In Yemen crisis: Houthis not just Iranian surrogates. Likely to come to the negotiating table.
In a previous post, I warned against assuming that the Houthis in Yemen were just a terrorist surrogate for Iran a la Hezbollah. True, they .get supplies from Iran, and are Zaidi Shia, as is Iran. But they are not religious fundamentalists. They are not just surrogates for Iran. They are not like Hezbollah. Their identity is Yemeni and have had no difficulty allying with the Sunni former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Houthis also differ from many of the militant Sunni and Shia groups that have dominated the Mideast scene of late. In fact, part of Houthis raison d’etre was to militarily oppose the Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen. Unlike the Islamic terrorist groups in the region, they reject the jihadist Salafi and Wahhabi philosophies that posit that aggressive and violent terrorist acts against the West and others whom they feel are opposed to their brand of Islamic fundamentalism are justified by Islam.
Yemen is an amalgamation of North Yemen and South Yemen created on May 22, 1990 with Ali Abdullah Saleh as President and, in 1994, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi became Vice-President.
Coincident to all of this, Yemen, in 1990-91, held a seat on the U.N. Security Council and Saleh angered the United States and Saudi Arabia by insisting that the Kuwait crisis should be resolved by Arab bloc members only. Saudi Arabia, in response, expelled 750,000 Yemenis. Meanwhile, the Soviet bloc, which had been suppliers of the Peoples Democratic Republic, was falling apart.
Saleh had been President of North Yemen and had participated in the overthrow of the Royalist Mutawakkilite Kingdom which ruled the Northern Highlands from the post-Ottoman period and was supported by Royalist Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Great Britain. The republican side, led by Saleh, was supported by Nasser’s Egypt. The latter’s involvement in North Yemen was disastrous and has been widely called “Egypt’s Vietnam.” The North Yemen Civil War was accompanied in the South by a socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen taking over from the British in Aden and the former South Arabia..
By 2010, there had been considerable unrest in the Unified Republic of Yemen, as Saleh’s rule was accused of being one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. As the Arab Spring unfolded, there were several suicide attacks, and it became clear that Saleh government couldn’t contain the violence, and the pressures for him to resign increased. As part of a regional initiative, Saleh agreed to step down and turn over leadership to Vice President Hadi. In February of 2012, in an election with no opposition, Hadi was elected President.
Relations between the North and South remained testy. In the North, Sunni militants, including many affiliated with Al Qaeda, were thriving. In the South, many of its former leaders fled, fearing that the South was being marginalized by northern militants. There was a constitutional crisis as well, as Saleh’s legislators had tried to change it to allow Saleh’s son to succeed him. The latter had and still has the allegiance of a substantial portion of the national army. Faced with Al Qaeda opposition in the North, Houthi forces fighting both Al Qaeda in the North, and Hadi to the South.
In September of 2014, Houthi forces moved on the Capitol, Sana’a, allying themselves with Saleh’s supporters in the army. They forced a new unity government on Hadi. Things were not stabilized by this and in protest the Houthis refused to participate in the new government. In January of 2015, the government collapsed. Hadi fled to Aden, and tried to establish a temporary government there. Attempts by the Gulf states to produce a cease-fire failed as the Houthis rejected their attempts. The Houthis then moved on Aden and Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. With the fall of Aden imminent, the U.S., which had maintained a small contingent of Special Forces to combat Islamic militants, withdrew. On March 26, Saudi Arabia started massing troops on the Yemen border. Shortly thereafter, they began an air campaign against Houthi positions. Saudi Arabia led a loose coalition of forces from the U.A.E., Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar and Sudan. The battle thus far has been primarily air attacks with Saudi planes. The U.S. provided intelligence and targeting. The justifying argument was made that the Houthis were surrogates for Iran.
In my opinion, the Houthis are Zaidi Shia, but are not simply surrogates of Iran. And because of that, and with the awareness that Shia are a minority in Yemen, I believe that they will come to the negotiating table. Likely they will sacrifice Saleh’s ambitions for a unity government-one that doesn’t attempt to marginalize Shia participation and can effectively fight against Al Qaeda and other Sunni militants. How stable such a compromise will be certainly is a serious question, but not at all an unusual one in today’s Mideast.