The Iran-backed Houthis are consolidating their power in Yemen. They are silencing political dissent in their territories and brutally expanding their control over the rest of the country. In the latest display of violence this month an attack on a mosque inside a military camp in the northern Yemeni city of Marib killed more than 130 soldiers and injured dozens. The incident is one of the most deadly single attacks since the conflict erupted in 2014. Current Houthi operations in Nehm and Jawf, which began last week, have killed hundreds of fighters on both sides, leading to some Houthi territorial gains.
Yet the Houthis' violence gets little to no attention from the international community, and their military operations are not often considered a severe threat in Yemen's conflict. In fact, the Houthis' attack on Marib came just two days after the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, briefed the UN Security Council (UNSC), highlighting "the de-escalation of military hostilities" and noting that Yemen is "witnessing one of the quietest periods of this conflict." His assessment emphasized the 80 percent reduction in air strikes, which are often attributed to the Saudis, since November but failed to convey the growing threat that Yemen faces from the escalation in Houthi military operations across the country, some of which took place less than a month before the briefing.
The willingness on the part of the international community to ignore the Houthis' military expansion and minimize their attacks as mere "skirmishes" has created the impression that it is giving them carte blanche. Since the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement that was reluctantly reached between Yemen's government and the Houthi militia in December 2018, the Houthis have relentlessly attacked strategically important cities, with the aim of solidifying their current control and expanding it to include all of Yemen. The Stockholm deal secured a cease-fire in Hodeida, and the Houthis seized the opportunity to redeploy their forces elsewhere while their cities are protected under an internationally recognized agreement.
Unfortunately, the UN maintained its focus on the Stockholm Agreement, struggling to implement all three of its components, even as the militias began to operate outside its strictures more or less immediately. Over the past year, the Houthis escalated their ground operations with three goals in mind. The first is to protect the territory they’ve acquired and eliminate any military threats, whether current or future. This could be seen in their continuous violations of the Hodeida cease-fire agreement, which included fighting Yemeni forces on the outskirts of Hodeida in areas like al-Tuhita, leading to the forced displacement of an entire village.
The second goal is to increase threats against Yemen's internationally recognized government as well as its backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to boost its leverage in future peace talks. This was evident in the attacks on Saudi Arabia as well as within Yemen, the first casualty of which was in the city of Hajjah in February last year, when the Houthis captured and killed tribesmen from the Hajour tribes in an area that had been neutral in the conflict for the past five years. This was punishment for the tribes’ refusal to grant the Houthis access to critical strategic outposts under their control.
The third and most important goal for the Houthis, which directly benefits their Iranian patrons, is to control the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical maritime chokepoint, in the Gulf of Aden. The acquisition of the Port of Aden would put all of Yemen's ports and waterways, as well as its oil resources, under the Houthis' control — a situation that Iran could exploit to gain leverage against both Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Within this context, it is crucial to understand that the attack in Marib in January was not a random occurrence. It was in line with the Houthis' strategic plan to expand into Yemen's southern region. The northern city of Marib was hosting troops that were heading to the South to keep the peace between southern armed separatists and Yemen's government, as stipulated per the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement. With a number of southern-designated forces now out of the picture, the Houthis rid themselves of a significant obstacle standing between them and their aim of reaching Bab el-Mandeb.
With this in mind, the Houthis continue to focus their largest-scale attacks on Yemen's southern region. Last January, almost immediately after the Stockholm Agreement, they attacked a military parade in the al-Anad camp base near the southern interim capital of Aden, killing six soldiers and injuring others. Seven months later, the Houthis attacked another military parade, killing 47 security officers, including the southern leader Abu al-Yamamah al-Yafai, whose death impacted the security and stability of the South. The attack on security forces is aimed at destroying the Yemeni government’s local security infrastructure and stoking fear and disarray among the different factions, as well as turning communities against the government, which has been unable to provide adequate protection during the conflict.
Consistent with their strategy of seeking to control the South, the Houthis have also launched relentless attacks on the southern city of Dali, which escalated last year. In the battles, which were fought almost entirely against local southern Yemeni forces, the Houthis deployed their fiercest fighters aided by drones and ballistic missiles. The last episode of violence targeted humanitarian organizations and another military parade in al-Samoud square in December 2019, killing seven people, three of which were children. All of this challenges the perception of relative “calm” that the UN envoy described in his recent UNSC briefing.
But what does all of this mean for the possibility of peace in this war-torn country? It is still there. The office of the UN envoy is likely to continue with its plans to sponsor peace talks among all parties, but with a cautious tone this time. In an emergency session on Jan. 28, Griffiths told the UNSC that the recent upsurge in violence between pro-government and rebel forces following weeks of relative calm had to end "before it's too late."
But it is because the violence has to "end" that the Houthis are intensifying their attacks. They are consolidating their power on the ground and creating disarray among the different Yemeni factions to enable them to have the upper hand in any deal. Any additional territory will need to be secured before an agreement is made, meaning there is no reason for them to stop their violence until then.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this article are her own.
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