The Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist organization, seized the official presidential palace in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday. They then moved toward shelling the actual residence of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — with the U.S.-backed president inside.
The latest round of fighting flared up in Sanaa on Monday, and had originally ended in a truce between the government and the rebels. Tuesday’s attack took place before the formal ceasefire agreement could be signed.
Yemeni military sources have characterized the move by the group as an attempted coup, though some say that the rebels are not interested in ousting the president outright.
The Houthis have resisted the fragile Yemeni government for decades. Instability following Arab Spring revolts in 2011 and the subsequent ousting of long-serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh gave the militia an opportunity to seriously threaten the existing balance of power. (RELATED: 7 Foreign News Stories You Missed in 2014)
Houthi forces have occupied parts of Sanaa since September, when an initial push for control ended in a tentative power-sharing agreement with the government. Since then, though, both sides have refused to govern.
Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Yemen’s rival factions have “an aversion to outright conflict,” preferring dramatic one-off attacks as a show of force and dominance. With Yemen at a standstill in negotiations over a draft constitution, the Houthis’ immediate key goal is to secure a foothold in a permanent national political arrangement. Last weekend, they kidnapped the president’s chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, who had been overseeing the constitutional process.
Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and its hard-to-govern desert interior has made it a haven for terrorists and militias, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The Sunni group, whose eradication with U.S. support has been the Yemeni military’s main strategic focus, claimed responsibility last week for the terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. (RELATED: Jihadi Statements On Paris Attacks Highlight Rivalry)
Al-Qaida is also suspected in a suicide bombing which killed dozens in Sanaa on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Simon Henderson, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told TheDCNF that the likeliest outcome of Tuesday’s violence will be “anarchy rather than a Houthi-led government,” so one early victim of the clashes “may be the legal and political framework whereby the U.S. is able to conduct drone strikes” against al-Qaida.
While funded and armed by Iran, the Houthis are not a direct tool of Iranian state policy like Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But their association with the Shiite country has emboldened al-Qaida’s own countervailing bids for power. The ongoing struggle against and between Shiite Houthi and Sunni al-Qaida insurgents has led to tens of thousands of deaths.
Despite Yemen’s instability and poverty, its location at the chokepoint of the Red Sea’s pirate-infested oil shipping lanes, and its long border with Saudi Arabia, make it a key strategic country in the region.
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