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Why The Lebanese Scenario Won't Work In Yemen: The Houthis Have Exaggerated Their Gun Power

30 April 2015

By Amir Taheri

A Persian proverb warns that ''not every recipe is fit for every banquet.''

The idea is that a method that might work in one case need not necessarily work in every case.

Applied to empire-building enterprises, the wisdom of this dictum is apparent in the case of Iran's involvement in the Yemeni imbroglio.

It was by acting as an opportunist power that Iran was dragged into the Yemeni crisis.

Some self-styled empire-builders in the Iranian military-security establishment persuaded themselves that they could add another feather to their cap—a temptation they found hard to resist.

They dragged Iran into a complex situation with little or no knowledge of how things work, or don't work, in Yemen.

Whatever the outcome of the experiment one thing is certain: the Houthi strategy backed by Iran has already failed.

There are two reasons for that failure.

The first is that the fantasy about the United States switching sides in the Middle East and acknowledging Iran as regional hegemon is just that—a fantasy.

That fantasy has been promoted by President Barack Obama who has spoken of Iran as a ''regional power'' and tried to modulate US policy in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to please the mullahs.

However, it is enough to recall that Obama has only 18 months or so to play in that fantasy world. Once he has faded into a footnote in history, the US and European democracies might not endorse a policy designed to hand over the Middle East to the mullahs and their ex-KGB allies in Moscow.

The fantasy in question is absurd even in the context of Obama's absurd foreign policy.

Doing all he can to put the US into global retreat mode, he cannot, at the same time, give the mullahs a helping hand in extending their empire into Arabia Felix.

The second reason why the Houthi scheme will fail is that it is a poor copy of the Iranian scheme in Lebanon and, as such, inapplicable to Yemen.

The Iranian scheme in Lebanon has worked, at least so far, because of factors that are either different or non-existent in Yemen.

Lebanon is a tiny country on a coastal strip backing into a small mountain range, covering just 10,400 square kilometers and thus relatively easy to control with a small force. Yemen, however, covers an area of 527,000 square kilometers with a variety of terrains spanning mountains, deserts, coasts and islands.

Lebanon has a population of around 5.6 million concentrated in and around the greater Beirut region and a dozen urban areas. Yemen's population of almost 27 million, however, is spread over a vast territory with an estimated 7,000 villages and scores of semi-urban settlements from the borders of Rub'al Khali to the Red Sea.

In recent days headlines have shrieked about the Houthis ''seizing Aden.''

Those who know Aden would know that neither the Houthis nor any other armed group, including the remnants of the national army, have the manpower to seize control of that shapeless sprawling city, which is surrounded by a dozen shanty towns.

In the late 1960s the British had to deploy over 50,000 troops to control a much smaller Aden and, in the end, did not succeed.

They had to barricade themselves in RAF Khormaksar, being content with launching occasional sorties into the city. This is precisely what the Houthis are doing. That doesn't mean they have ''seized'' Aden, however.

There is yet another difference between Lebanon and Yemen.

In Lebanon, Iran enjoyed the support of the country's largest neighbor Syria in its imperial scheme. In the case of Yemen, no neighbor is prepared to act as a channel for Iranian domination. If anything, Yemen's neighbors—Saudi Arabia and Oman—do not wish to witness a repeat of the Lebanese scenario.

Oman cannot have forgotten that, in the 1960s and 70s, Communist insurgents used Yemeni territory as a launchpad in a war of conquest against the sultanate's southern province of Dhofar.

As for Saudi Arabia, the prospect of having a hostile power along its longest frontier is hardly welcome, to say the least.

Another major difference is that the Shi'ite community in Lebanon has had historic links with Iran going back almost five centuries. As Twelvers, Lebanese Shi'ites have always been close to Iran, the program to reorganize and strengthen the Shi'ite community started under the Shah with the dispatching of missionaries, led by the charismatic Moussa Sadr and backed with generous donations by the Iranian government. Iran under the Shah had 2,400 soldiers in southern Lebanon ostensibly to protect Shi'ites from Yasser Arafat's PLO fighters.

The Lebanese Christian community was also sympathetic to Iran because of shared opposition to pan-Arabism led by Nasser and the Ba'ath movement.

In Yemen, however, the recent presentation of the Zaydi community—some 42 percent of the population—as Shi'ites does not reflect the reality of how they are perceived in Iran. The Iranian clergy regards Zaydis as a splinter from original Shi'ism in the same way as it regards a range of other communities.

Even then, it is clear that the Houthis, though well-armed and well-funded, do not represent a majority among the Zaydi community in Yemen.

In recent weeks, many Zaydis in both Sana'a and Taiz have been demonstrating against the Houthis and their Iranian backers.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has not gone for a direct power grab. It has kept the facade of power intact, using its guns to impose its will from inside the system. Lebanon had a president (at least until recently), a prime minister, a cabinet, a parliament and a national army. However, when it comes to Iran's interests, Hezbollah is able to carry out Tehran's orders by bypassing all those formal entities.

The Houthis, however, went for a brazen power grab which, as might have been expected, mobilized other currents of Yemeni politics against them. Their final mistake was to seize the presidential palace and force the incumbent to tender his resignation at gunpoint.

While Hezbollah uses the threat of assassination to force other factions to comply with Iran's will, it does not solely depend on violence. With a mixture of flattery and bribery involving serious money from Tehran, Hezbollah now has recruited clients within all Lebanese communities.

The Houthis, however, have exaggerated their gun power in dealing with Yemen's various communities.

No one can imagine a Houthi administration controlling even the northern, mostly Zaydi, provinces let alone the whole of Yemen. Houthis have heightened their profile largely thanks to an alliance with the deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the remnants of his regular army.

In military terms, too, the Lebanese scenario, with Hezbollah as key player, is not applicable to Yemen.

Iran created and armed Hezbollah for low intensity warfare, not wars of position aimed at capturing and holding territory.

Iran wants Hezbollah for firing missiles and rockets, conducting urban attacks through car bombs and individual assassinations, and other guerrilla style operations.

In Yemen, however, the Houthis' armed branch, is deployed in a conventional war for which it has neither the necessary training, leadership or logistics.

The net result of the Iranian imperial scheme, if it does indeed exist, could be Yemen's disintegration.

Hadhramaut has already broken loose, perhaps with Al-Qaeda trying to take control. Sana'a and Taiz are divided into mutually hostile neighborhoods while the four ex-sultanates of the south are in the hands of a variety of armed groups. In Aden, a seesaw struggle is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Trying to re-enact the Lebanese scenario in Yemen has so far led to disaster for all concerned.


Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

 

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