Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
The Arab world sighed with relief on Saturday that the 3-year-old civil war and seemingly intractable conflict in Yemen could be resolved much sooner than expected.
Yemen’s ex-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh made the brave decision over the weekend to call for an end to the hostilities that he helped start, by breaking with the Houthis and calling for peace. He publicly denounced the Houthis as a “coup militia.”
The Houthis responded immediately by announcing he was a legitimate target for murder. Just a few days later, yesterday, they made good on this promise. Their strike-back included the demolition of Mr. Saleh’s homes in Sana, a bullet in his head, and social media distribution of a video showing the corpse.
In doing so, the Houthis unashamedly committed a major war crime, by refusing to capture and opting to kill.
But more fundamentally, the Houthis sent a strong message to the Yemeni people. They sent the Yemeni capital from jubilation to catastrophe within 48 hours by making clear that they would respond to olive branches with bullets.
Mr. Saleh’s death, and the further political fracturing that comes as a result of the break between Mr. Saleh’s followers and the Houthis, highlight a turning point in Yemen’s war. His death will more likely ratchet up violence and devastation if the international community does not address the conflict adequately. Roughly one third of Yemeni population is at risk of starvation.
The Houthis had already forewarned of their fierce strategy by attempting to fire a missile at an Abu Dhabi nuclear facility on Sunday, showing intent for mass civilian casualties. Thankfully the missile fell short, although the Emiratis would have easily intercepted it had it reached their airspace.
This episode is a reminder to the world of several important things.
First of all, that the Houthis are not admirable freedom fighters seeking to liberate Yemen from blockade, as presented too often in international media.
The Houthis have repeatedly demonstrated that they are unreasonable, depraved war-mongers who will never accept surrender, no matter what the the human cost would be.
Secondly, the Houthis are very fortunate that they have a powerful state ally. Their Iranian backers will not let them run out of ammunition in this fight. The Islamic Republic continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen. According to a nuanced report by Reuters, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a key supporter and sponsor of the Houthis. The IRGC is currently using a new route across the Gulf to deliver covert arms shipments to the Houthis.
More broadly, this gives an insight into the tactics and long term strategies of Iranian trained and armed proxies across the Middle East, which are built on four pillars: destabilisation, conflict, assassination, and the rejection of any solution that has Sunni or Western origins.
The Yemen conflict means more to Iran than the taunting of its Gulf rivals, which it has vowed to destroy – it is an ideological crusade to unite the Muslim world under Islamist rule, that will always see peace as merely a delay in the process. In fact, that mission is part of Iran’s constitution. The preamble states that the constitution “provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.” It goes on to say that Iran’s Army and Revolutionary Guard “will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of (Shiite) jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s (Shiite) law throughout the world … in the hope that this century will witness the establishment of a universal holy government and the downfall of all others.”
This is a dangerous ideology that we need to take seriously from now on, because this episode will not be its final iteration.
Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council: on the Middle East and North Africa (IAC) and serves on the board of Harvard International Review and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.