Who are Yemen’s Houthis? | Explained

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When the second intifada broke out in the Palestinian territories in 2000, the Houthis staged solidarity protests. They mobilised supporters against the United States’s war on Afghanistan in 2001. After the Iraq war, they adopted a new slogan, “Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam”. Not many had foreseen back then that this tiny group of tribesmen from the Marran Mountains of the northern province Sa’dah would grow into the most powerful war machine in Yemen that could threaten the shipping lanes in the Red Sea, forcing the mighty U.S. to form a multinational naval task force to counter them.

When Israel launched its war on Gaza, after Hamas’s October 7 crossborder raid that killed at least 1,200 Israelis, many feared that the war would escalate into a regional conflict if Lebanon’s Hezbollah opened another front. While the Lebanese-Israel border has remained tense ever since, both Hezbollah and Israel have shown restraint in attacks and counterattacks. But the Houthis, who have been controlling Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and much of the country’s Red Sea coast, “declared war” against Israel. First they launched missiles and drones towards Israel and then started targeting vessels passing through the Red Sea, forcing many tanker companies to suspend operation in one of the busiest global trade routes.

The origins

The roots of the Houthi movement can be traced to “Believing Youth” (Muntada al-Shahabal-Mu’min), a Zaydi revivalist group founded by Hussein al-Houthi and his father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, in the early 1990s. Badr al-Din was an influential Zaydi cleric in northern Yemen. Inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the rise of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the 1980s, Badr al-Din and his sons started building vast social and religious networks among the Zaydis of Yemen, who make up roughly one-third of the Sunni-majority country’s population. The Zaydis are named after Zayd Bin Ali, the great grandson of Imam Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law who both Shias and Zaydis revere. Zayd Bin Ali had led a revolt against the Ummayad Caliphate in the eighth century. He was killed, but his martyrdom led to the rise of the Zaydi sect. While the Zaydis are seen part of the Shia branch of Islam, both in terms of theology and practice, they are different from the ‘Twelver’ Shias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

For centuries, the Zaydis were a powerful sect within Yemen. In the 16th century, they established an imamate and in the 17th, they ousted the Ottomans from Yemen. The imamate went into decline and got fractured in the 19th century, faced with challenges from repeated attacks from the Ottomans and the rising influence of Wahhabism in Arabia. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Zaydis, once again, consolidated power in northern Yemen and established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. This lasted till 1962 when the Egypt-backed republicans overthrew the monarchy. The royalists would withdraw to the northern mountains and start guerilla attacks with support from Saudi Arabia. But by 1967, their rebellion would fail, bringing an end to the era of Zaydi dominance in Yemen.

When Badr al-Din al-Houthi and his son Hussein launched ‘Believing Youth’, the plan was to reorganise the Zaydi minority, like the Hezbollah organised Shias of southern Lebanon. But when the movement turned political and started attacking the “corrupt” regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his support for the U.S.’s war on terror, it became a thorn on Saleh’s side. They called themselves Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), mobilised tribesmen in the north against the government and chanted “Death to America”. In 2004, Saleh’s government issued an arrest warrant against Hussein al-Houthi. He resisted the arrest, starting an insurgency. In September, the government troops attacked the rebels and killed Hussein. Since then, the government launched multiple military campaigns in Sa’dah, the Zaydi stronghold, to end the resistance, which was locally called the Houthi movement, after their “martyred” leader. The government’s high-handedness backfired. It only strengthened the Houthis, who, by 2010, when a ceasefire was reached, had captured Sa’dah from the government troops.

March to Sana’a

When protests broke out in Yemen in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring protests that felled Tunisian and Egyptian dictators, the Houthis, now confident from their military victories and the support they enjoyed in Sadah, backed the agitation. President Saleh, a Zaydi who was in power for 33 years, resigned in November, handing the reins to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Saudi-backed Sunni. Yemen, under the tutelage of the Saudis and the Emiratis, started a national dialogue to resolve internal differences. The Houthis were part of the dialogue. But they fell out with the transition government of Mr. Hadi, claiming that the proposed federal solution, which sought to divide the Zaydi-dominated north into two land-locked provinces, was intended to weaken the movement. They soon got back to insurgency.

Saleh, who was sidelined by the interim government and its backers, joined hands with Houthis, his former rivals, and launched a joint military operation. By January 2015, the Houthi-Saleh alliance had captured Sana’a and much of northern Yemen, including the vital Red Sea coast. (Later the Houthis turned against Saleh and he was killed in December 2017). The rapid rise of the Houthis in Yemen set off alarm bells in Riyadh which saw them as Iranian proxies. Saudi Arabia, under the new, young Defence Minister, Mohammed Bin Salman, started a military campaign in March 2015, hoping for a quick victory against the Houthis. But the Houthis had dug in, refusing to leave despite Saudi Arabia’s aerial attacks. With no effective allies on the ground and no way-out plan, the Saudi-led campaign lost its steam over the years.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of backing the Houthis. In Saudi Arabia, both the Houthis and Iran found a common foe. The Houthis launched multiple attacks on Saudi cities from northern Yemen in retaliation for Saudi air strikes. In 2019, the Houthis claimed the attack on two Saudi oil installations that knocked out, briefly, half of the kingdom’s oil output (the Houthi claim was disputed by experts and governments, who said the attack was too sophisticated for the rebels to carry out. The U.S. has blamed Iran).

Rebels to rulers

The Houthis have established a government in the north. The Supreme Political Council, headed by its President, Mahdi al-Mashat, is the executive branch of their rule. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, Hussein’s brother, leads the movement. There are serious allegations against both the Saudis and the Houthis in the war. While the Saudi bombings caused a large number of civilian deaths, the Houthis were accused, by rights groups and governments, of preventing aid, deploying forces in densely populated areas and using excessive force against civilians and peaceful protesters.

Currently, a ceasefire is holding in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, after having failed to oust the Houthis from Yemen, sought to stabilise its border with Yemen through talks with Houthis as well as Iran. The Iran-Saudi reconciliation agreement, brokered by China in March 2023, appears to have strengthened the ceasefire in Yemen, and the Houthis have consolidated domestically. When Israel launched its war on Gaza and Palestinian casualties mounted (at least 19,000 people have been killed so far in Gaza), the Houthis seized the moment to enhance their regional appeal by directly targeting Israel and Israel-linked vessels. And their attack have forced some of the top tanker companies in the world, including Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, to suspend operation in the Red Sea. The Houthis say they would continue targeting Israel-linked vessels as long as the Gaza war lasts. As Israel, despite mounting global concerns, has ruled out a pause in attacks on Gaza, the Red Sea waters are likely to get hotter in the coming weeks.

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