Thinking Aloud: Yemen’s Houthi Insurgency, Part II

May. 1, 2014 by Darius 

[Yemen tends to be one of the two Middle Eastern countries no one talks about.  (The other one is Oman.)  The Yemeni government is currently fighting three different insurgencies: the Houthi insurrection in the north, a resurgent secessionist movement in the south, and al-Qaeda carrying out terror attacks throughout the country.  I’ve been doing a project on the Houthi movement and thought the story is interesting enough, and unfamiliar enough, to be worth sharing here.  Yesterday, I did a short post on who the Houthis are; today I’ll be discussing the evolution of the Houthi insurgency.]

The Houthi movement began in the 1990s.  Because of Yemen’s poor economy, many Yemenis migrate to Saudi Arabia to find work.  In the 1980s, many of these Yemenis returned from Saudi Arabia with not just Saudi money but also Saudi religious doctrines, Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism.  Additionally, during the 1980s, the Saudi government began funding preachers throughout Yemen to spread the conservative Saudi version of Islam.  The Houthi movement began as a Zaydi backlash against these Saudi-Salafist influences, with Zaydi leaders establishing summer camps and community centers to propagate Zaydism.  Additionally, the Houthi movement was motivated by economics.  Yemen has oil reserves but not nearly on the scale of its Gulf neighbors; Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Arab world, and Saada Governorate is among the poorest areas of Yemen.  The Houthis felt the Yemeni government was badly neglecting Saada.

In 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Houthi movement intensified.  The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, formally allied himself with the United States in the latter’s Global War on Terror.  To the Houthis, this was unacceptable cooperation with the infidel enemy.  Houthi leaders, especially Hussein al-Houthi (from whom the movement takes its name), began distributing anti-government literature, attacking President Saleh in their sermons, and encouraging their followers to refuse to pay taxes.  In June 2004, Saleh responded by ordering a general crackdown on the Houthis, arresting hundreds and posting a bounty for Hussein al-Houthi’s capture.  Armed supporters of Hussein al-Houthi resisted, and fighting quickly broke out, with dozens dying on both sides.

The first round of fighting between the government and Houthi fighters ended with the death of Hussein al-Houthi in September 2004.  But Hussein al-Houthi’s relatives took up his cause, and in 2005 fighting broke out again.  Again, the results were inconclusive, and further rounds of fighting in 2006 and 2007 followed.  Throughout each of these rounds of insurrection, the conflict was largely the same as in 2004: the Houthis fighting against the Yemeni military over sectarian and economic grievances.

In 2007, though, the Yemeni government came to the conclusion that its army was poorly equipped to fight a dedicated insurgency in rugged, mountainous northern Yemen.  The Yemeni government began recruiting tribal fighters to fight the Houthis.  This “tribalization” marked a major shift in the Houthi conflict.  As a result, the conflict was no longer just about Houthi dissatisfaction with the central government.  Instead, it refreshed old tribal animosities and became an opportunity to settle tribal scores.  Problematically, most of the tribesmen who responded to President Saleh’s call to arms were Sunnis from South Yemen, including many Salafists, deepening the sectarian nature of the conflict and lending credence to Houthi claims of an assault on Zaydism.

In 2007, regional powers in the Gulf began to pay more attention to the Houthi conflict, formerly a purely Yemeni affair.  Qatar, looking to burnish its growing reputation as a foreign policy power, offered to serve as a mediator between the government and the Houthis.  With Qatari help, the two sides hammered out a deal.  Under the terms of the agreement, the Houthis agreed to turn over their heavy weapons, and Houthi leaders agreed to move to Doha, Qatar, and refrain from political activity.  The Doha Agreement did not last, though: the Yemeni government resented the implication that the Houthis could negotiate with equal status as the Yemeni government, while Saudi Arabia resented Qatar’s involvement at all.  Diplomacy broke down and combat resumed.

Sporadic fighting continued through 2008 without achieving any clear results.  By 2009, the Yemeni government was facing the Houthi insurgency in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and al-Qaeda throughout the country.  The government felt it had to move decisively on the Houthi front to prevent losses on the other fronts.  Thus, in August 2009, the Yemeni military launched Operation Scorched Earth in an attempt to end the Houthi rebellion once and for all.  Despite tens of thousands of soldiers and tribal militias deployed in northern Yemen, Operation Scorched Earth failed to achieve its objectives.  In fact, it only deepened resistance to the government, as the regime’s heavy-handed military tactics (such as indiscriminate shelling of Houthi-controlled areas) and the involvement of rival tribal fighters pushed even more Saada tribesmen into the Houthi camp.

In November 2009, the Houthi conflict became explicitly international when Saudi air and ground forces attacked Houthi fighters near the Saudi border.  The Saudis claimed they were responding to armed Houthi incursions into Saudi territory; however, the Saudi response was of such a scale that it was almost certainly pre-planned.  The Saudis and Yemeni government expressed concerns about Houthi terrorism and links between the Houthis and al-Qaeda.  This claim, though, was and continues to be completely unsupported and contrary to the evidence: in January 2009, for example, al-Qaeda issued statements condemning the Houthis as nothing more than an Iranian plot to subvert Yemen with Shi’ism.  In reality, the Saudis were concerned about the presence of a semi-autonomous Shia enclave in northern Yemen on the grounds that such an enclave could attract Iranian support and cause trouble amongst Saudi Arabia’s own Shia minority.

With Saudi involvement came greater Iranian attention.  Iran is religiously and politically distant from the Houthi movement, but the Houthis are at least technically Shia and opposed to Saudi Arabia.  Starting in late 2009 following Saudi intervention, various Iranian government officials condemned both the Saudi and Yemeni governments for their conduct of the war, drawing attention to abuses of the Yemeni army.  Subsequently, the Iranians have been widely suspected of supplying arms to the Houthis as a way of striking a blow against continuing Saudi involvement.  Iranian support is minimal and purely opportunistic, though.

By 2010, the Yemeni military and the Houthis had fought to mutual exhaustion and a cease-fire was declared.  In 2011, though, the entire paradigm of the conflict changed: the Arab Spring arrived in Yemen.  Broad-based protests in the capital, Sanaa, forced longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh from office in early 2012.  In the chaos of the resulting interim government, the Yemeni military pulled back from the north and the general in charge of prosecuting the war against the Houthis was fired.  Houthi fighters and affiliated tribesmen stepped into the vacuum and assumed complete control over Saada governorate.  After consolidating their power, the Houthis expanded south into areas outside the Zaydi heartland.  The Houthi advances brought them into conflict with one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal federations, the Hashids.  Though the Hashids participated in earlier government campaigns against the Houthis as early as 2008, the Hashids previously attempted to stay out of the fight to preserve larger stability, as the Hashids and the tribal federation that includes the Houthis are Yemen’s two largest and try to avoid fighting each other.  In 2013, though, large-scale fighting erupted between Houthi and Hashid fighters in areas between Saada and the capital, Sanaa.  In February of this year, Houthi forces overran a major Hashid stronghold in Amran province.  Fighting between the Houthis and Hashids continues today and has come to define the Houthi movement.

The central Yemeni government remains bogged down in instability and has failed to mount a significant response to the surge of the Houthis out of Saada.  The Houthis rule unopposed in Saada and are as well armed and confident as they have ever been.

After a decade of combat in northern Yemen, one thing is clear: further war will not address the root problems of the insurgency, including anti-Zaydi discrimination and a lack of economic development in Saada.  The peace deal signed in 2007 following Qatari mediation will likely serve as a template for any final deal between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, with its provisions for Houthi disarmament, economic development, and greater recognition for political Zaydism.

The Houthi movement started as an anti-government insurrection, expanded to become a regional war, and has now transitioned into a local tribal conflict.  Bloody tribal feuds are nothing new in Yemen; fortunately, neither are the tools needed to end them.

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