It is crucial to first under the historical background to Yemen’s Civil War.
North Yemen became a state after the end of the Ottomans in 1918 (WW1). Much like Palestine, South Yemen was part of British India, and became a formal colony in 1937 i.e. an independent state protected by Britain. An insurgency against the “British supported government” led by two nationalist parties (supported by the Soviets) caused the unification of the two countries in 1967, and British withdrawal. Note most of the population is in the north i.e. 12 Million vs 3 Million in South.
South Yemen developed as a mostly secular state that eventually was dominated by the Yemen Socialist Party and part of the larger sphere of Soviet dominated communist states.
In 1972, fighting erupted between north and south. North Yemen (yes, the Houthis) were supplied by Saudi Arabia, and South Yemen was supplied by the Soviet Union. Fighting was short-lived, and the conflict led to the 1972 Cairo Agreement, which set forth a plan to unify the two countries again.
Fighting broke out again in 1979, with South Yemen allegedly supplying aid to rebels in the north and crossing the border. Again, North Yemen was supported by Saudi Arabia. In 1988, the two governments came to an understanding that considerably reduced tensions, including agreements to renew discussions concerning unification, to establish a joint oil exploration area along their undefined border.
In November 1989, two leaders from North and South (Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen and Ali Salim al-Beidh) accepted a draft unity constitution originally. The Republic of Yemen was declared in 1990, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of the north became Head of State, and Ali Salim al-Beidh of the south became Head of Government.
The North had a much larger population, so it dominated the national assembly. And in turn, so as new oil fields were brought online in the south, southerners began to feel that their land, home to the country’s oil reserves, was illegally appropriated as part of a planned conspiracy by the rulers of North Yemen.
And then, there was a political crisis when an estimated 800,000 Yemeni nationals and overseas workers were sent home by Saudi Arabia following Yemen’s decision not to support Coalition forces in the Gulf War. Remittances from these workers, an important part of the economy, were slashed and many Yemenis were placed in refugee camps while the government decided where to house them and how to re-integrate them into the workforce inside Yemen. This created animosity against Saudi Arabia.
Trouble again kept emerging between the South and North. Eventually the South established the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) in 1994. But the North pushed back. Aden was captured later that year and the South’s resistance quickly collapsed and thousands of southern leaders and military went into exile.The country re-unified. Yemen held its first direct presidential elections in 1999, electing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to a 5-year term. Yemen held multiparty parliamentary elections in April 1997.
The current civil war has its roots in 2004, when Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an important Houthi leader was killed in a government military crackdown (following some protests in the North). The Houthis then asked for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Later that year, as Saleh prepared to leave office, the Houthis laid siege to the Salafi-majority village of Dammaj in northern Yemen, a step toward attaining virtual autonomy for Sa’dah (their region).
The conflict between the Houthis and Sunni tribes in northern Yemen spread to other governorates, including the Sanaʽa Governorate by mid-2014. After several weeks of street protests the Houthis fought the Yemen Army forces under the command of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. In a battle that lasted only a few days, Houthi fighters seized control of Sanaʽa, the Yemeni capital, in September 2014.
Yemen’s government at the time included both Saleh and Mansour Hadi. They escaped the capital and turned to Saudi Arabia asking for assistance to defeat the Houthis. Remember, the North (including the Houthis) were historically Saudi backed and had arms and training from the Saudis. And again, note – so far – no mention of Iran in the conflict in Yemen – i.e. historically North vs South, until Saleh cracked down on the Houthis. Also, at this point it should be mentioned that in April 2015, United States National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan stated that: “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”.
Yemen again plunged into a Civil war in 2015. The two factions were: the new Hadi/Saleh led Yemeni government who control the south, versus the Houthi armed movement, along with their supporters and allies who control the north. So, the South that was once communist, and has the minority of the population, is now backed by the Saudi Arabians and a coalition of Arab states including Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, Qatar, and about 1000 US and French troops.
By the end of 2015, there were reports in western media started suggesting that the Houthis had become proxies for Iran, since they both follow Shia Islam (although the Iranians are Twelve-Imam Shias and the Houthis are Zaidi Shia). And the United States and Saudi Arabia started to allege that the Houthis receive weapons and training from Iran.
The sheer size and scope of the attack against the Houthis and the north is very difficult to comprehend here in the West. But there has been merciless bombing, and massive humanitarian crisis created. There have been wide reports that almost 10,160,000 Yemenis were deprived of water, food, and electricity as a result of the conflict. And there has been an outbreak of cholera affecting over 300,000 children. With literally 10’s of thousands of deaths.
With their back against the wall, the Houthis turned to Iran for help (there was no one else to turn to). The whole nature or complexion or character of the dispute evolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis turned to Iran out of desperation (after these merciless attacks) and it became clear to the Iranians (that were also facing Saudi backed ISIS at their borders in Iraq and also in Syria) that this was a good opportunity to undermine Saudi Arabia. At this point it was an opportunistic move by Iranians to respond to the Houthi request for support.
Whether or not there is an actual Shia connection, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei openly announced his “spiritual” support of the movement in a personal meeting with the Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdul Salam in Tehran, during ongoing conflicts.
Also, Iran’s IRGC commander Nasser Shabani was quoted by the Fars News Agency, the semi-official news agency of the Iranian government, as saying, “We (IRGC) told Yemenis [Houthi rebels] to strike two Saudi oil tankers, and they did it,” on 7 August 2018. It is reported that Iranian arms now flow to the Houthis from Eritrea.
The truth is the Saudis supported Hadi/Saleh’s efforts to reassert their power in Yemen and aligned with South Yemen (who for almost 100 years had been fighting in the North). Saudis used overwhelming force against the Houthis, to a point where the Houthis (who were once backed by the Saudis) then scoured the world to find a backer to fight back. And in comes Iran.
This was NOT a war that Iran precipitated. This is NOT a war where Iran has its forces on the ground. And, its involvement is largely a function of Saudi Arabia’s actions – which has caused a humanitarian crisis. They provoked their old allies, the Houthis, to find a way to fight back and save themselves.
Having said all this, I do not want readers to think that somehow, I support the Mullahs in Iran or the IRGC. But again, Iran is being branded as the bad guy here, whereas in fact the Saudi’s have a lot to answer for. Saudi’s for sure have been the source of much regional instability – not only in Yemen, but also Qatar and by funding ISIS. Instead of trying to establish peace, they have had almost a knee-jerk reaction to fight and provoke war.
Interestingly, even though Saudi Arabia has tremendous resources and state-of-the-art weaponry it has not subdued the Houthis. In fact, the Houthis have fought back valiantly and are pushing back with some degree of success.
This has become a debacle for the Saudis. Let’s not forget that the current Saudi regime (the Al Saud (Mrdah) clan) is a few generations removed from desert bandits who made a living by robbing caravans with knives. That’s all they did. They will kill mercilessly and have the mindset of murderers and bandits. Their knee-jerk reaction is to fight and kill.
Note there are 10-12 million people in the North aligned with Shia Houthis; and they are still fighting strong. There are 5 Million Shia inside Saudi Arabia who are seriously ‘oppressed’ by the ‘rulers in Riyadh. Saudis have so polarized the situation that in the final analysis, their very regime could be in jeopardy because of this. And it is NOT because of anything Iran has done. It’s a crisis of Saudi’s creation, not Iran’s.
From an Iranian Mullah perspective, ALL the heavy lifting is being done by the Houthis. It really doesn’t cost them much to support the Houthis in their limited way (so its strategically useful to bleed Saudi Arabia dry). This is not a religious war, it’s become an opportunistic move by the Mullahs – handed to them by Saudi stupidity.