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Yemeni official says some Houthis fighting for Assad - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Syrian troops patrol the village of Haydariyah, some seven kilometers outside the rebel-held city of Qusayr, after taking control of it, on May 13, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)

Syrian troops patrol the village of Haydariyah, some seven kilometers outside the rebel-held city of Qusayr, after taking control of it, on May 13, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemen’s Shi’ite Houthi rebels are participating in the fighting in Syria, officials in Yemen have told Asharq Al-Awsat.

An official source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Yemen’s Shi’ite Houthi rebels have sent some of their fighters to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime’s forces. Syrian opposition sources also allege that Yemeni Houthi fighters are present on the battlefield in Syria.

The Yemeni official told Asharq Al-Awsat that “hundreds of Houthi rebels have traveled to fight in Syria,” adding that “Houthi rebels continuously go to fight there and they view fighting in Syria as a holy jihad.”

The unnamed official described a cross-border transnational operation, claiming that “Houthi fighters travel to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon before being transferred to the Syrian front,” adding that “the arrival of Houthi fighters in Syria coincided with the announcement of Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting alongside the Syrian regime.”

He added that the government of Bashar Al-Assad has a long history with the Yemeni Houthi movement, which predates the Syrian revolution.

“Houthi fighters used to travel to Syria during—and even before—the conflict with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime,” he said.

The Yemeni source emphasized that “Syria was a way-station through which they traveled to Tehran and south Lebanon for combat training. They would use Iranian documents to travel from Damascus so that Yemeni authorities would not know where they had been when they returned home.”

Responding to a question about just how effective the Houthi rebels can be, particularly given reports of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces on the ground, the Yemeni official said: “The Houthi participation is symbolic and aims to affirm the unity of Assad’s allies; this is a camp that is governed by its sectarian dimension.”

The Yemeni source also claimed that Iran is utilizing two Eritrean islands in the Red Sea for training purposes and to store weapons for the Houthi fighters. He added that Sana’a had received official information that some Houthi fighters had returned from Syria via these islands, re-entering Yemen on small fishing boats.

The Yemeni media has reported that approximately 200 Houthi rebels left Yemen last week to fight alongside the Assad forces in Syria, adding that these fighters had volunteered to fight for sectarian and financial reasons, following encouragement from Iran.

Abdulfattah Al-Batool, a writer specializing in Islamic groups, said: “It seems that recent developments in the conflict in Syria have forced the regime to move from relying on the Syrian army, to relying on special forces as represented by the Republican Guards, along with thousands of Shi’ite volunteers from Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq and Yemen.”

“This change in the regime’s strategy … has given hundreds of Houthis the opportunity to join the fighting in Syria, alongside Shi’ite fighters from elsewhere,” Batool added.

The Yemeni expert noted that “the Houthis see the fall of the Assad regime as an end to their campaign in Yemen, because it will sever their link with Lebanon and Iran, and therefore they are fighting his war as if it was their own.”

He acknowledged that “the participation of the Houthis in fighting alongside the regime may not be of real value with the presence of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and Iraq,” but added that “this has a great moral, symbolic and ideological value, demonstrating the unity of the Iranian camp.”

Batool compared Shi’ite fighters flooding into the country to fight alongside the beleaguered Assad regime to “the rush of Sunni jihadists to fight in Afghanistan during the Soviet-era.”