Houthi reaction to Soleimani's killing reflects ties to Iran
LONDON - The emotional reaction of Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani reflected the close ties they have with Iran as well as the tight relationship with a major personal supporter in their war against Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
The condemnation by the Houthis was followed by massive demonstrations in Sana'a and the Saada region, marking the death January 3 of Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Thousands of people gathered January 6 in Saada, a stronghold of the Zaidi Shia group, and chanted: "God Is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse upon the Jews. Victory to Islam." while carrying portraits of Soleimani and Muhandis, rebel-run Al Masirah television reported.
“The blood of Soleimani and Muhandis will turn into intercontinental missiles and weapons that destroy American warships and end the American presence in the region,” Houthi Information Minister Dhaifullah al-Shamy was quoted in a report by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
The internationally recognised government of Yemen issued a statement welcoming news of Soleimani's death and said Houthi "tears" over his killing were proof of their affiliation with Iran.
The Houthis had issued a statement January 3 condemning the US drone attack in which Soleimani and Muhandis were killed.
"What America did against these two great leaders is a big adventure that will worsen the tense situation in the region," the rebel-run Saba news agency reported, quoting the Houthis’ Foreign Ministry.
"This cowardly act amounts to the most threatening actions against world peace and security and clearly reveals the US resentment against all those who side with the just causes of the oppressed Islamic nation. It also reveals total ignorance in calculating the consequences of targeting two leaders of this calibre," the Houthis said.
The leader of Yemen's Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Council, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, expressed condolences to Iranian and Iraqi leaders. He condemned what he called an "assassination" and called for a "swift and direct response."
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have often accused Iran of supporting the Houthis with weapons, including missiles and drones. The Houthis insist their advanced weaponry represents "achievements of the Yemeni military industries."
Soleimani was the commander of al-Quds Force, the ideological army of Iran and Tehran’s envoy to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, coordinating with armed groups loyal to Iran in those countries.
A March 2017 report by Thomson Reuters quoted a senior Iranian official saying Soleimani had met with top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials the previous month in Tehran to find ways to “empower” the Houthis.
“At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support,” the official said. “Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.”
Military sources in the Joint Resistance in Hodeidah said that, since the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, the Houthis increased attacks in western Yemen.
The Washington Post reported that, following Soleimani’s death, “Iranian weapons and technology continue to be transferred to allied forces in the region, including Yemeni Houthi fighters.”
The report said, by having its military proxies “deploy the technology to strike targets on its behalf, the Iranian leadership has made it harder for its foes to establish Tehran's direct responsibility.”
Last September, the Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone and cruise missile attack on a large Saudi Aramco facility, which cut oil production 50%. Saudi and US officials dismissed the rebels’ claim and blamed Iran.
A few hours following the attack on Aramco’s oil facilities, Soleimani posted a video using religious imagery to praise the Houthis as part of Iran’s “expanding” network of followers.
A report by UN experts said that, “despite their claims to the contrary,” the Houthi forces did not carry out the attacks on Aramco facilities Abqaiq and Khurais last September.
Experts say the military relationship between the Houthis and Iran will continue.
"The support for Houthis will not be decreased significantly, even though Soleimani had his touch on each specific proxy group," Matthew Levitt, head of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Voice of America.
"The network is in place and certain people are in charge. The point person who provides financial and military (aid) for Houthis is the senior IRGC commander Reza Shahlai, who (has been) listed recently in Rewards for Justice by the United States government."