“Yemen on its Knees”: Viewing Houthi Insurgency through a Terror Prism
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Feb , 2016

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In the past couple of months, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the Arabian Peninsula, has been bombing major cities of Yemen, the poorest Gulf country. There is no shortage of conflict in the Middle East and Yemen has become its newest victim. The Saudis are receiving enormous pressure from West to decrease the aggressiveness in their attacks on the cities, which has consumed lives of over 4000 civilians at this time. Instead of moulding bending themselves under this international pressure, the Saudi’s have strengthened their command over this issue and have promised to resolve this by crushing the Iranian backed Houthi rebels.

On 14th July, the coalition took and overdrive and invaded the major Yemeni port of Aden. This operation was backed by coalition aircrafts and were manned by a group of people who were loyal to the exiled government, followed by extensive support of Saudi and Emirati commandos, were able to recapture Yemen’s second largest city from the grip of Houthi rebels. This was just a glimpse of what was to come. On August 2nd, French Leclerc main battle tanks, Russian BMD-3 armed personnel carriers, and American mine-resistant troop carriers landed along with a 3000-strong combined Saudi and UAE infantry division at Aden and immediately began to push northwards towards the al-Anad military base. Although this impressive and powerful show of strength was supported by tribal fighters who were sympathetic to the exiled government led by Mr. Hadi, and it came under no surprise that these powerful show of weaponry were operated by professionals.

The world was under impression that UAE and Saudi forces were here to train the tribal fighters, the statement was just incomplete, it seemed pretty obvious that the tides were turned. Both the nations ensured that the role of their actions would cause simple deniability, both were also certain about their role in the war. The conflict as of today, remains unresolved, the intense fighting continues from street to street and door to door, leaving countless bodies and humanitarian crisis in the nation.

Understanding the Root Cause

The Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God” in English), now popularly known as Houthis by mainstream media, was initially a purely religious movement in the heart of Yemen. They preached tolerance, peace, and acceptance in the early 1990s and are followers of Zaidism branch of Shiite Islam. The Zaidis moderate Shiites. Within Islamthey are the closest Shiite sect to the Sunni doctrine and roughly make up 1/3rd of the population in Yemen. Although, the Zaidis are scattered all over Yemen,this sect can also be found in nations such as Iraq, Iran, and in some parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The Saada Governorate in northern Yemen is a traditional Houthi stronghold. As time passed, the group split into two different movements. The first group, under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi promoted openness and equality while the second group called for a return to more traditional Islam. They wanted to revive the Zaidi movement in Saada and they, like most other Muslims, thought that their version of Islam should be preferred. Those who supported this movement was called as Houthis after their founder. 

In 2004, al-Houthi proclaimed himself an Imam denounced the former President Saleh of serving “American interests than his own people”. This accusation did not hold much strength, President Saleh was determined not to have a no-named religious leader destroy his image and reputation. Few days after al-Houthi’s statement, an arrest warrant was issued under his name. In the process of arresting him, Yemeni security forces killed al-Houthi and his death sparked massive outrageand fuelled a series of protest which later began violent, what we see today. With his death, the hunt for the new Imam began, running this group was similar to running a family business. Upon al-Houthi’s death, his father succeeded him, followed by his brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi who remains the leader today. The clashes between Houthi fighters and government forces were sporadic and resulted several casualties, it wasn’t before Arabic Spring situations began to heat up.

In the beginning, Houthis were the only group protesting against the President Saleh. Undoubtedly the President was an authoritarian ruler. Corruption was rampant in his office and he began withdrawing all the powers given to the cabinet. After Saleh’s abdication, the Houthi rebels more than just a theological movement; they emerged as a strong political and military force. Shouting with the slogans: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Victory for Islam.”, the Houthis became impatient and with such formidable force they were thriving for power. The movement made Yemen weak, a victim of oppressed forces of the United States and so called ally, Israel, anger was at in its peak. It was during this period where Houthis emerged as a single largest force in the movement. Many anti-government movements diminished in front of this large force.

This movement brought citizens of Yemen who were willing to fight and were open minded. The Houthis rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s proposed idea for the new Yemeni government and immediately took matter in their hands. Taking advantage of the wrecked government, the Houthis began expanding their control to other cities. In some regions they were given political legitimacy, took care of taxes, security and local administration. The rebels were now the epicentre of all. They have made enemy within Yemen, most notably militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Fighting began in various part of the regionand soon involved the government forces and the tribes.

The control over the capital Sanaa sent a clear message about Houthi’s support in an intense battle for the capital. President Hadi’s lack of support made it quite clear “ousting Saleh was not the only solution”. The struggling government soon lost control over majority of cities and were unable to enforce neither law nor political pressure on these rebels. A national constitution that was supposed to be drafted up by February of 2014 was only finished in January of 2015 and it still wasn’t good enough for some groups.

This disastrous delay meant only one thing, fresh president elections, which could only take place after a constitution is implemented. As reports of discrimination and abuses struck the Houthi leadership, tensions reached to an all-time high. Houthi leadership called for an immediate resignation of President Hadi and accused him of discrimination against its own people and terrorism. Although this was just a beginning, this incident was enough for Houthi rebels to charge and my March 2015, a significant portion of Yemen was in Houthi hands. 

The situation today

Today, Yemen plays host to some of the severe problems this nation has never experienced before, most prominent being the sectarian tensions, regionalism, and poor government. Although all these issues have played their part in the conflict, for us to understand is that these issues are all centric internally. What one has to understand is that these issues are flamed externally. As the regional “peacemaker”, Saudi Arabia is one of the closes allies to the west. They are a recipient of massive amount of arms, finances, intelligence aid, and military advisors predominantly from the United States. Looking outside is the borders is Iran. Having just being granted a window to breatheafter decades of economic sanctions, Ayatollah Khamenei now looks at the bigger picture: becoming a regional super power again.

Undoubtedly Iran and Saudi Arabia are running proxy war in Yemenalthough recently, situations have changed for them. Saudi Arabia has put boots on the grounds and are eyeing for a coalition victory. Prior to aerial attacks and funding’s, Saudi Arabia was financially supporting the Hadi administration ever since it came into power. Yemen is undoubtedly a major crisis for Saudi’s which they cannot ignore,a southern neighbour, Yemen, Houthi rebels pose a security threat to its borders especially their frequent skirmishers with Saudi border guards. They also want to maintain their dominance in the region, especially after the removal of shackles of Iran. Saudi Arabia’s fear comes from two main factors: America’s growing cooperation with Israel and Iran’s successful nuclear deal.

To be direct, Saudi rulers are afraid that their American partners will leave them to dry right after they lift sanctions on their biggest regional enemy. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of fuelling amongst Shiites in the kingdom itself.

Saudi Arabia holds a 10% Shiite minority. Iran, on the other side have been rigorously supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen with arms, training, political support, religious support, and financing. Most of the Iranians are Shiite Muslims as so are the Houthi rebels. While the Shiites in Iran are quiet lucky to have a leadership of fellow Shiites, the Houthis, on the contrary are no that lucky. The Yemini government is predominantly Sunni’sliving in a Muslim world with a Sunni majority; it is imperative for Iran to support their Shiite allies. However, Iran does not have a military relationship with Houthi fighters, they support them through humanitarian and military aid. 

Pro-Hadi forces and the Houthis are not the only two major combatant groups in the area. Both sides were successful to maintain stronger alliances: the government loyalists with al-Qaeda in the ArabianPeninsula and the Muslim Brotherhood while the Houthis allied themselves with the Pro-Saleh forces.

Changing the view here, “ally” can be referred here but with a slight grain of salt. Although coalition cannot publicly fight with a terrorist organization, in Yemen they have a common enemy. Both AQAP and the Muslim Brotherhood are treated as a threat, on the war front and in the nations across America and the Middle East. Having friends such as these would definitely question America’s “War on terror”as it calls AQAP, one the most dangerous and deadly al-Qaeda cell. It would also make Egypt’s president al-Sisi incredibly sceptical as he calls the Brotherhood “larger threat for peace” rather than the Houthis for obvious reasons.

The Houthis, on the contrary, have chosen to stand with the same group they sought to kick out in the Arab Spring of 2011. Saleh and their handful of loyal fighters have joined the conflictand they don’t clearly bother much about the Houthis, but they face the same enemy. Experts say that Saleh will give up on the Houthis as soon as he gains back the lost power, although this is entirely speculation.

In the past months, Saudi led coalition forces have repeatedly conducted air raids on Houthi strongholds and hideouts. Codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, the intervention began when Hadi administration reached out for help, respecting the legitimacy of “still” government in the eyes of the eyes of the world. As Haidi slept peacefully in the capital Riyadh, Saudi warplanes turned the city into ashes, leaving nothing but bodies. There have been numerous casualties in the air raids and Saudi officials have termed it to “collateral damage”. They have been unsuccessful in reinstating Mr. Hadi as president and they haven’t been able to push back Houthi rebels from their northern strongholds. There is growing mistrust between the Yemeni people, not at the poor administration or the untrained Houthi rebels, but by the increasing rate of death and destruction of the Saudi Airforce. A military strategy which was designed to eliminate Houthi rebels and destroy their strongholds, is taking millions of civilian lives.

The coalition has now come to a conclusion that airstrikes are not just enoughand will not bring an end to the war especially in the designated time frame. With this in mind, the coalition commanders have brought up a full scale invasion of Yemen. 3000 ground troops, primarily of Saudi and Emirati nationality, with armoured support in tow landed at Aden thus beginning a ground campaign. For some this might look as a major escalation at the coalition side, but for some it is a gamble with risk. However, it is true that Houthi’s will never be able to match such fire power and military equipment, but the history never agrees with the best and the perfectly trained, better equipped, and better trained coalition force.

The past experience of superior force fighting its foe in conditions of chaotic guerrilla warfare is not entirely encouraging. History repeats itself, this situation brings war knocking on the doors of Washington. Their invasion in Afghanistan resulted in an endless battle, which too ended in stalemate and quagmire. Who’s confirms the fact that this situation will not come to Saudi led invasion force? It will be incredibly naïve for military strategists looking for a full scale invasion in Yemen. Another crucial fact is yet to understand; how will Iran react on all of this?

What will the Iranians do if their Houthi allies are seen to be staring defeat in the face? Meanwhile experts believe that Iran will not dare initiate proxy war with Saudi and the coalition force, but it’s the history which shows us that every proxy war has led into a large-scale conflict whether it’s between the with Arabs in the Persian Gulf or within the nations in African continent, Iran is never an easy nation, easy enough to back out from a war. It will be wise for Iran to show some constraint in this war. It does not want to damage its new reputation with the allies, especially with the west by supplying weapons and military aid to a rebel group that has been condemned by international community.

Moreover, Iran has a lot at its plates now. Dealing with the ISIL has already maximised military budgets for Iran. Taking on 10 other coalition members will not do good. Now piecing it together, the only one’s benefitting are the extremist groups.

Sunni fighters are pledging their support to the ISIL or AQAP and are exploiting was territories, seeking areas for their establishment, another Levant perhaps. Now US drones are no longer targeting them, they have begun increasing their attacks while strengthening the base of their organization. Islamic jihadists are the main reason as to why diplomacy, discourse, and polemics are difficult to accomplish. Like all conflicts, we have studied in the history, the war in Yemen is ever changing as new developments occur.

Well, what more concerned us today, is the growing human casualties in the entire conflict. The siege from the aircrafts from have been responsible for more deaths in the entire conflict, than any other source, either through land or by guerrilla warfare. Thousands have been killed in airstrikes, while many are reported injured, as the clashes intensifies. Hospitals are flooded with wounded and supplies are depleting rapidly. Aid has not reached even half of the people who are affected by the war, and those agencies who are charged to carry it within the zones, are unable to function due to intense fighting in the regions. Some 20 million people, or 80% of the entire population of Yemen, are in need of some kind of aid according to the United Nations. Some go to the extent of calling Saudi actions a war crime.

In late March, an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp was hit hard by Saudi air force, killing 40 civilians and leaving many injured. However, it remains undefined, Houthi soldiers were present in the camp few hours before the strike, the old saying “two wrongs don’t make a right”, a cliché which supports the fact. UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw has publicly stated that such airstrikes form the coalition force have violated all humanitarian laws. The law clearly states that if “an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality)”.

While this accusation, which many of the experts may term, may not only be limited to the coalition actors only, Houthi fighters too have been accused of implementing stealing relief materials such as food, water, and medical supplies. International observers consider this to be extortion.  They’ve also been accused of “unlawfully deploy[ing] forces in densely populated areas and us[ing] excessive force against peaceful protestors and journalists”.

“While war crimes are certainly important to investigate to the minutest detail, it should most definitely be done when the pot has simmered down a little bit. Both sides are now engaged in a major war in the region. It is crucial that this does not escalate out of control”, stated an unnamed senior official of the UN. 

Identifying Solutions

Unlike other conflicts between the radical Sunnis and Radical Shiites, the war in Yemen seems to be much more than the usual crusade. Policy makers have to identify solution by diminishing public mistrust, or through military action. There have already been high-level talks between multiple parties in the conflict which include the UN, the rebels, the former government, and the coalition. Although the pace of the discussion remains slow, however, the most effective way to end the war is through discussion, especially when all the parties are involved. These talks needs to involve the economic marginalization of the Shia people in Yemen and the status of Shia in the political sphere in Yemen.A simple solution, “peace talk” might force the stakeholders to give up weapons, however, peace is not that easy, especially in Yemen.There is no chance that any government will negotiate with terrorists group and would bring up a situation to ease them. It is also true that without these terrorist organizations role in negotiations, true peace cannot be achieved.

Another way to resolve the conflict, is through the uprising of the people, another Arab Spring perhaps. Just like the protestors drove away Ali Abdullah Saleh, ordinary citizens have the power to change the course of this tide. It is now up to the policy makers, how they feel about the discontent and how they can utilise this to charge up another tide. Should Houthis loose the trust of the people, and should the terrorist organizations lose support from the populations behind which they so hide, then history will show that meaningful revolutions can bring back power to its people.

The last solution, which is also currently opted one, a large scale military invasion of Yemen. The Arab League has already called for a large force of military coalition and the Saudi lead coalition has already begun to take matters in their own hands. It is now up to the policymakers to keep their heads straight, they may also use peacekeepers instead of coalition troops in Yemen, because Yemen will be no different than Afghanistan if a full scale invasion is done. The geography of this will lead to a war so fierce that would almost certainly involve regional super powers and the international powers. This is precisely how the World War began.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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