YEMEN – Houthi offensive sparks fears of torturous war in Yemen (France 24)

Yemen sank deeper into chaos on Tuesday as Houthi fighters inched toward the city of Aden, where deposed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has sought refuge, raising concerns of a full-blown war for control of a globally strategic oil transit point.
Houthi Shiite militants and allied army units on Tuesday captured the town of Kirsh, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Aden, after heavy fighting with forces loyal to Hadi, according to local officials and residents. Earlier, the Houthi movement reportedly entered the Red Sea port of al-Mukha, putting it a short drive from the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a Red Sea shipping lane vital to oil shipments.The United Nations this week warned the country was on the brink of a protracted civil war, with envoy Jamal Benomar stressing that, without immediate action, the crisis-hit Gulf nation would see “further violence and dislocation” comparable to “a Libya-Syria combined scenario”.
Oil power Saudi Arabia on Monday said it would intervene militarily in neighbouring Yemen if the Iranian-backed Houthis continue to encroach on Hadi, the country’s internationally recognised leader, further raising concerns of a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran on Yemeni soil.
“I don’t know about falling apart but they are very close to civil war,” Charles Schmitz, a Yemeni specialist at Towson University, told FRANCE 24 by telephone. “It looks like war is eminent at this point.”
Adam Baron, a researcher at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said it was unlikely that Houthis, emboldened from taking control of the city of Taiz over the weekend, would turn back in the face of recent Western and Saudi pressure.
“The fact that Houthis are heading south signals they are much more willing to go on the offensive, to take over even more land. The road to Aden heads through Taiz; it suggests they are gunning for President Hadi at this point,” Baron said.
‘Two interlocking wars’Observers said the situation in Yemen was becoming increasingly complicated as foreign interests and actors joined the fray, with control over one of the world’s most important shipping zones ultimately at stake.
“There are two regional heavyweights working in the background. Saudi Arabia, which backs President Hadi in Aden, and Iran, which backs the Houthi Shiite Muslim minority that has taken control of the capital of Sanaa,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, a researcher at the French security consulting firm IFAS.
“The consequences can be catastrophic, because it could aggravate existing regional conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites – a sectarian rivalry that was largely absent in Yemen before,” Rigoulet-Roze noted.
Extremist groups, including the expanding Islamic State (IS) group, are additional components of the potentially explosive mix. Suicide bombers last week killed 126 people and wounded 260 others in twin mosque attacks in Sanaa. The attacks targeting Houthi supporters at Friday prayers were claimed by the IS group, a Sunni jihadist organisation.
“It’s a completely chaotic configuration. Yemen is in a downward spiral and it is unclear how it can possibly get out of it. It’s a civil war and a proxy war at the same time, two interlocking wars,” Rigoulet-Roze explained.
A new Iranian outpost
According to Gilles Gauthier, France’s former ambassador in Yemen, a Houthi victory would greatly expand Iran’s regional influence, and Tehran appears to be throwing its full weight behind what they call Yemen’s “revolution”.
Experts, including Towson University’s Schmitz, said the military balance of power currently appeared to favour the advancing Houthis.
“There have been 14 daily flights between Tehran and Sanaa in the last week, and there were no regular connections between those two cities in the past,” Gauthier told FRANCE 24.
The former diplomat said Iran hoped to establish a new base of operations in Yemen similar to its de facto outpost in southern Lebanon – controlled by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The political, but also the economic stakes are huge.
“What’s most important is that this new base would be located in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, where between 70 and 80 percent of the world oil trade passes. So, with the Strait of Hormuz, Iran would control two straits, obligating the world to treat it as a business partner,” Gauthier added.
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