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Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements
Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements

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

Former Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann
Image grab taken from Yemen TV early on April 7, 2022 shows Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi during a televised speech. AFP / YEMEN TV

Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements

The UN has brokered a surprise truce in Yemen’s long-running war, while the country’s internationally recognised president has handed over his powers to an eight-man council. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Peter Salisbury explains the significance of these developments.

What has happened in Yemen?

The UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, announced on 1 April that he had secured a two-month truce between “the parties” to the country’s seven-year war. The agreement came into force at 7pm Yemen time the next day. Local and regional media continue to report fighting, particularly around the embattled city of Marib, but overall the war’s tempo appears to be slowing.

By “the parties” to Yemen’s war, the statement from Grundberg’s office meant the Huthi rebels, who go by the name Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), and the internationally recognised government, which at the time the truce was signed was headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. It did not mention the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which is running an intensive air war upon the Huthis in support of the Yemeni government, or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which until early 2020 had troops fighting in Yemen as part of this alliance. The Huthis, who have Iranian support, have launched missile strikes on both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But the coalition endorsed the truce, which includes a freeze in coalition air strikes – a key Huthi condition for halting the fighting. UN Secretary-General António Guterres commended it for doing so. Meanwhile, on 7 April, Hadi handed over his powers to a presidential council, which will be responsible for enforcing the truce’s terms from the government side.

What did the parties agree to?

UN officials have been at pains to underscore that a truce is not the same as a ceasefire. A truce is an informal agreement to stop fighting. It is a step short of a formal ceasefire – the latter would not only halt the hostilities but also include agreed-upon monitoring and de-escalation mechanisms.

The newly announced truce outlines a couple of significant confidence-building measures. The Yemeni government and the coalition will ease their embargo on fuel entering the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and allow commercial flights to and from the capital Sanaa, which the rebels also control, for the first time since 2016. The parties also committed to reopening talks over road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen, which the Huthis have encircled since 2016, and other parts of the country.

The UN has yet to publish all the details, but Huthi and government officials have confirmed the contents of the text to which they agreed, providing specifics. Under the agreement, the government and coalition will allow eighteen fuel shipments to enter Hodeida over the course of the two-month truce, along with twice-weekly flights to Sanaa from two destinations: Cairo and Amman.

Was the truce expected?

It came as a surprise. That the UN was exerting efforts to negotiate a truce to coincide with the start of Ramadan was an open secret. But there was plenty of reason to be pessimistic it would succeed. The agreement’s broad contours – halting the fighting, letting fuel ships into Hodeida and reopening Sanaa airport – had been at the heart of UN mediation efforts since early 2020. Grundberg’s predecessor, Martin Griffiths, sought to broker a ceasefire around these elements to prevent a battle for Marib in both 2020 and 2021. Until now, the government and the Huthis had taken turns in blocking such an agreement.

Perhaps the bigger surprise, if the agreement’s terms outlined above are accurate, is that the parties settled for such a limited set of conditions. The Huthis have long sought to have all restrictions on trade entering Hodeida port lifted and for Sanaa airport to be opened to commercial flights from all over the world. The eighteen fuel shipments and two weekly flights are a far cry from this goal.

Moreover, both the Huthis and the government had sought a ceasefire deal that would mainly favour their side. For example, the government wanted the Huthis to withdraw from their positions around Marib. This city is the government’s last stronghold in the north and the country’s largest oil and gas extraction facilities are located in its environs. From their side, the Huthis, who paint the war as a battle by their “nationalist” forces against Saudi “aggression”, sought to limit a ceasefire to cross-border attacks – in other words, a ceasefire or truce between the Huthis and the coalition, not the government – leaving their rivals exposed to a continued ground assault in Marib and elsewhere. In the event, they agreed to what is in effect a self-policed military freeze-in-place.

What should we make of the formation of the presidential council and will it affect the truce?

On 7 April, Hadi, Yemen’s interim president of a decade’s standing, announced that he was removing his vice president of the past five years, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and more importantly, ceding his executive powers to a presidential council. The members of the eight-man council were apparently selected by delegates at talks in Riyadh convened by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an inter-governmental body comprising the six Gulf Arab monarchies. It was Hadi, however, who officially appointed the council by means of an “irreversible” presidential declaration. The council will be led by Rashad al-Alimi, Yemen’s former interior minister. It unprecedentedly brings together prominent leaders of the anti-Huthi military and political factions that control territory and forces on the ground. It is evenly split between northerners and southerners.

There have long been rumours about such an overhaul at the top. By mid-2021, a broad consensus had emerged in the anti-Huthi bloc that the political status quo was unsustainable. Hadi was widely recognised as exerting little to no control, or even influence, over most of the major anti-Huthi groupings now represented on the council. He provided little in the way of leadership and anti-Huthi forces were beset by factional disputes. In September 2021, the Huthis made breakthroughs in central and northern Yemen that allowed them to almost entirely surround Marib city. Only the intervention of UAE-aligned forces in Shebwa and Marib governorates prevented the government’s defences from falling apart. These offensives, proceeding over the past few months, marked the first time that the Huthis have lost territory in almost four years. But government-led forces subsequently failed to capitalise on these gains, in particular proving unable to capture a single city in northern Yemen. Yemenis cited these difficulties and the dire economic straits of nominally government-controlled areas as evidence that Hadi and Mohsen were too weak to keep heading the government.

It is not clear what persuaded Hadi to step down ... but the Saudis ... are widely held to have compelled him to do so.

In the hours after the council was formed, Riyadh and the UAE announced $3 billion in aid to stabilise Yemen’s cratering economy. As part of his decree forming the council, Hadi also appointed a new economic committee. It is not clear what persuaded Hadi to step down after so many years of manoeuvring on his part to avoid ceding power, but the Saudis, his hosts for the past seven years, are widely held to have compelled him to do so.

An important question is whether the council was formed to advance the government’s cause in the war or to sue for peace. Reading prepared comments during the GCC meeting’s closing ceremony, Yemeni Prime Minister Maen Saeed Abdulmalik, who retained his post as head of the cabinet, said delegates had agreed that there was no military solution to the war, arriving instead at a consensus behind pursuing peace with the Huthis. Several people involved in the Riyadh talks point to language in the presidential decree that charges the council with negotiating a permanent ceasefire and a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. They and GCC officials say negotiations will be a priority. Riyadh will also be aware that the council comprises rival factions and hence it will likely want to move fast before internal tensions bubble up to the surface. But some in the anti-Huthi camp are already arguing that the presidential council should work to unify military efforts instead of making peace overtures.

Why did these things happen now?

The truce and the council’s appointment are both likely results of shifts in conflict dynamics over the course of 2021 and 2022. By late 2021, the Huthis were convinced that they were poised to march into Marib and therefore deemed a truce harmful to their prospects of seizing the city and eponymous governorate. From their side, the government and its allies equated the Huthis’ terms for a ceasefire – lifting all restrictions on Hodeida port and Sanaa airport – with an assault on the government’s sovereign authority. Nor did Riyadh want to make concessions to the Huthis without a meaningful return, likely related to their demand that the group cut its ties with Iran.

The full Huthi takeover of Marib – which appeared entirely possible some months ago – never came to pass. Marib’s fall to the Huthis would have given the group access not only to Yemen’s main oil fields but also to a swathe of desert bordering Saudi Arabia. The rebels already control territory abutting the kingdom, chiefly their northern highland bastion of Saada, but if they were to take this desert, they would have a vast new staging ground for possible cross-border attacks. The situation changed in early 2022. As mentioned above, in January, UAE-aligned forces made the first significant military gains against the Huthis in almost four years, greatly complicating Huthi efforts to seize Marib city and governorate. The Huthis responded to their losses by launching drone and missile strikes on the UAE. These attacks, which killed and injured several people, were the first Abu Dhabi has acknowledged publicly (the Huthis have twice claimed prior attacks on Abu Dhabi airport about which UAE has made no comment). The UAE has since pushed for the U.S. to re-designate the Huthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. (The Biden administration removed this designation, which its predecessor had put in place shortly before leaving office.)

The Huthis also increased the frequency of their attacks on Saudi Arabia, most recently hitting an oil storage depot in Jeddah just ahead of a Formula 1 race in the city. Riyadh responded with more airstrikes on Sanaa and other populated areas, increasing the risk of mass civilian casualties that would draw more censure from abroad. These events created a broad military equilibrium for the first time in several years. Meanwhile, the economy in both government- and Huthi-held areas has been badly affected by the price spikes in global commodity markets set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that provoked. Fuel shortages in Huthi areas have become more and more acute, in part because of the embargo.

By the time the UN mediated the truce ... both sides were hurting and stood to gain from at least a temporary pause.

By the time the UN mediated the truce, in other words, both sides were hurting and stood to gain from at least a temporary pause. Riyadh has long said it wants a negotiated solution to the war and has been under pressure from the U.S. to find a way to end the conflict. But it was clear that a solution would not be possible with Hadi at the helm. In principle, the council’s formation should provide the Huthis with a credible negotiating partner, though whether it will lead to serious talks is far from clear. Thus far, the rebels have mocked the council and say they will negotiate only with the Saudis.

What do Yemenis think about the truce and the council?

Responses are mixed. Exhausted by the war, most ordinary Yemenis want to believe the truce can hold. Many of the people Crisis Group has spoken to, even those who are vehemently anti-Huthi, are excited by the idea that Sanaa airport will reopen along with key roads and highways. A functioning airport would allow the sick to travel abroad for medical treatment, while greater freedom of movement will let families reunite and improve the economic and humanitarian situation, particularly for those stuck in besieged Taiz. The riyal, which has collapsed in value against the dollar, has appreciated marginally since the truce announcement.

Yet pessimism is pervasive. Many people believe that the parties agreed to the truce merely as a tactical pause and are not ready for serious peace talks that could lead to a formal and perhaps longer-lasting ceasefire. The Saudis are widely rumoured to have forced the government into the agreement. If they did, the deal may not hold as the government seeks to stymie its implementation. As for the Huthis, their rivals claim that the group agrees to truces or talks only when it benefits them to do so, in order to regroup for future attacks. Many in the anti-Huthi camp believe the Huthis will break the truce soon in order to renew their assault on Marib – or use the truce to prepare for another attack shortly after the two months elapse.

A common refrain among social media commentators is that the truce is “Stockholm 2.0”, a reference to the 2018 UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement. That deal prevented what could have been a terrible battle for Hodeida, with UAE-aligned forces at the port city’s doorstep at the time, but little of its substance ever saw the light of day. The two sides repeatedly accused each other of violating the ceasefire around Hodeida and constantly quibbled over the terms of a proposed prisoner swap and revenue-sharing mechanism for the port. Similar problems are likely to plague the new truce agreement.od

So far, the presidential council’s reception has been largely positive among anti-Huthi groups, which tired long ago of Hadi’s sclerotic, self-serving rule and saw a government shake-up as badly needed. But the welcome is not unanimous. Some factions of Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, which is prominent in defending Marib and Taiz cities, have expressed concern that the council is designed to dilute their group’s influence and argued that Hadi’s decree establishing it is unconstitutional. Partisans of the various Islah factions are also complaining that their role is too small relative to others’. The Huthis, as noted, dismiss the council as more of the same, a mere Saudi-controlled front for continuation of Riyadh’s “aggression”.

Will the truce hold?

A large gap remains between the sides as to what a political settlement should look like and how to get there. Even the limited truce agreement will be hard to keep in place. The UN will not formally monitor the truce, and authorities in Marib have already accused the Huthis of violating it. It is easy for the government and the coalition to allow fuel shipments into Hodeida. But reopening Sanaa airport to international flights is likely to be fraught with technical difficulties, especially if the government and Huthis choose to make it so by squabbling over things like flight paths and passport authority, which they almost certainly will do. If no flights arrive in Sanaa soon, the Huthis may accuse the UN of letting the truce fail. The rebels regularly accuse the UN of bias toward their rivals.

By the same token, if no progress is made on Taiz, many in the anti-Huthi camp are likely to accuse the UN of brokering a deal designed to benefit the rebels. They may also say international diplomats care more about civilians in Sanaa suffering fuel shortages and the lack of an airport than those besieged by the Huthis in Taiz. Fighting on the ground also could scupper the deal. Already, local officials in Taiz have begun to report Huthi troop build-ups on key front lines across the governorate. They warn of a coming offensive that exploits the freeze in Saudi airstrikes.

A more optimistic reading is that the Saudis – who clearly were instrumental in making the truce possible, even if they are not a formal party to it – and the Huthis agreed to the truce independently of one another and did so because they saw it as beneficial rather than because they were under outside pressure. The Stockholm Agreement came about largely because of U.S. pressure on Riyadh in the wake of the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and because the Huthis feared they might lose Hodeida. International pressure on the Saudis has lessened since, although the U.S. has pushed Riyadh to meet some Huthi conditions to make a ceasefire possible. Scrutiny of the Huthis has increased, especially since the Abu Dhabi attacks.

The pressure is now on the UN to prove that it can bring the truce to fruition.

With the conflict in balance, there is no single pressure point that would disproportionally favour one side or the other. For both, the upside of halting the conflict is clear and either can resume fighting any time it likes. By overseeing the formation of the presidential council and setting the tone of the Riyadh meeting, including the Yemeni prime minister’s statement, the Saudis have both signalled a desire to negotiate an end to the war and shown an ability to unite anti-Huthi war efforts. If anything, the pressure is now on the UN to prove that it can bring the truce to fruition. If it fails, Riyadh and Sanaa are both likely to blame Grundberg and return to old arguments that their rivals cannot be trusted.

What needs to happen next?

The UN needs to move fast to get fuel shipments into Hodeida and flights moving in and out of Sanaa. It also needs to prove it is serious about reopening Taiz. Finally, it needs to try getting the new presidential council in a room with the Huthis. Patience is likely to wear thin among Yemenis by the end of the first month of the two-month truce. Sanaa flights allowing families to reunite by Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that closes Ramadan, would be a powerful symbol of the value of negotiation that could give a boost to further UN-led mediation. The cost of failure, meanwhile, would be deeper cynicism among Yemenis that the warring parties are capable of compromise or that the UN is capable of brokering an end to the conflict. Three and a half years have passed since the UN mediated the Stockholm Agreement and an even longer gap is likely in the event that this truce does not last past its expiry date. Getting to a ceasefire and political talks – both of which are imperative – is unlikely if the truce cannot be sustained and expanded. The anti-Huthi camp, meanwhile, will be aware that the new council risks being racked with infighting the longer it lasts, and should push at a minimum for an interim political settlement that ends the fighting and allows Yemen’s rival factions to attempt to resolve their differences through talks.