Defanging the Houthis six years after Sanaa’s fall
The UN International Day of Peace, which falls on Sept. 21 every year, is meant to underscore the world community’s longing for peace. For Yemen, it has come to represent anything but peace; it falls on the anniversary of the Houthi militia’s capture of the capital Sanaa in 2014.
It is difficult for outsiders to understand how the Houthis managed to get that far in 2014, let alone extend their control to other parts of Yemen. They now control about 20 percent of Yemeni territory, where the majority of Yemenis live.
Today, the Houthis are trying to capture Marib, one of the few strategic areas still held by the government in northern Yemen. On Saturday, the government called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to stop the Houthis’ campaign against civilians in Marib, including rocket, drone and ballistic missile attacks targeting heavily populated neighborhoods. It also reminded the UNSC that Marib is home to about 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled other provinces overrun by the Houthis.
Marib welcomed IDPs, took in children from other parts of Yemen and its hospitals cared for the sick and wounded. The UN has called for a halt in the fighting, but has not so far succeeded in bringing the Houthis to accept a cease-fire. It is clear that the militiamen are intent on capturing the province, throwing everything they have at its strong defenses. It is far from certain that they will succeed, as the government is making a firm stand there to thwart their attacks.
Since the Houthi coup of Sept. 21, 2014, Yemen has become a living hell for innocent civilians, who have been subjected to relentless war and crushing poverty. Thanks to Houthi actions, Yemen has become the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people — some 80 percent of the population — in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children, according to UN figures. The overwhelming majority of Yemenis now subsist on outside aid, which the Houthis have frequently stolen, diverted to support their war efforts or left to rot in UN warehouses, prevented from reaching its intended beneficiaries.
Marib has been an exception. Its oil resources and quasi-official and relatively efficient self-government have helped it provide for its residents. Aid from Saudi Arabia and other donors has poured in and enabled it to take care of IDPs from other parts of Yemen. However, if it were to fall to the Houthis, it would join the rest of the areas under the group’s control. The Houthis would loot its treasures and subject it to the same treatment they have inflicted on other regions.
Six years after the capture of the capital, it is important to understand how they managed to do it and extend their rule. There are many factors contributing to the Houthis’ Pyrrhic victories. I will discuss six.
Thanks to Houthi actions, Yemen has become the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
First, they used religious dogma to justify their lust for power and enlist Iran’s support. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 inspired the Houthis’ founding leaders to try and establish clerical rule in Yemen. Part of the dogma centers on a divine right to rule Yemen and usurp its secular power structure. They created a schism among Yemen’s Zaidi community, establishing a sect with views similar to those of Iran’s ruling orthodoxy. They then got Iran’s support in the manner of funding, military training and religious guidance to hundreds of their young followers. Those fanatical seminarians, with military training and religious fervor, have represented the core of Houthi strength. The Houthis use them as shock troops. Iran also mobilized its proxies to assist the Houthis, especially Hezbollah of Lebanon.
Second, the Houthis weaponized xenophobia. They came up with a mantra and emblazoned it on millions of posters, flags, guns, government buildings and street lamps. It says: “God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse on the Jews.” The mantra has been used to unify and excite followers who fervently chant it when they march, attack, or just any occasion. The mantra serves to portray the conflict in Yemen as a struggle against outside powers and depict the legitimate government and its coalition partners as lackeys.
Third, they manipulated political division. When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh reluctantly resigned in November 2011 and the Yemenis elected current President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in February 2012 in a landslide, Yemen was stabilized for a while. However, the Houthis struck an alliance with the former president, who still controlled much of the armed forces. The Houthis exploited his desire to regain power and inflict revenge on his political enemies, and he made military units at their disposal. Once Saleh had served his purpose, they brutally murdered him and attacked his family and supporters.
Fourth is exploiting tribal competitions. The Houthis have used money and old tribal feuds to lure tribal leaders to their ranks. They also pressured them to provide soldiers to fight with them. As they did with Saleh, once their usefulness was no more, the leaders were shunned or killed.
Fifth, the Houthis have effectively used terror to keep their critics and opponents in check. Large-scale killings, political assassinations, rape, torture, and cruel detention conditions are parts of their modus operandi. They especially target tribal leaders who fail to join them, journalists, academics and community activists.
Sixth is relying on child soldiers and weaponizing qat. The UN has estimated that about a third of Houthi soldiers are children. They have recruited thousands of children and isolated, trained and indoctrinated them to their cause. Part of their discipline is to ply them with free qat to make them fearless. Fanatical, stoned and bereft of parental control, these child soldiers are fierce killing machines when deployed in battle.
To face the Houthi challenge and degrade the militia’s ability to wage war, Yemen and its friends need to address these factors. Only then would the Houthis sue for peace and sit at the negotiating table.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC.