The first of the Houthi wars started, in 2004, while I was the chargé at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. John Abizaid, then the general running U.S. Central Command, came to visit. On the ride to the presidential palace, to meet the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Abizaid asked me, “What is going on in north Yemen, and is this something we should be involved in?” My reply was in the negative. “The Houthis are not Al-Qaeda, and this is not about international terrorism,” I explained. Yemen needs our economic and political assistance to overcome this insurgency, I went on to say, because if the Houthi rebellion succeeded it would encourage or provoke other regional rebellions. Chaos would ensue, and Yemen would turn into something worse than Afghanistan—then the United States would have to intervene. A decade later, the Houthis have taken over Yemen’s capital, pushing the fragile country toward an uncertain fate.
The Houthis are the largest Zaidi tribe in the northern Saada region of Yemen, abutting the Saudi border to the north. For years, the central government in Sanaa had marginalized the Houthis. Sunni Salafis from the north had meddled and proselytized the Zaidi tribe, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. In 2004, the Houthi leader Hussein Badreddine Al-Houthi declined a summons to the capital by President Saleh. In response, Saleh sent troops to bring the Houthi leader by force, sparking off a six-year war that culminated in Saudi Arabia’s failed incursion into northern Yemen, in 2009 to 2010, to assist Saleh against the motley Houthi army.
At the time, the Houthi political movement was known as Al-Shabab Al-Mumin—the Believing Youth. Saleh had supported the Houthis until they adopted the slogan, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’ after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Houthi demands back then were regional and sectarian: They wanted some autonomy within their region, to run their schools and mosques as they saw fit. They also wanted to see a fair share of the national budget spent on projects in their governorate.
After years of fighting a larger more organized army, the Houthis transformed from a regional ragtag militia into the most effective fighting force in Yemen—from a tribe totally preoccupied with local, sectarian goals into an ambitious party. The Houthi leader now makes reference to regional and international issues as he claims to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslims everywhere. The Houthis have transitioned from the insignificant, scarcely-known Believing Youth to Ansar Allah—the Defenders of God—a name derived from a Koranic verse. The Houthis have drawn help from Iran and Hezbollah—and the attention of the world in the process. In the words of Abdelmalek Al-Houthi in a recent speech, “Our ambitions are limitless.”
Yemen’s 2011 uprising succeeded in ejecting President Saleh from office and into Saudi Arabia, for treatment from burn wounds following an attack on his palace. This created a momentum that promised, for at least a year, to bring a new federal democracy to Yemen, a system representing all factions and regions of the country. In the process however, a power vacuum was created under the interim and later the elected presidency of Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, a quiet unassuming man. Hadi, who is genuinely liked by most Yemenis, lacked the tribal power base or the wile and cunning leadership skills of his predecessor. The vacuum was too much for the Houthis to resist. The huge sucking sound that followed was that of Houthi forces sweeping through all northern districts in the spring and summer of 2014. By August and early September, Houthi forces were on the edges of Sanaa.
As they surrounded the capital, the Houthis were ostensibly applying pressure on the new government in Sanaa to stop corruption. Their sit-ins sought to reduce the price of diesel fuel to help alleviate the poverty of the common man and to assist the uprising’s youth in achieving the goals of the 2011 revolt. When UN envoy Jamal Benomar orchestrated a year-long National Dialogue Conference, a Houthi representative had signed off on the document aimed at national unity. Yet the Houthis remained opposed to the idea of a six-district federated Yemen, leaving the impression that they wanted a simple two-way division between north and south. These declared demands were all issues that could have been resolved either in conference or after in smaller meetings with President Hadi and other power brokers. It was quite unnecessary for the Houthis to forcefully seize the capital to accomplish these goals, unless the hidden ambition all along was indeed to take over the government. The incongruity of their stated demands and their actions was one indication of their real intentions. The second indication was an inadvertent mention by a Houthi follower of military plans for the takeover of Sanaa that sounded exactly like the way Hezbollah took over West Beirut, in a matter of hours, in 2008.
The Houthis, despite being the largest of the Zaidi tribes and, as such, related historically to the Shia sect of Islam, did not merit Iran’s attention until the Saudis entered the fray against them alongside President Saleh. Iran then saw the conflict within the prism of the regional struggle for power between them and the Al-Saud. Iran hurriedly established contact with the Houthis and sent funds and weapons. Hezbollah, taking on the Yemen file from Iran, sent trainers and advisors. This attention and help, combined with the opportunity presented by 2011, led the Houthis to start thinking of themselves as potential heirs to the entire Yemeni republic instead of mere supplicants for favors to their region.
The Houthi takeover has coincided with international indifference toward Yemen. Washington has exhibited a nonchalance to the internal problems of the country. The chastened Saudis lack enthusiasm for another foray into Yemen. The international community has been willing to send envoys and convey messages and resolutions that condemned the Houthis, but the UN lacks force to back up such condemnations.
After the resignations of President Hadi and his prime minister, the Houthis are now faced with a choice: To rule Yemen indirectly, the way Hezbollah makes sure no Lebanese government can go against their wishes and interests; or to take the reins of power directly. They also have the choice between stopping their military campaign in place and consolidating power in Sanaa, or continuing to press east and south of Sanaa. Outside of the capital, the Houthis are being met with stiff resistance from eastern tribes, from the southern Hirak movement which is skeptical about Abdelmalek’s overtures, and by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a strong presence in the south east of the country. Pragmatism would dictate the former choices on both fronts. With adrenaline running high right now and the young charismatic leader of the Houthi tribe feeling on top of the world, the Houthis may continue their campaign. It would be wiser to truly heed the lessons from Hezbollah’s experience in Lebanon, to tread carefully and not engage in unnecessary battles.
The U.S. is in a quandary—not an unusual place to be for the Obama administration in foreign affairs. Washington does not like the Houthis’ slogans, friends or ambitions. Nevertheless, the administration has thus far refused to call the Houthi takeover a coup, fearing, as it did in the Egyptian case, that using the term triggers a cut-off of aid and counter-terrorism collaboration, as stipulated by Congress, something that has been ongoing between the security agencies in Washington on those in Yemen under both presidents Saleh and Hadi. The quandary cannot go on for long, however. If Iranian guns reach Bab Al-Mandeb, the gateway to the Red Sea, U.S. and international shipping along that strategic waterway will be threatened. Washington would then have to fish or cut bait.
Nabeel Khoury is a visiting associate professor at Northwestern University’s Program in Middle East and North African Studies and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.