Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader who was killed by the US in Iraq on Friday, was so critical to the Houthi militias in Yemen that they are almost certain to respond violently to his unexpected killing and shatter any hopes that the global community had for peace.
Although Iran’s influence over the Houthis was conducted in the shadows, Soleimani personally played the role of kingmaker, honing their military capabilities and penning a political strategy that catapulted them from the caves of Saada to power in Sanaa, the capital.
Soleimani’s steady and sure investment in the Houthis, which began as early as 2015, included advice on strategic responses to interventions by the Arab Coalition and helped ensure their survival in power.
The Iranian commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards – Quds Force built his network of militias across the Arab region, whether in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen, to be ready and capable of functioning in asymmetrical warfare at a moments’ notice from Iran. His unexpected death will test whether the Houthis are fully prepared.
The Houthi statements so far have been arguably more threatening than that of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the movement, said immediately after the attack: “Soleimani’s blood will not be wasted.” Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, the Chairman of the so-called Houthi Supreme Council, said the killing “demands a prompt and direct response”. These statements are not vacuous and stand to play out in several ways.
The attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, which the Houthis falsely claimed on behalf of Iran, demonstrates the lengths to which the militia will go to protect Iran from culpability. Moreover, there is a consensus among analysts that Iran will continue targeting US interests in the region, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – which are both within Iran’s and the Houthi’s immediate reach. If the Houthis act at Iran’s behest, they will shatter the prospects of peace that the UN has been trying to build in Yemen.
Much of the relationship between the IRGC and the Houthis has been clandestine, with the Houthi militia vehemently denying IRGC involvement or Soleimani’s presence in the country in the same fashion that they denied having any assistance from Hezbollah before videotapes emerged showing Hezbollah operatives training Houthi militiamen.
This denial was part of the Iran-Houthi strategy in Yemen to preserve the facade of an independent non-state actor with legitimacy and a right to self-determination. The clandestine relationship between Iran and Yemen, at least in the early stages, allowed Iran the plausible deniability it needed to pursue its objectives.
Soleimani’s strategic vision for Yemen was a patient one, in which he helped the Houthis develop their political and military capacity over time in the same way he did with the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias in Iraq.
But unlike in Syria or Iraq, where he became a very public figure of military power taking selfies with his commanders and posting them on social media, Soleimani remained carefully secretive and calculated in Yemen. In fact Soleimani was not on the ground running day-to-day operations in Yemen, but had designated a high-ranking commander in the IRGC–Quds Force, Abdul Reza Shahla’i, to operate among the Houthi militia in Sanaa.
The US Department of the Treasury named Shahla’i as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2008 and 2011, and, by the end of 2019, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had put a $15 million bounty on him, which remains in effect to this day. Shahla’i had a long history of “targeting Americans, including planning the January 20, 2007 attack in Karbala, Iraq, which killed five American soldiers and wounded three others,” according to the DOJ. Shahla’i also directed a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, DC.
Undoubtedly, the presence of this high profile IRGC commander in Yemen has caused a significant amount of human suffering and prolonged the war to the detriment of Yemeni people and the benefit of the Iranian regime.
Much of this complicates the prospects for peace as the Houthis remain on standby for Tehran’s orders to avenge Soleimani’s death. The UN envoy would be remiss to ignore these dangerous signs or to accept disingenuous statements that they are in the search for peace or a settlement with the Arab Coalition when they appear intent on avenging Soleimani’s death.