby cabinet office is nowhere to be seen.
"Where is the army, the soldiers?" I press.
A passing pedestrian who has stopped to listen butts in: "They surrendered. This is the army now." He grins and walks on.
After four days of heavy fighting centred around a major military base in the north-west of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, Houthi gunmen walked up to government institutions across the city and asserted their control without a shot being fired.
The interior minister ordered troops under his control to stand down. Within a couple of hours, the fighters had control of the city. Its residents were in shock.
Confused and curious men spilled out onto the street from their homes where many had been sheltering from the artillery fire and mortar rounds that had earlier rocked the city.
While the militiamen set up checkpoints throughout Sanaa, their political leaders sat down in the presidential palace to sign an agreement to calm the crisis which had been threatening the capital for the last month.
But before the ink was even dry on the deal, the Houthi rebels' victory was complete.
Few had foreseen that the group's push south for territory over the past six months would end in the takeover of the capital Sanaa.
No-one could have imagined the speed with which the rag-tag force of tribesmen would seize the city.
Many suspect Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh - who was forced to hand over power following the country's 2011 political uprising - had a hand in it.
They believe he facilitated the rebels' advance as they fought tribal militias aligned to the Islah party - Yemen's equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood and Saleh's arch enemy.
In just a few months, the Houthi fighters had managed to do what Saleh could not in 2011 - destroy the tribal power base of Islah and bring down his powerful foe, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who also led wars against the rebels in Saada.
The general - a senior military adviser to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi - is now being hunted down by Houthi fighters.
"We will kill him if we find him," warns one Houthi loyalist, brandishing a vintage bolt-action rifle.
All passengers leaving the airport in Sanaa are now being rigorously checked by the militiamen in search of the general and other opponents who may be attempting to flee the city.
Other political rivals have had their homes raided in apparent attempts to intimidate the rebels' adversaries.
While the Houthi rebels celebrated a "victorious revolution" in the city's Tahrir Square, the president warned of civil war.
What will happen next is uncertain. According to the terms of the signed deal, a new prime minister will be appointed and a new, more inclusive government will be formed within a month.
Despite Hadi's precarious position, the Houthi fighters have indicated they want a strong hand in a future government without ruling directly.
But there is no sign the gunmen will be leaving the city anytime soon.
In a televised speech by the group's leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, to a mass-gathering of his cheering, mostly armed supporters, he pledged his men would join the army to defeat the country's notorious al-Qaeda insurgency and stay until the military is strong enough to maintain security.
Meanwhile, the city's residents are trying to go about their lives as normal.
"In Yemen, the people don't get to decide who has the power," a baker remarks as he places round balls of dough into his stone oven in downtown Sanaa.
Nearly two weeks after the surprising escape of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from Sanaa to Aden, the Houthis have been politically embarrassed once again by the astonishing escape of the defence minister, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi.
Although Subaihi was appointed by the Houthis to chair a national security committee, many Yemenis viewed his appointment as purely symbolic given that the real military power still lies in the hands of Houthi fighters. His escape comes as Saudi Arabia on Monday said the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had agreed to host talks in Riyadh to end the crisis in Yemen, according to the state news agency SPA.
The defence minister will now join "Hadi's camp" in Aden, which is currently considered the de facto capital city of Yemen. But can Aden replace Sanaa?
There is no doubt that Aden has the basic required infrastructure to function as a temporary capital for a country like Yemen.
Indeed, the history of the city, its strategic location, and its use by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as the commercial capital will make such a transition much easier. It is the legality of this move that is the real issue, as Article 157 of Yemen's 1990 constitution adopts Sanaa as the capital city of the unified republic.
Consequently, Hadi cannot act unilaterally without a constitutional referendum to change the constitutional status of Sanaa. Nonetheless, several embassies - especially those of some GCC members - have moved to Aden since Hadi's arrival, increasing the international isolation of the Houthis in Sanaa.
From Aden, Hadi has reasserted his commitment to a federal system in Yemen to foreign diplomats, several delegations of government officials, and citizens in Yemeni provinces not currently controlled by the Houthis.
Hadi has also demanded the Houthis' immediate withdrawal from Sanaa, to which they responded by declaring Hadi "a fugitive".
The rising tensions between Hadi and the Houthi-Saleh alliance are reflected in the current status of the military. Yemen's military institutions played a key role in the modern histories of both north and south Yemen before and after Yemen's unification in May 1990.
The military institutions have been crucial in shaping the outcomes of uprisings in Yemen, but their support to activists has been divided. The overwhelming majority of Yemen's special military forces remained loyal to Saleh, but Saleh's top general and close friend, Ali Mohsen, joined the youth activists after the Friday of Karamah (Dignity) massacre in March 2011.
The subsequent defection of Moshen and several other top generals has caused a huge rift within the Yemeni military, splitting it between the pro-revolutionary forces under Mohsen's leadership and the pro-Saleh forces. When Hadi was elected as the consensus candidate in February 2012, he inherited a divided military that was on the brink of a civil war. The two military camps had literally divided the capital city, with military checkpoints and a heavy military presence on both sides.
Hadi's later attempt to restructure the military regrettably proved futile, although he had initially succeeded in removing the divisive military checkpoints from the capital city. His failure to streamline the military into a unified modern and professional institution was a result of the way Saleh had shaped Yemen's armed forces.
Before the unification of Yemen, the military institution in the north enjoyed much greater financial and technical resources than its southern counterpart. The Yemeni military is currently spilt into three major camps or groups.
The first group includes military units that joined the Houthis and have remained under their control. Key militia leaders include Abu Ali al-Hakim, who has been subjected to a freezing of assets and a travel ban by the United Nations Security Council.
The second military group includes military units - particularly those in the special military forces - that remain loyal to Saleh and his family. The Houthis' survival depends largely on their political and military coordination in the face of mounting international pressure and isolation.
However, it is possible that some top military officers within the special forces units may not approve of the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis and could join anti-Houthi forces at any time.
Finally, there are military units located in areas such as Taiz and the southern part of Yemen that are outside both the Houthis and Saleh's influence.
These units opposed the Houthis' military coup and still view Hadi as the legitimate leader of Yemen. A rapid restructuring of these units with anticipated monetary assistance from Saudi Arabia and other GCC members may help to reassure Yemenis who opposed the Houthi coup.
Hadi recently promised to punish Houthi leaders who unilaterally signed an aviation agreement with Iran to establish 14 weekly flights between Sanaa and Tehran. Many observers view this move as a calculated political and military tactic to ease any increased international isolation and to facilitate Iran's direct military assistance to the Houthis.
The escape of the defence minister and Hadi's initial reaction to it has caused many Yemenis to wonder whether Hadi will be able to avoid his past mistakes and develop an overarching political and military strategy to counter the Houthis. More particularly, will Hadi be more careful with respect to his personal security to avoid falling into the Houthis' hands again?
Yemen has officially requested military assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) via their joint forces - the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) - to counter the imminent advance by Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh loyalists to Aden, the power base of President Abd-Rabbou Mansour Hadi.
On Monday, Prince Saud Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, said that his country would "take necessary measures if needed" to protect Yemen's sovereignty after the country's government, holed up in the southern port city of Aden, appealed to the GCC members for help.
Although Yemen is not a GCC member, it certainly represents a strategic key to the overall regional security of the Arabian Peninsula.
An immediate and direct GCC military intervention could be successful in the initial stages - basically saving Aden from falling into Saleh's hands.
A quick and decisive military intervention could send a strong message to Saleh, the Houthis, and by association Iran that because Yemen is of strategic interest to the GCC, it will not be allowed to fall into their hands or become completely destabilised.
In order for a rapid military intervention to be successful, however, it must be accompanied by a clear political message assuring the Yemeni people that the intervention is designed to support rather than suppress public uprisings.
This message should directly address Yemen's lingering economic and political problems. In short, the Yemeni people need assurance that the GCC is genuinely concerned about their welfare.
Nonetheless, it is unclear whether a military intervention by the GCC would promote long-term political stability in Yemen.
Although the GCC accomplished what some consider a successful military intervention in Bahrain in 2011, the situation in Yemen may be a bit more challenging.
From a geopolitical perspective, Yemen is a very large country with a total land area of more than 527,968sq km, whereas Bahrain is an island of only 760sq km.
In addition, Yemen's topography is completely different from that of Bahrain and most other countries in the GCC region.
Bahrain's government has been relatively more stable than Yemen's, with strong Sunni control over the country's politics while opposition to the royal family comes primarily from the country's Shia minority.
The situation in Yemen is more complicated, with many political actors who seek different - and often conflicting - political goals.
Stakeholders include Saleh and his loyalists, the Houthis, the Islah party, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), President Hadi and his loyalists, Arab nationalists, al-Hirak al-Janoubi [southern secessionist movement], tribal leaders, Salafist movement, youth activists, and Al-Qaeda elements.
The Houthis will definitely react forcefully to any potential GCC military intervention, and will likely attempt to use their political propaganda machine to portray Hadi as a puppet in the hands of foreign powers.
Furthermore, they will likely use any GCC intervention as a recruiting and mobilisation tool and to justify a call for increased Iranian financial support.
They may also try - in a move of desperation - to provoke a border conflict with Saudi Arabia.
Any GCC military intervention will probably complicate the political plans of former President Saleh, but is unlikely to discourage him from continued alliance with the Houthis.
Aden is Saleh's biggest political prize and it is not likely that he will give it up.
Houthi rebels backed by allied army units have seized Yemen's largest air base from forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, reports say.
The rebels' TV channel and locals said they had taken control of al-Anad air base, near Aden, early on Wednesday.
US and European military advisers were evacuated from the facility last week.
The Houthis and their allies are advancing southwards towards Aden, the port city where Mr Hadi has been based since fleeing Sanaa last month.
The rebels took full control of the capital in January, placing the president under house arrest and declaring that a five-member "presidential council" would rule the country.
On Tuesday, Mr Hadi asked the UN Security Council to authorise military intervention by "willing countries" to "protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression expected to occur at any hour from now" in Aden.
He asked members of the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the Arab League for military help after warplanes, allegedly flown by pro-Houthi pilots, attacked the presidential palace in Aden last week.
Arab Gulf states announced late Wednesday that they have decided to “repel Houthi aggression” in neighboring Yemen, following a request from the country’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
President Hadi, who was forced to flee his presidential complex in Aden earlier in the day, has urged the Gulf states to intervene military in Yemen.
In their joint statement Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait said they "decided to repel Houthi militias, al-Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] in the country.”
The Gulf states warned that the Houthi coup in Yemen represented a “major threat” to the region’s stability.
It also accused the Iranian-backed militia of conducting military drills on the border of Saudi Arabia, a leading member of the GCC, with “heavy weapons.”
In an apparent reference to Iran, the statement said the “Houthi militia is backed by regional powers in order for it be their base of influence.”
The Gulf states said they had monitored the situation and the Houthi coup in Yemen with “great pain” and accused the Shiite militia of failing to respond to warnings from the United Nations Security Council as well as the GCC.
The statement stressed that the Arab states had sought over the previous period to restore stability in Yemen, noting the last initiative to host peace talks under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In a letter sent the U.N. Security Council and seen by Al Arabiya News, Hadi requested “immediate support for the legitimate authority with all means and necessary measures to protect Yemen and repel the aggression of the Houthi militia that is expected at any time on the city of Aden and the province of Taiz, Marib, al-Jouf [and] an-Baidah."
In his letter Hadi said such support was also needed to control “the missile capability that was looted” by the Houthi militias.
Hadi also told the Council that he had requested from the Arab Gulf states and the Arab League “immediate support with all means and necessary measures, including the military intervention to protect Yemen and its people from the ongoing Houthi aggression.”
On the article (linked in the tweet) it also says:
Citing Saudi military sources, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV channel reported that 100 Saudi warplanes were involved in the operation, dubbe Decisive Storm.
The United Arab Emirates is participating with 30 jets, Bahrain with eight, Morocco and Jordan both with six. Sudan reportedly offered three war planes to assist the operation, Al Arabiya reported.
Jordan confirmed to Al Jazeera that it was participating in the offensive. An Egyptian official told AFP news agency that Egypt would also take part. Saudi Arabia said that another four Muslim countries including Pakistan wanted to participate in the Saudi-led military coalition.
Kuwait's defence ministry announced it was sending three squadrons of its F18 Super Hornet aircrafts to Saudi's King Abdulaziz airbase in Dhahran to take part in the Yemen offensive.
Pakistan, which has longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia, was examining a request from Riyadh to join the coalition, Islamabad said.
"I can confirm we have been contacted by Saudi Arabia in this regard. The matter is being examined," foreign office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
Sectarian strife is fuelling Middle East's arms trade
Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen’s Iranian-backed rebel Houthis have raised the stakes and could see the region erupt into a sectarian war
It may have caught the West off guard but the lightning airstrikes launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen has been a long time coming. The Saudis were well armed and well prepared. Very well armed indeed.
The strikes came barely a week after defence specialist IHS Jane’s released a study that showed Saudi Arabia had become the globe’s largest importer of weapons and defence systems in 2014.
Now, suddenly one of the most heavily weaponised regions in the world finds itself teetering on the edge of a major war.
Up until last Thursday’s attack, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states had kept its powder dry while the Iranian-backed Houthis drove the Saudi-supported President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi out of the capital Sanaa. He fled to the southern port city of Aden and it was the Houthis rapid drive into the south - which ultimately saw Hadi flee the country - that finally forced the Saudis’ hand.
Now, with reports that they are massing a ground force of 150,000 on their southern border with Yemen and the Iranian foreign minister speaking of a “very dangerous situation,” what had been something of a proxy war threatens to explode into a wider regional conflict.
Should that happen there are plenty of weapons to go around.
Last year alone, the Saudis spent $6.4bn on high-tech weaponry. Key allies the UAE snapped up another $2.2bn worth of armaments. The list of purchases in the past five years is impressive: F15 fighter jets, Apache combat helicopters, Piranha armoured personnel carriers (APCs), IRIS-T air-to-air infrared missiles, Caesar 155mm self-propelled howitzers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), air-borne early warning aircraft (AEWs), ballistic missile defences, corvettes, landing craft, anti-tank missiles. The list goes on and on. Everything you need and then some to carry out a very modern war.
Not to be outdone, the Iranians are engaged in talks with Russia about purchasing the latest they have to offer in anti-aircraft missile defence systems. And the Russians - who had been argued out of a similar sanctions-busting sale in 2010 - now look ready, nay eager, to do the deal, particularly as their economy is feeling the effects of the West’s sanctions, imposed because of Russian actions in Ukraine.
Sergei Chemezov, the head of the state-owned armaments giant Rostec, was quoted in Russian News Agency Tass last week - before the strikes were launched - as saying “we offered (the missiles) and they are thinking. No decision has been made yet.”
Chemezov went on to say: “I don’t conceal this, and everyone understands this, the more conflicts there are, the more they buy weapons off us. Volumes are continuing to grow despite sanctions.”
It will not have been lost on the Iranians that the Yemen airstrikes targeted missile sites around the capital Sanaa, and in the south, the al-Anad airbase and military installations in the city of Taiz. They will be analysing the effectiveness of the strikes and what they find out may help them make up their minds about the deal the Russians have offered. But even if the deal does go through, it will leave them lagging far behind in the regional arms race.
Michael Stephens, the head of RUSI Qatar, has argued that the Gulf States have a distinct edge over the Iranians when it comes to weaponry. “They have the volume, the quality, the technical and maintenance capability that Iran just doesn’t have,” he said.
But Iran has shown itself to be exceptionally skilled at what Stephens calls “deployable capacity overseas”. That is the ability to carry out sustained asymmetrical warfare in someone else’s backyard.
But after two years of successes shoring up the Assad regime through its surrogate Hezbollah and being largely responsible for beating ISIS back from the outskirts of Baghdad, Shiite Iran will be uneasy seeing Sunni Saudi Arabia flex its military might in a way it has never come close to doing before.
Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. Commenting on the growing sectarian strife, he told me: “Iran is guilty of sectarianism but there is another side to the equation and that is the Saudis and increasingly the Emiratis and the Qataris. This is not something that the West can take a lead in. It has to come from the Islamic world and I don’t see anyone emerging. On (confronting) sectarianism, there is a lot of rhetoric but no leadership.”
That vacuum has seen both sides reaching for their weapons in the proxy wars that have raged in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.
Vatanka adds that a comment he often hears from the Middle East is that it is the West that is fuelling sectarianism as a way of selling arms. It is, he hastened to add “not a conspiracy theory I buy into. The sectarianism comes from within.”
But as the sectarian conflict expands, the Saudis are clearly hoping for a quick victory over the Houthis. The insurgents, however, have shown themselves to be tenacious fighters and even if, as is likely, they are driven out of Sanaa and the south they could carry on guerrilla warfare in the mountainous north for some time before overwhelming military might could win the day.
Whether Iran will let that happen is another question altogether.
Unlike Bahrain - where in 2011 a Saudi-led GCC force intervened to help quell a largely Shiite-led pro-democracy movement and the Iranians did not intervene - the crushing of the Houthi insurgency would raise the stakes significantly. It is hard to see Iran letting that happen without some kind of response.
At that point what has been a proxy war between two regional powers could become a major new regional conflict, run along sectarian lines with very bloody consequences.
The only winners in that scenario will be the worldwide weapons industry.
-Bill Law is a Sony award-winning journalist. He joined the BBC in 1995 and since 2002 has reported extensively from the Middle East. He has travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia many times. In 2003 he was one of the first journalists to cover the beginnings of the insurgency that engulfed Iraq. His documentary The Gulf: Armed & Dangerous which aired in late 2010 anticipated the revolutions that became the Arab Spring. He then covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in April 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now works as a freelance journalist focusing on the Gulf.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo Credit: Shiite Houthis use anti-aircraft guns as the Saudi-led coalition strikes hit Houthi targets in Sanaa as part of the 'Decisive Storm' operation in Sanaa, Yemen on 30 March (AA)
He says that the problem began since Khomayni started his policy of exporting the Iranian revolution outside Iran's borders, and he began spreading his influence and Shiasm in Muslim lands. Then he says, today the Houthis are to blame for what is taking place in Yemen.
Then he says what is happening in Yemen is not in reality sectarian, as Zaydis and Sunnies have been coexisting in Yemen for centuries, and both have similar beliefs. However, Since Iran began exporting its revolution and its sectarian extremist version of Tashayyu`, a Fitnah was being created. Iran in several countries including Yemen, began to open centers and spending money on converting Muslims and convincing them of the Safawi faith, they would offer Yemeni Zaydis a chance to go to Iran for free and teach them Rafidah ideas then send them back to Yemen to spread their ideology.
He says since the sectarian regime in Iran began doing so in the seventies, this caused a reaction in the Sunni side, reviving the most extreme of Sunni ideas. Then he talks about how western powers and Iranian regime use "Shia minority rights" to create issues and mess around in the region, he mentions how many millions are being spent in Africa to increase the number of Imami Shia etc... Finally he talks about how Iranian politicians provoke the Arabs by saying they dominate Arab capitals and increasing the fears of Arab leaders.
Enjoy giving this to your friends should they be fans of the Shaykh but think Iran is innocent.
This cannot be undone and I am sure it will be greatly appreciated.
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