Khartoum’s Support for the Houthis in Yemen: Past and Present Consequences
Eric Reeves, 26 March 2015
Along with “strategic” ally Iran, the Khartoum regime last year (and perhaps for longer) aided the Houthi rebels in Yemen, helping to set the stage for the current crisis that appears on the verge of escalating into major regional war. On discovering that Saudi Arabia was aware of Sudan’s support for the Houthis, Khartoum made an abrupt about-face and apparently ended all support for the Shiite militants (Islam in Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite, while in Sudan—as in Saudi Arabia and most Arab countries—Islam is Sunni; the Houthis practice a religion that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam).
But the damage had already been done and the Houthis were in the process of removing Yemen’s president and extending their control over more territory in Yemen (predictably, they are mortal enemies of the Sunni-dominated “al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), which operates in Yemen as well).
We may only speculate about how significant Khartoum’s military assistance to the Houthis was, and how much it influenced the slide toward war. But with a massive Saudi-led air assault on Houthi positions in Yemen yesterday, it has clearly become a “hot war.” Eager to make amends with the Saudis, Sudan Tribune is today reporting that three military jet aircraft from Khartoum actually supported the air operation, just across the Red Sea:
Sudan confirms participation in regional military campaign against Yemen’s Houthi | Sudan Tribune [Khartoum] March 26, 2015
The Sudanese foreign minister Thursday confirmed the reported military participation [Khartoum’s military aircraft in the attack] led by Saudi Arabia on the Shiite Houthi militants who [have controlled] the neighbouring Yemen since September 2014. Sudan’s decision is based on its commitment to the security of the region and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, said Ali Karti in a statement to the official news agency SUNA [regime-controlled “Sudan News Agency”].
The statement comes as President Omar al-Bashir makes another visit to Saudi Arabia in an effort to patch up relations strained badly by the revelations contained in the leaked minutes from an August 31, 2014 meeting of the most senior military and security officials in the Khartoum regime [see http://wp.me/p45rOG-1wk ]. The Saudis were distressed by many of the comments made in this meeting, particularly by the repeated emphasis, by all officials present, on Khartoum’s vision of a “strategic” relationship in the region with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s primary foe in the continuing struggle for regional influence and security. Expedient ways of dealing with Riyadh and the need for Saudi money and investment are also repeatedly discussed in the meeting.
But what certainly caught the attention of Riyadh was the statement by Sudan Armed Forces General Hashim Abdalla Mohammed, Chief of the Joint General Staff:
“We have a problem with Saudi Arabia because they found out about the weapons we sent by way of the Red Sea to Abd al-Malik Al-Huthi’s Shiia group in Yemen.” (from the leaked minutes of a 31 August 2015 meeting of senior regime military and security officials,http://wp.me/p45rOG-1wk)
The Houthis, who have had strong support from Iran, have now captured control of much of Yemen (especially in the northwest areas close to the border with Saudi Arabia) and pose a significant threat to the Saudis. It is with this in mind that Khartoum has decided it is expedient now to join the Saudis in their war against the Houthis, begun in earnest this week with the massive air strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen:
Yemen’s slide toward civil war has made the country a crucial front in mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Shiite Iran, which Riyadh accuses of stirring up sectarian strife throughout the region and in Yemen with its support for the Houthis. The crisis now risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shiite Iran backing the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies supporting Hadi. (Sudan Tribune)
Houthi Islamic militant in Sana’a, capital of Yemen
A March 26, 2015 dispatch from the New York Times also gives some sense of both regional and geopolitical implications, as well as the scale of the Saudi air campaign:
“Saudi Jets Strike Yemen in Bid to Halt Houthis,” New York Times [Cairo], MARCH 26, 2015
More than 100 Saudi Arabian jets pounded Yemeni targets early Thursday in a drive to stop the Houthi advance through the country, and the Saudi news media declared that the first night of the offensive had fully disabled the Houthi-aligned air force. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and the Houthis’ main ally, denounced the assault as an American-backed attempt “to foment civil war in Yemen or disintegrate the country.” Houthi-controlled television channels broadcast footage of dead bodies and wounded civilians, blaming “American-backed aggression.”
The movement’s leaders warned that the battle could widen into a regional conflict, but they also vowed to overcome the Saudi attacks without Iranian help. “The Yemeni people are prepared to face this aggression without any foreign interference,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Reuters.
The price of crude oil spiked about 4 percent on Thursday on concerns that the fighting in Yemen might affect the passage of tankers through the Bab el Mandeb strait, a narrow chokepoint between Yemen and Africa that is the entrance to the Red Sea.
Along with Iraq, Libya and Syria, Yemen is the fourth Arab nation where an attempt to build a new democracy has been consumed by civil conflict, regional proxy wars and the expansion of extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
The Houthi leadership, which hails from northern Yemen, practices a variant of Shiite Islam, the religion of the Iranian theocracy. Saudi Arabia, the region’s Sunni Muslim power, is backing forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has fled the capital, Sana, and has taken refuge among his supporters in the south.
The Saudi Arabian intervention immediately raised the threat that Iran might retaliate by increasing its own support for the Houthis with money and weapons — as Tehran has in the past — or with a more active military role, escalating the violence.