It appears that when the US inadvertantly "misplaced" $500 million of weapons in Yemen, the bulk of which fell right in Houthi rebel hands, it created a very credible adversary... for the US and its Saudi-backed coalition allies. Because despite the bombing campaign by the Saudi-headed coalition, AP reports that the rebels seized a key provincial capital in a heavily Sunni tribal area on Thursday as their patron Iran called the two-week air campaign a "crime" and appealed for peace talks.
According to media reports the Houthius overran Ataq, capital of the oil-rich southeastern Shabwa province, after days of airstrikes and clashes with local Sunni tribes. The capture marked the rebels' first significant gain since the Saudi-led bombing began.
The rebels' capture of Ataq came after days of clashes as well as negotiations with local tribes. When the Houthis and Saleh loyalists entered the city they encountered little resistance, raising questions about whether Yemen's fractured tribes -- even in Sunni areas -- can serve as reliable allies.
Ataq residents said the rebels and allied soldiers installed checkpoints all around the city. Government offices, shops and schools were closed, and residents appeared reluctant to leave their homes. "Ataq is like a military barracks. A tank here, an armored vehicle there and non-stop patrols," said resident Saleh al-Awlaki. "I consider this an occupation by all means. And all occupation must be removed, also by all means."
Military and tribal officials said some leading members in the tribes facilitated the rebels' entry after days of fighting. One official said the Sunni tribesmen didn't want to keep on fighting, even though they were assisted by coalition airstrikes. The official spoke anonymously because he feared reprisals. The military officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Mohamed Abkar, an Ataq resident, said locals looted unguarded weapons warehouses in the city on Wednesday, but that no shot was fired at the rebels as they entered the city.
Ataq's capture won't be the last: the coalition had hoped to keep the rebels out of the southern port city of Aden, which Hadi had declared his provisional capital after fleeing Sanaa earlier this year and before leaving the country last month. But there too the rebels and Saleh loyalists have advanced, sparking days of heavy clashes.
Meanwhile, even as Iran deployed two warships just off the Yemen coast and in proximity to two US aircraft carriers as reported yesterday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Saudi Arabia to cease airstrikes targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen, calling the campaign “genocide” against Yemeni people.
The Ayatollah said "this is a crime, genocide and legally pursuable" according to comments posted on his website. He went on to warn that "the Saudis will lose" and that "Yemenis will resist and will win." He added that "The US will also fail & face loss in this issue."
In a testament to the social media age, then the supreme leader took to Twitter to troll not only the Saudis but the US in that medium as well:
Earlier, in speech in Tehran on Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged a cease-fire in Yemen to allow for broad-based talks on resolving the crisis.
"To the countries in the region, I say, let's adopt the spirit of brotherhood, let's respect each other and other nations. A nation does not give in through bombing," said Rouhani. "Do not kill innocent children. Let's think about an end to the war, about cease-fire and humanitarian assistance to the suffering people of Yemen."
He said the bombing campaign was "wrong," comparing it to Syria and Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition is targeting Islamic State militants.
"You will learn, not later but soon, that you are making a mistake in Yemen, too," Rouhani said, without naming any particular country.
In a normal world, the US would simply grunt out a few remarks meant to put Iran in its place, and that would be the end of that. However, what makes things complicated is that in the current environment in which the Obama administration is desperate to maintain a good line of discussion with Iran so it can "deliver" the historic nuclear agreement, the US simply has no negotiating leverage, and Iran knows this. And, as a result, it is otherwise supporting the Houthi rebels in a way it otherwise wouldn't, in the process humiliating not only the Saudi bombing campaign, but also the biggest backer behind the counter-rebellion operation, the US itself.
Finally, to get a sense of the events on the ground, here is a video clip taken earlier in Yemen's rebel overrun city of Sana'a.