Pax Americana For The Arab-Persian Gulf - Part 66 - The Pro-Iran Houthi Movement.
Critics call the Houthis "arrogant crooks". Their AuL emerged in 1992 in Sa'da, Yemen's north-western province bordering Saudi Arabia. AuL has Sunnis converted into Safawism. Under the leadership of Hussein Badruddin al-Houthi, AuL became Iran-guided rebels to Yemen's ex-president/dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh who they accused of corruption and criticised his dependence on Saudi Arabia and the US. Tensions with Saleh's regime grew until war broke out in 2004 with the group's founder Hussein, who was killed later in that year by Saleh forces. The Quds Force (QF), an external arm of Iran's ruling Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), guides AuL. The theocracy's other Arab proxies like Lebanon's Hizbullah also helps in the training of Houthis in combat and organisation.
In late 2014 AuL led by Abdul-Malek, Hussein's brother, repaired relations with Saleh and the Yemeni Armed Forces (YAF). With the latter's help, AuL took control of the capital San'a' and much of the north. Like Hizbullah - the strongest under the QF - AuL attracts Zaidis in Yemen by promoting regional political-religious issues in its media, including the over-arching "US-Israeli conspiracy" and Arab "collusion". In 2003 AuL's slogan was: "God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, and victory to Islam".
AuL goals include ending Yemen's under-development, corruption, nepotism and political marginalisation - seeking greater autonomy for Houthi-held areas. But themselves, AuL is excessively corrupt and lacking in morality. It took part in Yemen's - co-ordinating with other opposition groups. It joined the National Dialogue Conference in as part of a Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) peace plan. But it rejected the November 2011 deal's provisions stipulating formation of six federal regions in Yemen, claiming that did not reform governance and "divided Yemen into poor and wealthy regions". It said the deal was an attempt to weaken it by dividing areas under its control between separate regions.
In 2014-15, AuL took San'a' with Saleh's help and announced the fall of the Arab/GCC and the YAF under President Abd-Rabuh Mansur Hadi. It controlled of most of Yemen. By 2017, AuL resisted both Arab/GCC and Hadi forces.
Additionally, however, Iran-backed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS has attacked the conflict's major parties, Saleh's and Hadi's forces, and the Arab/GCC contingents - the latter reduced to Saudi and UAE forces.
Houthism began as a moderate theological movement, preaching tolerance and held a broad-minded view of all the Yemenis. Its first organisation, "the Believing Youth" (BY), was founded in 1992 in Sa'da by Muhammad and Hussein al-Houthi. It set up school clubs and summer camps to promote a Zaidi revival" in Sa'da. By 1994-95, up to 20,000 students had attended BY summer camps. The religious material included lectures by Lebanon's Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Hussein Fadhlalla and Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrullah.
Houthism includes shoring up Zaidi support against Saudi Wahhabism and condemnation of the Saleh regime's alliance with the US, which, along with complaints regarding the government's corruption and marginalisation of much of the Houthis' home areas in Sa'da, constituted BY's key grievances.
Although Hussein al-Houthi had no official ties with BY, he radicalised Zaydism after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. BY-tied youth shouted anti-US and anti-Israel slogans in San'a's Saleh Mosque after Friday prayers. That attracted the authorities' attention, further increasing Saleh worries over the extent of the Houthi influence. Saleh thought that, if now the Houthis chanted "Death to America", tomorrow they could be chanting `Death to the president". So over 800 BY supporters were arrested in San'a' in 2004. Saleh then invited Hussein al-Houthi to a meeting in Sa'na', but Hussein declined. On June 18, 2004 Saleh sent government forces to arrest Hussein. Hussein responded by launching an insurgency against the regime but he was killed on Sep 10, 2004.
The insurgency continued intermittently until a truce was reached in 2010. During the conflict, the all-service YAF were used to suppress the Houthi rebellion in Yemen's north. The Saudis joined those campaigns but the Houthis won against both Saleh and the Saudi army, defeating them both again and again, particularly humiliating the Saudis, who spent tens of billions of dollars on their military.
Later the Houthis joined in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution, as well as the ensuing National Dialogue Conference(NDC). But they rejected the provisions of the November 2011 deal on the ground that it divided Yemen into poor and wealthy regions. It was also in response to assassination of their NDC representative. As the revolution went on, Houthis gained control of greater territory. By Nov. 9, 2011, the Houthis were in control of Sa'da and Jawf provinces and close to taking over Hajja's, which would enable them to launch a direct assault on San'a'. In May 2012, they controlled most of Sa'da, Jawf, and Hajja provinces, as well as gaining access to the Red Sea and began erecting barricades north of San'a' in preparation for more conflict. Saleh was allied with them in 2014-2017.
By Sep 21, 2014, AuL controlled parts of San'a' including government buildings and a radio station. But while Houthi control expanded to the rest of San'a' and other towns like Rada', that was challenged by al-Qaeda and ISIS. Against the indirect Iranian role, Riyadh aided their rivals. The AuL on Jan 20, 2015, seized the presidential palace in San'a' where Hadi was staying but was not harmed. The AuL on Feb 6 in that year took control of the government, dissolving parliament and making its Revolutionary Committee the acting body in Yemen.
In March 2015, two mosques were hit by ISIS during mid-day prayers, killing 142 AuL worshippers and wounding over 351, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen's history. On TV speech, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi accused the US and Israel of supporting the terror hits. He blamed regional Arab states for financing terrorists in Yemen. On March 27, 2015, in response to perceived AuL threats to Sunni factions in the region, Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan conducted US-backed air-strikes.
By then, AuL had become one of the most organised socio-political movements in Yemen. The power vacuum caused by the un-certain transition drew more supporters to AuL. Many of the formerly powerful parties, now chaotic with an un-clear vision, fell out of favour with the public, making AuL more attractive. The alliance between Saleh and AuL broke down in late 2017, with armed clashes occurring in Sa'na'. Saleh declared the split in a Dec. 2 TV statement, urging his supporters to take back the country and offered a dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. On Dec. 4, 2017, Saleh's San'a' house was assaulted by AuL, killing the ex-ruler.
There is a difference between the 20-member Houthi clan and AuL. The Houthis avoid assuming a tribal identity. Instead, they strategically get support from the northern Bakil tribes, rivals to the Hashed federation which had been a traditional ally of the central government and Riyadh. The AuL's lack of centralised command structure allows it to generate huge support, as Yemenis from diverse backgrounds have joined its cause.
AuL had up to 3,000 fighters by 2005 and 8,000 in 2009. In 2010, Yemen Post claimed they had over 100,000 fighters. AuL expert Ahmad al-Bahri in 2010 said the Houthis had over 100,000 followers, including armed fighters. By 2015, AuL had swaths of new supporters outside its traditional demographics. On Feb 5, 2016, Iran's PressTV reported that Men of Hamdan, one of Yemen's most powerful tribes, rallied to AuL to resist the government. In a gathering held in the capital, hundreds of tribesmen from the south pledged union against what they described as a US-Israeli initiative targeting Yemen.
AuL's ideology is based on Zaidism, also known as Fivers, a sect almost exclusively present in Yemen. Zaidis make up about 25% of the population, Sunnis make up 75%. There are tiny Muslim minorities - the Isma'ilis and Ja'faris. Houthi Zaidis make up about 30% of the Shi'ite population.
The Zaidis ruled Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962. They ferociously defended their independence and fought off external powers - Egypt and the Ottomans - controlling South Yemen and trying to extend their rule to the north. Similar to Shi'ites in matters of religious law and rulings, the Houthi belief in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion makes them distinct from Sunnis.
The Houthi approach is in many ways similar to that of Lebanon's Hizbullah. Similarly religiously based and guided by Iran, both groups follow the same military doctrine and glorify the Khomeini revolution. Consequently, they have regularly been accused, even by many fellow Zaidis, of secretly being converts to Ja'farism - Iran's official sect.
AuL asserts that its actions are against the expansion of Salafism and for defence from discrimination, whereas the San'a' government has accused it of intending to topple the regime out of a desire to institute Zaidi law, de-stabilising the state and stirring anti-US sentiment. The government also accuses AuL of having ties to external backers, in particular Iran. In turn, AuL says the Hadi regime is guided by Saudi Arabia. The discord has led some publishers to fear that further confrontations may lead to an all-out Sunni-Shi'ite war.
AuL's flag reads: "God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam". This is partially modelled on Iran's which reads "Death to US and death to Israel". AuL spokesman Ali al-Bukhayti and the media face of the Houthis have tried to reject the literal interpretation of the slogan, stating: "We do not really want death to anyone. The slogan is simply against the interference of those governments [USA & Israel]". However, the Arabic AuL-affiliated TV and radio stations use jihad (holy war) connotations against Israel and the US. They also call Saudi Arabia a US puppet state.
AuL has been accused of expelling or restricting members of the rural Yemeni Jewish community. Reports of abuse include AuL supporters bullying or attacking the country's Jews. But AuL officials deny any involvement in the harassment, asserting that under Houthi control, Jews in Yemen would be able to live and operate freely as any other Yemeni citizen. AuL spokesman Fadl Abu Taleb says: "Our problems are with Zionism and the occupation of Palestine, but Jews here have nothing to fear".
A Yemeni Jewish rabbi says many Jews remain terrified by AuL's slogan. As a result, Yemeni Jews retain a negative sentiment towards the Houthis, who they allege have committed persecutions against them. According to Ayoob Kara, Houthi militants had given an ultimatum telling Jews to "convert to Islam or leave Yemen".
Ex-Houthi spokesman Hassan al-Humran says: "Ansarullah supports the establishment of a civil state in Yemen. We want to build a striving modern democracy. Our goals are to fulfill our people's democratic aspirations in keeping with the Arab Spring movement". In an interview with Yemen Times, Houthi insider Hussein al-Bukhari says the AuL's preferable system is a republic with elections where women can hold political positions, and that they do not seek to form an Iran-type theocracy, adding: "we cannot apply this system in Yemen because the followers of the Shafe'ie (Sunni) doctrine are bigger in number than the Zaidis".
Ali-Akbar Velayati, International Affairs Adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, in October 2014 said: "We are hopeful that Ansarullah has the same role in Yemen as Hizbullah has in eradicating the terrorists in Lebanon". Journalist Caleb Maupin says the Houthis' political goals are to "assert [Yemen's] independence" and "break Yemen out of Saudi domination".
In campaigning against Hadi's regime, the Houthis used civil disobedience. After the July 2014 government decision to raise fuel prices, Houthi leaders held massive rallies in San'a' to protest the decision and to demand Hadi's resignation for "state-corruption".
Iran's support for AuL has risen since 2014. But it remains far too limited to have a major impact on the balance of power in Yemen.