LONDON - There is growing speculation in Yemen that the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels may be on the verge of a ground operation to retake the capital, Sana'a, from the northern militants who captured swaths of the country earlier this year forced the president into exile.
The speculation comes shortly after a series of bombings triggered fears the civil war is spiraling into a broader sectarian conflict.
It started Wednesday, when a deadly double suicide bomb attack on a Shi'ite mosque in Sana’a was claimed by the Islamic State group. The blast, says Jane Kinninmont of London-based Chatham House, is a graphic illustration of Yemen’s descent into chaos.
“The country’s own civil conflict has also become a proxy battleground between regional powers vying for influence in a region unsettled both by the Arab Spring and by the Iranian nuclear deal," said Kinninmont.
Human rights groups say thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict, and Houthi supporters took to the streets of the capital last week in protest. Their demonstrations come just weeks after forces loyal to the exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi retook the southern port of Aden from the Houthis.
“One of the major trends that has emerged in recent weeks is the growing influence of the [United Arab Emirates], which has played a key role in bolstering southern Yemeni fighters to push out the mostly northern Yemeni Houthi movement," said Kinninmont.
Speaking on a trip to Sudan, the exiled president, Hadi, said the Houthis were being rapidly pushed back — and blamed Tehran for fueling the conflict.
"My forces are leading a war based on stopping Iranian expansion in the region," he said. "Iranian expansion is present now in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon."
Iran denies backing the rebels — and is unlikely to respond directly to any large ground operation by the Saudi-led coalition, says Kinninmont.
“Yemen has never been a place of major strategic importance to Iran. So it’s not like Iraq or Syria where those governments are incredibly close," she said.
Pro-government forces are battling the Houthis and their supporters for control of the Yemeni Taiz, which is seen as the gateway to the rebel-held capital.