Hassan Irloo, Iran’s “ambassador” to the Houthi government in Sanaa, was evacuated to Iran on December 18, due to his critical health conditions. On December 21, Iran’s foreign ministry reported that the diplomat had died of COVID-19.
Just like his arrival in Yemen in 2020, Irloo’s demise has unleashed conflicting sentiments among the population. Upon receiving the news of his death, pro-Houthi Yemenis called him a martyr. In contrast, opponents thought of him as a war criminal, arguing that his departure is a backbreaking blow to the Houthis. Irloo was considered the architect of the Houthi military operations in Marib, where a fierce battle claimed thousands of fighters from both sides.
Irloo’s demise does not mean that the end to the war in Yemen is near for various reasons.
Unfortunately, Irloo’s demise does not mean that the end to the war in Yemen is near for various reasons. First, the Houthi rebel group has been fighting the Yemeni government since 2015. Then allied with late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, they have taken over several provinces since. All of the group’s military advances took place in the absence of Irloo. Therefore, the Houthis have all the required capabilities to keep combating in several provinces such as Marib, Hodeida, Dhale, and Taiz.
The connection between Irloo’s presence in Sanaa and Houthi military operations is not very strong. Over the last seven years, the Houthis have behaved like a state at the military level. They have developed their missile capabilities and managed to mobilize thousands of fighters, indicating that their organization and management will persist, and their incursions will not abruptly cease, particularly in the oil-rich Marib.
Undisputedly, the group receives military support from Iran, but is not wholly dependent on the Islamic Republic. The Houthi leadership strives to devise military schemes to deal with their rivals and hinder their opponents. Given the group’s war experience and its ideology to brainwash their fighters, violence is set to drag on.
Given the group’s war experience and ideology, violence is set to drag on.
Hussein Al-Ezi, a senior Houthi official, tweeted the group’s position on December 16: “We can never neglect the rights of our people, even if the war continues for 100 years.” He emphasized that even if the entire world blames the Houthis, there is no way to their hearts and minds except by respecting the country’s sovereignty and the rights of the people.
Second, in line with the evacuation and death of Irloo, the Saudi-led Arab coalition has recently increased its airstrikes in Yemen, particularly in Sanaa. On December 21, the raids pounded Sanaa International Airport, causing massive destruction, which will most likely lead to Houthi retaliation.
Furthermore, the stronger the destruction to civilian infrastructure like airports, hospitals, and roads, the better the opportunity for the Houthis to attract fighters from areas under their control. Angered by these bombings, people in Houthi-run areas have joined the battleground to support Houthi combatants. As the violence expands, peace efforts will continue to weaken.
Third, the passing of Irloo has increased the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran argued that the delay in moving Irloo from Sanaa led to his death, blaming Saudi Arabia for its slow cooperation.
[Taliban Victory in Afghanistan Emboldens Houthi Advance in Yemen]
[Is There Hope Left for the Beleaguered Yemeni Government?]
Irloo “was evacuated in poor condition due to delayed cooperation from certain countries,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told state media. However, Saudi Arabia denied the accusation, claiming that the man was evacuated shortly after receiving reports about his critical health.
The Saudi Press Agency quoted Brig. Gen. Turki al-Maliki, the Arab Coalition spokesman, saying, “The Joint Forces Command of the Coalition had commenced the facilitation of evacuating [Irloo] for humanitarian considerations, and in recognition of the diplomatic mediation by the brotherly Sultanate of Oman and the Republic of Iraq in less than 48 hours of reporting his health condition.”
While Iran says COVID-19 claimed Irloo’s life, there is no general consensus on his cause of death.
While Iran says COVID-19 claimed Irloo’s life, there is no general consensus on his cause of death. Official Iranian media and Houthi leading figures hail him as a martyr, a term suited for those killed in battle, but not for those who died from a virus.
Some sources allege that a Saudi airstrike hit Irloo in Yemen. The Iranian news website, Kayhan, cited “informed” sources, contending that the man was wounded in an airstrike in Sanaa. The source stated that news claiming the Iranian envoy contracted COVID-19 was fake.
No matter the cause of death, Irloo’s demise has intensified Iranian-Saudi antagonism. This is not a positive sign for peace in Yemen. The arch-rivals will keep backing their proxies in the war-ravaged country, and the conflict will continue unabated.
In the final analysis, the passing of particular leaders or politicians cannot help lay the groundwork for peace in Yemen. Former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power in 2012 and was killed in clashes with the Houthis in 2017. Houthi-appointed president Saleh Ali Al-Samad was killed in a Saudi airstrike in Hodeida in 2018. Many Yemeni army generals from both sides have died in the war, and peace is nowhere to be seen.
To stop the war in Yemen, an international and regional resolution is needed, as well as serious concessions from all parties to the conflict. As it stands, Iran has already announced on December 27 that it is ready to appoint a new envoy to the Houthis.