Yemen is approaching the "edge of a civil war" and could degenerate into an "Iraq-Libya-Syria" scenario, the UN special envoy to the country has warned, as forces loyal to the country's embattled president are reported to have repelled an assault on his southern stronghold.
The impoverished state has been increasingly troubled since Shia militants known as Houthis overran the capital of Sanaa in September virtually unopposed, then placed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest in January. Hadi then fled to southern city of Aden, where he has been attempting to consolidate his forces and power. Meanwhile, Houthi forces have pushed south and west, clashing with Hadi-supporting tribesmen as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Violence continued late last week when suicide bombers killed more than 130 people in attacks on two Houthi-affiliated mosques in Sanaa on Friday, and on Sunday when Houthis took Yemen's third city of Taez. The city, over 100 miles from Aden on the road from the capital, could be used as a staging point for a push south. Islamic State (IS) militants subsequently claimed the group carried out the mosque bombing, although it was not possible to independently verify the claim.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss these developments. Addressing it via video link, Special Adviser Jamal Benomar said Yemen is on a "rapid downward spiral" and added that unless a diplomatic solution is found soon, further violence will ensue. "Events in Yemen are leading the country away from political settlement and to the edge of civil war," he said.
Benomar also said that neither Houthis nor Hadi's forces could muster enough support for a decisive victory. "Any side that would want to push the country in either direction would be inviting a protracted conflict in the vein of an Iraq-Libya-Syria combined scenario," he said.
The 15 Security Council member states confirmed their backing for Hadi, who had previously urged intervention in a letter warning that Houthis could destabilize the country and entire region.
The UN body had once seen Yemen's progress since former autocrat President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012 by Arab Spring-inspired protests as a rare success story in its woeful record of dealing with uprisings in the region. The fact that an official has now made such strongly worded comments highlights how serious the current situation is, Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations told VICE News.
"Yemen's transition has been troubled since the start, but the fact that they [the UN] have stuck their heads out of the sand to say this shows just how dire things are... It's heading to a very scary place indeed," he said.
He adds that while it's in the interests of all sides to reach a political agreement, the level of distrust and animosity now make a peaceful settlement unlikely: "It's increasingly difficult to see this not developing into a full scale armed conflict."
It's an assessment shared by Abubakr Al-Shamahi, a British-Yemeni journalist with Middle East news website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
"I think the country is definitely on the edge of civil war if not already in one," he told VICE News. "Yemen is always 'on the brink' of civil war or collapse, but I think we may now have jumped off the edge."
Houthis have been massing forces in Taez and ramping up propaganda ahead of a possible move south. The group's leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said on Sunday that supporters should mobilize for an assault against AQAP and IS. The group's leaders have previously alleged that Hadi is allied with al Qaeda.
Speaking in a televised address, al-Houthi went on to describe Hadi as a "puppet in the hands of forces of evil, led by the United States."
Houthis are avowedly anti-America and anti-Israel. The group is widely believed to be backed by Iran and often is accused of being used by Saleh to restore his power and influence.
Al-Houthi also appeared to reject UN-brokered peace negotiations, saying "Dialogue cannot go on forever," and dismissing it as a "charade."
Houthis reportedly launched a small attack on a town around 60 miles north of Aden early Monday. Forces loyal to Hadi‚ including troops, Gulf state backed popular committee militias, and tribal fighters repelled the attack, however, according to militia sources and a local official cited by Reuters.
"Southern popular committees and units of the army at dawn on Monday foiled an infiltration attempt on Aden by armed convoys carrying Houthi gunmen," an official said. Militia members said several Houthis were killed and three vehicles destroyed.
Baron says that the Houthis are certain to attempt a larger push south and may be able to take significant territory. However, he adds that while the group is led by skillful politicians and may manage to forge some alliances, it will likely encounter major difficulties from a largely pro-Hadi population in the region.
Houthis are still facing opposition in areas already under their control, both in terms of protest and attacks by AQAP and other opponents. Demonstrations took place on Monday demanding the Houthis pull out of Taez. The group's fighters reportedly fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The Yemeni conflict is currently primarily between two political alliances, Al-Shamahi says, although groups like IS and AQAP could emerge as a "third force." AQAP over the weekend briefly took control of a town in Lahj province, but pulled out after executing around 20 government soldiers. The jihadists also took advantage of chaos during the uprising to take control of territory in the south.
The presence of IS in Yemen, however, is still hard to gauge. Some armed groups and clerics have declared their support for the group, but it is currently unclear what links fighters on the ground have with its leadership in Iraq and Syria.
However, Al-Shamahi says that the nature of Friday's mosque attack was unprecedented in Yemen, a country where Sunni and Shia groups lived and sometimes prayed together. Targeting Shias en masse is similar to methods espoused by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deceased leader of IS precursor organization Islamic State in Iraq, rather than al Qaeda. It could, he warns, herald an increase in sectarian dimensions to the crisis.
"It's incorrect to focus on it as a sectarian conflict, it's about politics and power and people looking to take over and run the country," he said. "But if the rhetoric continues, sectarianism is in danger of becoming a greater part of that. "
This could be further exacerbated by the regional powers backing different factions within Yemen — Shia Iran is trying to curtail the influence of its Sunni rival Saudi Arabia. But unless there are incidents along the Saudi-Yemeni border, Baron says, it's unlikely that this will escalate to direct involvement.
"Supporters of Hadi want full military involvement from the Gulf state," he said. "The question is whether the Houthis choose to keep that border calm. If they do, I think it will stave off a Saudi or gulf state scale intervention. But if it is no longer quiet, I think all bets are off."