One point we’ve been keen on driving home as the war in Syria intensifies is that while the sheer number of combatants and the overt involvement of at least seven world powers certainly means that among the many conflicts raging in the Mid-East, the war in Syria is the fight that matters most for the non-Arab world, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees.
That is, it’s critical to see the bigger picture here, and that entails understanding how Syria is related to the conflicts raging in Iraq, Yemen, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Iran is determined to expand its regional influence. Tehran is the power broker in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and it’s no coincidence that the Houthis in Yemen are backed by the Iranians and neither is it a coincidence that Iran is rumored to be funneling weapons and money to its old enemy the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is about checking the spread of Sunni extremism and, concurrently, curtailing and diminishing Saudi influence. While Iran and the Taliban make for strange bedfellows (the militants are, after all, Sunni extremists), Tehran is determined to check the spread of Islamic State and with the IRGC, Hezbollah, and the Quds-controlled Shiite militias already fighting ISIS on two fronts (Syria and Iraq), the Ayatollah isn’t particularly thrilled about the prospect of an expanded ISIS presence on its eastern border. Supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan (with whom Iran nearly went to war in 1998), should help to check ISIS gains in the country and has the added benefit of keeping the US off guard which itself speaks to how quickly alliances can change as it was just 12 years ago that Iran assisted the US in picking Taliban and al-Qaeda targets (read more here).
As for ISIS, the official line is that everyone is an enemy. The Taliban are led by “illiterate warlords,” al-Qaeda are “a bunch of donkeys”, the Houthis are heretics as are the Iranians, the Saudis are just plain in the way in Yemen, and everyone else is an infidel. Of course there’s no telling what the group’s leadership really thinks given the support they undoubtedly receive from any number of states governed by “nonbelievers,” but we’ll leave that aside for now.
Ok, so why are we telling you this? Because on Sunday, ISIS killed the governor of the Yemeni port city of Aden in what amounts to the group’s most brazen attack in the country to date. As WSJ reports, “in a statement distributed on social media and translated by the extremist-tracking SITE Intelligence Group, an Aden-based branch of Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb that killed governor Jaafar Saad and several of his guards as his convoy traveled through the city.”
Sunday's explosion could be heard about 10 km (seven miles) away," Reuters reports. "Medics said the body of Saad and the others who were killed were burned beyond recognition."
In a statement ISIS said it detonated a car packed with explosives as Saad's convoy drove by. The group promised more operations against "the heads of apostasy in Yemen". Here's the statement:
Recall that Aden was a major battleground during the spring and it was also the site of China’s first naval rescue operation involving foreign nationals. The Houthis nearly took control of the city earlier this year after driving President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi out of the country, but a summer offensive by the Saudi-led, UAE- and Qatar- assisted coalition drove the rebels back. Now, the coalition wants to retake San’a.
As WSJ goes on to note, “Mr. Saad, a major general in Yemen’s army, was a prominent figure among pro-Saudi forces in Aden before his appointment as governor in October.” Here’s a bit more color:
Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, have both exploited the instability to carry out attacks and make territorial gains.
Numerous Islamic State branches have sprouted since the Saudi campaign began. Twin attacks by Islamic State militants on Houthi mosques in San’a killed more than 140 people in March.
Islamic State attacks have targeted the Houthis and the Saudi coalition, both of which the group considers enemies.
This comes just days after Wilayat Aden Abyan (you can identify the origin of ISIS videos by whatever comes after the word "Wilayat" in the introduction that always precedes the clip) released a video depicting the execution of around two dozen Houthis.
We'll spare you the footage, but here are some screenshots that should give you a decent idea of the fate that befell the men.
What this suggests is that ISIS is now set to expand its influence in Yemen. Remember, the country's proxy war is really no different in character to what's going on in Syria. The distinction is that in Yemen, Iran is fighting via proxy while the Saudis and Qatar are there in person while in Syria, Iran has boots on the ground while the Saudis and Qatar are fighting via proxies.
Of course one of Riyadh and Doha's proxies in the Syrian conflict is ISIS, and as mentioned above, the group is now targeting the Saudi coalition's support base in Aden which would seem to indicate - and this is a colorful metaphor we've used before - that this is but another example of Frankenstein breaking out of the lab and attacking its creators. Whether or not an expanded ISIS presence in Yemen will benefit the Saudi cause largely depends on whether the Houthis become Islamic State's main target in the country, or whether they intend to wage a protracted war against pro-Hadi forces.
Given the sectarian divide, we're inclined to believe that the Houthis will get the worst of this and that's just fine with Riyadh and Doha as anything that weakens Iran's proxies helps to restore Hadi by default.
And you never know, it could be that much like the cost of destabilizing Assad involves the loss of civilian lives in places like Paris and in the skies over the Sinai Peninsula, the cost of having one more anti-Houthi force on the ground in Yemen is that occasionally a few pro-Hadi government officials end up vaporized in a car bombing, because at the end of the day, covertly supporting groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda (who of course are also operating in Yemen) is a bit like raising tigers as pets - you can foster quite a bit of loyalty over time, but there's always a chance they might kill you.