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From Bad to Worse in Yemen
From Bad to Worse in Yemen

The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Donald Trump wants to ramp up Yemen's proxy fight against Iran. One small problem: Tehran doesn't really have a proxy there.

The first arena in which the Trump administration confronts Iran is shaping up to be Yemen. To the delight of Trump’s Persian Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president’s national security team appears to view the Houthis — a Yemeni militia rooted in the country’s Zaydi Shiite tradition that is currently fighting alongside large parts of the army and northern tribal groupings aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against an array of domestic opponents — much as they view Hezbollah. That is to say, as part of an Iranian grand plan to build a powerful Shiite alliance against arch-foe Israel and regional competitor Saudi Arabia.

There’s only one problem: The Houthis are not Hezbollah and, despite their publicly expressed sympathies for the Islamic Republic, have not developed a similarly tight relationship with Tehran. Yet the combined efforts of Washington and its Gulf allies could still drive the Houthis into Tehran’s arms.

It’s instructive to compare the rise of the Houthis with that of Hezbollah. Lebanon’s “Party of God” was born in the cauldron of Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of that country. It fed on the Lebanese Shiite population’s myriad resentments: their under-representation in Lebanon’s political system, the presence of Palestinian militants (who used southern Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israeli soil), and Israel’s indiscriminate response, of which they were among the main victims. This was a mere three years after the Islamic Revolution, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards, buoyed by political victory and having blocked an Iraqi invasion, were keen to spread their ideology across the Shiite world.

[T]he combined efforts of Washington and its Gulf allies could still drive the Houthis into Tehran’s arms.

Hezbollah started out as an Iranian experiment, an opportunity Tehran could exploit. But over time, it became something far more substantial: a true and popular (if not universally lauded) representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community with a militia willing to stand up to Israeli infringements of Lebanese sovereignty. This earned it grudging support among Lebanon’s Sunnis and Christians, and — as long as it didn’t pose as a sectarian actor — broad admiration in the Arab world as well. For decades, the fact that Hezbollah received its arsenal from Iran via Syria remained a minor Arab concern — until the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel highlighted for some Arab regimes its troublesome military power.

In the last four years, the perception of Hezbollah has changed dramatically. Its intervention in the Syrian civil war transformed it into Iran’s indispensable partner in preserving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and, thereby, the party’s own weapons lifeline. As the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia reaches a boiling point across the Middle East, Hezbollah has embraced the sectarianism that some claim has long defined it.

The Houthis’ genealogy differs from Hezbollah’s, but there are important similarities as well. The group professes to protect Yemen’s Zaidi community — Shiites who in religious belief are closer to Yemen’s Sunnis than to adherents of Twelver Shiism predominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon — and started in national politics as a grassroots revivalist movement opposed to Salafi expansion into Zaydi areas. In the early 2000s, they morphed into a militia with a political affinity for Iran and Hezbollah, and a posture explicitly opposed to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Between 2004 and 2010, they fought six rounds of war with then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army, gaining strength in the process from captured army depots.

The Houthis might have fought on but for the outbreak of the Yemeni uprising in 2011, when the Arab Spring shook the Saleh regime and culminated in a transition brokered and enforced in part by Saudi Arabia. Saleh was replaced by his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. For two years, the Houthis played politics, participating in a national dialogue even as they worked to turn the military balance in the north in their favor. When the political transition faltered, the Houthis reverted to arms, storming capital of Sanaa in September 2014 and, a few months later, ousting Hadi, who fled to Aden and, shortly after, Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis also forged an alliance with their former enemy, Saleh. The ex-president saw in the Houthis — strong fighters but poor administrators — an opportunity to exact revenge on those who had turned against him in 2011, and possibly to regain power. The combined strength of the Houthis and parts of the armed forces still loyal to Saleh crossed a Saudi red line: In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with assistance from the United States and United Kingdom, launched an air and, soon after, ground assault to reverse advances by the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Almost two years later, they are still fighting — laying waste to the Arab world’s poorest country in the process.

Saudi Arabia has become to the Houthis what Israel has long been to Hezbollah.

Until now, and apart from Tehran’s strong pro-Houthi rhetoric, very little hard evidence has turned up of Iranian support to the Houthis. There has been evidence of some small arms shipments and, likely, military advice from Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard officers, who may have helped the Houthis in firing missiles into Saudi territory and targeting Saudi vessels in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, U.S. and British military and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition exceeds by many factors any amount of support the Houthis have received from Tehran.

The war is strengthening the Houthis, who have has now taken up the banner of defending the nation against external aggression. In fact, Saudi Arabia has become to the Houthis what Israel has long been to Hezbollah. The Lebanese “Party of God” sees Israel as an alien occupier of Arab land and oppressor of its people that, along with the United States and other Western countries, has larger designs on the region.  For the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is an external aggressor, and likewise part of a U.S-Israeli plot to dominate the region.

But the story of the Houthis’ rise to power shows that they are motivated primarily by a domestic agenda, rather than a regional one. They enjoy strong and durable support in the Zaydi north. Escalating the war will not change that, even with greater U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. If that were to happen anyway, the Houthis would readily accept additional Iranian military and financial support, which Iran may offer. For Iran, Yemen has been a cost-effective way of antagonizing Saudi Arabia, which has spent billions on Yemen’s war while Tehran has operated on a shoestring budget by comparison.

The Trump administration may view Yemen as an opportune area to demonstrate its resolve to counter Iranian assertiveness without triggering a larger war across the Middle East. In Syria, by contrast, the United States is single-mindedly focused on the Islamic State rather than the Assad regime’s depredations against its own people; more forceful action against Iran or its proxies there would carry greater risks, given Iran’s alliance with Russia. In Iraq, the United States may well need Iran — in the form of Shiite militias — as an essential partner of the congenitally weak Iraqi army in the fight against that same Islamic State, which has entrenched itself in Mosul. In the Gulf, tangling with the Iranian navy would risk a broader direct confrontation with Iran.

Washington might thus see increased military support for the Saudi-led coalition and even direct strikes against Houthi assets in Yemen as a strong, low-cost message to Tehran. It would certainly be greeted with delight by Saudi Arabia, whose deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has staked his reputation on winning the war, and its ally the United Arab Emirates. These states may hope that with U.S. backing they can defeat the Houthi-Saleh alliance, or at least compel it to make significant concessions at the negotiating table.

If Trump rushes headfirst into the Yemeni war, there is a very real risk that the conflict will spiral out of control.

Such a calculation might prove to be a serious mistake. While the Houthis are tied to Iran, Iran does not control their decision-making; according to multiple interviews with U.S. officials and the Houthis themselves, Houthi leaders flatly ignored Tehran when the latter advised them not to take Sanaa. Until now, Iran appears to have done just enough to antagonize and frighten the Saudis — thus ensuring that they are bogged down in Yemen’s quicksand, spending billions of dollars on a war they are nowhere close to winning.

If Trump rushes headfirst into the Yemeni war, there is a very real risk that the conflict will spiral out of control. Yemen would offer an easy place for Tehran to strike back at Saudi Arabia: A possible scenario could be an Iran-inspired uprising in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, combined with a Houthi push into Najran and other cities in the south, and rockets fired at Saudi vessels seeking to cross the Bab al-Mandab strait. This could seriously threaten Saudi Arabia’s internal stability.

Leaders of the Saudi-led coalition argue that they must continue the war because they cannot accept a Hezbollah-like entity on their border. If what they are referring to is a heavily armed and hostile nonstate militia on their border, that ship has sailed and the situation is only aggravated by continued war. But if the fear is an Iranian ally, they are only succeeding in pushing a group with a predominantly domestic agenda into Tehran’s arms.

The way to handle the Houthis is not to continue an unwinnable war. Instead, it is to push Yemeni parties back to the negotiating table: If Saudi Arabia and its allies support genuine decentralization and inclusive governance, the Houthis can only weaken themselves, as their ideology has limited appeal, they are unskilled at governing, and they will inevitably be balanced by Saleh’s party and Saudi-aligned groups. The United States and Saudi Arabia can’t shoot their way out of the war in Yemen — but if they are as strategically astute as Iran, they could allow the Houthis to get mired in the messy political process they themselves helped bring about.

Contributors

Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann

From Bad to Worse in Yemen

In Yemen, COVID-19 threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage greater inclusion in UN-led efforts to secure a ceasefire and settlement talks, and to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of the pandemic.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Spring Edition

Things have been terrible in Yemen for the past five years, but they could still get worse. If COVID-19, escalating fighting and an accelerating economic crisis are not contained, the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster will grow just as local and international actors’ capacity to mitigate its worst effects contracts. Local authorities reported the first case of the novel coronavirus in April 2020. The virus has since spread, with more than 100 cases reported in ten of Yemen’s 21 governorates. It now threatens to overwhelm a health care system already collapsing under the weight of war damage and a lack of funds, while humanitarian aid dries up. Fighting is also on the rise after a lull in late 2019, while national and subnational mediation efforts led by the UN and regional actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, are largely frozen because of the stubbornness of the conflict parties and a surfeit of interdependent but uncoordinated diplomatic initiatives. The economic crisis is also worsening as hard currency supplies run critically low and the cost of imports continues to outstrip Yemen’s declining oil income. The UN and other international partners need to keep their eyes trained on peacemaking efforts even as they help blunt the pandemic’s impact on this embattled country.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Make Yemen a priority of the EU’s global response to COVID-19, including in funds the EU, its member states and agencies have pooled under the Team Europe program, and increase overall humanitarian aid to the country.
  • Advocate and express willingness for the EU’s diplomatic service to participate in a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate mediation tracks under a UN umbrella and to more effectively deploy diplomatic efforts in support of a ceasefire and the peace process.
  • Call for a broadening of UN-led efforts to secure a ceasefire and a restart of a more inclusive peace process, encompassing Yemeni actors beyond the Huthis and the internationally recognised government, particularly the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has declared “self-administration” in formerly independent provinces in the south of Yemen. Encourage the STC to table its demands for autonomy/independence for the south during national political talks, and to reverse its self-administration declaration while UN-led mediation is ongoing.
  • Step up direct diplomacy with the Huthis in Sanaa and the STC in Aden, possibly by establishing a permanent delegation in both locations.
  • Reinvigorate efforts to lay the technical groundwork for Sanaa International Airport to reopen for commercial flights.

A Perfect Storm

The spread of COVID-19 to Yemen threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has warned that “nowhere else on earth will COVID-19 spread faster, more widely, with deadlier consequences”. So far, numbers appear modest: as of mid-May 2020, of the 134 people diagnosed with the illness, 21 are reported to have died. But both the number of cases and the death toll are likely far higher. The World Health Organization believes that the coronavirus is “actively circulating” throughout Yemen. It says the country’s fragile health system faces “catastrophic shortages” of test kits and other key supplies. Yemen has access to about 6,700 tests but it needs around 9.3 million. Making matters worse, even before the outbreak, UN humanitarian programming faced huge funding shortfalls. Of the $3.4 billion the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says it needs to run humanitarian operations in 2020, less than 15 per cent had been funded by international donors by mid-May. OCHA has said it will have to shutter up to three quarters of humanitarian operations in Yemen absent a large cash injection.

The spread of COVID-19 to Yemen threatens to ravage what is already one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The UN had initially hoped to turn the pandemic’s threat into a conflict resolution opportunity. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a nationwide ceasefire on 25 March to allow for a coordinated COVID-19 response. The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the Huthis and several other Yemeni combatant groups made supportive public statements, and UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths subsequently announced an initiative that included a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures, and revived UN-spon­sored peace talks. But thus far the warring parties appear to calculate that the virus poses less of a danger to their positions than would political compromise. Fighting has continued, and both the government and the Huthis have yet to take part in a crisis meeting to discuss Griffiths’ proposal. Saudi Arabia has announced, and extended, what it calls a unilateral ceasefire in support of the UN initiative. But in practice Riyadh has continued to back the government’s military campaign and launch airstrikes against the Huthis. The Huthis have labelled the Saudi ceasefire announcement a media ploy and have likewise continued their war effort unabated.

Trend lines point to more, not less, fighting. Armed conflict and political feuding escalated over the first four months of 2020 after a respite in 2019 due to Saudi-Huthi de-escalation talks. The Huthis made major territorial gains in al-Jawf governorate during intense battles between January and March and are threatening an offensive on Marib city and governorate, the government’s last stronghold in the north. Combat has also intensified on almost all of Yemen’s other major fronts, most recently in Huthi-held parts of al-Bayda governorate.

Collapsing truces elsewhere could trigger additional violence. The government has temporarily withdrawn from the UN-led ceasefire monitoring mission in Hodeida, on the country’s Red Sea coast, and threatened to overturn the UN-brokered truce there. On 25 April, the STC, which pushed forces loyal to Hadi out of Aden in August 2019, broke the terms of the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement by announcing “self-administration” in the territories of the formerly independent state of South Yemen. Since then, the STC has begun to take over state institutions in Aden and attempted to seize control of Hadibo, the capital of Soqotra island in the Arabian Sea, which is still secured by government forces. On 11 May, the government responded by initiating an offensive in the southern Abyan governorate aimed at pushing STC forces out of the provincial capital, Zinjibar. The fighting there is ongoing.

The economic crisis is also set to worsen. The STC’s self-administration announcement opened a new front in the struggle for control of Yemen’s financial institutions. The group seized physical control of the headquarters of the government-run central bank in Aden, which the government had moved there from Sanaa in September 2016. The secessionists have threatened to start running the bank themselves, a move that would likely lead the government to freeze its access to the international financial system. Until now, Saudi forces located inside the bank have deterred the STC from making good on their threat. As a workaround, on 29 April, the STC reportedly began to divert Aden port revenues, which normally would go to the central bank, to an account it controls at the local al-Ahli bank. Making matters worse, the central bank may have less than a month’s worth of hard currency needed to underwrite imports. Dollar income from oil exports is also falling on the back of a sharp decline in global oil prices. The Yemeni riyal dropped by about 9 per cent in value after the STC’s self-administration declaration and has since depreciated further, raising living costs for already impoverished Yemenis. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to top up the central bank’s dollar accounts, as it has done in the past, if the bank is not under government control.

Meanwhile, a worsening humanitarian and economic situation will disproportionately affect Yemen’s women and girls, who bear the brunt of unpaid care work, are the first to feel the effects of the loss of household income, and also are more likely to suffer from domestic violence during periods of social strain. Lockdown measures may also lead to the reimposition of gender barriers that have lowered in some parts of the country over the course of the war.

A Way Out

Preventing further territorial fragmentation, fighting and human suffering will require a shift in key combatants’ calculations. No side seems ready to make the compromises necessary to get the UN’s ceasefire proposal off the ground. Riyadh believes that its ceasefire announcement should be sufficient to bring the Huthis to the table, but the de facto authorities in Sanaa argue that a truce must include lifting Saudi-imposed restrictions on their territory’s land, sea and air borders. The UN ceasefire initiative includes confidence-building measures that would ease – although not end – some of these restrictions. But negotiations have been difficult, and it is not clear that the Huthis, the Yemeni government and the Saudis will be able to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

Another obstacle is the surplus of disparate and disjointed diplomatic efforts to end the war. By April 2020, mediation tracks included: the UN’s ceasefire/confidence-
building/peace talks plan; Saudi-Huthi talks focused on border security and the rebels’ relationship with Iran; Saudi-overseen efforts to implement the Riyadh Agreement; and the UN’s stalled attempts to get the Huthis and the government to carry out the Hodeida Agreement. The tracks are somewhat interdependent – conflict parties have at times made progress on one agreement conditional on moving forward with others – but there is no mechanism to prevent setbacks in one track from disrupting others.

Coordinating mediation and diplomatic efforts under a single UN-led process would improve chances of a COVID-19 ceasefire and a return to the political process. To this end, Crisis Group has recommended the formation of a UN-chaired international contact group made up of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the EU and Gulf Cooperation Council member states. EU member states Germany and Sweden, as well as the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS), have signalled support for the initiative. This group could help identify the minimum level of implementation of the Riyadh and Hodeida agreements required to support nationwide talks. It could also establish a division of labour for supporting UN-led negotiations. Riyadh may resist such an initiative on the grounds that it could impinge on the kingdom’s efforts to leave the war behind. But it is increasingly clear that the Saudis, while the most important external actor, cannot single-handedly cajole the Yemeni parties to end the conflict. In addition to support for efforts to weave the different diplomatic tracks into a single UN-led effort, UN Envoy Griffiths also needs assistance in addressing a shortcoming of current negotiations, namely that they are limited to the Huthis and the government. The UN and its partners will need to broaden talks to include other major parties to the conflict.

A Role for the EU and its Member States

The EEAS and EU member states are well placed to assist in the coordination and revitalisation of an international diplomatic approach. First, they can advocate for the formation of the new contact group, and secondly, the EEAS can act as the EU’s representative at the group.

The EU and member states can also play a critical role in advocating for a more inclusive UN process, which is increasingly important given Yemen’s deepening fragmentation. The UN’s current mediation plan is built around brokering a political settlement between the Huthis and the Hadi government, with Saudi input. This plan is increasingly unlikely to produce a sustainable peace, as it leaves out armed factions with the ability to upend any settlement as well as a range of political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth whose buy-in and support will be important in sustaining any pact. The EEAS and EU member states should encourage greater inclusion in UN-backed ceasefire and settlement talks. As the main funders of Track II initiatives, which have included informal dialogues on everything from post-conflict security arrangements to the role of women and youth in Yemen’s future politics, they are also well positioned to ensure that ideas for these efforts are incorporated into any potential settlement. Those ideas are almost certain to include calls for a more representative UN-led peace process, the devolution of governance to local authorities during a transition period, and guarantees of women’s participation in UN-led negotiations and any future government.

Yemen will remain a global hotspot for humanitarian needs for the foreseeable future with 24 million war-affected Yemenis requiring assistance, 250,000 of whom are on the brink of starvation.

More direct contact is also needed on the ground. The Huthis and the STC complain of diplomatic isolation. The EEAS and some EU member states have a good working relationship with both and should consider setting up a delegation in the country, potentially inside the UN enclaves in Aden and/or Sanaa. The EU has also been closely involved in efforts to lay the technical groundwork for reopening Sanaa airport, a key confidence-building measure for the Huthis and, given the spread of COVID-19, a humanitarian imperative. This project should continue and, if possible, be accelerated.

Finally, the EU should begin active discussions over how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of both COVID-19’s spread and Washington’s decision in April to suspend tens of millions of dollars in assistance in response to allegations of Huthi aid diversion. Apart from Saudi Arabia’s pledge of an additional $500 million to help humanitarian agencies respond to the outbreak, no further funding offer has been made. Even counting the Saudi pledge, the UN would need to collect more than $1 billion to fund its pre-coronavirus humanitarian plan. With the EU working to reallocate development and humanitarian funds in response to the virus under its Team Europe program, it should make Yemen a priority, and if possible, augment unrelated aid as well. Yemen will remain a global hotspot for humanitarian needs for the foreseeable future with 24 million war-affected Yemenis requiring assistance, 250,000 of whom are on the brink of starvation. The EU and its member states have been at the forefront of humanitarian support, but the COVID-19 pandemic may constrain spending capacity since European states are facing their own domestic social and economic challenges. As member states renegotiate the EU’s overall Multiannual Financial Framework and its budget for the 2021-2027 period, they should ensure that their humanitarian and development assistance to Yemen will not decrease, while pledging new funds to the UN humanitarian appeal.