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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

Project Director, Gulf and Arabian Peninsula
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann
Supporters of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh attend the 35th anniversary celebration of his General People's Congress party (GPC) in Sanaa, Yemen, on 24 August 2017. DPA/Hani Al-Ansi

Discord in Yemen’s North Could Be a Chance for Peace

Since August, a public rift has surfaced between the two main partners on the northern front of Yemen’s war – the forces loyal to the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Rather than fostering its rivals’ discord, key powerbroker Saudi Arabia should seize this rare chance to resolve the two-and-a-half year war by championing a new regional initiative.

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I. Overview

A public rift between Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Huthis (aka Ansar Allah) may change the course of Yemen’s two-and-a-half-year war. Despite significant ideological and political differences, the two have been allied against the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in support of the Yemeni government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Yet tensions between them rose to an all-time high following a GPC rally in Sanaa on 24 August to celebrate the party’s 35th anniversary and to demonstrate its political strength. This rift could expand and prolong Yemen’s regionalised civil war, further shattering the country and threatening regional security – or it could be seized upon as an opportunity to advance peace. This will require Saudi Arabia and its international backers, including the U.S. and the UK, to act quickly to capitalise on a division they have encouraged by supporting an immediate ceasefire and an inclusive political settlement.

After a period of rapid advances, the Huthi/Saleh alliance lost territory in the south in July and August 2015. They since fought the opposing side to a stalemate, maintaining control over the northern Zaydi (version of Shia Islam) highlands, which includes the country’s capital, Sanaa, and the majority of Yemen’s population. This has produced a tense status quo, from which several parties in the conflict benefit, but which has produced immense suffering among the Yemeni people as well as additional instability in a region that has no shortage. For Saudi Arabia in particular, the fighting has created a growing security threat, with Huthi/Saleh forces firing rockets deep into Saudi territory and threatening to target Riyadh’s closest regional ally, Abu Dhabi. It is a financially costly war and a diplomatic headache, as Riyadh has borne considerable criticism for the devastating humanitarian consequences, including near famine conditions and widespread cholera.

To take advantage of heightened Huthi/Saleh tensions, Riyadh should champion a political process, agree to suspend military operations, and forgo the temptation to simply wait for its adversaries to turn their guns on each other. Indeed, direct Huthi/Saleh confrontation is unlikely and, even if it were to occur, the result would be even less likely to redound to Riyadh’s benefit: the Huthis could defeat the GPC or the civil war could spread to the highlands, further facilitating both Iranian intervention and al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expansion. If by contrast the Saudis – in partnership with regional states like Oman and with support from the UN Security Council and the UN special envoy – sponsor a realistic peace initiative, the onus would shift to the Huthis and GPC to accept it, lest they provoke even greater suffering and possibly destabilise areas under their control. Saleh’s GPC almost certainly would entertain the offer, placing Huthi hardliners in an awkward position if they were to reject it, changing the political dynamic and possibly paving the way for a settlement. The stakes have never been higher. With Huthi forces threatening to target Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and the Trump Administration eager to push back against Iran in the region, there is a serious risk of wider escalation. This could include direct U.S. confrontation with Iran, which Washington and its allies blame for providing the Huthis with the requisite missile technology. Too many opportunities have come and gone to end the Yemen war. Neither Yemenis nor their neighbours can afford to lose this one.

II. GPC-Huthi Relations

A. Historical Context and Contemporary Challenges

Tension between the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, then-President Saleh fought six wars with the Huthis, killing their leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, in 2004 and laying waste to much of their home governorate, Saada. Common enemies brought the two sides together in 2014 as they sought to shift the balance of power in Yemen’s north against the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and Hadi, who had alienated both groups during the country’s transition period (in which Saleh transferred power to Hadi through a political agreement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative).

Their cooperation, initially tacit, may well have faded if not for the Saudi military intervention, which began in March 2015, to reinstate Hadi and reverse Huthi/Saleh military advances. The campaign bound them together against what in Yemen’s northern highlands is commonly perceived as a national, existential struggle against Saudi Arabia – rather than as a Yemeni civil war, which is how the national conflict is viewed elsewhere in the country.

Beneath the surface, however, differences festered. The GPC views itself as a party of the political centre, an umbrella organisation encompassing a range of political perspectives and confessional groups, with appeal throughout the country. It sees the Huthis in much the same way it views Islah, an intolerant religion-based political organisation with ties to foreign actors – in the Huthis’ case, Iran, in Islah’s case, Qatar and chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere in the region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, group of eight GPC supporters, Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017.Hide Footnote Like many Yemenis, they suspect the Huthis of plotting to bring back the rule of Zaydi Imams, who ruled northern Yemen for a millennium before the 1962 republican revolution ousted them. In this view, the Huthis are a throwback to Yemen’s oppressive, discriminatory past, an anathema to a modern state and institutions, let alone an inclusive democracy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC members, Sanaa, November 2014; GPC member, Sanaa, February 2015; GPC member, September 2015; GPC members, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Similarly, the Huthis have fundamental problems with Saleh and the GPC. They view him and his close supporters as dangerous and unreliable allies. From their perspective, Saleh’s GPC is responsible for a corrupt past in which the government failed to develop the country, marginalised them politically, facilitated the spread of Salafi/Wahhabi doctrine (their ideological adversary) and destroyed their territory.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi supporters, Sanaa, February 2015.Hide Footnote Huthis are hostile to the U.S., viewing its Middle East policy as part of an improbable Israel/Saudi/Wahhabi plot to sow discord among Muslims, and as such are deeply suspicious of Saleh’s past support for and cooperation with the U.S. and its counter-terrorism activities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi leader, Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017.Hide Footnote Some Huthis want eventually to hold Saleh and other GPC leaders accountable for past crimes, including killing Hussein al-Huthi. As the GPC doubts Huthi commitment to democracy, the Huthis doubt the GPC’s commitment to real power sharing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi supporter, Sanaa, Yemen 2017, who said: “Saleh wants to return to power as it was before 2011 [when the GPC ruled alone], but this time through his son [Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh]. Saleh only wants cooperation with Ansar Allah now so that he can gain a bigger share in power to make this possible in the future. The GPC is not committed to long-term power sharing”.Hide Footnote

As the General People's Congress party (GPC) doubts Huthi commitment to democracy, the Huthis doubt the GPC’s commitment to real power sharing.

These mutual suspicions have left both groups ill at ease. Ever since October 2016, when they formed a “national salvation government” with the Huthis, GPC leaders have complained that the Huthis have not honoured their commitment to disband the “revolutionary committee”, which the Huthis had established in February 2015 after they toppled the Hadi government. Still active, the committee oversees government functioning and forms a kind of shadow government with final say in decision-making, in effect undermining weak state institutions.[fn]GPC politicians gave numerous examples of the revolutionary committee interfering in decision-making and refusing to vacate ministries under GPC authority, such as the higher education, religious endowments and health ministries. Crisis Group interviews, group of GPC members, Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017.Hide Footnote Their frustration with Huthi interference has been exacerbated by the Huthis’ relative inexperience in the governance realm – not only do they as a movement lack know-how, but in many cases have appointed young loyalists who interfere in the decision-making of long-serving bureaucrats.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

In an ironic reversal of their traditional roles, GPC members today accuse the Huthis of corruption, disregard for the country’s laws, for example regarding detentions, and failure to treat them as an equal partner in government. In particular, the GPC resents Huthi control of the limited resources flowing into the north in the form of customs, taxes and telecommunications fees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Saleh supporter, GPC member, GPC bureaucrat, Sanaa, Yemen, 2017.Hide Footnote After dividing ministerial portfolios, the two sides fought over the appointment of ministerial deputies. Arguably most importantly, they disagree on the leadership and future of the Republican Guards, the most qualified military unit in the army before the 2011 Arab Spring, which was led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh and was largely loyal to him. Today it is a shadow of its former self, disbanded under Hadi in 2012 and later partially reconstituted during the current war.[fn]On 19 December 2012, President Hadi issued a decree disbanding the Republican Guards, announcing that its units would be integrated into the regional command structure. For an overview of changes to the military-security apparatus during the transition period, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°139, Yemen’s Military-Security Reform: Seeds of New Conflict?, 4 April 2013.Hide Footnote The GPC would like to strengthen and lead it; the Huthis are blocking them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, group of GPC supporters, Sanaa, Yemen 2017.Hide Footnote

The Huthis accuse the GPC of stoking public resentment against them instead of focusing on the fight against the Saudi-led coalition. Bearing the brunt of casualties, they view GPC politicking as an affront to their sacrifices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, two Huthi supporters, September 2017.Hide Footnote Regarding the civil service, they say, Saleh’s party continues to dominate decisions on retirement and recruitment, encumbering their ability to implement the law, which requires, for example, pensioning off individuals above a certain age. The Huthis also are quick to point out that integrating their members into all parts of the state is one of the agreements reached by the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, the centrepiece of the country’s UN-sponsored transition.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi representative, August 2017.Hide Footnote Arguably most importantly, the Huthis suspect the GPC of trying to strike deals with their mutual enemies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, to end the war to its advantage. Some Huthi supporters, for example, were convinced that the massive GPC rally in Sanaa on 24 August was a plot by Saleh to oust the Huthis from power and push them from Sanaa, with the help of the UAE.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, three Huthi supporters, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Under attack by the Saudi-led military campaign, both political leaderships continue to argue that what unites them [...] is more significant than what drives them apart.

Until August 2017, the leadership of both groups successfully contained their many differences. Under attack by the Saudi-led military campaign, both political leaderships continue to argue that what unites them – especially defence of the parts of Yemen they each control – is more significant than what drives them apart.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, two GPC leaders and a Huthi representative, Sanaa, Yemen 2017; GPC leader and Huthi representative, September 2017.Hide Footnote But the groups’ respective rank-and-file, and certainly their hardliners, do not uniformly agree.

Many GPC cadres, in Yemen and elsewhere, do not see value in the relationship.[fn]Crisis Group interview, GPC leader, Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017, who said: “At the top the relationship is very strong. But at the middle levels, and especially over the issue of government jobs, there is a lot of tension”.Hide Footnote They are blunt in their hostility to its continuance and even support going on the offensive against the Huthis, should an opportunity arise to shift the balance of power. A GPC supporter expressed a perspective common among the rank-and-file in Sanaa:[fn]Crisis Group interview, GPC member, Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Now the Huthis control the army and the resources of the north. Everything is going to them because of the war. The GPC would be ready to fight the Huthis, but they cannot open a second front. The Huthis are doing many things that harm the Yemeni people. They are completely destroying the army. But if the GPC turned on the Huthis now, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Islah would fight the GPC from the other direction.

The Huthi movement at all levels evinces internal differences about the necessity and desirability of cooperation with the GPC. The political side of the movement, represented by figures such as Saleh Somad, head of the supreme political council (a ten-person organisation formed by the GPC and Huthis in August 2016 and split equally between them that serves as a presidential council) appears to value the partnership and works pragmatically to maintain it by mediating conflict between the two sides.[fn]That said, even politicians on the Huthi side who are supportive of continuing the alliance view themselves as the stronger partner in the relationship. According to a Huthi politician: “It is not in the interest of either party to break the partnership and relationship, but this is especially true of the GPC, which has made many gains by aligning with Ansar Allah against the aggression [the Saudi military intervention] and would lose these completely if they stopped the relationship with Ansar Allah”. Crisis Group interview, September 2017.Hide Footnote Hardliners in the revolutionary council and the military-security apparatus, including Mohammed al-Huthi, head of the revolutionary council, are seemingly less keen on cooperation and aggressively attack the GPC in public. One Huthi supporter summed up scepticism of the partnership:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi supporter, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Partnership with the GPC is not important for the war because Ansar Allah is controlling all of the fronts and Saleh is not really contributing to the fight. The alliance is only really in the area of government and there, the GPC needs the alliance more than Ansar Allah. Without it, the GPC would lose all power and influence. Many in Ansar Allah think that the partnership with the GPC has damaged its reputation in the north as the GPC has conducted a smear campaign, accusing it of corruption even as the GPC obstructs proper running of the government. A break-up of the alliance could be better for Ansar Allah.

Though the security situation and resulting territorial fragmentation make it hard to judge, the prevailing wisdom among a range of interlocutors in Sanaa, including GPC members, independents and analysts, is that a group of Huthi sceptics and hardliners have the upper hand, a situation that bodes poorly for the future of cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC leaders, tribal sheikh from the Hashid confederation, Yemeni political analyst, August 2017; two tribal sheikhs from the Bakil confederation, Yemeni government supporter, tribal sheikh fighting with Yemeni government side, Huthi supporter, September 2017.Hide Footnote

B. 24 August and its Aftermath

The GPC-Huthi coalition has been deeply strained, possibly irreparably damaged, by events surrounding the GPC’s 24 August political rally. In the lead-up to the gathering, the groups engaged in a vicious war of words. Saleh gave a bombastic speech calling the Huthi popular committees a “militia” and warning them not to interfere in the GPC’s celebration or to cause chaos in Sanaa. The Huthis accused Saleh of “backstabbing”, lacking commitment to the war and trying to secure a deal with the Saudi-led coalition to remove them from power.[fn]Saleh warns Huthis against causing chaos in Sanaa”, al-Masdar, 20 August 2017, “Yemen’s Saleh rallies followers in Sanaa amid Houthi rift”, Reuters, 24 August 2017.Hide Footnote

While the rally went forward without incident, the following day a prominent GPC politician, Khaled al-Radi, and three Huthi-aligned security personnel were killed in a gun battle at a Huthi-controlled checkpoint. The next day saw further clashes near one of Saleh’s son’s homes in south Sanaa; a large contingent of Huthi security forces deployed in the area. Since then the two sides have agreed to de-escalation measures, but tensions remain high. The Huthis have increased their security presence, which risks minor disagreements escalating into clashes.

With the rally, Saleh sought to send a message to the Huthis and the international community that he and his party are politically strong, key to any settlement, and ought not be treated as junior partners in negotiations, which has been the case in both UN-led and informal negotiations. His supporters suggest that the rally’s timing was based on his calculation that his political support and popular frustration with the Huthis are at relative highs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, two prominent GPC members, Cairo, Egypt, 2017.Hide Footnote

The events of 24 August were a culmination of what could be considered a GPC revival.

The events of 24 August were a culmination of what could be considered a GPC revival. After surviving attempts by Saudi Arabia to divide it and pull its leadership to Hadi’s side, Saleh’s camp has emerged stronger, at least for now. GPC members inside Yemen describe a new conviction that the GPC is the only party capable of protecting the country from the ravages of sectarianism and preserving its republican system from religious groups like the Huthis or Islah.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, group of eight senior and mid-level GPC leaders, Sanaa, Yemen, 2017.Hide Footnote But this awakening is as much an indicator of weakness as strength. It is driven in part by the fear that if the war continues, religious actors and militias will gain greater strength, while the GPC and political parties will lose influence and relevance.

Rally participation was not limited to the GPC. Many other people attended or supported it on social media, including those aligned with the Hadi government and even Islah.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist aligned with the Yemeni government, Islah members, Yemeni Socialist party member, tribal sheikh not aligned with ether Huthi/Saleh or Yemeni government, Cairo, Egypt, August 2017; member of the Yemeni government, tribal sheikh supporting Yemeni government, September 2017.Hide Footnote For them, the gathering was a chance to demonstrate their opposition to the Huthis (not their support for Saleh) and, for some, to encourage the brewing fight between the two to knock both down to size.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Though the rally’s size – a least tens of thousands, with local reports saying around 300,000 – and eclectic backing might indicate that the GPC’s political fortunes have eclipsed the Huthis’, the military balance is still clearly in the latter’s favour.[fn]“Tens of thousands rally in support of Yemen’s former president amid growing rifts”, Washington Post, 24 August 2017.Hide Footnote The Huthis allowed the GPC rally, but the same day organised their own smaller demonstrations at the city’s entrances and imposed a heavy security presence in Sanaa. After the rally, loyal forces further increased their presence around the city, especially in neighbourhoods dominated by Saleh sympathisers. They too had a message: their dedicated supporters and fighters were ready to confront any challenge to their authority. The Huthis then held their own massive public rally, to celebrate what they call the 21 September Revolution, the anniversary of their entering in Sanaa (in 2014), demonstrating that they too can rally significant support, albeit not as politically diverse.

Those who hoped that Saleh would pursue a more confrontational course in the wake of the rally have been disappointed. Instead of backing out of the coalition government or fighting to regain control of the capital, Saleh ultimately adopted a more conciliatory tone. At the GPC rally, he gave a short speech praising the GPC and called more fighters to the war fronts, but since then he has called for calm and reaffirmed his commitment to the alliance. According to a prominent Yemeni politician who has remained neutral during the war, “GPC supporters and anti-Huthi groups alike experienced a moment of collective depression when Saleh failed to act. Most attribute his inaction to weakness in the face of the Huthis’ superior military strength”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, September 2017.Hide Footnote Indeed GPC, Huthi and Hadi government supporters interpret his actions as a sign of weakness and evidence that the GPC cannot challenge the Huthis in the context of war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, three Hadi government supporters, tribal sheikh, Huthi supporter, Huthi leader, political independent, two GPC members, September 2017.Hide Footnote It is unclear whether Saleh changed his course of action in light of Huthi pressure or whether he knew all along that he could not risk opening a second front with them. In any case, he is walking a fine line, straining but not breaking the relationship, and in doing so raising yet more questions about the future of the coalition with Ansar Allah and the course of the war writ large.

III. A Way Forward

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Yemeni government and their backers, including the U.S. and UK, have long encouraged a break in the Huthi/Saleh alliance either to enable a popular uprising in the north or improve the Yemeni government’s (and by extension Saudi Arabia’s) bargaining position. Post-August 2017, U.S. and UK officials say they increasingly recognise the dangers of such a split, while their allies in the region appear determined to pursue it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. and UK officials, September 2017.Hide Footnote Putting aside how likely they are to succeed, they should be careful what they wish for. If the two allies turn on each other, the more likely result is the prolongation of the civil war and the complication of peace efforts.

A. Danger Ahead?

It is hard to predict the course of a putative Huthi-Saleh fight. In a worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia, the Huthis would win a military confrontation and consolidate political and military control of the north. Already the Huthis dominate the military-security apparatus in Sanaa and over the course of the war they have gained the upper hand over Saleh, though the extent of their advantage is widely debated among Yemenis.[fn]The senior commanders of the military are Huthis, including the defence minister, the chief of staff and the deputy chief of staff. All military personnel go through Huthi religious training, but it is unclear how this has affected their loyalties. Crisis Group interview, Huthi supporter, Sanaa, April 2017. In what appears to be an indication of their relative strength, the Huthis have been responsible for negotiating security issues like withdrawals of militias and disarmament in the context of UN talks. According to a Huthi representative: “The GPC does not negotiate a security plan for Sanaa because it is not their file. It is not their responsibility. It is Ansar Allah’s responsibility”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, April 2017. Huthi supporters and many of their critics say that Saleh has weak support in the military and virtually no influence over security decisions in Sanaa. Crisis Group interviews, Huthi supporter, Huthi leader, Sanaa, April 2017; Yemeni analyst, Huthi tribal supporter, sheikh from Bakil, sheikh from Marib, Islah member, Hadi government representative, August and September 2017. That said, some say Saleh maintains significant influence beneath the surface. A GPC leader says that “Saleh is smart. He sent most of the Republican Guard members home when the war started and they will come back to the fight if called by Saleh. It is true that some Republican Guards are fighting at the war fronts, but not all of them. Many refuse to fight under Huthi command”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote That said, the Huthis have miscalculated in the past. In Aden, for example, they were confident that the population would support them against what they viewed as the al-Qaeda threat there. But ultimately they were perceived as invaders and pushed out by local forces, with the help of the UAE, in July 2015. In Sanaa too, they may overestimate their strength. Certainly Saleh and his party are politically popular; over 33 years of Saleh’s rule they built strong networks inside the military-security apparatus. Today it is not clear how many of these GPC loyalists are keeping their distance but would answer the call if violence erupted with the Huthis.

There is also the issue of the tribes. In Yemen, they are a critical component of hard power. Here again, the relative power balance is not clear. Saleh enjoys influence and support, both personally and because the Huthis have insulted and bullied many sheikhs, some of whom are eager to take revenge when the time is ready.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pro-Saleh sheikh, August 2017. According to a prominent GPC member, “90 per cent of the seven tribes that surround Sanaa are pro-Saleh. Only 10 per cent are aligned with the Huthis. This was not the case before the war. But over time, the Huthis’ mistakes and mistreatment of sheikhs increased Saleh’s popularity. The seven tribes surrounding Sanaa are critical to the balance of power in Sanaa. Most of the Republican Guards come from these areas”. Crisis Group interview, August 2017.Hide Footnote But the Huthis also have cultivated their own tribal networks, which often are a product of frustration with Saleh and his former allies like the al-Ahmar of the Hashid confederation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent tribal sheikh, Huthi tribal supporter, Huthi supporter, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The uncertainty about the two sides’ relative strength suggests that the consequences of a fight between them would be disastrous for Yemen and likely for Saudi Arabia as well. The Huthis and Saleh would lose ground as they pull their fighters from the war fronts, but their losses would not necessarily translate into sustainable gains for the Hadi government. Two years since the UAE and aligned southern fighters pushed the Huthis and Saleh’s forces out of southern territories, the Hadi government has been unable to successfully control, let alone govern, these areas. Instead, infighting between Hadi’s forces and southern separatists in the government’s temporary capital of Aden has divided the coalition, with Saudi Arabia backing Hadi and the UAE closely aligned with his competitors. Southern territories also are plagued by al-Qaeda’s expansion.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°174, Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote Despite hardships in Huthi/Saleh controlled areas, residents express relief that they are not living in the south’s “liberated areas”, a term they use to suggest chaos.[fn]Over two dozen Crisis Group interviews and conversations with residents of Sanaa, Yemen, April 2017.Hide Footnote

In the north, the prospect of the government profiting from an internecine Huthi-Saleh fight is even weaker. Given widespread resentment toward Hadi and Saudi Arabia in the Zaydi highlands in particular, it is virtually impossible to see his government as an alternative to the Huthis or Saleh’s GPC. The likely result of a clash would be the north’s fragmentation, leading to the same civil strife and sectarianism that has racked areas like Taiz. Islah, which has popular support in the north, could join forces on some fronts with the GPC against the Huthis. The GPC itself could fracture, with some continuing to ally with the Huthis while others join their enemies, including Islah and tribal forces aligned with the government in Marib. Almost certainly the conflict would be a magnet for Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch, which has forged alliances against the Huthis with local fighters in other parts of the country;[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen’s al-Qaeda, op. cit.Hide Footnote given the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Yemen could provide an attractive destination for these fighters to relocate.

The weaker Yemen’s north, the more likely chaos is to spread to Saudi Arabia.

These dynamics could shred the north’s social fabric, which hitherto has been strained but not as severely as the south’s, and accelerate the country’s humanitarian disaster, already one of the worst globally.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°52, Instruments of Pain (I): Conflict and Famine in Yemen, 13 April 2017.Hide Footnote The weaker Yemen’s north, the more likely chaos is to spread to Saudi Arabia. Iran would find ample opportunity to keep the Saudis bogged down. Perhaps most dangerously for Riyadh, it will become increasingly difficult to engineer a way out: as intra-group fragmentation grows, there will be no clear address for negotiation.

That said, the most likely scenario is a continuation of the troubled Huthi/Saleh partnership. The danger of a split is obvious to both political leaderships.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC politician, August 2017; Huthi politician, September 2017.Hide Footnote Any military escalation by the Saudi-led coalition likely would reinforce this sense, and push them to paper over their differences. Yet the continuation of the Huthi/Saleh alliance does not bode any better for Saudi Arabia and Hadi. If the two stay together and the war continues, the Huthis likely will tighten their control of the north. Already, they have announced a new round of changes in the government, which they say are meant to weed out corruption but which are being made at the GPC’s expense; they also have tightened restrictions on the press and some in the movement are calling for a state of emergency, which the GPC fears will facilitate an even greater crackdown. If the Huthis consolidate power, the north’s precarious political balance will be lost and their relatively hard-line position will complicate negotiations. Their propensity to form shadow state institutions and supervisory bodies through the revolutionary committee also would further hollow out already weak state institutions.

B. A Way Out

Saudi Arabia and its partners have long sought to pry the GPC away from the Huthis. However, now that divisions have become more apparent, Riyadh should forgo the temptation to push for military advantage or wait for its adversaries to fight each other, scenarios that, as explained above, almost certainly will not give them a decisive advantage. Instead, along with regional partners including Oman, and with the encouragement of the Security Council and UN special envoy, it should champion a political solution. The timing is ripe but the opportunity easily could slip away. There is widespread frustration with the Huthis in the north and a desire, including within the GPC and some parts of the Huthi movement, to find an exit to the war. If Riyadh, through a regional initiative, supported a realistic compromise to end the fighting – outside the narrow requirements of UN Security Resolution 2216,[fn]Passed on 14 April 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 unequivocally took the Yemen government’s side in the civil war. The resolution demanded the Huthis withdraw from territories, surrender weapons to the state and cease all activities that are the government’s prerogative. It also levied a travel ban and asset freeze on the Huthi leader, Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi and on Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, and established an inspection mechanism to prevent the Huthis from rearming.Hide Footnote which are perceived as tantamount to surrender by GPC and Huthi constituencies alike – both would be hard-pressed to reject it in the face of public pressure.

A new Saudi-backed regional initiative also would allow the GPC, by reacting positively, to seize the political momentum. That in turn would give leverage to those Huthi political leaders who say that they would support a political deal, as they did in October 2016 when former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed one, before the Hadi government rejected it.[fn]The Huthi negotiating team grudgingly accepted the roadmap proposed by Secretary Kerry as the basis for negotiations. The roadmap itself was based on UN talks in Kuwait, which collapsed in August 2017, but unlike what was on the table in Kuwait, for the first time combined political compromises (the Huthis’ priority) and security compromises (the priority of the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia) in a single agreement. Doubts existed as to whether the Huthis would live up to a deal if it were accepted, but their commitment remained untested, as the Hadi government rejected the proposal.Hide Footnote Would-be Huthi dealmakers need ammunition against hardliners, especially those in the military-security apparatus who are deeply sceptical of compromise and derive benefits from continuing the war.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi supporter, September 2017. He said: “Extremists within the movement have more power in the military security apparatus and they do not want to give up the fight. But there is a group in Ansar Allah that wants a political solution and they will raise their hand in favour of one if a realistic offer is on the table. A peace agreement that secures all sides, not one that asks for the surrender of the Huthis, will give more power to moderates in the movement. Now they are at a dangerous moment when the military side may take over completely and the moderate voices will be lost”.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia is the best positioned to take advantage of the political moment. Everyone, including the GPC and the Huthis, their hesitations about Saudi intentions notwithstanding, know that it is the real powerbroker, in no small part because of its role in supporting the opposing side of the war and its superior capacity to fund reconstruction. Yet at present, Riyadh refuses to acknowledge its role in the conflict, instead insisting that it is an intra-Yemeni one that must be resolved between Yemenis. In part, the contention is correct. No agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Huthi/Saleh side will resolve intra-Yemeni disputes, particularly regarding the issue of decentralisation and the federal structure, which triggered the violence and civil war in the first place. That said, the Saudi-led military intervention has further highlighted a regional dimension to the fight. For the GPC and the Huthis, the war is now first and foremost against Saudi Arabia and only secondarily against domestic enemies. Both of Riyadh’s adversaries are largely dismissive of the Hadi government, which they rightly insist has limited influence on the ground. Instead, they seek negotiations to end the war with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the UAE, who – in addition to launching airstrikes – are the war’s main financiers in general and of anti-Huthi/Saleh fighters in particular, who comprise a mixture of Islah, tribes, Salafi groups and southern separatists. If a compromise to end the regionalised part of the war were able to gain traction, Saudi Arabia should have the leverage to bring its Yemeni allies along.

Given that UN negotiations to end the conflict have been stalled since the collapse of talks in Kuwait in August 2016, new thinking is needed. If Saudi Arabia is not willing to take a seat at the table, at a minimum it should advance a political initiative and, in cooperation with regional states and with UN support, provide the table around which Yemenis can hammer out the details. In that scenario, Riyadh optimally would co-sponsor a political initiative and dialogue with other GCC or Arab states – including Oman, which has ties to the Huthis, and possibly Kuwait, which previously has hosted UN talks.

A chief benefit of a regionally-sponsored initiative is its potential to break the diplomatic stalemate.

A chief benefit of a regionally-sponsored initiative is its potential to break the diplomatic stalemate following three unsuccessful rounds of UN negotiations and an ensuing deficit of trust by all combatants, but especially the Huthi/Saleh bloc, in the UN process and the special envoy. It would also send a clear message to all Yemeni belligerents that Saudi Arabia, the pivotal regional powerbroker, is fully supportive of a settlement, something that Yemeni stakeholders from across the political spectrum say is currently lacking.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islah supporters, GPC-aligned sheikh, southern separatist leaders, Hadi government representative, GPC members, political independent, non-aligned tribal sheikh, Yemeni analyst, Cairo, July and August 2017; three Huthi representatives, Huthi supporter, Hadi government representative, sheikhs aligned with the Hadi government, September 2017.Hide Footnote

To be successful, a regional initiative and subsequent talks should break out of the constraints imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which has impeded UN negotiations because of its one-sided and unrealistic nature. The resolution demands, in effect, the surrender of the Huthi/Saleh side and establishes a negotiating framework – the Huthis and Saleh on one side, the Hadi government on the other – that does not reflect the range of Yemeni belligerents on the ground. More inclusive, regionally-sponsored talks could comprise all relevant combatants, including Saleh’s GPC, the Huthis, the Hadi government, tribal representatives, Islah, Salafi groups and representatives of the Hiraak, south Yemen’s separatist movement. With wider terms of reference, more issues could be addressed, including for instance Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s security concerns about Iranian influence in Yemen, as well as border and maritime security. Such talks also could have the flexibility to address the role of controversial Yemeni leaders like Saleh, Hadi, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (Saleh’s former partner who defected in 2011 to join the Arab Spring and is now Hadi’s vice president) and others who are central to the current conflict and whose removal from politics may be needed for the country to move forward. For any of this to work, back-channel bilateral discussion between Saudi Arabia and Saleh on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the Huthis on the other, will be needed to lay the conceptual foundations for an agreement to end hostilities.

Most likely, a successful regional initiative would contain the following elements, which would need further specification in the context of talks:

  • Comprehensive ceasefire, lifting of all blockades and opening of international airports, with security guarantees and monitoring to ensure that Yemeni belligerents, including the Huthi/Saleh side, do not use a ceasefire to rearm;
     
  • Return of Huthi/Saleh fighters to Yemeni territory and withdrawal of all of these fighters from the Saudi-Yemeni border;
     
  • Commitment of all Yemeni groups to cut military ties with Iran and to combat al-Qaeda;
     
  • Commitment by Saudi Arabia and other regional states to help in post-war reconstruction;
     
  • Agreement on a new executive leadership, including an interim president, vice president and prime minister, and an inclusive coalition government for a limited period of time until elections, as well as agreement on the government’s responsibilities, which must include a clear plan for implementing and overseeing the withdrawal of all militias from cities and the handover of heavy weapons to the state, most likely through an inclusive military-security council;
     
  • Commitment of all Yemeni parties to the consensus outcomes of the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), including the principle of decentralisation, and completing the remaining tasks of the transition period, including a constitutional referendum and elections;
     
  • Agreement to implement decentralisation measures during the transition period, giving governorates significant financial and security authorities, with a special status for the south;
     
  • Develop a mechanism to revisit the main outstanding issues of the NDC: the number of federal regions, the status of south Yemen and the issue of national reconciliation.
     

The UN has an important role to play. Regionally sponsored talks over the details of the elements listed above should be supported by UN Security Council members and by the UN envoy to encourage participation and ensure that agreements have international backing. Yemenis also will need technical and political assistance from the UN to implement an agreement for ending the war and to resolve political issues, like state structure, that will likely require further negotiation. Finally, the UN could serve a vital role in ensuring that women, youth, civil society activists and a full range of political parties have a seat at the decision-making table and the influence to affect what happens during the transition phase, something they enjoyed during the NDC but which was quickly eroded by war.

Under the long shadow of Resolution 2216 and after three rounds of failed UN talks, there is little chance that the UN envoy, working under the established framework, would be able to produce an agreement. In these circumstances and with the war poised to metastasise in Yemen’s north or even spill outside its borders, the best chance for an exit resides with regional actors and Yemenis themselves, with the international community actively encouraging and supporting their efforts from behind.

Brussels, 11 October 2017