On January 22 Houthi rebels put pressure on the Yemeni government, causing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet to resign, in what was essentially a soft coup.
This most recent Yemeni political crisis has drawn a great deal of attention from a United States and international community determined to maintain a reliable partner for counter-terror operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), believed to be the most dangerous AQ affiliate in the world.
The Houthis have been often misleadingly described as “Iranian-proxies.” This label is dangerous. It distracts us from focusing on what is really important. We need to understand a group like the Houthis on their own terms – as an independent movement – if the US is to interact with them effectively and continue a relationship with the Yemeni government.
The Houthis may be a xenophobic Shiite militant group, but they are also locally-based, internally divided, and politically pragmatic.
Understanding the rise of the Houthis as a predominantly domestic movement allows us insight into how to best to secure Yemen from AQAP undertaking actions there that would further destabilize the country, the region, and potentially the world.
The bleak economic environment
One of the poorest countries in the Arab world, Yemen has weak national institutions that have little or no authority outside of the capital, Sanaa.
Yemen is also threatened from AQAP within and by a separatist movement in the south. While both the Houthis and southern tribes are concerned with unequal division of Yemeni wealth, elements of the southern opposition have openly called for full secession while the Houthis remain committed to a united Yemen.
The challenging security environment of the country has had disastrous economic effects.
Attacks on the energy infrastructure have hindered the production and export of its meager supply of crude oil. A quarter of all government spending in 2013 (more than $3.3 billion) went to local fuel subsidies. When the government attempted to cut these subsidies in August, it encountered major push back from the Houthis and dialed back the cut.
Much of the country’s revenue comes from external aid. In December, Saudi Arabia placed $700 million in military aid to Yemen on hold after Houthi fighters overran Sana and took control of most of the capital. This effectively left the country penniless.
Who are the Houthis?
The Houthis get their name from the family of their founder Husayn al-Houthi, who was assassinated in 2004 by the previous Yemeni regime. They are now led by Husayn’s brother, Abdal Malik Al-Houthi.
The group’s slogan: “Death to America, Death to Israel and a Curse on the Jews,” has raised alarms.
As caustic as it is to western eyes, the slogan is better understood as a locally-inspired statement against foreign influence and US policies in the Middle East after 9/11. It can now be seen plastered all over Sanaa.
The Houthis are Zaydi Muslims, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that comprises 35% of Yemenis. As sayyids, or blood relatives of the prophet Muhammad, Zaydi doctrine dictates they have the political legitimacy to rule.
Zaydis have a religious identity that is organic to Yemen and distinct from that of the majority Shiites of Iran and Iraq. It is in many ways doctrinally closer to indigenous Yemeni Sunni thought of the Shafii school with whom they have historically had little conflict. Importantly, Zaydis also have not traditionally attempted to export their beliefs as Iran has done since its 1979 revolution.
Relationship to Iran
The link made between Houthis and Iran originated in 2004.
In the early 2000s, Houthi supporters butted heads with the corrupt and western-backed regime of former president Ali Abdullah al-Saleh. They also campaigned for Zaydi revivalism to counter Saudi-supported Sunni encroachment into their religious homeland in north Yemen.
Saleh’s regime built up the association between the Houthis and Iran as an attempt to gain more US aid to fight the “War on terror.” This rhetoric about the Houthis as “foreign” and “Iranian” was then picked up and spread by Yemenis and the international media.
It was also during this time that what turned into a six year convoluted war broke out between Yemen’s central government and the rebel Houthis. The war displaced upwards of 300,000 people in northern Yemen, destroyed ancient Zaydi religious sites, and disrupted age-old systems of tribal conflict mediation.
In the 2009 phase of the war, the Saudis conducted a brief air campaign in which U.S. manufactured armaments were used to bomb the Houthis. Saudi involvement was largely driven by concerns about control over the porous Saudi-Yemeni border in addition to fear about their own restive Shiite minority.
After the Saudi foray into the conflict, Iran’s publically-stated interest in the country increased substantially, with news media more supportive of Houthis and critical of the Yemeni government.
Iran steps up involvement
The Iranians have indeed reached out to the Houthis, but it is not clear if their support implies any quid pro quo. There are suggestions that there may have been attempted Iranian shipments of weapons to the Houthis.
But it is unclear if the Houthis asked for this, or if the Iranians were extending a hand to gain influence. In either case, it is unclear why the Houthis would have needed external help with weaponry when arms are abundantly available in Yemen.
A representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently likened the Houthis to Iranian supported Hezbollah, reiterating its “direct” support for the Houthis.
Interestingly, while Iran touts its links to the Houthis, the feeling has not always been reciprocated. The Houthis have kept a rather consistent position about Iran and generally admit to Iranian ideological support but not influence.
It is not always easy, however, to divine Houthi intentions from seemingly contradictory Houthi actions. That said, the Houthi movement is more pragmatic than its detractors suspect.
The Houthis do not want to secede from the rest of the country; they supported calls for overall political change during the Arab spring and their leader began to speak about broader secular issues of inequality, development and economic insecurity, and corruption. They have been able to garner support from more educated urbanites from around the country, both Sunni and Shiite. They participated in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference in 2013-14 and communicated their desire to build a civil state. They did not, however, agree to give up their weapons and expressed reservations about the Conference resolutions, which fell short of the revolutionary overhaul of institutions Yemenis had craved.
Two weeks after the Conference concluded, a proposal was made to create a federal state of six regions; the Houthis rejected the idea as unfair. They saw it as dividing the country into poor and wealthy regions. The federal solution would also have cut the historic Houthi homeland region off from the coastline, natural-resource rich provinces. Instead, the Houthis want a more decentralized state with more authority devolved to the regions.
Perhaps exasperated with the pace of the political process, the Houthis began in 2014 to use force to take territory and back their own vision, however unclear.
Takeover of the capital illustrates internal divisions
In September 2014, after spending much of the year fighting Islamist-allied tribes north of the capital, the Houthis rolled into Sanaa. The Ministry of Interior stood down and allowed them to take the city, though they did not fully seize power.
After months without a resolution, and in response to the draft constitution released that day, the Houthis kidnapped the president’s chief of staff Ahmed bin Mubarak on January 17. This in turn led to clashes in the streets that prompted the president to resign. It has been suggested they consolidated power in the capital with the help and blessing of their erstwhile enemy Saleh.
A group that claims to want peaceful civil change cannot maintain its integrity while forcefully occupying government buildings and violating human rights.
Recent Houthi behavior illustrates this contradictory position – between aggression and peace. Detractors argue that it demonstrates the relentless and savvy machinations of a movement that intends to use coercion rather than consensus to rule. However, it is more likely evidence that Houthi leadership lacks a coherent solution to the current crisis, and, additionally, that they lack direct control over some of their armed supporters.
Yemenis have loudly spoken out against the recent Houthi power grab: thousands took to the streets in the past several months calling on the Houthis to commit to the democratic institutions they claimed to support.
Peaceful protest seems to have encouraged them to make concessions in some realms - Mubarak has since been released as a gesture of goodwill, for instance. But it’s unclear what other actions the Houthis will take until the constitution is revised to their liking.
The fight against AQAP
It is important for the United States to start a dialogue with the Houthis, as they are currently the strongest and perhaps the only actors with a monopoly on force in Yemen’s capital and much of the north. Also, as US officials note, they are opposed to AQAP and have allowed US counter terrorism operations to continue. Indeed, Houthi knowledge of tribal politics and rugged Yemeni geography gives them an advantage in the fight against local AQAP allies that US drones simply lack.
That said, a recent Houthi foray into the oil-rich province of Mareb – ostensibly to purge the region of AQAP – runs the risk of pushing local tribes to ally with AQAP against the Houthis. Indeed, AQAP has already increased its rhetoric about the need to fight the Houthis specifically because they are Shiite. If the US is not careful in its support, AQAP recruitment will benefit from highlighting the Houthis’ US links, too. Saudi Arabia has already begun sending aid to the tribes in Mareb, threatening to further internationalize and sectarianize a conflict based on local power politics and development grievances.
Securing Yemen from AQAP and from AQAP’s ability to exploit ungoverned territory, is more about the process of crafting tribal alliances and providing good governance than about the usual strategy of drone attacks, which have served as a recruitment boon for AQAP and its allies. As a pragmatic indigenous force with both religious and political credibility, the Houthis are perhaps the best-equipped to do so.
Yemenis want a local solution, not one that turns them into a vassal state of the United States, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. We over-internationalize the Houthis at our own peril and at the risk of misunderstanding the causes of – and the potential local solutions to – Yemeni instability.