Houthi militias: A minority group with a majority stake

The Houthis' anti-US, anti-Israel, and anti-Western mission aligns perfectly with Iranian objectives.

The hand of Iran has helped the Houthis expand. It now controls Yemen’s capital and deep-water port while laying siege to its third city in a land of tribal loyalties and simmering feuds.
Sara Gironi Carnevale
The hand of Iran has helped the Houthis expand. It now controls Yemen’s capital and deep-water port while laying siege to its third city in a land of tribal loyalties and simmering feuds.

Houthi militias: A minority group with a majority stake

Across the Middle East and North Africa, state structures have dissolved at an alarming rate, opening the door to militias like the Houthis in Yemen.

To assess the tumult, think not only of Yemen but of Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Somalia, not to mention the violent revolutions in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

Many of these independent national republics were established after independence from a colonial power where, for a while, the future seemed bright.

Elsewhere in the region, however, there was another revolution whose ongoing effects may well be the cause of much of the disintegration — the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Its ongoing reach has helped the Houthis, Hezbollah, and many other militant groups.

With every passing day, it becomes more apparent that 1979 marked a pivotal moment for the region because the newly established regime in Tehran adopted the doctrine of exporting its revolution to the Islamic world.

To understand the region's militias and how they have succeeded, it helps to understand their benefactor and the game it plays.

Tehran’s tentacles

Leveraging the vulnerabilities of some Arab nations and their diminished sense of national identity, Iran wasted no time in seeking to extend its revolutionary influence.

Many trace this policy’s practical origins to the founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, which grew out of civil and regional conflict.

In the early days, it was influenced by armed Palestinian factions and the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who played a crucial role, even before Iran, in fragmenting the Lebanese state and exacerbating its civil strife.

To understand the militias of the region and how they have succeeded, it helps to understand their benefactor Iran and the game it plays.

Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias became the spearhead of Tehran's subversive efforts in the Levant, and by the time of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, they had grown in strength.

Fast forward to the Arab Spring in 2011, and Iran is close to gaining control over four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sana'a in Yemen. It was becoming able to influence political and security decisions in these states.

The driver was the Quds Force, an elite division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian commander assassinated by the US in 2020, grew the Quds Force into a regional power.

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An Iranian carries a portrait of slain head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)'s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

Specifically, it fostered militias in these countries by overseeing their armament, training, and leadership. In short, it helped groups like the Houthis in Yemen.

Inauspicious beginnings

The fragmentation of national identity is not new to the Arab world and contributed to unrest in several Arab nations after World War I, when many new states were forming.

But it was the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the subsequent defeat of Arab armies, and the resulting turmoil in Palestine that exacerbated these issues. It gave both an enemy and a cause to Iran's revolutionary fervour.

Elsewhere in the post-war region, military coups in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and later Libya and Sudan led to the establishment of single-party regimes, some modelled on Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

However, the displacement of Palestinians, known as the Nakba, precipitated unrest in neighbouring states such as Jordan and Lebanon, where armed Palestinian groups formed with a view to retaking the land.

The landscape changed again in 2007 when the militant Islamist Hamas movement kicked its more secular rival Fatah (and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority) out of Gaza, leaving it with the West Bank only.

Post-revolutionary Iran used and exploited the simmering grievances of the region, not least that of the Palestinians and the wider anti-Israel sentiment in many Arab states.

Following Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power in 1979, the Palestinian issue and antagonism towards America and the West became central to Iran's efforts to export its revolution to countries in the Levant.

Post-revolutionary Iran used and exploited the simmering grievances of the region, not least that of the Palestinians.

It did so by exploiting the vulnerabilities of beleaguered nations. Lebanon, for example, was four years into its civil war by 1979. Hezbollah emerged from this.

In 1989, Iran got its second Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Under his rule, Iran and the IRGC have used a shared opposition to America to influence Shiite militias in Iraq, which grew out of the US destruction of Iraq's armed forces following the 2003 invasion.

This influence has grown over the past two decades. Today, although few in Iraq admit it, Tehran has a say in the decisions affecting Iraq's policies and future direction.

Stretching to Sana'a

In Yemen, the Houthi militia is under a similar influence. Formerly known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), it was originally of Zaidi Shiite belief before shifting towards Twelver Shiism.

Since 2014, when a ten-year insurgency became a full-blown civil war, the Houthis have controlled Yemen's capital, Sana'a, and retained control of Yemen's northwest, while government forces control much of the south and centre, including Aden.

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Aerial view of Houthi recruits take part in a military parade held by the movement, on September 15, 2022 in Sana'a, Yemen.

Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS), control vast swathes of eastern Yemen, including some coastal areas.

Beyond its domestic Yemeni priorities, the Houthis' anti-US, anti-Israel, and anti-Western mission seems to perfectly align with Iranian political and ideological objectives.

In recent months, Israel's war in Gaza has given the Houthis the chance to disrupt international shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait — a critical maritime chokepoint leading to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

This strategy, which has succeeded in redirecting major shipping routes, serves Tehran's interests in its confrontations and negotiations with the United States.

Beyond its domestic priorities, the Houthis' anti-US, anti-Israel, anti-Western mission seems to perfectly align with Iranian objectives.

The Palestine pitch

Helping Palestinians in Gaza is also popular in Yemen, allowing the militia to recruit many who want to fight for Palestine.

The reality is that these recruits will never fight beyond Yemen, where the Houthis remain locked in conflict, preventing the formation of a unified Yemeni state.

To this end, the Houthis have tapped up merchants in Sana'a to contribute financially to "the fight in Palestine". This has lined Houthi coffers – and pockets. Some of its leaders have now amassed considerable wealth.

Also targeted are the thousands of (mainly young) Africans fleeing war, desertification, and famine, crossing from Djibouti and Eritrea to reach Yemen and the Gulf.

In their PR efforts, the Houthis have claimed that several of its fighters were "martyred" in the war on Israel, but an investigative website later showed that those supposedly killed in action were in fact alive and well in Yemen.

Some say the Houthis want to turn Yemen into a regional military outpost of Iran, and thereby seeks to prevent Yemeni sovereignty. Others say the Houthis run a military dictatorship not unlike North Korea.

The group's ideology, strategic location, and alliance with Iran has led to it being seen as a southern counterpart to Hezbollah.

Helping Palestinians in Gaza is popular in Yemen, allowing the Houthis to recruit many who want to fight for Palestine. 

Together with the Lebanese outfit and Iran-leaning militias in Iraq and Syria, they form an arc of resistance, a hostile front to the US, the West, and the Arab Gulf nations.

Although the US has retaliated by hitting Houthi infrastructure in recent weeks, analysts ask whether Washington has a viable strategy for the group, given that the militia's attacks on ships have continued regardless.

Some think the Americans should enhance their support for anti-Houthi forces in Yemen before the Houthis take over other areas of the country, including oil-rich Marib.

This region witnessed protests over surging fuel prices. In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen, partly to prevent these demonstrations from escalating into armed conflict between tribal groups in Marib.

The region remains under the authority of Yemen's internationally recognised government, which actively opposes Houthi efforts to seize control.

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Houthi supporters chant slogans as they participate in a rally to mark the eight-year anniversary of the civil war, on March 26, 2023 in Sana'a, Yemen.

A war society

The Houthis originate from the northern governorate of Sa'ada, home to warrior mountain tribes, but have spread across numerous northern governorates.

Some analysts say they have fostered a "war society", with their religious and ideological ideas permeating cultural and civic institutions.

Concepts such as constitutional law, peaceful power transitions, and dispute resolution mechanisms to avoid war would seem alien to the Houthi leadership.

Beyond seizing control of the judiciary and other pre-existing state bodies, they have set up alternative structures to dominate civil society.

Yemen's oil-rich Marib region remains under the authority of Yemen's internationally recognised government, which opposes the Houthis.

For example, they introduced the Zainabiyyat unit for women, a pseudo-security force mirroring Iran's morality police tasked with overseeing women's conduct.

With a particular focus on children and education, the Houthis have revised schools' curricula across the areas they govern to produce a pipeline of future recruits. Some say the changes incite hatred and violence.

The reforms have been overseen by Yahya Al-Houthi, the brother of the group's leader, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi. They were meticulously planned and executed by committees.

Houthi emergence

The inception of the Houthi movement can be traced back to the Believing Youth Forum established in 1992 in Sa'ada, the epicentre of the Zaidi sect's congregations.

The movement ostensibly emerged to safeguard the sect, prompted by the initiation by Sheikh Muqbil al-Wadi'i of a Salafist religious call in the vicinity of Sa'ada, particularly in Dammaj.

During their advance towards Sana'a in 2014, the Houthis destroyed the Dar al-Hadith institution led by Sheikh Yahya al-Hajuri in Dammaj.

Preceding this, the Zaidi Youth Movement transformed, evolving into the Hizb al-Haqq (Party of Truth) as the political representative for followers of the sect.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (1960-2004) achieved success in parliamentary elections yet subsequently relinquished his parliamentary position, redirecting his efforts towards establishing religious educational institutions for the sect.

Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels brandishing weapons raise portraits of their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi during a rally in the capital Sanaa on June 3, 2022.

This shift occurred after journeys to Iran and Lebanon undertaken by both Hussein and his father, Badruddin, fostering connections with Iranian clerics and Hezbollah leaders. Hussein al-Houthi later pursued a degree in Sharia sciences in Sudan.

Yemeni researchers say the Houthi call resonates particularly with tribes and adherents of Zaidi community fighters.

The movement's objective is to assert dominance in Yemen through military means, aspiring to govern the country despite being a minority within the Zaidi sect. For its financial and otherwise firepower, the Houthis rely on Iran.

North and south

The historical trajectory of the Zaidi Imamate in the north is very different from that of the South, where Aden was a British protectorate before independence in 1967.

Aden and the surrounding area in south Yemen became a Marxist state aligned with the Soviet Union in 1970. In contrast, the North transitioned into a republic in 1962.

Civil strife soon erupted in all regions of Yemen. It only ended under the coercive unification of the country in the 1990s by army commander Ali Abdullah Saleh.

This amalgamation was followed by a fierce conflict between the North and South in 1994, leaving Saleh to perpetuate his autocratic rule until the Arab Spring in 2011. He stepped down following mass unrest.

The Houthis militarily dominate Yemen, aspiring to govern the country despite being a minority within the Zaidi sect.

He eventually handed power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but Hadi fled abroad in 2015 after the Houthis stormed Sana'a.

With no strongman in charge, the diverse and divisive array of Yemen's tribes, forces, and factions were free once again to pursue their deeply entrenched feuds, vendettas, and animosities.

Heads of snakes

The Islamic Reform Party, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, forged an alliance with General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to thwart Saleh's plan to pass power to his son.

Likewise, the Southern Movement emerged and mobilised its supporters from Aden to Sana'a. Yet even after his ousting, Saleh retained influence and waited patiently for the opportune moment to reclaim power.

When it came in 2015, it surprised people. After having waged six military campaigns against the Houthis while in power, from 2004-09, Saleh formed an alliance with them.

He saw that they had successfully taken Sana'a and sought to ride on their backs back to power. Indeed, in 2008, Saleh said ruling Yemen was like "dancing on the heads of snakes".

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis hold posters and portraits of Yemen's ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration in support of the former president at Sabaeen Square in the capital, Sana'a, on August 24, 2017.

Beware the snakes that bite.

In 2017, Saleh was caught messaging the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and others. On 2 December, he publicly broke from the Houthis on TV, called on his supporters to turn on his recent allies, and expressed an interest in talking to the Saudi-led coalition.

On 4 December, the game was up. His house in Sana'a was raided, and he made a beeline for Marib in a convoy of cars. He didn't make it. Houthi fighters blew his car up with a rocket-propelled grenade and then shot him.

Splintered opponents

State-building in Yemen is impeded by the Houthis, who claim independence despite being substantively supported by Iran.

Yet despite their broad alignment under the internationally recognised government, which Saudi Arabia supports, the anti-Houthi factions in Yemen are disunited.

Among them are the Abu al-Abbas Brigades (a fusion of Salafis and Yemeni nationalists) and militias affiliated with the Islamic Reform Party (Muslim Brotherhood).

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh once described the difficulty of ruling Yemen, likening it to "dancing on the heads of snakes". 

The Houthis' opponents differ in leadership, allegiances, objectives, tribes, and affiliations. United, they might better challenge the Houthis militarily and territorially.

Take the southern city of Taiz – Yemen's third largest - as an example. Taiz has been besieged by the Houthis since 2015, with vital water supplies cut off.

Taiz now finds itself bisected by war, the Houthis controlling one half while government forces control the other. The Houthis, who control four of the five water basins, have stopped water pipes and water trucks from supplying the government area.

There are similar complexities in Marib and Al Hudaydah, where Houthi influence extends over specific areas. Al Hudaydah has a strategically vital deep-water port.

A 'national' army

After north and south Yemen fought a war in the 1990s, there was a forced unification to create one 'Yemeni army', but this splintered as the Houthis advanced on Sana'a.

In 2015, an army described as the 'national army' was established to conduct operations with the Arab coalition, including Saudi Arabia. Saleh's nephew Tariq aligned his forces with it after the Houthis assassinated his uncle in 2017.

Today, the Houthis control three-quarters of Yemen's population and command the city of Al Hudaydah, with its strategically important Red Sea port.

Currently, his forces are stationed in parts of Al Hudaydah and the city of Mocha, where he established an airport. He is vice president of the seven-member Yemeni Presidential Council and a deputy to President Rashad Al-Alimi.

This week, that council made the surprise decision to remove Yemen's Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, replacing him with Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, a former ambassador to the US.

Bin Mubarak, described as "an architect of the Saudi-led coalition", is certainly no friend of the Houthis, who kidnapped him in 2015, triggering fresh fighting. He recently urged the European Union to designate them as a terrorist organisation.

A patchwork quilt

The aftermath of Saleh's ouster and the ensuing Houthi conflict has given rise to numerous strongholds and fortifications across Yemen, resulting in the dismantling of both the state and society.

Today, the Houthis exert control over three-quarters of Yemen's population through their military dominance.

Sara Gironi Carnevale
The Houthis in Yemen have grown in strength with Iranian support.

Their command of Al Hudaydah, with its Red Sea port acting as a humanitarian lifeline, gives the Houthis a stranglehold on the country.

In Yemen's vast south live 7 million of Yemen's 27 million residents. In Taiz, a stronghold of the Islamic Reform Party (Muslim Brotherhood), the Houthis lay siege.

Tariq Saleh has established a new political party in Mocha with its port. In Hadramout, a distinct identity propels aspirations for independence. Fighters affiliated with the government in Aden come from Yafa'a and Dhale.

In Marib, where Yemen's oil and gas wealth lies, there remains a staunch resistance to a Houthi takeover. As a result, its population has ballooned from 50,000 to one million, mainly from internal refugees.

One of the leaders of its influential tribes, Sheikh Sultan Arada, has successfully organised a tribal militia and mobilised other tribes to defend against the Houthis, aligning with the legitimate government's army in the process.

These pockets of resistance and cooperation show that the country need not forever be characterised by division. The process of reconstruction and unification has been undertaken before and can be undertaken again.

Nevertheless, the Houthis, with the perpetual 'war society' that they have created to assert control over much of Yemen, present a significant obstacle to this vision.

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