April 9, 2019


Understanding the Houthi Faction in Yemen (Sama'a Al-Hamdani, April 7, 2019, LawFare)

The Houthis emerged in Yemen as an opposition movement in the early 1990s; however, they did not present a significant military threat to the Yemeni state until the early 2000s. The group, originally organized as the "Believing Youth Group," claimed to "revive" Zaydism, a branch of Shiite Islam, and aimed to counter the increasing presence of Sunni Wahhabi schools in Sa'dah, the northern province of Yemen, and particularly in the city of Dammaj. As the organization grew, it planned insurgencies against the state and became known as "the Houthis," a reference to the family that led the movement. The Houthis fought six wars, called the Sa'dah wars, with the government between 2004 and 2010. These conflicts gave the rebel group combat experience and compelled them to build a military organization. However, their true rise to power occurred during and after the Arab Spring in 2011.

When the protests in Yemen began, the Houthis were present in "Change Square." After President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down and initiated a political transition after months of pressure, the Houthis participated in Yemen's National Dialogue Conference (NDC), where one of the eight committees formed was dedicated exclusively to addressing their grievances. The political process was fraught. Sana'a had never been host to so many dissenting groups in its modern history and the transition championed by the NDC was an unpopular departure from Yemen's traditionally decentralized, consociational mode of governance. In the absence of state control, a vacuum emerged that politically ambitious groups in the capital, including the Houthis, worked to exploit.

Eventually, in September 2014, the Houthis seized Sana'a, but this turn of events was anything but sudden. In the months before Houthi forces entered the capital, its militia threaded through the mountainous regions of Arhab and Amran, fighting several battles against rival military units headed by General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the tribal and Islamist political coalition Islah, and independent Salafi fighters. When the Houthis entered Sana'a, it was reported that "not a single shot was fired." The takeover was slow moving and cushioned with political settlements, not only with the government but also with the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), a coalition of opposition political parties created in 2005.

The civil war expanded into a regional war with the intervention of the Arab coalition in 2015. Despite this increased pressure, the Houthis' political ambitions proved greater than expected and they quickly gained several advantages over other competing factions.

They had already captured the capital of Sana'a, where they seized control of all existing state institutions. They also benefited from the accumulated experience of Saleh, the ousted president of 33 years and the Houthis' former enemy. Saleh, became an unlikely ally who joined forces with the Houthis to retain his influence. As the Arab coalition ramped up their intervention, the Houthis also exploited the coalition's, turning it into one of their raisons d'etre.

Today, more than five years after taking Sana'a, the Houthis have complete control of the capital and the governorates of Amran, Dhamar, Rima, Ibb and al-Mahweet. They also control much of the northwest province of Hajjah, except near the Saudi border, and are present in the central province of al-Bayda. The war has devastated Sa'dah, the northern stronghold of the Houthis, but the province remains almost exclusively under their control.

Posted by at April 9, 2019 7:24 PM