It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when political differences became an all-out conflict. However, Houthis expansion began in Jawf and Amran where, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the group defeated the armed wing of the Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood). As a result of the Saudi Arabian feud with the Arab-wide Muslim Brotherhood stemming from events in Egypt following Sisi’s coup, the local tribes refused to assist the Islah party for fear of angering Riyadh and losing their patronage. As a result, Houthi secured Jawf and Amran.
During this time, protests erupted in Sanaa over rising fuel prices and general discontent at difficult living standards. The government became hugely unpopular and Houthi rode this wave, becoming the public face of the protests. In this environment, Houthi forces marched on the capital and blockaded the city for two weeks before entering the city and placing the government under house arrest (including President Hadi), and began pursuing plans for a military council. The UN representative at the time, Jamal Ben Omar, indicated that such a plan might be acceptable if all the parties agreed. After initial discussions, key parties including the Nasserists withdrew, citing intimidation from the Houthis. This was followed by an incredible escape by the President who fled to Aden in the South. The Arab nations withdrew their ambassadors, though it is noteworthy that the US embassy remained open with officials privately discussing the ‘importance’ of Houthi as an ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Emboldened by the lack of international condemnation, the Houthi expansion continued and the group entered Taiz, Ma’rib, Lahj, moving further South almost unopposed until they arrived at the gates of Aden, the last city that needed to fall before Houthi could declare full control over the country. At this point, Saudi Arabia declared Operation ‘Decisive Storm’ and launched a destructive bombing campaign that drove the Houthis back from Aden.
Decisive Storm however has been a failure. Houthi remains firmly entrenched in the capital and the war appears to have reached a stalemate.
However, it is naïve to assume Houthi has achieved this all himself. Aside from logistic support from Iran, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has called upon his extensive influence over the army, developed during his decades in power, to assist Houthi with heavy weaponry in a bid to force himself back onto the political scene. For Saleh, the GCC ‘betrayed’ him during negotiations for him to step down during the revolution. According to Saleh, he had enough to hold out and felt that GCC efforts were based more on a desire to fend off protests in their own countries as opposed to widespread internal protests.
The controversial issues
While Houthi’s seizure of the capital clearly amounts to a coup, the destructive nature of the campaign of the Saudi-led coalition has resulted in a humanitarian crisis which has put significant pressure on Riyadh to pursue a peaceful solution. For Riyadh, any pre-emptive peaceful solution on its part would be humiliating given the set-up of the conflict as an entire nation against a militia. It would also cause an irreparable dent on the power of Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, the de facto force behind the campaign and the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Houthis would perceive such weakness as legitimising their coup in Sanaa, a red line for Saudi Arabia which seeks to prevent Iran, which backs the Houthis, from securing another Arab capital loyal to its regional ambitions.
The Houthis believe that as long as they continue to hold Sanaa and international blame and condemnation for the humanitarian crisis continues to be directed at Saudi as opposed to their spectacular coup, then it is merely a matter of time before Riyadh are forced to the negotiating table on their terms.
Houthi does not want to be the face of the Yemeni government. They envy Lebanon’s ‘Hezbollah holds the government ransom’ model instead.
Divisions within the Arab coalition
Although Saudi Arabia is set on driving Houthi from Sanaa and keeping Yemen united, certain key powers within the Arab-coalition have set about supporting Southern Separatists and quietly promising them some form of independence. Moreover, some prominent Arab powers have even begun private dealings with Houthi This has undermined the coalition’s mission and resulted in discussion amongst the Houthis of prolonging the conflict until the separatists are strong enough to force the issue of independence on Saudi Arabia.
Yemen as a united body is still a relatively new nation having unified in 1990. However, the separatist movement that established in 1994 became mired from the outset with internal factional divisions over strategy and what constituted the ultimate aim (autonomy or complete independence). However, given the divisions within the army caused by the influence of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the anti-Houthi movement has had to rely heavily on the only real capable of fighting force; the separatists. This means that the Gulf countries have supplied them with weaponry and empowered them to such an extent that questions over the unity of Yemen grow as the conflict continues to go on. Moreover, the aim of ousting Houthi from Southern territories has resulted in an unusual unity among the leaders, who do not seem particularly keen on the goal of ousting Houthi from Sanaa, and prefer to restrict operations to “our own” areas.
So what are the possible solutions?
It is clear that the US and the international community are not particularly aggrieved at Houthi’s coup. The US sees the group as a key ally in fighting Al-Qaeda and sources suggest that but for Saudi’s incessant objections, the US would have facilitated a transition of Yemen to Houthi control with some aesthetic inclusion of opposition figures.
Therefore, a Houthi withdrawal, whilst the most just solution, is highly unlikely.
Whilst being unable to take new territory, Houthi has been able to maintain control of areas despite Saudi bombardment. Saudi forces have been unable to strike a decisive victory nor do they look like striking one anytime soon. Operation ‘Decisive Storm’ has been ongoing for quite some time with little impact save as to have prevented a complete coup.
A military solution is therefore also, highly unlikely.
This looks a more likely solution but it comes with a pinch of salt. With Houthi entrenched and international pressure on Saudi to cease bombing, the mere acceptance of a peace process by Saudi would scream military defeat and be a major PR coup for Houthi. This is what prevents Saudi from accepting the solution. However, Saudis can be flexible and concessions elsewhere in the region may well encourage them to the table. Saudis have been in an alliance with Houthis before and the Middle East has a habit of throwing up surprises.
The difficult part is that any peace settlement that takes place while Sanaa remains under Houthi control would have to include their ally Saleh’s return to the political scene; a red line for many Yemenis. Moreover, Houthis are unlikely to hand over their weapons and would seek to establish themselves as the ‘Hezbollah’ of Yemen, giving them huge control over the administration of the country. Then you have the Southern movements which have been emboldened in this conflict and, apparently backed by the UAE, have raised the banner of independence once more.
Much as the idea of a ‘peace settlement’ sounds appealing, in reality, it may simply result in a new age of Houthi-Saleh governed repression in Yemen, and, if history is anything to learn from, possibly an 8th war between Houthi and Saleh should they fall out…again…