What an End to Yemen’s Conflict Will Mean for the Houthis

Houthi supporterss protesting Saudi airstrikes on Sanaa in 2015 hold an image of the group's leader, Abdulmalek al-Houthi (Wikimedia Commons)

by Hannah Porter

International observers have long argued that there is no military solution to Yemen’s ongoing war, and that only political reconciliation will bring an end to four and a half years of fighting. In recent weeks, deep divisions within the counter-Houthi alliance have surfaced and the prospect of a coalition victory appears faint. It is becoming clear that a widely acceptable political solution to the conflict may also be out of reach, and the Houthis are positioned to remain a significant power in northern Yemen for the foreseeable future. This does not mean, however, that the group we have come to know in wartime will continue to operate the same way, or with the same alliances, in a post-conflict Yemen.

Until very recently, the Houthis have largely been portrayed as a disorganized rebel group whose only expertise is in guerrilla warfare. With each passing year of the conflict, the Houthis have demonstrated that they are, in fact, a politically shrewd organization that makes calculated decisions about its public messaging and diplomatic relations. The Houthis have assembled a Sanaa-based government mirroring the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and they strive to project an air of legitimacy by carefully curating their public image and securing meetings with diplomats around the globe.

The movement’s propaganda and history also indicate that the Houthis are an adaptable group that seeks out partnerships with neighboring adversaries—sometimes by blaming the actions of their opponents on Western actors.

The Houthis first implemented this strategy during six rounds of war with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government between 2004 and 2010, when the group’s late leader, Hussein al-Houthi, is said to have ordered his followers to never accuse Yemen’s government of wrongdoing, but to instead blame the United States and Israel—the countries that he said were manipulating Yemeni leadership. Hussein al-Houthi expressed this same sentiment in 2004 in a handwritten letter to Saleh (published in the Yemen Times) in which he offered himself as a kind of partner to the president: “I do not work against you. I appreciate you tremendously, but what I do is my religious and national duty against the enemies of Islam and the nation…America and Israel.”

This approach may have facilitated the uncomfortable alliance between the Houthis and their previous enemy Saleh following his ouster in 2012, as the rebel group could claim that the former president was no longer beholden to the West. This partnership was militarily and politically invaluable to the Houthis, even after the alliance ran its course and concluded with the Houthis assassinating Saleh in December 2017.

The Houthis have consistently employed rhetoric that gives them diplomatic flexibility and leaves doors open for alliances with regional actors, and there are some indications now that the Houthis are pursuing cooperation with members of the same coalition that has spent years trying to defeat them.

The Houthis practically absolve their regional rivals of their role in the conflict by repeatedly emphasizing that Western actors are the ones engineering Yemen’s destruction. In his most recent speech condemning the deadly September 1 coalition airstrikes on a prison in Dhamar, leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi blamed the past month’s escalations on “foreign [Western] agendas,” explaining that the United States plays the “primary role” in these events. Throughout the conflict, Houthi media has rarely described the Saudi-led coalition as purely Saudi, but as American, Zionist, and British as well.

Just like they did with the late president Saleh, the Houthis insist that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are only acting upon the orders of the United States, implying that their Arab neighbors are not malicious, but are being misled. Following the UAE’s recent decision to withdraw most of its forces from Yemen, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said that the group has ceased launching airstrikes at the UAE and that they “encourage and value” the message of the Emiratis, which advocated for a political settlement to the conflict.

The Houthis have said explicitly that they are willing to open a dialogue with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In July, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem commented on diplomatic channels that already exist between the Houthis and the Emiratis.

Now, the Houthis may also have an opportunity to hold direct talks with the actor that they claim to despise the most, as anonymous sources told the Wall Street Journal last week that the Trump administration is looking to open negotiations with the Houthis as a way of ending the war. As some former U.S. ambassadors to Yemen have pointed out, this would not be the first time such talks have taken place. A number of Houthi officials, including in the ministry of foreign affairs, were contacted to comment on these developments, but they declined, citing the current sensitivity of the topic due to possible talks with U.S. diplomats.

The potential for communication or cooperation between the Houthis and members of the coalition is rarely addressed, possibly because of a fixation among analysts on the group’s current support from Iran, which is frequently emphasized—and overstated. However, it is unlikely that the Houthis will remain closely aligned with the Islamic Republic after the current conflict comes to a close. The Houthis surely understand that it is the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that will be funding the bulk of Yemen’s post-conflict reconstruction, and the two countries will therefore possess political leverage that is beyond Iran’s capabilities.

Likewise, Iran is not inclined to maintain the same level of support for the Houthis after the war ends. Tehran’s investment in Sanaa is not like that in Beirut or Damascus, where Iran has long-standing and critical interests. It is widely accepted that Yemen is simply not that high on Iran’s list of priorities, and Tehran’s relatively modest support for the Houthis is only worthwhile as long as the group is a thorn in the side of Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Once there is no longer an armed conflict between the Houthis and the Kingdom, it is difficult to see what incentive would remain for an already financially strained Iran to continue, let alone increase, its investment in Yemen.

Some may argue that the shared Shiism of the Houthis and Iran guarantees a lasting alliance between the two players. This perspective overlooks not only the distinct theological differences between the Houthis’ Zaydism and Iran’s Twelverism, but it disregards the fact that it is a revolutionary political ideology, not a religious one, that has bonded the two so far. Demilitarizing the conflict would not create space for more Iranian influence. It would do precisely the opposite.

It is unpalatable to acknowledge that the Houthis are likely to come out of this conflict as one of the most powerful political actors in northern Yemen—they have committed innumerable atrocities and human rights violations, and their rhetoric is conspiratorial and blatantly anti-Semitic. The Houthis are a corrupt and deeply militarized group, but they crave political legitimacy from their neighbors and regional actors, and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it. Ending the international military conflict may lead them to adopt other approaches, create new alliances, and cooperate with former foes. This might be the best hope for the change in behavior that war, and diplomacy, have so far failed to accomplish.

Hannah Porter is an independent analyst focused on Yemen and the GCC. She holds an MA from the University of Chicago where she wrote her thesis on the Houthi movement’s rhetoric and propaganda. She is based in Washington, DC.

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