The Houthis’ Rise and Obama’s Legacy in Yemen

By Charles Schmitz - The Middle East Institute | Nov 04, 2014
The Houthis’ Rise and Obama’s Legacy in Yemen
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.[1]

--President Barack Obama, September 10, 2014

Current Situation

The dust has still not settled in Yemen following the dramatic rise of the Houthis to power in Sana, and Yemen’s future is difficult to discern. Houthi intentions are not clear, and Yemen’s other political actors have yet to even formulate a reaction to the shift in power.  Still taking stock of the situation, leaders both in Yemen and in major international capitals only have managed to say that they welcome the new agreement – the Peace and Partnership Agreement – signed on September 21 by all Yemen’s political parties and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Houthi movement destroyed its main enemy in the Islah Party and imposed its will on the transitional government, but the Houthi leadership does not seem inclined to rule Yemen directly. The agreement creates channels for Houthi and Hirak (Southern Movement) participation in decision making, but does not establish a Houthi-dominated government.  It also reformulates the transitional government, but does not alter the goal of implementing the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference. The Houthi leadership thus appears to want to place parameters on the government in Sana, but not rule Sana directly.

The Houthi ability to stabilize its new dominance depends upon its success in building wider alliances. The Houthi leadership was very successful in reorganizing Yemeni tribal structure and society in the far north, but in order for the Houthi movement to build a permanent political settlement in all of Yemen, its leadership must create alliances outside of its northern base.    

The Houthi attempted to bring the southern Hirak into its political orbit by giving the Hirak a prominent role in the new transitional government. The Peace and Partnership Agreement gives the Houthi and the Hirak the right to appoint an advisor to the president and a major role in vetting the new cabinet. The Hirak did appoint an advisor, but the Southern Movement has not yet formulated a clear response to the rise of Houthi power. Many southerners are calling for the south to take advantage of the unsettled situation in Sana to declare independence.  The response of the Southern Movement will be a major factor determining the success or failure of the Houthi movement, because the south is farthest from the center of Houthi power in the Zaydi north. The south is also home to al-Qa‘ida, archenemy of the Houthi, and the Houthi movement will need southern allies to battle al-Qa‘ida.

The Houthi conquest of Sana was determined not by force of arms on the battlefield, but by taking the Yemeni military in Sana out of the battle before the fight. There are several explanations for the lack of response of the Yemeni military. First, Ali Abdullah Saleh retains significant influence in the Yemeni military in spite of the reshuffling of the command structure under President Hadi, and Saleh may have aided the Houthi destruction of Islah. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal confederation who played a main role in the creation of Islah, as well as others in Islah who rallied to the side of the opposition, betrayed Saleh in the Arab Spring in 2011. Second, the Houthis themselves may have gained enough credibility to persuade significant portions of the Yemeni military not to fight. The only units that opposed the Houthis in Sana were those allied to Islah under Ali Mohsin. If Saleh played a big role in the Houthi conquest of Sana, then he may still have a role to play in the future of Yemen. If the Houthis were mainly responsible for neutralizing the Yemen military, then the Houthis may have more power than is generally recognized. Third, President Hadi’s inclination for negotiated settlements may have also contributed to the Houthi victory. Hadi had avoided direct military conflict with the Houthis, preferring to negotiate truces that the Houthis promptly violated. Hadi’s avoidance of conflict may stem from his position as leader of the transitional government, or it may result from his weak command of the Yemeni military. 

The Saudi turn against the Muslim Brotherhood had a role in the rise of the Houthis because the Brotherhood is an important component of Islah. The withdrawal of Saudi support for the Brotherhood weakened Islah, and the Saudis did not seem concerned when the Houthis first began their military advance against the Salafis and Islahis in the north. While the Saudis were content to let the Houthis weaken Islah, they were not counting on a Houthi victory in Sana. The Saudis consider the Houthis to be Iranian agents, a replica of Hezbollah in Yemen, and now the Saudis are trying to build a coalition of political forces to oppose the Houthis in Sana. Reports have the Saudis building an alliance among desert tribes in the eastern Jawf region to oppose the Houthi. This could create a lot of trouble for the Houthis.

Like in Syria and Iraq, Saudi opposition to Iranian influence puts the Saudis on the same side as insurgent Sunni groups like al-Qa‘ida. After the Houthi rise, al-Qa‘ida began a new campaign of attacks against the Yemeni military in the Hadramawt region and in the more central Bayda governorate. Al-Qa‘ida also attacked the Houthis directly in Sana, killing 50 people in a suicide bombing at a demonstration. Al-Qa‘ida wants to position itself as the leader of the Sunni battle against Shi‘ism, though its attacks on the Yemeni military do not help its cause. For those opposed to the Houthis, al-Qa‘ida’s attacks help prevent the Houthis from stabilizing their power, and al-Qa‘ida may find some new behind-the-scenes benefactors.

As in Iraq, the United States appears less concerned with the spread of Iranian influence and more concerned about the vacuum of power in ungoverned spaces. The United States is urging Yemenis to form a new government under the Peace and Partnership Agreement in the hope that the national government can stabilize, even under Houthi leadership. The United States, as outlined by Obama in the above quote, is most preoccupied with an attack on the homeland. Al-Qa‘ida in Yemen made two attempts at bombing planes over U.S. skies, and al-Qa‘ida in Yemen possesses skilled innovators in concealable bombs. Hence, the United States is most concerned with maintaining the capacity of the Yemen state’s military and security forces and collaborating with local partners to fight al-Qa‘ida on the ground. The Houthis’ vehement opposition to al-Qa‘ida and their demonstrated ability to stabilize society in the areas they control may buy them some support from the United States.

Drivers and Dynamics

The drivers of developments in Yemen are the failure of the transitional government and the organizational capacity of Ansar Allah, the Houthi organization. The fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 brought hope that Yemen could overcome corruption and build an effective state, one founded on equality and a commitment to public service. The interim government failed because the GCC agreement allowed the old elites to remain in power. Rather than building a new state, the elites played the old games of competing for control of patronage in state institutions. The National Dialogue Conference produced a document and vision of just government in Yemen, but while the intellectual elites were worried about the semantics of the document, Hadi’s government did not govern. The economy worsened (as expected due to the fall in oil production) and security worsened, and the government had no response. The international community urged good governance, which gave little solace to those facing increasingly dire material circumstances.

On the other hand, the Houthi organization, Ansar Allah, appears increasingly effective. The Houthi political and military campaign since January quickly established the Houthis as a growing power in the north. The ability of Ansar Allah to build effective militias, to gain the loyalty of tribes, and to establish security and a system of justice in the areas it controls shows that the Houthis have substantial organizational capacity in the northern Yemeni context. Many believe in the capacity of the Houthis, and belief is an important part of state legitimacy. Ali Nasser Mohammed, the former president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, or South Yemen) claimed that the Houthis have ended corruption in Yemen, and he is not alone. The Houthi organization has substantial legitimacy, at least for now.

The key dynamic is whether the Houthi organization can govern outside of its heartland in the far north. The Houthi leadership has deep social ties in the north to both religious and tribal leaders. Outside of this area, the Houthi organization cannot rely upon tribal and religious ties. It must build allies in regions far from its base and present itself as national, not regional, leadership.

The Houthi leadership wants effective government in Sana, but it does not seem to want to rule directly. A new prime minister was belatedly chosen, a technocratic southerner from Hadramawt, and he will create a new government. The effectiveness of the new government will be a major factor in the ability of the Houthi organization to hang onto its gains in Yemen’s national scene. Many political leaders do not want to participate in the government because they see it as a puppet government of the Houthis.

Opponents of the Houthis will use sectarian language. The Houthi organization is not a Shi‘i rebel group as many want to call it. The Houthi family commands great respect for its religious credentials. The father of the Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, was a major Zaydi figure. And though the Houthi movement did begin as a kind of defense of Zaydi civil rights, the power of the Houthi leadership is its credibility, not its religion. Many from the Zaydi religious aristocracy do not support the Houthis, and many non-Zaydis support Ansar Allah for its effective leadership.

Nonetheless, opponents from Islah and from al-Qa‘ida have already played the sectarian card. To the extent that alternative political groups can build effective organizations and similarly play the sectarian card, the Houthis will have difficulty running the areas of Hodeidah, the Jawf and Marib, Taiz and Ibb, or Bayda.

The area most likely to build an effective alternative government is the south. The Houthis have courted the southern leaders knowing that the southern regions will be very hard for them to control.  Currently, the commander of the fourth military region that includes the south and the Taiz region challenged the Houthis, saying that the military is in charge of security and that it won’t let militias govern—a clear warning to the Houthis. Such a position will give the commander a good deal of legitimacy if he survives, and it could be replicated in much of Yemen if similar effective political alternatives to the Houthis exist.  

Foreign powers have little impact on these developments. The Group of Ten Countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and five members of the GCC, excluding Qatar) back the GCC agreement, the Hadi government, and now the new Peace and Partnership Agreement signed with the Houthis, but the group has shown itself powerless (and in fact clueless) in the face of the Houthi advance. Iran supports the Houthis, but Iranian support appears to be mostly moral at this point. Houthi weapons are Yemeni, and Houthi legitimacy is domestic. Iran probably has little impact on the Houthi leadership.  

Obama’s Legacy

The rise of the Houthis is the result initially of the failure of America’s partner force in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to govern. Saleh used U.S. military support to bolster the power of his son, Ahmed Ali, at the expense of Saleh’s rival, Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar.  This elite division tore Yemen apart.  Secondly, in the interim period after the fall of Saleh, the international community focused on the National Dialogue at the expense of the real deteriorating problems on the ground. The Houthi movement exploited these conditions to take matters into its own hands.  The effectiveness of the Houthis, at least thus far, contrasts markedly with the incompetence of America’s partners in Yemen.  Creating governed spaces is far more complicated than building alliances with the domestic security forces and having USAID promote good governance.

Yet Obama’s real legacy in Yemen is the rain of drones. For Obama the world is divided into governed spaces and ungoverned spaces. Drones neutralize threats from ungoverned spaces, and building the military and police capacities of domestic partners helps extend central state control into ungoverned spaces.  Obama declared Yemen an example of successful use of this strategy, but his bar for success is quite low.

Drones have not degraded al-Qa‘ida’s capabilities. Al-Qa‘ida in Yemen shows remarkable resilience and by all measures is stronger than when Obama began the drone program. The use of drones has generated anti-U.S. sentiment among the Yemeni public, though not support for al-Qa‘ida. The strategy of extending the military and police capabilities of the state has not succeeded. Saleh used U.S. support to build the forces under the command of his son and to deepen divisions within the Yemeni military.  As Saleh’s rule unraveled, the United States and the Gulf states tried to mend Yemen’s state with the GCC agreement that put President Hadi in power, but Hadi’s interim government failed miserably.  The only success in the Obama strategy is the lack of any new attempt by Yemen’s al-Qa‘ida branch to attack the U.S. homeland, but this comes at the cost of contributing to the destruction of Yemen.

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