Yemen’s current predicament is a direct result of the upheaval caused by the youth protests of 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, signed in November 2011, laid out a road map for the post-uprising transition process. Since its inception, the transitional regime has faced a series of economic, political and social challenges. Once Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s position became untenable, the GCC catapulted his weak and ineffectual Vice President, Hadi Abd Rabbo Mansour, to the presidency in 2012. Lacking a credible domestic power base, President Hadi has since overseen the slow and complete disintegration of the transitional regime. Today, President Hadi’s forces would be unable to stop the Houthi advance towards Aden without Saudi Arabia’s direct intervention.
Even if the Saudi-led coalition can stop the Houthis militarily, the complexity of domestic Yemeni politics will make it extremely difficult to resuscitate the post-Arab Spring transitional process in its current form. That leaves only two options: the Houthis will have to be either eliminated militarily (a bloody, expensive and uncertain proposition) or accommodated politically. By spearheading the Arab intervention into Yemen, it is likely that Saudi Arabia will have to make that choice sooner rather than later.
In Yemeni politics, alliances are fluid and the balance of power fluctuates regularly. For example, in 1994 Hadi Abd Rabbo Mansour, then the Minister of Defense, commanded Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces as they laid siege to Aden during the 1994 Yemeni civil war. In February 2015, Mr. Mansour returned to Aden, this time seeking refuge from the Houthis, who are backed up by several military units still loyal to Mr. Saleh. This alliance of convenience, between the Houthis and Mr. Saleh, is especially striking given that the former president brutally persecuted the Houthis for decades, launching six separate military offensives targeting their northern stronghold of Saa’da.
This shifting landscape is driven by the two major fault lines in Yemeni politics. First, there are strong regional divisions in Yemen. North and South Yemen unified in 1990, leading to the rise of the popular southern secessionist movement, al-Hirak. Other areas are dominated by fiercely independent tribes which have long resisted central control. This leads to the second major fault line, the domineering influence of tribal actors on Yemeni national and local politics. There are several major regional tribal groupings, and many can trace their history back for centuries. The biggest of them all, the Hashed tribal confederation, is backed by the al-Ahmar family. The Hashed tribal confederation is also the backbone of the Islah Party, Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, famously described his role in Yemeni politics as “dancing on the heads of snakes”. The current political impasse can be traced directly to the way he was brought down, during the heady days of the Arab Spring. The Islah party (read: al-Ahmar family) capitalized on Saleh’s sudden weakness in the face of the 2011 youth protests to oust him from power. Since then, Mr. Saleh has worked behind the scenes to undermine President Hadi and his allies, the Islah party.
Former President Saleh still commands the loyalty of key military units. He used his influence to allow the Houthis to extend their control over the capital with minimal effort. Since the start of the coalition air strikes, the Houthis and the army units still loyal to Saleh have openly collaborated in their ongoing bid to capture Aden and eliminate their common foe, President Hadi.
Despite the outbreak of all-out war, Mr. Saleh’s endgame, as well as the Houthis’ ultimate objectives, is unclear. Some speculate that the former President wants to return to power, or at least pave the way for his son to become the President. As for the Houthis, they may be able to defeat President Hadi’s forces, but they would struggle to cement their control over the entire country. And if President Hadi is totally defeated and the transitional government overthrown, it is unclear whether Houthis and Saleh would then cooperate, or if they would turn their guns against each other.
So far, the Yemeni melt-down has been mercifully free of all-out sectarian conflict. However, the intervention of foreign powers threatens to turn this local affair into another theater of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War. Already, Saudi clerics are demonizing the Houthis as heretics, in a blatant attempt to mobilize Sunnis in Yemen to their cause. If the Saudis continue down this path, they will be directly supporting the efforts of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and an emerging branch of Islamic State (IS/Daesh). Both of these groups have attacked a variety of Houthi targets, including mosques and pro-Houthi demonstrations, as a means of sparking a sectarian war. In 2011, during another moment of an almost complete meltdown of Yemeni state institutions, AQAP briefly occupied Abyan Governorate.
Despite accusations of Iranian support, the Houthis are a largely home-grown and self-sufficient movement. They are routinely described as Shias, a lazy characterization which dangerously oversimplifies the ongoing conflict. The Houthis follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, entirely separate from the “twelver” form of Shia Islam, which is dominant in Iran. In the early 1990s, the Houthis were a revivalist movement seeking to preserve local customs and beliefs to counter the spread of Saudi-funded Salafi schools and mosques in the historically Zaidi areas of northern Yemen. Saleh, seeking to curry favor with the Saudis, attempted to suppress this movement from its inception, despite being a Zaidi himself. His brutal methods convinced the Houthis that armed struggle is the only way to counter this systematic repression. A joint Saudi-Yemeni offensive (led by General Mohsen al-Ahmar) in 2009 failed to defeat the Houthis.
As demonstrated throughout the Middle East, air strikes alone will not will not defeat a guerilla army. Alarmingly, there are numerous reports that Saudi Arabia and Egypt may yet send ground forces to fight in Yemen. That would be a disastrous decision, which would exacerbate the many humanitarian crises in Yemen and may spark inter-communal sectarian strife. Any foreign invader would have to navigate Yemen’s treacherous landscape and face a hostile population. In the 1960s, Egypt lost 26,000 soldiers in a vain attempt to support President Abdul Aziz al-Sallal of North Yemen. Like President Hadi, Sallal had a narrow base of supporters within the country, and could only survive thanks to a massive foreign intervention.
Some observers suggest that the best strategy to bring down the Houthis would be to allow them to control Yemen and letting them attempt to grapple with its long list of developmental challenges. According to this line of thought, allowing the Houthis to fail spectacularly would completely discredit them as a viable political force. However, this failure would come at the cost of the starvation of millions of citizens, and would leave Yemen as an unstable and explosive territory on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Simply put, Yemen will disintegrate if it is left to its own devices, making foreign intervention a necessity.
To succeed, the Arab campaign must limit its objectives and develop a comprehensive strategy to reach them. Any thoughts of a prolonged deployment of “boots on the ground” should be banished immediately, as that would come at a huge cost in terms of blood and treasure, in addition to causing a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. Instead the Houthis should be compelled through the application of limited, targeted force and direct diplomatic engagement to reach a final and consensual power sharing agreement that involves all concerned Yemeni powers. President Hadi will probably have to go. Arab powers and all Yemeni political actors will have to accept that the Houthis are here to stay, and they must be sufficiently represented and accommodated in order to achieve a lasting peace and improve the lives of the Yemeni people.