Yemen: ‘It’s not working: we’re going to keep doing it’

Jamie Allinson points out the contradictions and irrationality of American and British policy in Yemen, and explains the context of the Houthis’ role. 

North western Yemen, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Photo: ECHO/T. Deherman

Asked on 18 January if airstrikes on Yemen were working, President Biden summed up the foreign policy of his administration–and by extension that of Britain, where Parliament was not even consulted before taking military action. ‘It depends what you mean by “working”. Are they stopping the Houthis? No. But we’re going to keep doing them.’

It’s not working, but we’re going to keep doing it. This answer tells you all you need to know about current American and British policy in the region, which always assumes the consequences will be borne by someone else – as, indeed, they currently are. Since the US-British strikes on Yemeni targets on the 11 January, the Middle East has tumbled even further towards the abyss of an all-out regional war. Such a catastrophic outcome is closer now than it has ever been. Iran has launched its own airstrikes against targets it calls terrorists in Syria and Pakistan, as well as an alleged Mossad contact in Iraqi Kurdistan: demonstrating both the range of the country’s missiles and what happens when everyone in the ‘rules-based international order’ follows the rules Western powers observe for themselves. Israel has now attacked sites in Damascus, killing 4 officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Israel has been launching airstrikes on Syrian territory for a decade, but the toll of IRGC officers looks like an escalatory signal, possibly heralding an Israeli offensive into Northern Lebanon and Hizbollah. Any such offensive would be likely to set off a full-scale regional war.

Why is this happening? American and British politicians offer two contradictory rationales for the strikes on Yemen: first, that they are preventing an escalation of Israel’s war on Gaza and second, as if there is no connection with the former conflict, that they are protecting global shipping from the depredations of the Houthis. Firing dozens of missiles at a country thousands of miles away is an odd way to avoid escalation – the way to avoid escalation in the region would be to stop arming and diplomatically shielding Israel’s annihilatory war on Gaza. During the short-term ceasefire in November to facilitate the exchange of hostages, Houthi threats to ships in the Red Sea stopped. The Houthis are using the leverage given by geography – the fact that the value chains of global capitalism pass far beyond the borders of the states that benefit from them – to try to get Israel to cease fire in Gaza. In this they display a hard-headed understanding of both geopolitics and imperialism that has enraged the Western powers. The airstrikes demonstrate that the US and Britain care more about the profits of shipping companies than they do about the killing of one-in-a-hundred Gazans in three months. The Houthis do not issue statements about humanitarian suffering or call for peaceful understanding–they simply hit Israel’s backers where it hurts, in their economies.

The Houthis are frequently described as ‘Iran-backed rebels.’ This is not entirely true. The movement, which is more properly known as ‘Ansarallah’, emerged in the early 2000s protesting against the Iraq War, in support of the Second Palestinian Intifada and against increased Saudi religious influence amongst the Zaydi areas of Northern Yemen. The Zaydis are a particular branch of broadly ‘Shi’a’ Islam, although very distinct from the branch dominant in Iran and Southern Lebanon. The social base of the movement lay in a group called the sa’ada, the purported descendants of the Prophet, who formed a kind of clerical aristocracy dispossessed by the 1962 revolution against the Yemeni monarchy.  A family of such clerics, the al-Houthis, were the leaders of this movement, which soon came into conflict with the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, his Saudi backers and local allies. The Houthis have been fighting some form of this conflict since the mid-2000s. 

The Yemeni Revolution of 2011, part of the wider wave of revolutionary uprisings in the region, upset this state of affairs. Saudi Arabia and the UAE arranged a ‘transition’ in which Saleh would be removed from power and his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi installed. Neither Saleh, unsurprisingly, nor outsider groups such as the Houthis accepted this arrangement. The result was a civil war in which the Houthis were initially allied with Saleh (they later fell out, and Saleh was killed by a Houthi sniper). Hadi’s government was kicked out of Sana’a by the Houthis and their allies in 2014. Saudi Arabia and the UAE then intervened to support Hadi with devastating air and siege tactics supported by the US and Britain. As a result there are two effective governments in Yemen– the ‘internationally-recognised’ (i.e. Gulf-backed) Presidential Leadership Council mainly in the South and the Houthis mainly in the North. ‘Rebels’ is not a very accurate description of the latter who control a more substantial part of the country and who, if anything, form a more coherent government than the PLC.

In the spring of 2022 a six-month truce agreement was reached between these factions,  and has largely held even after its expiration, but should the wider-regional confrontation escalate there is a real danger of the civil war re-igniting. The Houthis are far from universally popular, being unable to pay the salaries of their civil servants and their politics (as their slogan ‘A Curse Upon the Jews’ indicates) far from progressive. But both their stance on Palestine and their apparent ability to defy the Western imperial powers is only likely to increase their popularity.

The Houthis are often referred to as Iranian proxy forces. They are better described as close allies. Iran does supply arms to the Houthis. British companies, on the other hand, have made £25 billion selling arms to Saudi and Emirati forces in the war – but these have not prevented the Houthis from acting independently of Tehran. Given that the movement controls the most heavily populated and agriculturally productive part of Yemen, this is not a surprise. The IRGC and Hezbollah have trained Houthi forces, as they have militias of the Assad regime, during the civil war. This has also led to greater ideological influence on the historically very different branch of Zaydi Islam. To imagine, however, that a unified Iranian front extends from Tehran through Southern Lebanon to the Red Sea is a fantasy. But it is one that the Israeli war on Gaza and Western backing for it is bringing closer to reality. 

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