Tehran pushed Yemen’s Houthi rebels into swift gains in this week’s battles in order to beat Saudi Arabia to the draw for control of this strategic South Arabian nation of 24 million, and seize control of its Red Sea coast and outlet to the vital Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb.
Under this momentum, Yemen was tipping over from simmering unrest to the brink of civil war with Tehran riding on its back.
Thursday, March 26, the Saudis, at the head of a 10-state coalition of Sunni Arab nations, turned the tables by launching targeted air strikes against the positions held by Tehran’s Yemeni surrogate, the Houthi rebels, in the cities they had overrun.
The Saudi-led alliance’s air strikes aimed to disrupt the two-column Houthi advance led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers: One from Sanaa the capital headed for the Red Sea port of Hodeida in northern Yemen, deploying checkpoints on the way and taking control of the city’s airport. The second column had already captured Taiz, Yemen’s third town in the southwest. By Wednesday night, March 25, the rebels were on the point of entering Aden.
Click HERE to see the full-size map.
Targeting Bab el-Mandeb
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the Houthis and their Iranian masters cannot hope to overpower Aden, a town of a million people. Their target was a port to the north of the city, near the eastern approach to the Red Sea, some 170 kilometers east of the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb.
From that point, they would have exercised control over the vital energy shipping gateway from the Persian Gulf via Suez and the Mediterranean to Europe, Asia and the US. More than 5.5 million tanker barrels of oil pass through this route each day.
That goal was unexpectedly snatched away when, on the day the Saudis launched their air assault on Iran’s Houthi proxies, Egyptian marines seized control of the strategic Straits.
(See a separate article about Saudi-GCC-Egyptian military intervention in Yemen.)
It was Tehran’s plan to acquire a second global chokepoint after the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. (See attached map.). Control of Bab el-Mandeb would have enabled Iran to regulate shipping and supplies running between the US Fifth Fleet’s Gulf bases and the US Sixth Fleet on the Mediterranean.
Iran’s hand on the Red Sea gateway would have inhibited the passage of US military reinforcements between the two fleets in an emergency, as well as exercising control over Israeli shipping, including war vessels, plying the route from its southern port of Eilat to the Indian Ocean and Far East ports of call.
(Israel went to war 48 years ago, when the Egyptian ruler Gemal Abdel Nasser blockaded its southern outlet through the Red Sea at a time when Egyptian forces were fighting in a former Yemen civil war.)
US allows Iran’s Yemen proxy a free run
Tehran invested heavily in keying up the Yemen war, lifting hundreds of tons of arms and ammunition by air and sea to boost the Houthi’s arsenal. Warplanes and helicopters, some Iranian and some flown by Iranian pilots, took off this week from Sanaa airport. They landed at Hodeidah and Taiz and disgorged thousands of Yemeni commando troops to form bridgeheads for incoming army columns.
March 22, Washington announced it was evacuating its last 100 special forces troops from Yemen and shutting down all American bases in the country, including those serving the drones which kept Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the run.
Iran and its surrogates now had a free hand in Yemen – that is until Thursday morning, when the rules of the game radically changed.
Until then, Saudi Arabia hadn’t sent a single soldier or warplane to sweep the Iranian-backed Houthi offensive away from its back yard, or stopped them taking up positions that – not only imperiled the Saudi oil tankers sailing through the Red Sea, but also its West coast. Located there are such vital hubs as the Saudi financial center in Jeddah, its oil terminals at Yanbu, which receive oil piped from the eastern fields, as well as giant oil refineries and petrochemical industry.
Former Yemeni President Saleh & Son swing behind the rebels
It would have been beyond the capabilities of the Houthi rebels and their Iranian officers to exercise full sway over the 527,970 sq. kms of the Arabian Peninsula’s second largest country, without harnessing to their cause Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh, the eldest son of the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and former commander of the Yemeni army’s 80,000-strong Republican Guard.
This elite unit is fully equipped with air, armor and artillery. The bulk of its members remain loyal to the former president and its former commander, his son.
Their support for the rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi, known in the region as “Yemeni Hassan Nasrallah,” was critical in the rebels’ seizure of the capital Sanaa and ouster of the incumbent president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Saudi intelligence agents managed to smuggle him to safety in Aden.
Hadi is still recognized by the United States, the West and Saudi Arabia as the legitimate president of Yemen. But, while Western and Arab envoys paid respectful calls on him in Aden, none of their governments lifted a finger to save his residence from nightly bombardment by “unidentified jets.”
DEBKA Weekly’s sources confirm that they were carried out by mutinous elements of the Yemeni air force.
Wednesday, Hadi was reported to have fled Aden by sea.
Al Qaeda and ISIS wait in the wings for their turn
Also getting organized for resistance to the Houthi conquests were heads of Yemen’s Sunni Muslim tribes on religious grounds. Whereas 42 percent of the population belongs to the Zaydi branch of the Shia claimed by the Houthis, 57 percent are Sunnis.
The Saudi-led action to rid Yemen of the Houthi rebels and Iran’s footstep does not end the embattled country’s troubles. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is poised to strike the Houthi rebels, but may be equally hostile to Sunni forces. Then, there is the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – ISIS – which landed recently in Yemen and went into action last week to blow up two large Shiite mosques in Sanaa, killing hundreds of worshippers and injuring many more.