The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah
The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah

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
A car travelling from Yemen’s Taiz city to Aden via the Hajjat al-Abd road. This route is prone to car and truck accidents which can be deadly. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Taiz, a city in central Yemen, is besieged by Huthi rebels and practically cut off from the rest of the country. Restored road access would save lives and build trust that could help bring peace to Yemen, but time is short.

More than a month has passed since the UN announced a truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Huthi rebels it has been battling for the past seven years with backing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the truce itself has held, if somewhat shakily. But the UN has been able to secure partial implementation of only two of the three confidence-building measures it attached to the deal that has halted the fighting: passage of fuel shipments into the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopening of the Huthi-held Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights for the first time since 2016. There has been little if any progress on the third measure – reinvigoration of efforts to restore road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that the Huthis have besieged since 2016. UN officials are now in a race against time to ensure that the Sanaa airport remains open in the hope of prolonging the truce and starting political talks. Important as that task is, they must not forget Taiz. What happens there could either accelerate a shift away from violent confrontation to political negotiations, or become an impediment that derails UN-led efforts to finally end Yemen’s destructive war.

A Fragile Opportunity

Recent developments present a moment of opportunity in Yemen. The two-month truce came into effect on 2 April. It is an informal, self-policed agreement by the parties to stop fighting. In theory, it is renewable. The UN’s hope is that an extended truce can be a springboard for political talks about a formal ceasefire and a negotiated way out of the conflict.

Less than a week after the UN announced the truce, Yemen’s president of ten years, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, announced that he was ceding power to a new eight-member presidential council led by the former interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi reportedly stepped down under pressure from Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to reorganise the anti-Huthi bloc. Anti-Huthi Yemenis had heavily criticised Hadi for exercising too little leadership in the disparate anti-Huthi alliance. The Huthis publicly dismissed the new council as a mere “reshuffling of mercenaries” that underscores what they see as the government’s lack of legitimacy. Yet the council is broadly representative of the range of military and political factions opposing the Huthis. It has since been inaugurated in Aden, along with a prime minister and cabinet.

The truce and the council’s formation ... present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process.

The truce and the council’s formation – and the latter’s public declarations that it will pursue peace with the Huthis – present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process, particularly given the decline in the Huthis’ battlefield dominance as a result of renewed Emirati support for anti-Huthi forces. It is probably an exaggeration to say peace is an immediate possibility, and many Yemenis see the truce as an opportunity for the rival parties to regroup rather than to cease hostilities. Still, prospects for a move from violent combat to meaningful political negotiations are better now than they have been in years.

In order to capitalise on the opportunity for a truce extension, the parties need to make sustained progress on all three of the related confidence-building measures. The UN appears already to be pushing hard on fuel shipments and reopening Sanaa airport. The Taiz issue, however, requires closer attention.

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Taiz and the Truce

That the truce has held up so far, if a bit tenuously, is an achievement in and of itself given the depth of distrust between the Huthis and their rivals, who have exchanged recriminations over delays in taking the agreed-upon steps. Yet nowhere does distrust of the Huthis’ intentions run higher than in Taiz, where residents greeted the truce announcement with protest instead of celebration. Many residents saw the agreement’s provisions for their city as unrealistic. For many in the anti-Huthi camp, Taiz has become a symbol of what they see as a lopsided international approach that gives short shrift to their grievances while seeking to appease the Huthis. 

Taiz governorate has been isolated from the rest of Yemen since battles in 2015 left the Huthis holding its economically and strategically important northern regions and encircling Taiz city, whose centre remained under the control of government-aligned forces. Fighting has cut off all the main overland routes linking Taiz with Huthi- and government-controlled areas. No matter where they travel, Yemenis who live in the city are forced to navigate single-track mountain roads with perilous hairpin bends and checkpoints manned by armed groups. 

The consequences have been debilitating for civic life and commerce. Travel time to and from Taiz has increased dramatically. A trip from Huthi-controlled Hawban, Taiz governorate’s industrial hub where many residents work, to government-controlled Taiz city centre once took between 5 and 15 minutes by car and now takes 5 to 6 hours along a poorly maintained one-lane road. Travelling from Taiz to the southern port city of Aden takes from 6 to 8 hours by car; it took 2 to 3 hours before 2015. Moving basic goods like food and fuel by truck between the two nominally allied cities can take anywhere from 14 hours to several days. Higher transport costs and checkpoint fees, combined with other costs of operating in a war economy, have driven up food and fuel prices inside the city, making it one of the most expensive places to live in Yemen. It is not uncommon for sick Taizis to die on their way to Aden or Sanaa for urgent medical care. Thus far, the Huthis have had little incentive to improve road access to the city: they control the governorate’s economic heart and are keeping their main local rivals boxed in. Further complicating matters, parts of Taiz governorate not controlled by the Huthis are heavily contested by rival groups within the anti-Huthi bloc, sometimes violently.

Hawban to Taiz
Aden to Taiz

Failed Precedents

A series of local and international initiatives has failed to improve access to Taiz city – a failure that many residents see as the product of a UN and international bias in favour of the Huthis. In explaining their frustration, they point to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which staved off a battle for Hodeida, and was intended to set the stage for broader peace talks. That agreement contained a vague sub-agreement on Taiz: it called on both sides to select representatives to a joint committee, which would work toward the goal of reopening humanitarian corridors into the city centre. The committee was also to submit a single report on movement toward improving road access into the city in the run-up to future consultations.

But the sub-agreement yielded no meaningful progress on restoring Taiz residents’ access to the rest of the country. Although the UN held individual meetings with each of the parties’ representatives, the delegations never met jointly as a committee, much less reached agreement on how to achieve the goals articulated in Sweden. Anti-Huthi Yemenis criticised the UN for failing to expend the same energy on reopening Taiz – which residents see as a humanitarian issue – that it did on ending the siege of Hodeida. Many of the Yemenis who have worked on the Taiz road issue since the start of the war believe the UN should not have made it part of the Stockholm deal and instead should have negotiated access on a separate track. In their view, placing Taiz in the Stockholm framework made it too easy for the Huthis to make progress on this issue contingent on implementation of other aspects of the agreement. There is also a widespread perception that the UN gave up too quickly when negotiations over the roads faltered and other pressing issues took precedence.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components, which Riyadh has been trying to unify under a single umbrella. Many Taizis believe that the Saudi-led coalition – and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has an expressly anti-Islamist domestic and regional agenda – wishes for Taiz to remain isolated in order to keep Islah, an Islamist group dominant in Taiz, weak. Yemenis in this camp point to the ability of UAE-backed forces to mobilise troops and retake territory in other parts of the country, as they did in three districts in southern Shebwa and Marib earlier in 2022. They believe that the Saudi-led coalition could, if it wished, provide more military assistance to anti-Huthi forces in Taiz to push the Huthis back from the roads around the city at the very least. Some anti-Huthi Yemenis also perceive the truce as a signal that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the war. They believe that the Saudis agreed to include progress on Taiz issues as one of the three confidence-building measures only to mollify the Hadi government, which reportedly had resisted the deal.

But this anti-Saudi sentiment, and a sense that Riyadh acted imperiously in pushing for formation of the new presidential council, could wind up working in Taiz’s favour. The council, whose head, al-Alimi, is himself from Taiz, is under pressure to demonstrate that it is working at least as much with ordinary Yemenis in mind as with Riyadh’s desire to be done with Yemen. Thus, it is possible that the council will seek to underscore its bona fides by making road access a central pillar of its negotiating strategy in much the same way that the Huthis have done with Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, namely by refusing to allow talks on other issues to progress without movement on the roads in Taiz.

Thus far, however, there has been very little progress of any kind. As part of the truce agreement, the Huthis and the government committed to form a joint negotiating committee to tackle the Taiz roads issue, as they did previously under the Stockholm Agreement. Yemeni government officials say they have named their candidates for the committee and provided proposals on reopening the Taiz-Hodeida, Taiz-Sanaa and Taiz-Aden roads. They claim that the Huthis have yet to nominate their own negotiators, casting the rebels as the main barrier to progress. In fact, the Huthis have laid out new demands to reopen roads in Taiz, the first of which are to halt fighting in the governorate and remove military equipment from its main arteries.

The currently closed Hawban road which used to connect government-controlled Taiz city and Huthi-held Hawban. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Building Confidence Goes Both Ways

Whatever happens next, the Taiz road access issue is likely to become increasingly contentious, particularly as the UN ramps up efforts to sustain progress on the other two confidence-building measures in an effort to extend and expand the truce. To date, according to a Yemeni government official who spoke with Crisis Group, at least eleven fuel ships have arrived at Hodeida port. Moreover, the first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years departed for Amman shortly after the government announced it would allow people carrying Huthi-issued passports to travel. Despite such progress, rumours are spreading of a military build-up as the parties prepare for the possibility of the truce either buckling or expiring.

The risk is that the truce may not survive beyond its current two-month timeframe if there is no meaningful progress on all three of the confidence-building measures. Pushing Taiz to the side would jeopardise prospects for renewal. As noted, some in the government camp may advocate making negotiations over fully reopening Sanaa airport dependent on progress on Taiz, thus undermining the possibility of the truce being extended if the Huthis continue to delay on the latter. The Huthis, for their part, continue to be dismissive of the Taiz roads issue and show signs of slow-walking negotiations, giving the government a perfect excuse to stall efforts to move toward talks.

Resolving the Taiz roads question is thus closely linked to the fate of the truce overall, as well as of any future talks between the belligerents. Outside powers should employ a two-pronged approach to reaching a resolution. First, as part of a broader diplomatic push with the Huthis in Sanaa, they should focus the rebels on the need to make progress on Taiz, signalling that the issue is high on their agenda. The absence of sustained, serious diplomacy around the Taiz question can only have contributed to the lack of action to date. Secondly, mindful of the risk of mixing the road access file with other political and military issues, diplomats should raise Taiz in their discussions with Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom has its own channels with the Huthis. Involving Saudi Arabia in advocacy to reopen Taiz can enhance the kingdom’s credibility, since many Yemenis believe (and resent) that it wishes to keep Islah on the back foot in one of the country’s most economically important areas. It would also serve Riyadh’s aim of helping bring the war to a close.

The parties should not miss this opportunity for progress. The partial reopening of Sanaa airport has rekindled hope among Yemenis that they will once again be able to travel outside the country. Likewise, the reopening of Taiz roads would bring great benefits for the city’s residents whose freedom of movement has been curtailed for too long. If there is no movement on Taiz, the chances of a truce extension beyond the two-month timeline, and peace in Yemen, will only grow slimmer. Despite widespread scepticism, the truce, the first countrywide halt in fighting since 2016, has held thus far. Yemenis should not be made to wait six more years for another opportunity for peace.