Commentary

Are the Houthis Already on the Way Out in Yemen?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Following the overthrow of the government and the house arrest of the country’s president, Yemen’s Houthi militants are having to come to terms with the costs of increasing isolation and depleted financial resources. Despite being covertly supported by the Iranian government, it is clear that the militant’s grasp on power in the Yemen’s capital is tenuous and likely to come under sustained attack. With the former president Saleh lurking in the background and preparing to make a daring comeback, some have expressed fears that Yemen could go the way of Syria or Afghanistan. Which is why many are now calling for calm and political solutions to the conflict, which, for better or worse, will require some form of international involvement. Whether that will be forthcoming or not, remains to be seen, especially since some suspect the U.S. is taking a more hands-off approach to the crisis in the country.

Commenting on the prevalence of tribal affiliations and loyalties throughout the country, Times of Oman contributor Barak Barfi suggests that the Houthi resurgence will most likely invite a forceful response from the Yemen’s numerous tribes: “The group's power grab has frightened its adversaries, leading them to seek new alliances that could imperil the state's security. In the central region of Marib, home to the oil and gas facilities that Yemen relies on for foreign currency, several tribes have vowed to fight the Houthis. ...Yemen continues to serve as a battleground in a proxy war between two countries which seek to control matters in Middle East. One of the two has armed and trained the Houthis. When the Houthis took over Sana'a, the capital, in September, the other party in the proxy war cut off aid to the country.”

For Daily Star’s Rami Khouri, what is happening in Yemen is just a reflection of the greater instability in the region and of the power struggle between various regional actors, including Iran and the Gulf countries: “The lack of citizens' validation of their own country inevitably leads to the collapse of the integrated state and its fragmentation into smaller units led by armed groups, amid chronic violence....The incredible, but positive, element is that the major political groups in Yemen continue to meet this week under the chairmanship of the U.N. special envoy to seek a solution to the constitutional and governance stresses that have torn apart their country....The GCC states will see the Houthi takeover as another Iranian-backed threat to Sunni power in the region, which they will try to neutralize. This short-term approach to political developments cannot camouflage the deeper, older vulnerabilities of the modern Arab order that Yemen once again highlights.”

The situation becomes even more complicated when one takes into account, that Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in 2011, is suspected of waiting in the wings to make an improbable comeback, as Al Arabiya’s Manuel Almeida suspects he is most likely to do: “Feeling increasingly isolated and under pressure, Ansarullah has even reached out to its Islamist rival al-Islah, the coalition formed by Hashid tribal leadership, businessmen and Islamist groups of various kinds to which the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist wing belong. It has the kind of nationwide, grassroots support that Ansarullah will never be able to gather. However, al-Islah's leaders have refused to collaborate, probably aware that the coup is already backfiring.... A possible scenario is an anti-Ansarullah alliance joining Saleh's GPC and al-Islah, which could see its fortunes reversed in just a few months and orchestrate a powerful comeback.”

It is clear, though, that the current stalemate can’t go on forever. As a recent Peninsula editorial reminds us, international pressure on the Houthis is making a dent into the group’s financial reserves, which are due to run out soon: “Saudi Arabia is the latest country to pull out its envoy from Yemen, and joins the US, Germany, Italy and a number of other countries who think the security situation is no longer safe in Sanaa for them to keep their envoys. More countries are likely to pull out, and the resulting isolation will leave Yemen and its new rulers gasping for fresh air....Even if the Houthis are prepared to face international isolation, there is another harsh reality they will have to contend with — lack of finances to run the government....Houthis  must realize that they can't rule the country with use of force.”

Ahmed Al-Jarallah, in an op-ed for Arab Times, is also convinced that Houthis’ most recent ‘adventure’ is unlikely to end well, despite support from Iran: “They are doing injustice to the people of their nation as per the instructions they received from Tehran which cares only about its personal expansionary interests through the blood of Yemenis as it does with the Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians. It has nothing in mind but to achieve its goals at the time a Houthi is erroneously imagining that the terrorism he practices will make his country succumb to his will. It is really a funny and mournful ordeal at the same time.... The Houthis… have been tying the hangman's rope around their necks. Therefore, their violence which we can see now will backfire on them, as the nation will knock them out. They will soon receive their punishment because the time of salvation has come. Yemen will indisputably cure its injuries by itself and through the power of its nation.”

Others are less convinced about the impending demise of the militias and warn of a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Yemen. Among them is Arab News’ Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg who accuses the Houthis of having “hijacked the political process and imposed its will on the majority of Yemenis by the use of force....Houthi coup spells disaster for Yemen’s future and has serious regional and global dangerous implications. In Yemen itself, fragmentation along tribal and sectarian lines is likely if the Houthi takeover is allowed to pass....International and regional swift action is needed to help Yemenis restore their legitimate government and continue the process of peaceful transition. The UN Security Council needs to take decisive action against the Houthi coup as a serious breach of international peace and security.”

There are those who suspect the current situation is not likely to improve as long as the U.S. remains a passive observer. For example, in an op-ed for the National Yemen newspaper, Manis Rai accuses the U.S. of “increasingly favoring the Shi'ite axis, led by Iran, as it does not want to ruin ongoing nuclear negotiations with the country.... The United States administration in recent weeks has softened its anti-Houthi rhetoric. Many inside and outside the administration are tempted to see the Houthis as allies because they are fighting AQAP. This is a big mistake....They are hardly potential allies for Washington. Any attempt to align American policy with them will only drive Sunnis further into the camp of al-Qaeda exactly the same phenomenon we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq where a perceived American tilt toward Iran and its murderous proxies has driven many Sunnis to side for protection with ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.”

Arab News’ Abdulrahman Al-Rashed argues that whatever happens has to be achieved through political rather than military means, a solution which Al-Rashed suspects would suit the Houthis as well: “The first reason is that foreign military intervention could weaken Houthi militias in the areas they have seized and this will neither be enough to restore the legitimacy of the transitional authority nor usher in an alternative authority....The second reason is that no one wants to see Yemen turn into another Afghanistan by relying on foreign powers to sort out tribal and partisan struggles....I think the people of Sanaa will rise against the Houthis, the invaders who came from the north. There’s a clear pattern of tribes turning against Houthis in North Yemen. ...Even with the help from Iran and from Saleh, the Houthis will not be able to provide for the simplest needs of the Yemeni people whose living conditions have deteriorated since the revolution erupted against Saleh’s regime at the beginning of 2011.”

For a political solution to become possible however, writes Barak Barfi in Today’s Zaman, the international community must become more involved: “Yemen has demonstrated remarkable resiliency in the past. To ensure that the recent overthrow of its government by the Shia Houthi rebel movement does not deal Yemen the lethal blow that it has avoided so far, the international community must not abandon the country in what may be its hour of greatest need....The U.S. has followed Saudi Arabia's lead, shuttering its embassy and freezing intelligence cooperation and counterterrorism operations. This is a mistake....Yemen is mired in crises that it cannot solve alone. Unless its international allies throw it a lifeline, it risks being swallowed by a sea of disorder that could imperil the entire region.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.