Hadi does not possess the strength to oust Houthi, and Obama knows this

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa, Yemen

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Houthi fighters stand on top of the destroyed house of the Al-Ahmar family in their hometown of Khamir

The stage is set; Houthi backed by Iran in the north, and Hadi in Aden backed by the international community. Many have rushed to claim that the idea that Iran will continue to support Houthi despite international pressure and recognition of Hadi in Aden in its bid to place greater pressure on Saudi Arabia is fanciful at best. These critics point to the fact that the United Nations as well as the United States have publicly declared the legitimacy of Hadi’s presidency, placing Houthi in an uncomfortable position, and also that the crippling sanctions in Iran mean that it cannot possibly prop up a Houthi government. This point is further augmented by Houthi’s limited military capabilities emphasising that he does not have the means to control all of Yemen.

However, the situation in fact favours Houthi both militarily and politically. And here is why.

The new aviation deal signed by Houthi and Iran that will mean a considerable number of flights operating between the Yemen and Iran is essentially the creation of an aerial supply route. Sources revealed to the international interest that Iranian military advisors as well as necessary supplies to sustain Houthi in any prospect of a war have been steadily flowing into Sana’a as a result of this aviation deal. This is reminiscent of when Iranian military advisors arrived in Damascus to directed a campaign on Assad’s behalf against the advancing Free Syria Army that saw Hezbollah attack Qusayr, cutting off a vital supply route and effectively ending the Free Syria’s army’s hegemony over the opposition forces. Iran is now providing such assistance to Houthi.

Furthermore, Iran’s ‘crippling’ sanctions have not hindered its ability to vehemently protect Assad and secure his position despite international pressure demanding his removal. Iran’s ‘crippling’ sanctions have not affected Iran’s decade-long control of Iraq where militias remain loyal to Khamenei and are currently leading the fight against ISIL. Iran’s ‘crippling’ sanctions have not hindered its ability to provide military assistance to Houthi allowing him to launch a successful military campaign to Sana’a via Jawf and Amran. It is therefore unlikely that such ‘crippling’ sanctions will affect Houthi’s capabilities in any pending war in Yemen.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that President Hadi is not the unifying figure many would like him to be. Indeed when Houthi blockaded Sana’a, the Yemeni tribes did not rush to his assistance, and neither did the army. The southerners who should have been expected to assist Hadi did not do so, preferring instead to watch Hadi fall and then claim that the events were a clear example that the Northerners removed Hadi because he was a Southerner; ergo unification has failed. Even now in Aden, Hadi is struggling to balance the demands of the Southerners with the need to unite Yemen. In the words of one prominent southerner, Dr Ali Jarallah Al Yafiee, “Hadi has regrettably brought Sana’a’s problems to us in the South”.

Hadi also does not have complete control of the army, which stood idly as Houthi advanced, possibly on orders from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was believed to be in league with Houthi in order to take revenge on those who had turned on him in the revolution of 2011. The Mo’tamer Al-Shaabi party, led by the former president, famously announced following Hadi’s arrival in Aden that ‘Hadi must respect his resignation. He left from the door and must not be allowed to return via the window’. However Saleh has also fallen out with Houthi. It is unclear therefore where Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president’s son who remains a senior figure in the army, and rumoured to be the former president’s candidate for power, will stand between the two parties.

The argument that the United States has recognised the legitimacy of Hadi and that this is therefore a clear condemnation of Houthi is false. The ambassador, despite meeting with Hadi in Sana’a on 2nd March 2015 and affirming the US position regarding Hadi, refused to consider the prospect of following the GCC states in relocating the US embassy to Aden; in essence, refusing to accept the responsibility of directing a campaign against Houthi. Indeed it must be stated here that the US were slow in condemning Houthi’s coup, preferring instead to state that they were monitoring the situation in Yemen. Obama is keen for a nuclear deal to be reached with Iran and is therefore unlikely to irk them further by encouraging a campaign to oust Houthi from Sana’a.

He is also aware that Hadi does not have the support of all the Yemeni tribes and is far from a unifying figure, even amongst the Southerners. Such an ‘ally’ is not worth risking a potential rapprochement with Iran which now controls Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a. Furthermore, it should be stated that the US even has some common interests with Houthi, notably on the Al Qaeda front. It has been suggested that the refusal to move the embassy from Sana’a to Aden is to ensure bilateral communication with Houthi as the situation unfolds.

Some have described Yemen as less important than Syria, Lebanon and Iraq where Iran exercises considerable influence. However Yemen is of fundamental importance to Iran as controlling Yemen means controlling the ‘Bab al Mandab’ (The Bab-el-Mandeb is a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden). Control of such a route, alongside the Hormuz strait, will give Iran enormous economic advantages in the region and significant leverage in the negotiations regarding its nuclear program and its quest to lift the sanctions.

Furthermore, it completes the encirclement of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival and currently the symbol of Islamic leadership in the Middle East. Although Houthi is believed to be struggling to retain control of Hodeida by the Red Sea and is some distance away from the Bab al-Mandab, rumours are surfacing of Iranian negotiations with certain southern tribes to garner support on behalf of Houthi. Such rumours should not be discredited lightly as Iran has demonstrated in Iraq that it has the capacity to play on the loyalties of groups typically affiliated to the ‘other side’; notably the Kurds with whom Iran has cooperated with in the fight against ISIL.

Yemen remains in a stalemate and it remains unclear if Hadi will be able to unite Yemen behind him and oust Houthi, or whether Houthi will continue his military campaign to secure much needed economic resources from oil-rich Ma’rib, or whether such a stalemate will finally lead to much needed dialogue.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…