Yemen in Focus: Houthis stand by Iranian allies after 'criminal' Soleimani killing

Yemen in Focus: Houthis stand by Iranian allies after 'criminal' Soleimani killing
The Houthis slammed the killing of Qasem Soleimani as a war crime, stating the only appropriate response to the assassination would be to expel the 'American occupier' from the region.
7 min read
09 January, 2020
The Houthis are allies of Iran [Getty]
Yemen's Houthi rebels have joined in recent calls for striking US troops across the region in response to the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed allied commanders.

The rebels slammed the killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani as a war crime in a statement on Friday, saying that the only appropriate response to the assassination would be to expel the "American occupier" from the region.

"The people of the region should realise that their security and stability are subject to proceeding with the liberating project until the expulsion of the American occupier," a statement published on Friday read.

The rebel group's leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi strongly condemned "the assassination of Soleimani" and called for a "swift and direct response" to the strike that hit Baghdad international airport early on Friday.

The Houthis, which have controlled Yemen's capital Sanaa and other major cities in the north since overrunning the government in September 2014, erected images of Soleimani along the streets of the capital to honour the slain commander.

Read more: Yemenis face another year of war, and callous western silence

Soleimani was a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in charge of Middle East regional affairs, and was considered one of the most powerful people in Iran. 

In the aftermath of the killing, Soleimani's daughter called on the Houthis to avenge the death of her father

The strike also killed allied Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Hashd al-Shaabi's deputy leader who helped found Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq.

Iran's IRGC, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi military force are all supporters of Yemen's rebel movement and the former two have been reported to arm and train Houthi fighters since Yemen's 2015 conflict erupted.

The aforementioned groups, which brand themselves as the regional "Axis of Resistance" have all vowed to avenge the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis.

In the aftermath of the killing, Soleimani's daughter called on the Houthis to avenge the death of her father.

A paramilitary group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, urged its fighters to be on high alert, while in Lebanon, the leader of Iran-backed Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, warned of "punishment for these criminal assassins".

Early on Wednesday, Iran said it unleashed and concluded retaliatory strikes on Iraqi bases housing US troops in the neighbouring country, just moments after burying the slain commander.

"Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence" targeting a base from which a "cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials" was launched, said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter.

"We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression."

The missile strikes hit the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq and a base in Erbil, where US and other foreign troops were deployed as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State [IS] extremist group.

This was the first time that forces in Iran directly targeted US troops, instead of using proxy militias. 

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a "slap in the face" had been delivered to the US but in contrast to Zarif, hinted that more actions could be taken

"An important incident has happened. The question of revenge is another issue," Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state television.

"Military actions in this form are not sufficient for that issue. "What is important is that America's corrupt presence must come to an end in this region," he added.

The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said that Iran had informed it of the strikes. Iraqi President Barham Saleh denounced the bombing as a violation of Iraq's "state sovereignty".

No deal

Also this week, Southern separatists in Yemen withdrew from a key facet of the agreement it signed with the government in November, a further blow to those seeking a wider deal to end years of war.

The Separatist Transitional Council [STC] has pulled out of joint committees working to implement the Riyadh agreement, a STC spokesperson told Reuters.

In August, trouble re-erupted on a separate front, as southern secessionists seized control of the city of Aden, the internationally recognised government's temporary capital.

The UAE – a key part of the Saudi-led coalition helping fight the Houthis in Yemen's main conflict arena – trained and remains close to separatist troops, signalling rifts within the Gulf powers' intervention.

In a bid to end the "civil war within a war", Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing deal with the Southern Transitional Council under which the government would return to Aden.

The Riyadh Agreement signed on November 5 also stipulated the creation within 30 days of a new 24-member cabinet with equal representation for the southerners.

But the agreement has been difficult to implement, and Wednesday's announcement by the STC signals a further blow to its execution. 

Salim al-Awlaqi, a member of STC's presidential council, said the move was in protest against violence in Shabwa which it blames on the Islamist Islah party, Reuters reported.

The Islah party is closely linked to Yemen's internationally recognised government and in Shabwa, forces loyal to Hadi and southern forces continue to clash.

The Yemeni government and southern separatists also failed to meet a deadline to establish a power-sharing government at the start of December. 

Yemen's Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik returned to the city in November but the new cabinet has yet to materialise, along with other key reforms including integrating secessionists into a central command structure.

The two sides say they are committed to the Riyadh Agreement but have traded accusations over who is responsible for the failure to meet the deadline to form a new government.

After failling to secure a government, STC spokesman Nizar Haitham said in December that Yemen's government was "deviating" from the agreement and mobilising its troops in the south, an accusation the government denied.

But an STC official also told AFP in December that work to implement the Riyadh Agreement was ongoing and that there has been "significant progress" in implementing military and security arrangements. 

"Starting next week, we'll begin steps in implementing what was agreed on," this source said in a written statement without elaborating.

According to government spokesman Rajih Badi, the secessionists are the ones failing to abide by the treaty. 

He said that government military movements in the south are in line with the Riyadh Agreement and in coordination with the Saudi coalition, which continues to lead the anti-Houthi camp, comprised of both government and secessionist forces.

"This is a classic case of an agreement being easy to sign but near impossible to implement," Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen expert and senior research fellow at Oxford University, told AFP

Other parts of the deal, including placing forces from both sides under the authority of the defence and interior ministries, have also not been fulfilled. 

Houthi strikes

Meanwhile, Yemen's Houthi rebels on Tuesday launched their own strikes on a military camp housing government troops, a military source said.

Eleven Yemeni soldiers were killed and more than 20 wounded in the attack on Tuesday.

The missile hit the Al-Sadrain Camp in Dhale province while soldiers were gathering in the morning, the source told AFP.

Dhale is the border between the north and south of Yemen, whoever controls this strategic part of the country holds the gateway to the south

It is the second rebel attack in the province in little more than a week. On December 29, five soldiers of the UAE-backed southern separatist Security Belt Forces were killed in a similar attack in Dhale.

The ceremony in Dhale was for new recruits to the separatist-dominated Security Belt Forces, a formation trained and equipped by the United Arab Emirates to patrol territory retaken from northern rebels or al-Qaeda, its spokesmen Majed al-Shuaibi said.

The mountainous southern city is regarded the frontline between the Houthi-held north and the government-controlled south, and has seen frequent violence since the conflict began.

Hundreds of fighters from both camps have died in battles in Dhale. The city has also seen violence erupt between the pro-government camp, with clashes being reported between units from Hadi's presidency brigades and the Security Belt Forces – a UAE-backed pro-government militia.

"Most Houthi fighters captured or found killed along the battlefield in Dhale are unfortunately child soldiers," a government source told The New Arab in May.

"Dhale is the border between the north and south of Yemen, whoever controls this strategic part of the country holds the gateway to the south," the source added. 

Despite a lull in fighting in most of Yemen in recent months, Dhale province has remained a flashpoint.

The unrest in the south distracted the Saudi-led military coalition from its battle against the Houthi rebels.

The lack of concrete progress since the deal was signed comes as a blow to those hailing it as a stepping stone towards ending the wider conflict, described by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions to the brink of famine.

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino