Understanding the Houthi Faction in Yemen
This article was published on LawFare Blog, April 7, 2019.
Editor’s Note: Yemen’s war, the world’s deadliest active conflict, has no end in sight. Many of its chief protagonists—including the Houthis, whose ties to Iran and hostility to U.S. allies put them at the center of the conflict—are not well understood. Sama’a al-Hamdani, the director of the Yemen Cultural Institute for Heritage and the Arts, does a deep dive on the Houthis. She details their goals and divisions, as well as how they might be induced to join Yemen’s nascent peace process. - Daniel Byman
The war in Yemen is often misunderstood, and the consequent ongoing humanitarian crisis is disregarded. Many analyses reduce the conflict to a proxy war between the Arab coalition—led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and Iran. However, the proxy war is only one layer of a multidimensional conflict that includes many factions, some of which are uncomfortable partnerships. U.S. policy has been mostly bound to the country’s alliance with Riyadh and their shared goals of fighting Tehran, which has been an obstacle to grasping the complexities of the conflict.
One of the most misunderstood and most central parties to the conflict is the Houthis. In the past decade, they have grown in power from an isolated religious movement into a considerable militant faction that controls the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. However, with this success have come new internal divisions and external threats that will influence how the devastating war will end and what might follow.
The Rise of the Houthis
The Houthis emerged in Yemen as an opposition movement in the early 1990s; however, they did not present a significant military threat to the Yemeni state until the early 2000s. The group, originally organized as the “Believing Youth Group,” claimed to “revive” Zaydism, a branch of Shiite Islam, and aimed to counter the increasing presence of Sunni Wahhabi schools in Sa’dah, the northern province of Yemen, and particularly in the city of Dammaj. As the organization grew, it planned insurgencies against the state and became known as “the Houthis,” a reference to the family that led the movement. The Houthis fought six wars, called the Sa’dah wars, with the government between 2004 and 2010. These conflicts gave the rebel group combat experience and compelled them to build a military organization. However, their true rise to power occurred during and after the Arab Spring in 2011.
When the protests in Yemen began, the Houthis were present in “Change Square.” After President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down and initiated a political transition after months of pressure, the Houthis participated in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), where one of the eight committees formed was dedicated exclusively to addressing their grievances. The political process was fraught. Sana’a had never been host to so many dissenting groups in its modern history and the transition championed by the NDC was an unpopular departure from Yemen’s traditionally decentralized, consociational mode of governance. In the absence of state control, a vacuum emerged that politically ambitious groups in the capital, including the Houthis, worked to exploit.
Eventually, in September 2014, the Houthis seized Sana’a, but this turn of events was anything but sudden. In the months before Houthi forces entered the capital, its militia threaded through the mountainous regions of Arhab and Amran, fighting several battles against rival military units headed by General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the tribal and Islamist political coalition Islah, and independent Salafi fighters. When the Houthis entered Sana’a, it was reported that “not a single shot was fired.” The takeover was slow moving and cushioned with political settlements, not only with the government but also with the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), a coalition of opposition political parties created in 2005.
The civil war expanded into a regional war with the intervention of the Arab coalition in 2015. Despite this increased pressure, the Houthis’ political ambitions proved greater than expected and they quickly gained several advantages over other competing factions.
They had already captured the capital of Sana’a, where they seized control of all existing state institutions. They also benefited from the accumulated experience of Saleh, the ousted president of 33 years and the Houthis’ former enemy. Saleh, became an unlikely ally who joined forces with the Houthis to retain his influence. As the Arab coalition ramped up their intervention, the Houthis also exploited the coalition’s, turning it into one of their raisons d’etre.
Today, more than five years after taking Sana’a, the Houthis have complete control of the capital and the governorates of Amran, Dhamar, Rima, Ibb and al-Mahweet. They also control much of the northwest province of Hajjah, except near the Saudi border, and are present in the central province of al-Bayda. The war has devastated Sa’dah, the northern stronghold of the Houthis, but the province remains almost exclusively under their control.
Who Is a “Houthi” in This Conflict?
The Houthis, who prefer the term Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), are generally defined as followers of Abdel Malik and Hussein al-Houthi’s religious and political agenda and the adherents of the philosophy inspired by Badr al-Din al-Houthi. This ideology is inspired by Zaydism, a branch of Shi’ism with similar religious practices to the Sunni Shafi’i sect in Yemen. However, the current conflict in Yemen has produced a new breed of “Houthi.” Today, the Houthi crowd is a broad spectrum of groups—an unruly quasi-coalition spanning religious, geographic and political spaces and hierarchies allied in their opposition to the Saudi-led intervention.
Authority resides in the “Sa’dah Core,” who survived the Sa’dah wars and whose ideologies lean closer to Twelver Shi’ism, which is practiced in Iran but historically alien to Yemen. Twelver Shiite practices that are novel to Yemen are increasingly being incorporated into religious practice; for example, the commemoration of Ashura was publicly celebrated by Houthi supporters en masse for the first time in 2017, and Yemeni Shiites now openly observe Eid al-Ghadir, a Shiite religious celebration rumored to have been practiced mostly in secret previously.
Of all the Houthi factions, the Sa’dah Core has the closest ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which advise the Houthi leadership. This inner cabal has been described as “paranoid” and extremely “secretive.”
Another faction are the Houthi jihadis, who constitute the majority of the Houthis’ fighters in the war and who are motivated by a radical religious interpretation analogous to Salafi jihadis. They are inspired by the Sa’dah Core and the historical references to the martyrdom of Hussein, the early Shiite imam whose death was foundational to the Sunni-Shiite split. Religious extremists on both sides of the conflict consider the war over—a matter of life or death for their faiths. This framing of the conflict, perpetuated by both Houthi jihadis and Salafi jihadis, has produced widespread sectarianism throughout the country.
Additionally, there are the Zaydi dogmatists. Like the Salafis, they believe that they are practicing a purer form of Islam perfected by their ancestors. Within this religious spectrum, there are also some Zaydi-Hashemites who hope to revive the ancient Yemeni Mutawakkilite kingdom, which vested authority in imams who claimed to have been descendants of the prophet Muhammad. However, none of those calling for the return of the imamate have close dynastic ties to the ruling family that was ousted from power in 1962 or its predecessors.
In addition to the ideological division, the Houthis are also riven by geographic divides that are dictated by existing tribal groupings. The Houthis have the broad support from the Hashed, Bakeel and Khawlan tribes, but there is some dissent within these groups. The tribal dynamic, which preceded 2011, played to the favor of the Houthis, as many northern tribes objected to the ruling Hashed hierarchy. However, as a result of the Houthis’ emerging power, the Sa’dah tribes have become dominant over the north for the first time in decades. The Sa’dah Core has rearranged the geographic social strata by reigning over the regions of Sana’a and Thamar.
Throughout the current conflict, the Houthis have used traditional tribal arbitrationmethods to secure noninterference from northern tribes that might otherwise have fought against them and succeeded by strategically allowing powerful tribes significant autonomy in their respective regions. The Houthis have also benefited from missteps by the Arab coalition and the Yemeni government. The Arab coalition’s negligent targeting of airstrikes against previously unaligned tribes has given the Houthis new allies, and the government’s discrimination against Yemenis living in Houthi-controlled territories has further alienated parts of the Yemeni public.
Failed Political Mobilization
The Houthis have failed to mobilize politically as they have militarily. After their initial success sweeping into Sana’a, a number of political parties sided with the Houthis, including the Union of Popular Forces and al-Haq Party, but their motives were complicated—while they were influenced by the legitimacy of the Houthis’ Zaydi identity, they also had to consider their own viability and safety under Houthi rule.
Despite forming political alliances, the Houthis have struggled to manage their supporters effectively, while also grappling with the loss of senior leaders. As early as 2013, the Houthis’ opponents had begun assassinating many prominent Houthi political figures, such as Ahmed Sharaf al-Din and Abdel Karim Jadban. These organizational failures and setbacks have hindered the Houthis’ political efforts, and the political wing that represents the Houthis in international negotiations is their weakest link.
Many Houthi supporters are politically or religiously agnostic pragmatists whose support for the group is based on immediate interests. This category includes former members of the General People’s Congress (GPC) who sided with Saleh in 2012, some northern tribesmen, individuals whose livelihoods were negatively affected by the mistakes of the Arab coalition, and those previously marginalized by the Yemeni government. These pragmatists make up the most substantial fraction of the Houthi organization and are likely to switch sides quickly if the balance of power shifts. Many pragmatists who once tolerated Houthi rule did exactly that when Saleh broke with his Houthi partners in late 2017, prompting fighting between Houthis and loyalists to Saleh that resulted in Saleh’s death.
The infighting between the Houthi and pro-Saleh factions reinforced perceptions that the conflict is primarily between Saudi and Iranian proxies, and after Saleh was killed outside Sana’a some pragmatists proclaimed their dissent and fled Houthi-controlled territory. Executing Saleh was a double-edged sword for the Houthis. It provided the group with a large boost in morale but cost many supporters who idolized Saleh. Some of these supporters have now allied themselves to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government, including an effective armed faction, the Guards of the Republic, under the leadership of Saleh’s nephew, Tariq.
The most influential component of the Houthi group is its militant bloc, represented by the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, which is structured similarly to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Houthi military bloc is formidably armed, including with weapons it seized from government forces in the north.
The Houthi military wing provides the only significant female representation within the organization. Women participate in a special militia and are called “al-Zaynabiyat,” after Zaynab, the daughter of the fourth caliph, Ali, who is revered by Shiites. The Zaynabiyat violently perpetuate Houthi political, military and social ambitions by performing physically laborious and culturally sensitive tasks under the guidance of the Revolutionary Committee, including participating in combat, facilitating home searches and guarding female detainees.
The Houthis are waging battles on many fronts, including internally. The military branch appears to be fighting with the political branch and desires absolute control over the Houthi movement. In April 2018, Saleh al-Sammad, the president of the Houthi state and head of its political council, was killed by a coalition airstrike that required sophisticated intelligence obtained from infiltration of the Houthi leadership. It’s possible that members of the military wing provided that information to remove Sammad. Further evidence of the breakdown in internal Houthi dynamics can be found in recent credible reports of mounting tensions between Mahdi al-Mashat, Sammad’s replacement, and Mohammed al-Houthi, head of the Revolutionary Committee, and allegations that Houthi attempted to assassinate Mashat.
The military branch of the Houthi movement could easily take advantage of its powerful wartime role to crush its rivals in the political arm. Doing so, however, would hinder the possibility of reconciliation with other Yemeni groups postwar and would complicate the possibility of peace. If the war were to end tomorrow, though, the tensions within the Houthi bloc would be left unresolved and would likely weaken the movement from within. As long as the divisions persist, they will present opportunities for outside groups—including current enemies. The Houthis’ military wing is eager for Saudi support, and it might be a shrewd move for the Saudis to deliver and draw some of the Houthis to their side while weakening the movement as a whole.
Iran’s Role in the Conflict
Yemen’s war is a gift to Iran; Iran’s quiet manipulation of the war has reinforced its opponents’ fears that it is a menacing power in the Arabian Peninsula. Due to the mismanagement of the conflict, what was initially an inflated threat is now becoming a reality. Iran has received this reputational boost at low cost. In contrast to the Arab coalition, which spends $5-6 billion each month on the Yemen war, Iran is estimated to spend dramatically less on the conflict—perhaps only several million dollars each year in Yemen. This support has bolstered the Houthis and lengthened the conflict. Over the past five years, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have increased their military and technical support to the Houthis and helped them survive the Arab coalition’s onslaught.
When the Arab Spring swept Yemen, Iran’s outreach to the Houthis was not exclusive. Iran was interested in forming relationships with any group open to accepting its patronage. Nor was Iran alone. Yemeni political blocs, and even civil society groups, received new interest from Gulf countries, Turkey and other foreign entities. Like other regional powers, Iran offered workshops and training for independent female activists and grassroots nongovernmental organizations. At one time, Iran also supported a branch of Yemen’s Southern Separatist Movement, which is now allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran has lost its influence over other Yemeni groups since the outbreak of the conflict, but it remains the Houthis’ most significant foreign supporter.
While the idea that Iran is the mastermind behind the Houthi movement is widespread, the evolution of the Houthi organization suggests that they sought out Iran, not the other way around. Yemeni scholars on the Houthi movement have argued that the Houthis were impressed by the organization and discipline of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and solicited their advice. These experts have also suggested that cooperation is based on political ambition rather than shared religious beliefs.
Iran’s ideological influence on the Houthis may have begun when Hussein Badr al-din al-Houthi visited the Iranian city of Qom in the early 1990s, but Iran’s direct tactical guidance was not evident until the sixth Sa’dah War, when Saudi Arabia increased its involvement in the Saleh government’s wars against the Houthis. In October 2009 and January 2013, two large shipments of weapons from Iran were intercepted by the Yemeni government and the USS Farragut, respectively. These intercepted shipments indicated how important access to the Midi and Salif ports in Hodeidah province are to the Houthis’ war effort. Iran also allegedly transported supplies to the Houthis by air, delivering daily flights to Sana’a airport for three weeks until access was blocked by the Saudi air campaign. A U.N. Security Council report published in January 2019 revealed that Iran is also providing the Houthiswith an estimated $30 million worth of fuel each month.
This support is not the same thing as control. In fact, at times the Houthis appear to have acted against the advice provided by their Iranian backers. It was even reported that Iran advised the Houthis against the capture of the city of Sana’a and counseled them to withdraw their forces from specific parts of Yemen—presumably to protect the negotiation and implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The Houthis’ rejection of Iran’s direction revealed that the relationship between Iran and the Houthis, though it had its roots in the 2009 Sa’dah war, was still nascent in 2015. The successful capture of Sana’a was a surprise to everyone who doubted the Houthis’ capabilities, including Iran. It also suggests that Iran was not prioritizing its influence in Yemen at the time. It was the Houthis, not their foreign patrons, who asserted their own will to power and proceeded with their agenda. However, their poor planning and limited political experience prevented them from anticipating the Arab coalition’s coordinated retaliation and since then they have come to rely more on Iranian support.
The Trump administration has sought to amplify the perception of Iranian influence in Yemen, especially since its withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivered a speech in which she presented evidence that the Houthis had used Iranian weapons against Saudi Arabia and called for international condemnation.
As the Trump administration works to increase Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation, Iran is likely to increase its presence and involvement in Yemen to cement the increased influence it has developed there in recent years. An increased Iranian role would prove even more devastating to the Yemeni people and would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis’ and Yemen’s Future
Since the early 2000s, and especially in the past four years of conflict, the Houthis have transformed from a small-scale rebel group warring in Yemen’s extreme north to central participants in perhaps the most significant regional conflict in the history of the modern Arabian Peninsula and the world’s deadliest war today. Since 2011, they have risen from controlling Sa’dah, a single marginalized governorate, to the majority of Yemen’s north, including the country’s capital and its (failing) institutions. Today, the Houthis are taking on the Arab coalition, which is flush with Western weapons and oil money.
It will be challenging to convince the Houthis to view a state of peace as preferable to a state of war. The Houthis, like many other parties to the conflict in Yemen, understand that peace represents the diminution and transformation of their influence in Yemen. Some peace proposals would require the Houthis to hand over their heavy weaponry and withdraw from power centers throughout the country. Forced to transform into a political party, the Houthis would lose exclusive power and privileges across Yemen’s north as they shed their military wing and limit their political participation to peaceful democratic processes.
The Stockholm Treaty signed in December 2018 remains in force but has faltered in its implementation and needs reinforcement. Though it was criticized as vague and insubstantial, the treaty was nevertheless welcomed as a first, albeit tentative, step toward peace. The peace process initiated in Stockholm has faced hurdles in the months since; the head of the U.N. peace monitoring forces has already been replaced amid continuing conflict between the Houthis and their opponents. Monitoring the technical details of the treaty matters, but more important now is finding the political will for peace. Convincing the Houthis to accept peace will require pressure coupled with political incentives to curb their further expansion in Yemen and to ameliorate the world’s worst human-made humanitarian crisis.
As an incentive for peace, disarmament needs to include all nonstate actors at war in Yemen, including the elite forces that support the government. The Arab coalition will need to engage Houthi representatives and form a functional relationship with them as a show of good faith—as the Arab coalition already has with other Yemeni parties.
The United States will also need to reopen its channels of communication with Yemen’s warring parties and former political figures to end their heavy reliance on their Arab coalition partners and finally play a significant role as mediator. The U.S. relationship with Iran will determine the extent and direction of Iranian involvement and influence on the Houthis in Yemen.
Finally, focusing on the needs of the Houthis in isolation from the needs of rebuilding Yemen as a whole will only lead to failed peace attempts and could empower the Houthis further. If Yemen is to remain a unitary state, the grievances of all Yemenis will need to be addressed. To ensure this happens, international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, and countries with regional credibility and legitimacy such as Oman, should step up to act as primary partners for peace with the support of the United States, Britain and other powerful countries.
If the Houthis fail to uphold their end of the peace bargain, the United Nations and other peace brokers should pressure the Houthis with exclusion in post-conflict arrangements or the peace-building process—especially if the other political and military factions in Yemen can agree. But this should be a last resort. The Houthis are a powerful faction, and even if they have struggled to govern the country, they have demonstrated the capacity to stoke conflict and spoil political cooperation. This will remain true whenever the war ends.