Is the Sun Setting on the Houthis?
April 21st marked the end of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states which targeted the Houthis. Relentless air raids caused enough destruction so that the Saudi’s felt the Houthis no longer posed a threat to their border i.e. the northern most points of Yemen. During early to mid-August in the currently ongoing Operation Restoring Hope, the intervention had predominantly been UAE and Saudi ground forces deployed to Aden, the strategically imperative city-port on the southern coast. This was a turning point because after that the Houthis retreated northwards, first to Lahij, then further to Taiz and Lowdar, and now as far as Dhamar.
Given this trajectory, it is possible that the Houthis campaign is entering dusk. Yemen’s insurgency has wider implications on the greater Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and the politics of the Arab world have affected the local level within Yemen. Understanding this is pivotal in order to initiate the political reconstruction of Yemen. Considering that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) still maintains and is expanding its huge territory to the West, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is increasingly gaining prominence in the various conflict zones, the open armed conflict in Yemen will not end quickly. Although it is a notable challenge for the political representatives in Yemen, the GCC, and most notably, the UN Security Council, it is also a golden opportunity to showcase to the world that conflict resolution is more than just talk.
The Houthis rise after Hussein al-Houthi, who was martyred in a revolt in 2004, after Zaidi Shia protests from Northern Yemen, namely the Sa’dah governorate, were met with a harsh response. Zaidi Shia make up around 40% of the Yemeni populace, and as an ethnic minority, were often a sidelined community. Yemeni central authorities and the Houthis had clashes every few months, which eventually spilled over onto Saudi territory in 2009, where the US launched 28 air raids against the Houthis. However, the turning point occurred in the wake of the Arab Spring which oversaw Saleh resign in 2011. This was an opportunity to implement a more inclusive political process, namely for the Zaidi Shia of the north. However, the struggling political framework held a single-candidate presidential election in order to keep the government functional, and Hadi assumed office.
The Houthis, angrier than ever, intensified their campaign. At this time, the US was struggling to withdraw from Afghanistan and drone operations were limited. AQAP made large territorial gains in the sparsely populated central-Eastern Yemen, and the Yemeni government exhausted manpower and resources to fight them. As such, the Houthis attack from the north in December 2014 was overwhelming. Sana’a and the Western Yemen to Ahwar were under Houthi control by March 2015, when Hadi was forced to flee overseas.
Remaining pro-Saleh forces joined up with the Houthis, and Hadi paired up with the Southern Movement, which ultimately has secessionist motives, and seeks leverage. Additionally, the south of Yemen has a longstanding contention with the north that dates back since the end of the Cold War, which only perpetuates the sectarianism. As such, when the GCC intervened against the Houthis, it exonerated the divisions that had promoted the conflict. It reflected not only the Sunni-Shia divide, but also the Saudi-Iran hegemonic rivalry in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran maintain a zero-sum relationship, where one benefits from the other’s shortcomings. Thus when the Houthis gained power, they favored an empathetic Shia Iran. It is unproven, but alleged that Iran provided funds and arms to the Houthis, and presumably at some point Iran may have. Saudi Arabia amassed its Sunni GCC allies, and made it abundantly clear that it was willing to expend resources and military personnel to eradicate even the possibility of a pro-Iran force near its border. Even Iranian humanitarian aid was blocked by Saudi authorities, which conveys the deep mistrust in each other’s intentions.
A worrying undertone is that the GCC has prioritized removing the Houthis from power over fighting AQAP or ISIL, whose Salafist ideologies are more intolerant towards Shia Muslims than Sunni’s, especially from the country which protects Mecca and Medina. Arguably, the extremist groups will remain enemies in the international community indefinitely. The risk, therefore, is that the longer the Houthis remain a valid force, the more opportunities they have to legitimize or influence other potential insurgencies. However, the turning point was the announcement of the possibility of a US deal with Iran in July 2015. Given that the US is a long standing Saudi ally, the deal would improve the position of Iran relative to Saudi Arabia. So if Iran had actually at some point aided the Houthis, it would not continue to do so for fear of jeopardizing the deal with the US.
Nonetheless, the losing side is without a doubt the civilian populace of Yemen caught as collateral damage among various groups furthering their political agendas. Around 4,500 civilians have been killed this year, and 1.3 million have been displaced. North and south, Shia and Sunni, pro-Saudi and pro-Iran, for the most part people are generally concerned about surviving first, and then, if necessary, pledging allegiance to whomever remains in power. The Houthis represent a military rebellion that claims to represent the Zaidi Shia populace of Yemen. However, most Zaidi Shia civilians do not share the anti-Semitic and anti-US views that the Houthis espouse. Had the Zaidi Shia civilians had some other form of representation, the Houthi campaign may have been invalidated from within. Furthermore, the Houthis decline may not actually be imminent. In early September, a Houthi counter-attack killed 60 GCC troops in Marib, making it the deadliest thus far for the coalition in this operation. In retaliation, the GCC immediately increased incursions and raids. There are frequent air and land assaults in Sana’a on bases, as well as potential Houthi assistance coming from overseas. It appears that hospitals, residential areas, and schools are not immune from this purge of Houthi militia, and the effectiveness of these attacks will be assessed in the coming weeks. Supposedly, the Saudi’s would fear acquiring a case of the Vietnam syndrome; where superior firepower and winning battles does not translate into winning the war.
ISIL and AQAP are the battle fronts that are being largely ignored: this month, ISIL launched another twin suicide bombing, and aims to formally establish a Sana’a Wilayat. In April 2015, AQAP decisively seized Al Mukalla in South Western Yemen, and appears to have gained some fresh territory in central Yemen. AQAP and ISIL might provide the most potential for paving the way for unity. It is imperative that the next ceasefire yields strategies against ISIL and AQAP and that these efforts are for the benefit of the people of Yemen, not the power hungry military groups. If enough belligerents were convinced that the people they represent will obtain a fair degree of proportional representation in the post-war Yemeni government in exchange for genuine efforts to retake AQAP controlled territory, progress could be made. As such, the way the UN enforces the ‘inclusive’ aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), may need to be more political, rather than solely righteous.
Many resolutions have temporary features that can be exploited, and this may be a case where the strength of the hammer of justice should be utilized. Regardless of what happens to the Houthis, the Zaidi Shia people, even as an ethnic minority, are entitled to a degree of representation in Sana’a. Tribes in the south need to be included in political decision making so that a united Yemen will appeal to them and they will not seek independence. Civilians who are undergoing AQAP indoctrination need to be assured of tolerant treatment.
A few half-hearted attempts have been made to at least reduce the violence. In April 2015, Iran issued a 4-point plan for Yemen to create a national unity government without foreign intervention. Iran, however, was not recognized by the international community as a capable peace broker due to suspicions of furthering its own interests. A key player in all of this, therefore, is Yemen’s eastern neighbor, Oman. As an Arab monarchy within which half of the people are Ibadi Muslims, it maintains good relations with both Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Oman had brokered a short ceasefire in May 2015, and more can be done without putting Omani interests at risk. Unfortunately, in June 2015, a very unproductive discussion in Geneva took place, without Oman, where the Saudi delegation threw objects at the representative of the Houthis, and the Hadi representative made the immediate surrender of the Houthis as a condition to even hold talks.
This was another lost opportunity for a slightly longer ceasefire. Objectively, the ‘urges’ for ceasefires by the international community, UN Resolution 2216, and or suggestions of ‘willingness’ to talk are insufficient. The opportunity, and responsibility falls on the UN to step in, enforce a ceasefire, mandate talks that are in the interest of the Yemeni people, and show that it is not the League of Nations. The resumption of UN Yemen peace negotiations next week will hopefully result in improvements, especially considering 80% of the population is going hungry. A simple ceasefire, and an increase in humanitarian assistance which can be easily accompanied by collecting information from locals, even on a small scale, can bring about data and time necessary to conduct well-informed decision making in future peace talks.
Inclusive governance is essential to prevent these sidelined communities from feel the need to take up arms, or to be vulnerable to exploitation by intolerant groups such as AQAP or ISIL. Oman, the GCC, and the UN are under pressure to make sure that the next step is forward. Although Yemen is currently in a maelstrom, there is great potential for it to become a success story under the ‘conflict resolution’ section.