They are called “rebels,” but they have been occupying the Yemeni capital Sanaa for almost a decade, controlling 70 percent of the country as well as the Yemeni army. Allied with Iran – like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Syrian Assad regime and Iraqi Shiite militias – and threatening shipping from the Bab el Mandeb Strait to Suez, they are the new “perfect enemy” of the US and the West. All this without ever having had any talks with them, engaged in negotiations or considered what their demands are. We didn’t want an expanded war in the Middle East, but we are contributing to another conflict breaking out, without having tried to prevent it.
We are also thinking about the Houthi conflict in a way that leads to failure in the long run, since after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Iran is no longer isolated but can count on the support of Russia and China, members of the Security Council, as well as those alliances in the global South that are changing the world balance.
The Houthis are sucking the U.S. – and perhaps us in Europe as well – into a new Middle Eastern conflict that affects not just the Red Sea, but also the situation on the mainland, where the U.S. supports the sovereignty of one country alone, Israel – something that was very clear as early as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the starting point of the current chaos.
U.S. deterrence offers only an illusion of stabilization, leading instead to its exact opposite. Why did the Houthis intervene in the Red Sea? The “rebels” say they want to hit Israel-bound ships and have also launched attacks on the Israeli port of Eilat, just as they targeted Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.
Back then, the lack of a U.S. response to protect the Wahhabi kingdom was one of the big reasons for discontent between Washington and Riyadh, after the latter came out defeated in the open war on the Houthis launched in 2015, not managing to remove them even though Riyadh had engaged in heavy bombing and had hired tens of thousands of mercenaries together with the Emirates.
While the Houthis’ outward intention is to strike ships bound for Israeli ports, perhaps the real reason is that they want to keep Saudi Arabia and the international community on their toes in order to show their military power and achieve future international political recognition, which they haven’t gotten so far.
But who are they? Back in December 2009, I think I was one of the first to interact with them closely. The war against the regime of President Saleh – later killed by the Houthis themselves in 2017 as he was attempting to flee – was already underway, and the Saudis were paying the Yemeni regime’s soldiers while also giving them air support. I will recount my experience with the Houthis at the time. I encountered a group of about 30 of them, posted on the road to Sada, their historic stronghold.
At Harf Surfian, against the backdrop of the jagged black mountains that rise up before the Saudi border, they could be seen as they fell back to the last pockets of resistance, hunted by soldiers and tribes loyal to the president. A spokesman said they would retake the town “very soon,” while “other guerrilla groups were deployed in the Jawf district to attack the Saudis on the border.”
Although a weakened and tired force, the Houthis of Harf Surfian bore no obvious signs of going through battle, as if they had emerged unscathed from the sanctuaries, craters and fortifications made of black rock, thousands of years old, from which they fought with hit-and-run tactics. They had few weapons, shouldering AK-47s with colorful bandoleers and military-issued haversacks. But no heavy weaponry, except for a few RPGs resting on the trunks of Toyota pickups. Almost all wore checkered keffiyehs and had rough, hard-worn faces. Among them were experienced fighters but also 14-15-year-old boys, maybe even younger.
Back then, the Houthis were already fighting a kind of proxy war for Tehran, as well as a war of liberation. But what prompted me to go into Yemen was that no one was interested in the Houthi issue, another of the great ignored aspects of contemporary conflicts. The Houthis belong to the Zaydi minority and were used in part to counter the rise of Saudi-backed Wahhabi preachers.
Then, when they had gained a certain amount of prominence, they rebelled against the government, gaining followers in the more traditionalist northern regions, where many still don’t accept the ’62 revolution that brought down the Zaydi Imamate, which had lasted for hundreds of years. The Houthi family clan considers itself its successor to some extent, claiming their Seyyed (black turbaned clerics) are direct descendants of Muhammad.
The local Houthi conflict thus has religious, cultural, geopolitical and territorial dimensions. But now, from an isolated one, it has turned into an international crisis linked to regional problems. Since it broke out in the early 1990s, the rebellion has been one of the key elements of the situation in Yemen. The insurgents have been the main adversary of government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Tribal and regional in nature, the Houthi movement has long justified its rebellion with the goal of ending the marginalization of northwestern Yemen. Added to this is the defense of the religious minority they represent, Zaydism, a current broadly included in Shia Islam (although there is some debate on this among Islam scholars). Their advance has been marked by violence, often used indiscriminately against civilians, and in the face of the devastating attacks by the coalition led by Riyadh, the Houthis have used the relentless logic of retaliation, not hesitating to use child soldiers and to resort to terror against any expression of dissent.
What is the possible evolution of this conflict? In the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the Houthis are aiming to reduce Israeli military pressure on Gaza and meanwhile keep Saudi Arabia on edge, putting Riyadh in an uncomfortable position just as it was engaged in negotiations for a cease-fire.
The Saudis hoped to reach a compromise position by reengaging with Iran through Chinese mediation (as the Pasdaran are arming and training the Houthis). But now the logic of arms has taken over, and the Saudis, like many other states in the region, are fearing that the U.K./U.S. attack will lead to the outbreak of a major, uncontained war.