The Houthi Rebellion: Main Players, Key Questions, and Consequences

Dana Busgang, Goucher College:

The news coming out of Yemen in recent months has been troubling. Late last year, the news broke that the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite militia, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), had taken control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a. In the past few weeks, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi fled the capitol Sana’a, where he had been under house arrest, to the southern city of Aden, which was subsequently captured by the Houthis. In the next dramatic turn of events, President Hadi fled Aden, and a few days later, Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign with a host of regional (and extra-regional) allies. The recent news grabbing headlines seemingly came out of nowhere. However, this collapse has been a long time coming, as Yemen has a long history of factionalism, with the violence from the Houthi rebellion being the latest chapter. But the Saudi Arabian coalition adds an interesting aspect to the recent Houthi rebellion. And as per usual, US support for the coalition essentially adds another Middle Eastern conflict to our current overseas involvement. So, who are the main players in Yemen right now? What is the Houthi rebellion? Where did it come from? Why is Saudi Arabia getting involved? And what does Iran have to do with all of this? Stay tuned for answers.

The Main Players

The Houthis– A Zaydi Shiite militia originating in North Yemen.

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi– The Sunni current President of Yemen, ruling in exile from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia— Wahhabi Kingdom bordering Yemen.

Iran– Shia power base in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula– Arguably the most powerful branch of al-Qaeda, whom the Yemeni government has been fighting for a decade.

The Origins of the Houthi Rebellion

Previous to 1990, Yemen was split into two separate states: The People’s Republic of Yemen in the South, and the Yemen Arab Republic in the North. The state was unified under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who would rule until being overthrown in the 2011 uprisings known as the “Arab Spring uprisings”. As a Zaydi Shia group, the Houthis traditional center of power was based in the north. However, previous to 2011 they did not have much support outside of the North, despite waging six wars against President Saleh between 2004 and 2010.

Following the Arab Spring uprisings against former President Saleh, the Houthis allied with General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the general who had previously orchestrated the wars against the Houthis, along with other revolutionary groups. However, this coalition was short lived, as President Saleh was granted immunity after the formation of a new government in 2011, which the Houthis were completely left out of.. [1] The Houthis had long felt that they were underrepresented in the Sunni dominated government, and being left out of a new government that was essentially the continuation of the regime they had fought to overthrow just months previously has not helped to ease tensions. [2]

What’s Going on Now

After the Houthis captured Sana’a in September, they signed a peace deal with President Hadi (a Sunni) that would help transfer the power away from President Hadi with the assistance of the United Nations. [3] However, the deal quickly fell apart, with Mr. Hadi fleeing his presidential palace in Sana’a for the relative safety of the southern city of Aden, where he has some support, but only from other Sunnis who detest the Houthis because of their Shia identity. In late March, the Houthis captured a military base 40 miles away from the port city of Aden, gaining control of the city soon after. [3] While rumors stirred for days after the capture, it soon became apparent that President Hadi fled the country by boat to the safety of Saudi Arabia, throwing the country into further chaos. On March 25th, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of 11 allies including Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United States, began a bombing campaign in Yemen in order to counter the Houthi rebellion. [4] While operation “Decisive Storm” is only an air campaign at the moment, there have been reports of Saudi troops amassing along the Yemeni border, leaving many to assume that the airstrikes are paving the way for a ground invasion. [5]


Why the Saudis Got Involved

While it may seem logical to conclude that Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the current conflict in Yemen has everything to do with an attempt to control the chaos on their borders], there is much more to this than meets the eye. The conflict in Yemen serves as another proxy war in the never-ending power struggle between the Middle East’s grand powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the Houthis are a Shiite group, many assume that they are funded, supplied, or even directly controlled by Iran, although there has been no definite proof of this. Regardless, the Saudis fear a Shiite power base on their border, as well as the overall expansion of Iranian power, especially in light of the recent Iranian nuclear deal. However, the inclusion of the Republic of Sudan in the anti-Houthi coalition seems to be an attempt to pull the only Sunni country allied with Iran away from Iranian influence and ultimately shift the balance of power in the Middle East. [4]

What this means for the US

While the US has not committed any tangible resources as of yet, their tacit support of the anti-Houthi coalition, which comes in the form of intelligence gathering assistance, essentially involves the United States in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. This one could prove to be especially dangerous, as the Houthi rebellion is a clear demonstration of the will of the Yemeni people who have demonstrated again and again their dissatisfaction with the ruling powers in Yemen (the civil war of 1994, the Houthi wars of 2004-2010, and the overthrow of President Saleh in 2011), especially considering it is clear that President Hadi’s government is closely allied for former President Saleh, which was overthrown by a popular rebellion.

Previous to their withdrawal in late March, Yemen served as the base for the US’ counter terrorism forces [5]. Therefore, US involvement in the form of intelligence sharing and renewed financial and military support to Egypt makes sense, as they attempt to regain what was once considered to be a success story of counter terrorism. However, with anti-American sentiment in the Middle East at an all time high, supporting a coalition that aims to shift the balance of power back towards the Sunni powers of the region by bombarding an already suffering country is a dangerous step to take, as it may be perceived as the United States meddling in yet another Middle Eastern country.

In addition, this puts the US relationship with Iran in an odd situation. With the recent nuclear agreement, co-operation between the US and Iran is at a level unseen since before the 1979 revolution. Iran has also become an important partner in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. However, Iran and its proxy Hizballah are still very embroiled in the fight against the rebels (whom the US is supporting) in Syria, while defending Syrian President Assad. So now, through proxies, the United States is fighting Iran in Yemen and Syria, while working with them in Iraq and in nuclear negotiations. As Iran’s power rises, it is important for the United States to establish a consistent relationship with the Shia power.

Yemen has been a country teetering on the edge of collapse for years. President Hadi has been holding onto the tenuous stability in the country, desperately trying to control the various warring factions and ultimately failing. However, the Saudi led coalition is only going to spell more disaster for the country. There have been multiple reports of severe civilian casualties after air Saudi air strikes hit an internally displaced persons camp [6], as well as a dairy factory [7], which does not bode well for the Saudis. Instead, it seems that the coalition is exacerbating this war and the Houthis quest for power. Instead of bombing or invading Yemen, perhaps the coalition should have recognized the legitimate request for a shift in power in Yemen, and honored the agreement that would have transitioned Mr. Hadi out of power.










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