Suren Sargsyan

The Recent Outburst of Crisis in Yemen: Implications for Armenia

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The recent Middle East crisis in Yemen has become the new arena for the clash of interests of different regional and global players. The attacks initiated by the Houthis targeted the major shipping channels lying on the Red Sea, which is the most significant waterway connecting Europe to Asia and east Africa. US commercial ships were also direct targets of the attacks. That is why the United States and other major states became directly involved in the crisis.

But who are the Houthis and what caused this new outburst of the conflict?

The Houthis are a militia group based in Yemen and aligned with Iran. The name of the group comes from the name of their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who is representing the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. The group emerged in the 1990s, partially as a reaction to rising Saudi financial and religious influence. However, the group became more prevalent starting from 2004 when the group rebelled against Yemen’s Sunni-majority government, causing it to step down leading to a humanitarian crisis. The group being a Shia Islamist political and military organization backed by Iran spent years fighting a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s religious influence in Yemen. The Houthis have an estimated 20,000 fighters and their official name is Ansar Allah (supporters of God). The group controls most of the west of the country and is in charge of its Red Sea coastline.

Since the war in Palestine, the Houthis declared that all their attacks were in support of the Palestinians and aimed at stopping Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi stated that his forces were “ready to move in the hundreds of thousands to join the Palestinian people and confront the enemy.” They stated that they would only target shipping from or to Israel, causing transportation costs to go up and with thousands of ships trying to  avoid the Red Sea, which affected a huge number of international trade.

Specifically, this Red Sea shipping line is the shortest, cheapest and the most effective way to connect routes between Asia, parts of Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean. “8% of global grain trade, 12% of seaborne-traded oil, and 8% of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade”  passes through this Red Sea route. That’s why any kind of attack or threat to an attack will definitely have a strong impact on international trade.

The active and intense attacks, involving dozens of drones and missiles by Houthis, have been carried out since November 19 and the largest attack directly targeting American ships happened on January 9, when  Houthi ballistic missile struck a US-owned and operated cargo ship.

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The US was quick to respond. In coalition with the United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, it conducted strikes against the Houthi rebels. President Joe Biden in his statement declared that he “will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

The decision of the Biden administration to choose a military solution to the Red Sea crisis needed the support and involvement of international partners. This was the reason Washington in response to dozens of attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels created a coalition with such partners as the UK, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands. Naturally, this military campaign can add additional tension to the entire region, which is already tense and heated and it can have a chain reaction especially because of recent developments in Palestine.

We need to keep in mind that despite the lack of direct involvement, the Yemeni civil war is still considered as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, there are interests of regional and global players colliding in Yemen, but one of the main points of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia is Yemen itself. It should not be forgotten that it was only a few months ago that the process of normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia began with Chinese mediation and this process began to cause serious concern in Washington. Moreover, since the negotiations between the Saudis and Iranians there were real chances for the peace in Yemen, which now looks fragile as these attacks could significantly weaken the Houthis’ position in Yemen, which could be exploited by Saudi-backed forces and change the status quo on the ground.

Yet another problem emerged between Iran and Pakistan on January 19 when both countries exchanged missile attacks against each other’s territory. Although these clashes have nothing to do with the war in Gaza, they are still alarming as this is another conflict that Iran is involved.

As for the South Caucasus, which is Iran’s back door, it should be realized that any development taking place around Iran and weakening the positions of Tehran in our region, has a direct impact on Armenia, as at this moment Iran is the natural guarantor of Armenia’s territorial integrity. It is only due to that factor Armenia is still able to preserve Syunik and its territorial integrity from possible Turkish-Azerbaijani aggression.

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