Iran’s Low Cost Gambit in Yemen
Similar to the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria, the conflict in Yemen has effectively devolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the theater in Syria is complicated and multifaceted, the civil war in Yemen has a relative polarity. However, the seeming simplicity of the sectarian breakdown between Shi’ite and Sunni combatants belies the external pressures that influence the ongoing strife throughout Yemen.
In terms of open martial antagonism, the combatants are broadly aligned along sectarian parameters, with even the local al-Qaeda insurgents gaining a reputation for alliances of convenience with the Saudi military. The tribal-based Houthi movement, Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), has been receiving its own external assistance. The Houthi rebels, who practice the Zaidi sect of Islam (a subsection of Shi’ism that is similar to Sunnism in many respects), have received assistance from Iran’s Quds force, which has also played a major role in backing the Assad regime in Syria, a host of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This leaves a sort of Sunni-Shi’ite axis along which most of the fighting breaks down, and an ongoing catalyst for armed escalation throughout the region. In this framework, many of the ongoing tensions are defined by each party’s either covert or explicit allegiance to the power players in Tehran or Riyadh. What ensues between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a prolonged power struggle that is neither a direct engagement nor a sort of cold war, but one that rests within some tenuous middle ground of ongoing proxy war maneuvering.