Will the US Afghan Defeat End the Proxy War in Yemen?
Iran and the Houthis
The execution of nine people by the Houthis in Yemen and their growing attempt to expand territorial control mark the seventh year of the rebel group’s takeover of the country’s capital Sanaa that has subsequently dragged one of the poorest nations in the world into a protracted battle, with a heavy toll on civilians.
Since their political rise, the Houthis have complicated the trajectory of post-uprising Yemen, and have been successful in resisting the multitude of pressures by various local, national, regional and international forces as they continue to expand control.
The September 18 public execution of nine people over alleged involvement in the killing of a senior Houthi official is a case in point, as it was carried out in defiance of the calls issued by rights bodies and some governments to try the convicts fairly.
The Houthis’ onslaught on the internationally recognised government led by embattled president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to displace it from key areas including the oil-rich northern province of Marib further attests to the rebel group’s growth.
Backed by Iran, the Houthis have of course capitalised on the vulnerability of the Hadi government which enjoys little or no legitimacy in Yemen. The diverging goals of some of the elements of the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia were yet another factor enabling the Houthis to expand their control.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in Yemen in March 2015 to contain the rise of the Iran-backed Houthis, a struggle that has since entangled Yemen and Yemenis into a protracted bloody conflict.
Standing their ground for six years against the Saudi-led coalition backed by the international community, the Houthis have been successful in elevating their status from a small opposition movement to a significant political actor in the present and probably in post-conflict Yemen.
However, can the Houthis afford to remain indifferent to the increasing international pressure on Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve the conflict in Yemen, and the growing fragmentation and human suffering caused by the prolonged conflict?
The Houthis are members of different “tribes” who live mainly in the northern province of Saada, bordering Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement is an offshoot of the Zaydi revivalist movement that emerged in the 1990s in reaction to the state-backed and Saudi-financed spread of Salafism in areas they considered their strongholds.
Before their overthrow in the 1960s, the Zaydi Shia imams ruled northern Yemen for roughly one thousand years (893–1962). The Houthi movement built upon Zaydi revivalism to fight their own cultural repression and political and economic marginalising. They name themselves after their founder leader Hussein al-Houthi, and constitute perhaps 40% of Yemen’s people.
Prior to the 2011 uprising they fought six wars in seven years with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. The 2011 uprising ignited hope that Houthis would be able to claim their fair share in the governance and resources of the country.
But the transition process, which was basically stitched up by making a few cosmetic changes in the old order, failed to address the primary drivers of the uprising: poverty, disemployment, price rise, and the deep seated grudges of opposition movements from the south (al-Harak) and north (the Houthis).
The Houthis remained distrustful of the transitional government, and the federal plan put forth by it to club the Saada province with the landlocked Azal region further angered the group, which viewed the plan as a deliberate attempt to deny them the chance to grow economically and politically.
In the meantime, popular discontent against the Hadi-led transitional government was growing stronger. The Houthis rode on the back of popular anger to overthrow the government and capture the capital in September 2014. But the Houthis’ advance prompted intervention by Saudi-Arabia and the UAE, pushing Yemen deeper into a quagmire.
The Houthi-Iran relation grew stronger in the aftermath of the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa, but is a product of the change set in motion by the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Tehran has exploited the possibilities opened up by popular uprisings strategically to maintain and expand its avenues of influence in the region. And Iran has been maintaining its relations with the Houthis for quite some time, reportedly extending some support to the rebels during the 1960s civil war when supporters of the Zaydi Imamate fought against the Republicans.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Houthi movement became gradually aligned with Iran’s anti-US stance as evident in the popular Iranian slogan adopted by the group – ‘God is great, death to America, death to Israel’. The movement thereby became part of the bloc opposed to the regional order erected and maintained by the US and its allies including Saudi Arabia.
Following the rebel group’s takeover of Sanaa, the alliance between the Houthis and Iran was further solidified, with the latter bypassing the international community to recognise the de facto government in parts of the country.
The Houthis’ resilience and expansion have helped Iran gain an edge over its regional adversary, Saudi Arabia, evident in broader acceptance for the role of Tehran in pulling the wartorn country out of the bloody quagmire.
Yet neither Iran nor the Houthis can afford to turn a blind eye to the economic cost of the continuing battle, and increasing international pressure with the change of power in the US.
The Houthis cannot rule the country for long by relying on external support and military offensive. Their growing military strength might be politically damaging for them in the long run, for over 29 million people in Yemen see the protracted conflict aided and abetted by the intransigence of the warring parties as a source of their suffering.
Also, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia enjoys geographical proximity with Yemen and that has been a significant factor in enabling Riyadh to patronise various elements within and outside the government and influence the country’s internal affairs.
A number of calculations would keep Saudi Arabia on the tenterhooks and keen to fight tooth and nail to contain Iran’s influence in Yemen, as has been the case at least since 2015.
To name the least, Riyadh cannot ignore a number of attacks launched by the Houthis on its vital sites, including the ARAMCO oil facilities, some airports and military bases.
If Yemen continues to be the ground for a proxy war between the two regional heavyweights, the Houthis will not be allowed to run a stable government.
Recent talks held in Baghdad between Iran and Saudi Arabia fuelled speculation that the two arch rivals may concede space to resolve the conflict in Yemen.
If international pressure and the economic cost of staying in the war persuade Saudi Arabia to look for a decent exit from Yemen, Iran will also find it difficult to continue deflecting US pressure and the accruing financial burden of crippling economic sanctions in the long run.
The Houthis need to build on such developments and engage in serious dialogue with conflicting parties. While fighting a war with external support might help contain or defeat some groups in the short run, forces like the UAE-backed pro-secessionist Southern Transitional Council and other powerful ideological groups with serious reservations about a Houthi-led government cannot be defeated militarily.
Anti-Houthi forces also need to shed their hesitation and come out of their ideological cocoons in order to build mutual trust and engage in serious negotiations with the Houthis to address the sticking issues. It would probably open up better possibilities to resolve the conflict and help put speculation about Yemen being divided not just into two countries but into small statelets to rest.
Ashiya Parveen is a doctoral candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University