Opinion

Defanging the Houthis six years after Sanaa’s fall

Defanging the Houthis six years after Sanaa’s fall

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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.
Twitter: @abuhamad1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Houthi-controlled court tries more than 100 people including deputy minister

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths on Monday urged civil society advocates, women, the young, and warring factions to unite to promote the rule of law, accountability, equal citizenship and peace. (AFP/File)
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Updated 22 September 2020

Houthi-controlled court tries more than 100 people including deputy minister

  • Majed Fadhail slams trial and says judiciary being used to settle scores and seize property

AL-MUKALLA: A court in the Houthi-held Yemeni city of Sanaa tried more than 100 people at the weekend including activists, politicians and tribal leaders.

Majed Fadhail, deputy minister of human rights and part of a government delegation involved in prisoner swap talks with the militia, was informed of his trial in absentia by a Sanaa-based lawyer who defends exiled activists at Houthi courts. 

Fadhail was informed that he and dozens of others had been tried and were accused of colluding with the militia’s enemies. 

The deputy minister described the trial as absurd and said the Houthis were employing judicial authorities to settle scores with their opponents and justify the seizure of properties.

“These absurd courts used by the Houthi militia will not intimidate us because we have nothing to lose and we will continue to resist,” Fadhail told Arab News. 

He said that the group had frozen his bank accounts and seized his personal properties in areas under their control. 

“What is strange is the timing of this farce that occurred while we are negotiating with them under the UN-brokered prisoner agreement,” he added.

The lawyer who informed Fadhail about the weekend trial was Abdul Basit Ghazi, who said on Facebook that he had challenged the judge about prosecuting a government official while the Houthis were engaged in talks with him. 

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Ghazi also said that a tribal leader was put on trial in absentia because Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had visited him in a hospital when he was sick, and that the court had prosecuted former minister Nadia Al-Sakkaf for appearing at a conference in Riyadh in 2015.

Delegates from the internationally recognized government and the Houthis met on Friday for the first time in seven months to finalize a long-delayed deal to swap hundreds of prisoners.

Fadhail said that the delegates swapped lists of proposed inmates who would be released in the first stage of the deal. He was hopeful that this round of talks would not end in failure.

“I am optimistic. The talks will yield good results this time.”

Yemen observers believe that successful prisoner swap negotiations could lead to new rounds of peace talks to end the war.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths on Monday urged civil society advocates, women, the young, and warring factions to unite to promote the rule of law, accountability, equal citizenship and peace. He said that the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated the country’s already dire situation.

“To Yemenis, especially those in civil society and women and youth groups, I salute you all, on your courage and persistence,” he said on the occasion of International Peace Day. “Please continue to advocate for a future of equal citizenship, rule of law and accountable governance for your country. To the warring parties, I say: On this day, I hope you reflect and find the courage to take the first step toward giving the people of Yemen the peace they need and deserve.”

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Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

Updated 26 October 2020

Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

  • Majority of respondents to Arab News/YouGov survey consider neither candidate good for region
  • Findings show strong Arab support for Trump on Iran but not on Jerusalem embassy move

RIYADH: Nearly half the respondents in an Arab News/YouGov poll conducted in 18 Middle East and Africa (MENA) countries believe neither candidate in the upcoming US elections will necessarily be good for the region.
Of the rest, 40 percent said Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden would be better for the region while 12 percent said the same thing about incumbent President Donald Trump. But a key takeaway of the poll is that if Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama until 2017, wins the White House race, he would be well advised to shed the Obama administration baggage.
When asked about policies implemented in the Middle East under the Obama administration, the most popular response (53 percent) was that the Democratic president left the region worse off, with another 58 percent saying Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies.
The study surveyed a sample of 3,097 respondents online to find out how people in the MENA region feel about the Nov. 3 US elections.

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Containing Iran was found to be one of the top four issues that respondents wanted the next US president to focus on. Strong support for Trump both maintaining a war posture against Iran and imposing strict sanctions against the Tehran regime was noticed in Iraq (53 percent), Lebanon (38 percent) and Yemen (54 percent), three countries that have had intimate regional dealings with Iran.
President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem proved overwhelmingly unpopular, with 89 percent of Arabs opposing it. Surprisingly, in contrast to most other Arabs, Palestinian respondents inside the Palestinian Territories indicated a greater desire for the US to play a bigger role in mediation with Israel.
Arab opinion was largely split on the elimination this year of Iran’s regional “satrap” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with the single largest proportion of respondents from Iraq (57 percent) and Lebanon (41 percent) seeing it as a positive move, as opposed to those in Syria and Qatar, where most respondents — respectively 57 percent and 62 percent — saw it as negative for the region.

Iran also figured in the list of perceived threats to US interests, although well behind white nationalism (32 percent) and China (22 percent). The other critical challenges for the US as viewed by Arabs were cybercrime, radical Islamic terrorism and climate change.
For a country that touts itself as an ally of the US, public attitudes in Qatar were found to be surprisingly out of sync with US objectives in the Middle East. The perception of radical Islamic terrorism, Iran and Islamist parties as the “three biggest threats facing the region” was much softer in Qatar compared with the region as a whole.
It came as little surprise that three quarters of respondents want the next US administration to make it easier for people from Arab countries to travel to the US. The figure for Lebanon, for instance, was even higher, 79 percent, underscoring concerns that many young Arabs are actively trying to leave the region.
Among other findings, Arabs remain overwhelmingly concerned about such challenges as failed government (66 percent) and the economic slowdown (43 percent).
Close to half of the respondents (44 percent) would like to see the next US president focus on empowering young people in the Arab region and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44 percent), followed by containing COVID-19 (37 percent), reining in Iran and Hezbollah (24 percent), quashing radical Islamic terrorism (24 percent) and tackling climate change (17 percent).