Yemen’s warring parties conflicted over Soleimani’s killing

Yemen’s warring parties had differing reactions to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, pointing to Yemen's deepening sectarian schism.

al-monitor Supporters of the Houthis rally to denounce the US killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 6, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Jan 9, 2020

The US killing of a senior Iranian commander in a drone strike in Baghdad has sparked fear and ire in the region. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, was killed alongside Iraqi companions the morning of Jan. 3. This shocking event marks a tipping point, another chapter of tensions in the region and an era of continued enmity between the United States and Iran.

The Middle East, a region that is awash with conflicts and rivalries, will witness the consequences of the daring US decision to eliminate Soleimani. His death has divided the region. While some view him as a killer who has caused deaths in Iran and the region, others consider him a martyr, an icon of resistance.

Yemenis had a host of reactions to the killing of Soleimani. Houthis were shocked and furious, but the Saudi-backed UN-recognized government was euphoric and felt victorious. Both sides' reactions have ideological roots that point to the sectarian schism that has taken over the country the last five years.

Houthis share a close ideology with Iran, while the Yemeni government follows Saudi Arabia’s approach. Parties to the conflict in Yemen hinge on outside players, and their reactions to regional developments are analogous to those of their foreign backers.

Houthis orchestrated mass rallies Jan. 6 in Sanaa and Saada province, expressing support for Iran and denouncing the killing of Soleimani. The participants chanted anti-American slogans, calling for the expulsion of US forces from the region. They carried pictures of Soleimani and raised placards reading, “God is great. Death to America.”

“The entire [Muslim] umma has the right to respond to the crime of assassinating Soleimani and [Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and all martyrs] to counter the American hegemony,” said the Sanaa rally in a statement. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Units, a pro-Iranian group in Iraq.

​Dhaif Allah al-Shami, the information minister of the Houthi government, gave a speech before the gatherings in Sanaa, saying, “The blood of Soleimani does not belong to Iran or Iraq. Instead, it belongs to all Muslims and the free people.”

The late Iranian commander is now not only a national hero for Iranians but for Yemen's Houthis, who have taken to the streets and displayed his photos.

Abu Marwan, a school teacher in Sanaa, has seen several huge photos of Soleimani in the capital Sanaa. “The ordinary people here did not know about him before his killing," he said. "Now, they have come to know about him. Houthis cherish this Iranian military commander, and they have hung his photos because Iran and Houthis have common enemies.”

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee, urged a "quick reprisal" for the killing of Soleimani in a tweet that he later retracted. "We condemn this killing. Direct and swift reprisals are the answer,” he said. In the Houthi view, not exacting revenge would point to Iranian weakness, and this weakness would reflect on its regional allies, including the Houthis.

While the Houthis drown in sorrow and sympathy for Soleimani, Yemen's Saudi-backed government officials believe that what happened is a prologue to peace.

​Moammar al-Eryani, information minister of the internationally recognized government, tweeted that Soleimani’s killing undermined Iran’s "expansionist" and policies, and it is "an important step to end wars and conflict [and] bring security and stability to the region.”

Eryani told Saba News Agency that the Houthis could turn Yemen into a battleground between Iran and the United States in the aftermath of this dramatic escalation.

The Houthis believe their destiny is tied to Iran, said Mohammed Abdu, a Yemeni journalist focusing on political affairs. According to Abdu, when Tehran is troubled or experiences setbacks, Houthis become frustrated and alarmed.

Abdu told Al-Monitor that the Houthis’ “huge sympathy” for Iran means the group is willing to launch attacks to help Iran fulfill its goals.

“Without Iran, the Houthis would not bear the war for five years," he said. "Iranian support is the lifeblood of the Houthi movement in Yemen. Houthis minus Iran would collapse in a short time.”

Western media sources reported in 2017 that Iran was stepping up its support for the Houthis through its provision of arms, training and financial support. US officials said in December 2019 that the US Navy seized “significant caches” of suspected Iranian guided missile parts intended for the Houthis. Though Iran has repeatedly denied any connection to Yemen’s Houthis, in October 2019 Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammed Bagheri acknowledged that the Revolutionary Guard offered “advisory and intellectual support” to the Houthis.

Commenting on the Houthis' pro-Iran rallies in Sanaa, Adel Dashela, a Yemeni researcher and writer, reckons that these mass rallies prove the solid connection between the Houthis and Iran — an alliance that is not easily broken.

​“From my vantage point, the absence of the state in Yemen will continue, and the Houthis will continue implementing what is dictated by the decision-making circles in Tehran," he told Al-Monitor. "Also, attacks on Saudi Arabia will persist and this will make it difficult for political efforts to break the five-year stalemate."

The devastating conflict in Yemen has resulted in tremendous losses, and the civil war has become a proxy war. The consequences of the recent Iran-US escalation may bring further pain and destruction to Yemen unless the parties to the conflict refrain from igniting further violence in the country.

Iran launched over a dozen rockets at two US military bases in Iraq to show that the killing of Soleimani will not go unanswered. The Iranian rockets struck the bases that are thought to have served as launch sites of the drone attack that killed Soleimani. The United States is still evaluating its response to the Iranian attacks. Warlike actions could spark yet more actions, culminating in an endless whirlwind of violence in the region.

Former US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen A. Seche, in an article for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote that Iran would "employ" its allies in the region, including Yemen's Houthis, to respond to the killing of Soleimani.

“The opportunity for tragic miscalculation abounds in the Gulf region," he wrote. "The parties to Yemen’s conflict have an opportunity to avoid such miscalculation, demonstrate restraint and persist on the path to peace."

The Middle East is at a critical juncture. An all-out war may flare up in a region that teems with rivalries and conflicting agendas. The magnitude of suffering in Yemen, a victim of regional rivalries, will likely worsen in light of the widening gulfs between regional powers.