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Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State
Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

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

Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann

Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

As Yemen's unremitting conflict continues to drive a nation-wide humanitarian crisis, there is an ever-increasing need to quell hostilities. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rebuild the credibility of the UN-sponsored talks in order to find a durable ceasefire and work toward a political settlement within Yemen.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Yemen’s war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters; between 70 and 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and over half of its 26 million people face food insecurity. Localised fighting escalated into full blown war in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of Huthi militias and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has fragmented a weak state, destroyed the country’s meagre infrastructure and opened vast opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) to grow and seize territory.

Continued fighting, especially the Saudi-led coalition’s attempt to capture the Red Sea port of Hodeida (northern Yemen’s economic lifeline), stifling blockades and unilateral moves such as the relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden will deepen intra-Yemeni divisions and increase the risk of famine. The conflict is likely to continue to expand into the region with growing refugee flows, violence by AQAP and IS outside Yemen and more attacks by Huthi/Saleh forces inside Saudi Arabia. Continued fighting will further fuel tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, also a contributory factor in other conflicts in the region. International efforts to press the two sides to a ceasefire have been woefully inadequate. Insufficient media attention hasn’t helped either.

Incoherent International Approaches

The approach that the U.S. and UK, in particular, have taken in Yemen has been muddled. They have supported UN efforts to end the conflict, but at the same time continued to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia despite evidence that it has repeatedly violated the laws of war. In April 2015, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216, a one-sided document that essentially called for the Huthi/Saleh alliance to surrender and which the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition have used repeatedly to obstruct efforts to achieve peace.

In August 2016, a fresh initiative by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process proved too little too late. Nonetheless, while it exposed the Obama administration’s inability to bring along Saudi Arabia, it did present a more balanced solution. Current UN-led diplomatic efforts are complicated by uncertainties surrounding the position of the new Trump administration. It appears to favour more aggressive military action against AQAP and possibly against the Huthis, whom it seems to view as an Iranian proxy, to the detriment of prioritising a negotiated settlement. Further, after three rounds of peace talks and multiple failed ceasefires, the UN has lost credibility with all sides, especially the Huthi/Saleh bloc, which sees UN mediation efforts as biased toward Saudi Arabia.

The EU’s Peace-making Potential

Enter the European Union (EU). The EU – through its delegation to Yemen and in coordination with Brussels – is well qualified to help rebuild the credibility of UN-sponsored talks and prod the sides toward a ceasefire and settlement. Throughout the conflict, it has been a consistent advocate of a ceasefire and political solution under UN auspices, a position that has not been compromised by active participation or partisan support in the war. The EU’s neutrality, despite the UK’s and France’s bilateral positions in support of the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign, has allowed it to maintain credibility and contacts with the principal belligerents, including the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen has done much to encourage the Huthis to engage with the UN peace process. The delegation and Ms Mogherini, among other EU actors, have consistently called attention to parties’ dangerous unilateral moves, condemned war crimes and supplied technical support to UN ceasefire monitoring committees.

In 2017, the EU with its member states should build on these efforts by focusing on two priorities: 1) securing a durable ceasefire and political settlement to end the war; 2) mitigating the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

Ending the war will require a two-pronged approach: first, securing a UN-backed ceasefire and agreement that will end Saudi Arabia’s military intervention by addressing its security concerns and allowing it to make a face-saving exit; and second, launching inclusive UN-sponsored intra-Yemeni negotiations to chart the country’s political future. To achieve a ceasefire, the EU, leveraging its credibility with the Huthis and Saleh’s party, and in coordination with the UK and France, both of which may have Saudi Arabia’s ear because they support it militarily, should encourage backchannel talks between the antagonists to lay the foundations for a UN-backed deal.

In addition, the UK, as penholder, and France should push for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, both inside Yemen and along the Yemeni-Saudi border, and outlining parameters of a compromise solution consistent with the UN roadmap and requiring concessions from both sides. They should also limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia expressly and only for defence (including defence of Saudi territory from cross-border attacks by Huthi-Saleh forces) and condition sales of arms for offensive purposes on Riyadh’s express support for an immediate ceasefire.

To promote a durable settlement, the EU and its member states should champion broadly inclusive intra-Yemeni negotiations that address unresolved issues, especially decentralisation and the status of the south. They could work toward these talks through track II initiatives and sustained diplomatic engagement with actors beyond the Hadi government and the Huthi/Saleh bloc, including the Sunni Islamist party Islah, southern separatists, tribal groupings, Salafi groups and civil society organisations including women’s groups.

Increasing Humanitarian Relief and Upholding International Law

The EU and its member states should continue efforts to mitigate the war’s humanitarian toll and prevent further deterioration. Specifically, they should urgently discourage, both privately and publicly, the Saudi-led coalition’s attempts to capture Hodeida, a move that would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis and set back prospects for a negotiated settlement. More generally, they should call on the Saudi-led coalition to relax the air and sea blockade on Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas (including by allowing civilian flights in and out of Sanaa, the capital), and call on the Huthis to ease the blockade of Taiz. In each case, they should encourage the blockading side to facilitate the free movement of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians. They should also encourage the Yemeni antagonists to reach a compromise that allows basic Central Bank functioning throughout the country, including especially the payment of public-sector salaries and enabling importers to secure letters of credit for essential foodstuffs.

The EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides.

Finally, the EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides. They should bring to bear concerted diplomatic pressure and, where relevant, threaten to suspend all weapons sales. The EU could go further by advocating for an independent inquiry into alleged violations on the grounds that not holding perpetrators accountable breeds impunity, a recipe for further conflict. Yet given internal rifts within the UN Human Rights Council on this issue, including among EU member states, the EU will have more impact at this stage by focusing on promoting a ceasefire. Ultimately, however, a lasting settlement will need to include a mechanism for addressing transitional justice and accountability.