The war in Yemen has most often been described to us either as a civil war between the government of Yemen and its supporters, and a Houthi tribal militia. It is also represented as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni government of Yemen and Iran backing a Shia insurgency led by the Houthis, a Zaydi tribe from northern Yemen. Neither description is entirely accurate. To understand what is happening in Yemen, it is useful to understand the factions who are fighting, and specifically, the Houthis.
The ‘correct’ title of the political movement we call the Houthis is Ansarullah. They are not a tribal organization but rather a revolutionary movement. They are also not a Shia movement. Zaydi Islam, though referred to by the Saudis as a Shia Islam, is in practice, much closer to Sunnism and in the north of Yemen, Sunni and Zaydi often worship in the same mosque. In fact, Ansarullah, the group we know as the Houthis, has broad popular support because they espouse populist values.
The reason Ansarullah came to be called Houthis is that in 2004, they informally took the name of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who died while fighting in an insurrection against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al Houthi was so beloved that the members of the organization began to call themselves ‘Houthis’ or ‘the Houthi Movement’. But you may ask, why was a Houthi leading this movement and in what context did they emerge? Yemen, the poorest country in the region, has had a painful history of difficulties moving beyond tribal divisions and colonial interference throughout the 20th century. The Houthis (Ansarullah) are the most recent movement for independence and national unity in Yemen.
Throughout the 20th century, Yemen was divided into a British protectorate in the south and a kingdom in the north. During the 60s, both regions became independent republics. In 1990, the two countries were united under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator favored by Saudi Arabia and the United States, who was already President of North Yemen. Saleh ruled Yemen for more than 33 years. Because Saleh did not share power throughout the country, many local tribes, including his own tribe, the Houthis, resented his government and there were frequent insurrections during his rule, which he brutally suppressed. After a while, Saleh’s American and Saudi patrons also became frustrated with him because he was not an obedient puppet, so in 2011 they deposed him and replaced him with one of his vice presidents, Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi.
Hadi was to hold office for two years while the country engaged in a National Dialog about values and priorities which would lead to the development of a new democratic constitution and a new election. Ansarullah (the movement we now call ‘the Houthis’), a youthful organization focused on peace and justice, engaged in this National Dialog enthusiastically. However, the decisions that came from the National Dialog were never implemented by the Hadi government and Hadi didn’t call for elections at the end of his two year term, nor did he start the process of writing a new Constitution based on the reached in the National Dialog. Many of the people of Yemen were very unhappy with this situation.
The Houthis (Ansarullah) began a march across the country to Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, where they occupied the government offices and demanded that they be included in the government. Although they were armed, the Houthis did not use violence to accomplish this. In fact, there was no need to do so because significant factions of the army supported them. They represented many of the disenfranchised factions in the country.
It was an odd situation by any standard. The Houthis occupied the city with masses of men for months, saying they would not leave until their demand for a place at the table was met. When they finally were in a position of power, instead of forcing an election or naming one of their own to power, they engaged with the United Nations, talked to the Americans, sent representatives to Riyadh and other regional capitals to gain legitimacy for their position, and even accepted that Hadi would remain president until a new election could be held.
President Hadi, however, rejected their demands, and the United Nations sent a representative to facilitate an agreement between the Houthis and the Hadi government. Members of the Hadi government engaged with representatives of Ansarullah in what seemed to be a productive dialog, and plans were in progress. Although the Houthis did not engage in a military attack against the city or members of the government, tensions were high and Hadi was not cooperating with the process, so he was confined to his home by the Houthis.
Just as it appeared an agreement might be reached, Hadi and some of his confidants fled to the southern city of Aden where he announced that he was establishing a new base for the central government of Yemen in Aden. The United States and other European countries supported this decision by closing their embassies in Sana’a, saying it was too dangerous to remain there. At this point, the negotiations ended. Although Hadi was not particularly popular in Aden, he sent a message to his own tribe in a nearby province requesting assistance. However, one of his closest confidants betrayed him (?) so Hadi fled again, this time to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis began bombing Sana’a and other Houthi positions. The Houthis, who had been the most successful at fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, not turned their attention to self-defense. Angry men joined the movement. Initially, there wasn’t much of a ground war, but slowly the Saudi’s found men who would fight for Hadi. Members of Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi’s tribe began fighting. The fighting began and became increasingly violent. Not surprisingly, AQAP, a frequent target of US drone attacks, joined the fight against the Houthis, now with the Saudi air war backing them.
The country was put under siege and people began to suffer without water and food. The Saudis repeatedly violated cease fires and bombed airports and naval ports where aid delivery was scheduled to occur. In Aden, supporters of the old Republic sided with their old enemy the Saudis on the ground because the Houthi movement is strongly nationalist and chaos seemed a real opportunity to actualize their old dream of secession. As the overall violence increased, the Houthis were radicalized. They too became involved in attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Violence spread rapidly through the country. The people continue to suffer from the war, lack of food and water and absence of any functioning civil structure. Well-armed and well trained, backed by the majority of the Yemeni military and supported by the population, the Houthis were initially winning. For months they held most of the populated areas of the country and they still hold most of the populated areas in the north. However, the home cities of the Houthi tribe have been completely destroyed. Every city in Yemen is severely damaged and most of the population has fled to the villages. Aden is controlled by Saudi backed militias who don’t necessarily support President Hadi, but they do not want the Houthi movement to control their city.
The war has become a stalemate. The people of Yemen are dying from the violence and from the lack of food and water. Until the fighting ends, they will continue to die. AQAP has been empowered by the war, and now hold a significant amount of territory including the port city of Mukhalla. A united, independent country would be a far more potent force against them than US bombs. The Houthis, the Ansarullah movement, is now engaged in a bitter war in which brutality has become the primary commonality. The Saudis are now bringing mercenaries from Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa to fight the ground war on their behalf.
The Saudi led coalition backing President Hadi must stop the bombing of Yemen and end the siege. These are war crimes; the Saudis and their Western backers should be held accountable.
The Houthis also need to lay down their weapons along with other currents that have emerged to do battle. They all need an opportunity to come back to the table and discuss the future of Yemen. Yemen is a sovereign country and the people of Yemen deserve an opportunity to form their own government.