A drop in the ocean
Houthis are no mere proxies of Iran, argues Yassamine Mather. They have their own political goals and agenda
As readers will know, Yemen has been the scene of a major civil war for the last 10 years - its population of 29 million people has faced death and starvation for most of this period. According to UN agencies, the country is facing a “humanitarian crisis”. At least 150,000 Yemenis have been killed as a direct result of conflict, while 2,270,000 have died due to ongoing famine and lack of healthcare.
Yet the imperialist countries, led by the US (the ‘international community’) has paid very little attention to Yemen - until a few weeks ago, when so-called ‘Houthi rebels’ began attacking cargo ships. By early January, Joe Biden was explaining the reasons for the use of the mighty US airforce - plus a bit part for the RAF - against an impoverished, war-torn country as being a “direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea”.
In order to understand the current situation, it is important to revisit the country’s history.
In 1839, the British established a protectorate around the strategically important port city of Aden, covering south-eastern Yemen, as part of their Indian empire. In 1918, Shia imams set up a kingdom in north Yemen, declaring independence from the Ottoman empire. During the 1960s, a military rebellion and a six-year civil war ensued, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt supporting opposing sides. This conflict resulted in the overthrow of the king and the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic. In 1967, following the British withdrawal from the south, the People’s Republic of Yemen was created. With the 1969 Correction Move, it aligned closely with the USSR’s ‘socialist’ camp, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (also known as South Yemen). In 1990, following the end of the cold war and the cessation of Soviet subsidies, the two Yemens unified. However, in 1994, simmering north-south tensions flared up again, leading then president Ali Abdullah Saleh to deploy armed forces to suppress a southern secessionist movement, resulting in a civil war.
As far as Yemen’s Islamist groups are concerned, it is crucial to make a clear distinction between various Salafi and other factions. Saudi Arabian pro-Sunni intervention triggered the first round of conflict with the Houthis, lasting from 2004 to 2010. The Sunni groups included the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a faction of al Qa’eda.
The Houthis in Yemen are followers of the Zayd ibn Ali, who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century. The pro-Zayd sect differs from the ‘Twelver Shi’ism’ of countries like Iran and Iraq. They have their own distinct religious and political beliefs, do not accept the ‘infallibility’ of the Twelve Imams and in terms of doctrine are closer to Sunnis. They regard rationalism as more important than Quranic literalism and in the past were quite tolerant towards Sunni Shafi’ism - a religion followed by about half of the Yemeni population. Their recent alliance with Shia Iran reflects political necessities rather than deep religious association.
We also have to consider the events around 2011 and the Arab Spring. Yemen was one of the first countries where pro-democracy protests took place. Large crowds of demonstrators gathered in Sana’a, the capital, as well as various other Yemeni urban centres, demanding president Saleh’s resignation. They raised slogans against government corruption and poverty. The Yemeni demonstrations, which appeared to be coordinated by a coalition of opposition groups, resulted in the ousting of Saleh in 2012. This led to military intervention initiated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in March 2015.
In 2012, following a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, Saleh was granted immunity from local prosecution, and his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, became the uncontested transitional president for a two-year term. To this day, he continues to be recognised internationally as the official president of Yemen, even though he has lived in exile in Saudi Arabia since 2015! Meanwhile, Iran has recognised the Houthi’s National Salvation Government in Sanaa.
In 2013, the UN, in collaboration with the GCC, established the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC). This aimed to engage various political groups, including representatives from the south and the Houthis’ political party, known as Ansar Allah, as well as entities referred to as “civil society”.
The outcome of the NDC’s efforts, released in 2014, extended Hadi’s term of office for a year to oversee a transition to multi-party elections. It established equal representation between north and south in a legislative body and ensured “freedom of religion and a non-sectarian state”. However, Houthi-Sunni clashes and popular protests continued, ultimately leading to the Houthi rebellion and Hadi’s departure in early 2015. This was followed by a Saudi-led military intervention called Operation Decisive Storm (in Arabic, Amaliyyat Āsifat al-Hazm), which included a bombing campaign against the Houthis, later a naval blockade, and the deployment of ground forces into Yemen.
The United States aided the Saudis with intelligence and logistical support, including aerial refuelling of military planes and search-and-rescue operations for downed pilots. Saudi foreign minister, prince Faisal bin Farhan, has stated that US and British military officials were present in the command and control centre overseeing Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen.
The Houthis currently control almost all of north Yemen, and after more than eight years of war, Saudi Arabia has not achieved its objectives in the country. Before the Gaza war of October 2023, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis were in discussions about a potential agreement that could have helped end the civil war - the Houthi delegation and Omani negotiators visited Saudi Arabia in September 2023 to finalise details. However, the war in Gaza has since dominated the political agenda in the Middle East, leading to a temporary pause in talks. Notably, the Saudis have declined to join the US-led coalition against the Houthis. As US and UK bombings of Houthi strongholds were underway, the kingdom’s foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “great concern” and calling for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation”.
As Helen Lackner, a renowned expert on Yemen, said in an interview with the Jadaliyya website,
Yemen appears in the media when two main types of events occur: first, particularly murderous and outrageous attacks causing large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. This has been the case in the early years of the war, when the Saudi-led coalition airforces apparently indiscriminately bombed civilian targets and situations where many people assembled, such as weddings and markets. Despite efforts by social and traditional media under Saudi and Emirati influence to limit coverage, such events penetrated the barriers imposed.
As their numbers have diminished since 2020, the second reason for media concern with Yemen has focused on the humanitarian crisis, which, until overtaken by Afghanistan in mid-2021, was officially described by the UN as “the worst in the world”. With the worsening of numerous political, military and humanitarian crises throughout the world, Yemen is ‘competing’ for attention with many other crises, some of which are better known thanks to large expatriate communities and previous international prominence or their geographical proximity to the west.1
The Houthis are often labelled as Iran’s proxies. However, while Iran is an important ally, this is not accurate. Publicly Iran’s supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised their actions on January 15, but there can be little doubt that in its ‘calibrated’ response to the many threats of war received from the US, Iran’s Islamic Republic is joining Saudi Arabia in encouraging the Houthis to show ‘restraint’. After a decade-long war, including military successes that have given them control of half of Yemen, they have their own political goals and agenda, and make independent decisions, not least regarding attacks on shipping. This autonomy is a key reason why the latest ‘secret’ message sent by Biden to the Iranian clerical leadership is unlikely to halt the attacks on ships traversing the Bab-al Mandab Strait.
The Islamic regime in Tehran is seriously concerned about an escalation of the war in the Middle East in view of Biden’s unequivocal warnings of military intervention against Iran. We do not know what exactly was threatened, but we can assume that they include the bombing of nuclear, security and military bases. On the other hand, Iran has promised its supporters that it will take revenge for the recent killings of leading IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) members as well as Hezbollah allies. Two wars in the region, in Gaza and Bab-al Mandab, have provided an opportunity to take calculated but restrained measures against pro-Israeli forces in the region as well as groups affiliated with the arch-enemy, Islamic State.
For this reason, Iran has launched a series of missile attacks on targets in Syria, northern Iraq and Pakistan in recent days. According to the Islamic Republic, the first target in Syria was Islamic State and the missiles used were ‘fortress-breaker’ missiles with a range of 1,400 km. Earlier this month, IS issued a statement claiming responsibility for two bombs that killed 91 people, as explosions ripped through crowds near the tomb of Qassem Suleimani. Iran has accused IS of collaborating with Israel, citing previous alleged cooperation between Israel and IS in Syria during that country’s civil war.
The second strike was an attack on what Iran referred to as an “espionage centre” in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The missile strikes were carried out by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. On January 15 the IRGC launched ballistic missiles at what it called Israeli “spy headquarters” in Iraq’s Kurdish region, claiming this was part of a policy of “defending its security and countering terrorism”.
It is difficult to assess the veracity of this claim. However, the autonomous Kurdish government maintains good relations with Israel, and Mossad agents have been operating in that region. On January 16, Iran state TV said it had attacked two sites belonging to the Jaish ul-Adl (‘Army of Justice’), an ethnic Baloch Sunni Muslim group that has carried out attacks inside Iran using missiles.
The three successive attacks resulted in the death of a number of civilians and escalated tension in the region. However, when the ‘international community’ says little about the death of at least 24,000 Palestinians in Gaza, it is inevitable that so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran will see an opportunity to take on what they label their ‘terrorist enemies’ in other countries.
As well as the US/British attacks, the actions of Iran’s Islamic Republic should be condemned. But in comparison to the systematic genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, they are a tiny drop in an ocean of global injustice.