In recent weeks, Yemen’s main anti-Houthi leaders have increasingly been sending the same message to the US, urging it to provide support in the fight against the Houthis on the ground. The provision of military assistance is still hypothetical but seems more and more plausible given developments in the Yemeni landscape, triggered by the Houthis’ continuing attacks on maritime shipping in the Red Sea. Against this backdrop, competing anti-Houthi forces in Yemen are now vying to improve their diplomatic image as well, trying to present themselves as reliable allies in the eyes of Western stakeholders.

The Saudi-backed chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), Rashad al-Alimi, has gradually converged on the position of Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the Emirati-supported president of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) — and also a PLC vice president — who suggested that Yemeni government forces could supplement US airstrikes on the ground in an effort to remove the Houthi threat to maritime navigation. Both rivals aim to capitalize on growing Western concern about the Houthis’ offensive capabilities: Al-Alimi thinks he can further centralize power and strengthen his leadership, while al-Zubaidi believes he can garner support for a “would be” southern state.

All of this is happening as one hard truth is becoming increasingly clear: Neither the US-UK airstrikes against Houthi military sites, nor the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian and Greek-led Aspides naval missions have induced the Houthis to halt their attacks so far. This means that Washington’s strategic options are getting narrower. In the medium to long term, these dynamics may push the US to provide “train and equip” assistance to anti-Houthi forces in Yemen to undermine the capabilities of the Iranian-backed group, especially in the Tihama coastal region bordering the Red Sea. Such a risky step can’t be ruled out given the incremental strategy Washington has adopted so far, but it would prompt an array of questions and have significant implications, starting with what it might mean for Yemen’s diplomatic process.

Between condemnation and sovereignty: A delicate balancing act

Since Oct. 7, the anti-Houthi camp has sought to maintain a delicate balancing act between the dominant sentiment of solidarity with Gaza among Yemenis and the need to establish a clear political difference with respect to the Houthis’ maritime attacks, cultivating pro-Western diplomatic relations instead. This balance has become extremely challenging since the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK started carrying out airstrikes on military sites in Houthi-controlled areas in January 2024, aiming to weaken the group’s offensive capabilities. However, these strikes are taking place on Yemeni soil, thus adding a new foreign dimension to an already complex domestic landscape that, over the past 20 years, has experienced a US drone warfare campaign to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (since 2002) and a Saudi-led military intervention against the Houthis (since 2015).

Both the STC and the Joint Forces on the West Coast led by Tareq Saleh have distanced themselves from the Houthis’ attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. However, while the STC immediately offered support to Western initiatives to restore maritime security, Tareq Saleh framed the Houthis’ attacks with a nationalist narrative and reportedly declined a request by US officials to take part in the mission, as did the internationally recognized government. During a meeting with the commander of government naval forces in Aden on Dec. 9, 2023, Zubaidi stressed the STC’s willingness to enhance maritime security and protect international shipping lanes “along with the Yemeni Coast Guard (YCG) forces and other naval forces in the international coalition.” Zubaidi emphasized that he was “working tirelessly with international allies” during a visit to Perim/Mayyum island in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on Dec. 18. Assessing naval formations from the YCG and the First Marine Brigade in Mokha on Dec. 13, Tareq Saleh urged the YCG to remain vigilant, noting that the Houthis “are using the Gaza war and targeting Israeli ships as pretexts to target our ports and islands, and kill Yemenis.”

Capitalizing on Western concerns to achieve their goals

As the Red Sea maritime security crisis drags on, the public position of PLC Chairman Alimi has converged with that of STC leader Zubaidi: Both are now asking Western partners to provide material support to government forces in countering the Houthis. During a meeting with US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking on Dec. 11, Zubaidi confirmed that the STC would be ready to join a coalition to counter the Houthi attacks and protect international shipping if the effort were supported by the US and other countries. This meeting took place a few days before Operation Prosperity Guardian was announced.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in mid-January, Zubaidi reiterated the proposal “because strong strikes without ground operations are useless," suggesting that government forces (of which the STC is technically part, even though it remains largely autonomous) could lead a ground offensive against the Houthis if the US were to provide weapons, training, and intelligence. According to the STC leader, Yemeni forces could supplement US airstrikes on the ground to “remove or stop the Houthi threat.”

During the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, Alimi urged international support for the recognized government to enforce its control over all Yemeni territory, ending the Houthis’ threats to international navigation. Alimi stated that, “As long as the source of these threats is on land, the solutions start from the land, and this is basically a Yemeni issue,” thus implicitly referring to an externally-backed Yemeni ground operation against the Houthis.

Beyond the PLC’s fractures: Time for anti-Houthi convergence?

The PLC chairman’s gradual convergence on the Western-backed ground offensive option may have two explanations. The first is latent competition with Zubaidi: Alimi doesn’t want to give the STC president the banner of the Houthis’ main rival on the Red Sea crisis, especially now that the Saudi-backed chairman is still trying to expand the recognized government’s territorial influence, for instance in Hadramawt through the Nation Shield Forces. The second explanation is the relationship with Western partners: Alimi doesn’t want to be surpassed by Zubaidi as “most pro-Western Yemeni leader,” and this partly reveals why both men have chosen to send powerful messages to the US about hypothetical military assistance at high-level Western fora, like the World Economic Forum and the Munich Security Conference.

Because of the continuing instability in the Red Sea, all the PLC leaders now have more strategic incentives to downplay their differences with one another, rather than accentuating them. In case the US and other Western states provide strengthened military support to the recognized government, all the PLC political-military components would have an interest in reducing the Houthis' territorial control and preventing the Iranian-backed group from carrying out further heavy offensives in both Marib and Shabwa.

Two developments suggest the PLC is currently working to freeze its internal fractures, stressing instead its shared anti-Houthi stance. In early February 2024, the PLC replaced Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed with Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, without providing a public explanation. Bin Mubarak, a former Yemeni ambassador to the US and the UN, is reportedly close to Saudi Arabia and has taken a tough stance vis-à-vis the Houthis (who kidnapped him in 2015), making the new prime minister an acceptable choice for the STC as well. In early January 2024, Alimi also issued a decree merging all anti-Houthi intelligence agencies, including those of the STC, the Guards of the Republic (part of the Joint Forces), and the Giants Brigades, into a single bureau under his command. These moves may suggest the PLC is preparing for the ground offensive scenario.

The US and Yemen: From security sector reform to “train and equip”?

Since the start of the Houthis’ maritime escalation against international shipping, the US has intensified its contacts with the Yemeni groups, mainly Emirati-backed ones, deployed in the coastal areas formally held by the recognized government (Aden, Mokha). As part of this outreach, the US would have also started to deal with forces autonomous of or even external to the internationally recognized government, such as the STC and the Joint Forces: These political-military groups control access, respectively, to the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February, Alimi met with Amb. Boris Ruge, the NATO assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy, to discuss the Houthi threat to international shipping and Yemen’s efforts to combat terrorism. The PLC chairman outlined “the required support to secure port cities and curb the threats” coming from the Houthis, also expressing an “appreciation for a strategic partnership with NATO” in the future. This meeting followed the first ever visit by a sitting NATO secretary-general to Saudi Arabia, as Jens Stoltenberg travelled to the kingdom in December 2023. During a public discussion at the Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Stoltenberg mentioned “maritime security” and “the protection of critical infrastructure” among the “mutual challenges” facing both NATO and Saudi Arabia.

The US and, more broadly, Western states have come to realize the extent of the Houthi threat to regional and maritime security only after Oct. 7. They are also starting to understand that Houthi attacks against international shipping may resume — regardless of whether a hypothetical cease-fire in Gaza is signed — whenever the movement thinks they can be useful in achieving its strategic goals. Moreover, the fact the Houthis are the only Iranian-backed group that is continuing to carry out attacks against US military and civilian maritime targets despite Tehran reportedly asking for a pause to avoid further escalation in the Middle East underscores their autonomous decision-making and independent agenda, even though they are part of the constellation of pro-Iranian armed groups.

Whatever incremental steps the US may adopt to address the Houthis’ offensive capabilities, especially providing military assistance, these should take into account two factors. The first is the need for the Gulf monarchies to have a say on the issue — in part because of the possible implications for their national security. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the most involved in the Yemen war, have distinct positions on how to deal with the Houthis: Riyadh opened direct talks with the group for a bilateral cease-fire while Abu Dhabi was already ready in 2018 to support a ground offensive in Hodeida by Emirati-backed Yemeni forces. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been very active in rebuilding the YCG, which is now key to the current prospects for military assistance. For instance, a Saudi delegation met Tareq Saleh in Mokha on Dec. 11, 2023 to discuss military support for the YCG and the naval forces to protect Yemen and international waters.

The second factor regards the implications this option would likely have on Yemen’s diplomatic process toward a cease-fire. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine how the US could support, in the short to medium term, a “peace deal” in Yemen involving the Houthis without a significant and credible shift in their behavior. Similarly, how could Saudi Arabia politically sustain a bilateral cease-fire with an armed movement that is able to disrupt economic activity along the waterway connecting the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, so fundamental for Vision 2030 projects? On the other hand, the roots of the current instability in the Red Sea must be sought and addressed, first of all in Yemen — and this means the Houthis cannot be excluded from the diplomatic equation. Surely, moving from supporting security sector reform in Yemen to providing “train and equip” assistance for anti-Houthi forces in the country would be a bitter wake-up call for the US, although at a certain point Washington may think it is one of the few remaining options left.


Eleonora Ardemagni is a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations-ASERI.

Photo by KHALED ZIAD/AFP via Getty Images

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