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What Houthi leader's death and his replacement could mean for Yemen war | Arab News

Yemen is a place of constant war. Yemeni tribes have been fighting each other for centuries. The Huthis have been fighting Yemen’s central government since 2004. When this regime, then led by dictator, 'Ali Abdullah Saleh, was rocked by the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Hutis moved on to the wider political violence that was erupting across the country. They took advantage of the disintegration of the regime to advance their own agenda and ultimately take control of the capital and territory that was once known as 'North Yemen’. The Huthis would like to take control of all of Yemen and fear the internationally recognised government of Yemen (the Government of the Republic of Yemen, or ROYG). The ROYG is actually a loose and feuding coalition of groups united only by their opposition to the Huti. However, they have prevented a Huti takeover of the entire country, and have at times ousted the Hutis from key areas, with foreign support. In short, Yemeni territory is the most important asset for the Huti, and the ROYG is their greatest threat and obstacle.

Nonetheless, the Huthis have developed a self-interested interest in attacking ships at Bab el-Mandeb. Firstly, it should be noted that although the Huti had been carrying out sporadic attacks for several years, it was only when their offensive against the Yemeni city of Ma’rib stalled in 2022 that they turned their attention more towards the Red Sea. Unable to capture Ma’rib from the ROYG, the Hutis began importing large quantities of radar and anti-aircraft weapons from the Iranians, and began to boast of their new ability to disrupt global maritime trade. Moreover, the military standoff created political problems for the Huti. Like their Iranian allies and other members of the Axis of Resistance, the Huti were failing miserably in subjugating their population and exerting control over them. They have been unable to deliver services, pay salaries or promote civil rights in areas under their control. People are increasingly dissatisfied with Huti rule.

Thus, the timing of the Huti’s switch to naval operations does not seem coincidental. Most likely, unable to make further progress on land or provide a decent living for the population they control, the Huti began to expand their naval warfare operations to open up a new front in the hope that this would again publicise their military operations and overshadow their land-based, political and economic failures. Moreover, by starting to fight new enemies, the Huthis have been able to accumulate a degree of support for themselves, both in Yemen and abroad. Indeed, it is also important to understand that prior to their new campaign against the Ships, the Huti had few allies or admirers in the Middle East. The Huthis are a fundamentalist element within the Zayd, or Shia, community. Most of the Muslim world is Sunni, and most Shiites are 'Ithna 'asharis, not Zaydis. Thus, the Huthis are a minority of a minority. Moreover, their alliance with Iran has not increased their regional popularity because most Arabs (let alone Jews, Turks and Kurds) hate the Persians, whom they often see as patronising enemies.

Consequently, embarking on a new strategy of naval attacks and claiming support for the Palestinians suddenly transformed the fortunes of the Huti. They could now claim to be acting as a force of Muslim solidarity for the Palestinians against the United States and Israel. By supporting the Palestinian cause, the Hutis sought to end their status as pariahs in the Arab and Islamic world. And they quickly succeeded in doing so. Supporters of the Palestinians in the Middle East and around the world suddenly embraced the Hutis in a way they never had before, because they were now portrayed as defenders of the oppressed Palestinians, rather than the fundamentalist Zaydists allied with Iran that they really are. Moreover, these attacks have put the Huti on the world map. The Huti can now claim to be waging a war against the United States and have shown that the world must be paying attention to them because they have the potential to shut down all shipping in a key region. This has made the Huti admired in some circles and feared in others. In particular, it has raised their popularity in Yemen itself, providing much-needed relief to the growing public discontent there.

Huti’s „slogan” is „God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! A curse for the Jews! Victory for Islam.” All of this is about objectives that go far beyond the Arabian Peninsula and speaks to Huti’s aspirations to be a major player in the region and the world, all of which is well served by holding global trade hostage at Bab el-Mandeb. This has also benefited Iran and was probably one of Tehran’s main motives for supplying Huti with weapons in the first place. Iran wants its allies and proxies to be able to threaten global choke points (such as the Strait of Hormuz) and otherwise threaten the interests of countries around the world in the hope of forcing them to work in Iran’s favour. In this way, the Hutis have become a hugely valuable investment for Iran at surprisingly little cost. While Iran helps, supports and encourages the Huti to attack ships in the Red Sea, they do so primarily because it is to their own advantage. Indeed, perhaps the best evidence of this is the fact that in recent months the Huti have begun attacking ships in the Red Sea that had no connection to Israel at all. This shows that while the Huti’s naval strategy may have started out as an attempt to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the benefits it has brought have led them to continue it for their own interests, which far exceed what might happen in Gaza. What’s more, they are doing it so far at a very low cost to themselves.

We can all hope that US operations will deprive the Huti of their ability to continue these attacks or deter them from carrying out further attacks. However, this seems unlikely. All the US is doing so far is striking at the Huti’s very ability to attack ships, which is extremely cheap for them, both because the weapons they use are cheap to produce and because most of this cost is borne by the Iranians. It is also worth remembering that the Huti have survived years of Saudi and Emirati air strikes. Furthermore, the military systems that US forces use are often much more expensive than the Huti and Iranian systems that are destroyed. It seems very likely that the Americans will choose to continue to use SM-2MRs and TLAMs as a response to Huti-launched Shahed-136s. The chronic conflicts in the Middle East starting from the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the Iran-Iraq war, to the Israel-Hezbollah and Israel-Hamas confrontations, show the prevailing rules of the current war. However, the current US strategy towards Yemen is purely defensive. US ships intercept Huti missiles fired towards Bab el-Mandeb, and aircraft and ships carry out pre-emptive attacks on Huti positions. Historically, there is only one thing that the Huti have shown to matter more to them than anything else, and that is their control over Yemeni territory.

In 2018, a ground force of Yemeni tribesmen, supported and led by several thousand armed UAE special forces, conducted a devastating march from its base in Aden, along the Red Sea coast. This force repeatedly defeated Huti defensive positions, capturing the port of Mokha and other towns threatening to capture Hudaydah – then the last major port in Huti hands. The Huti had no military capability to stop the Emirati attack and in their desperation agreed to negotiate. Unfortunately, the US agreed with the international point of view – reinforced by Huti propaganda – that a battle for Hudaydah would be a humanitarian disaster. As a result, the Emirates and their Yemeni allies were forced to agree to terms that left Hudaydah in Huti hands. Similarly, when the Huti offensive against Ma’rib was stopped by ROYG forces (supported by Saudi air strikes) trained and equipped by the Emirates in 2022, again the Hutis agreed to negotiate a ceasefire. What both incidents show is that what the Huti value most is the possession of Yemeni territory, and they will only agree to compromise and make concessions when it is threatened. Consequently, if the US and its allies are to convince the Huti (and the Iranians) to end their attacks on ships in the Red Sea, they will have to create a similar threat. To date, the American people have shown little inclination to use US ground forces in Yemen, nor should we. It is not necessary to achieve our goals, and potentially harmful if we do it wrong, as we did in Iraq before Surge and in Afghanistan throughout our 20-year participation there. Instead, we should look to the various examples from the 1980s when the US secretly armed and aided indigenous forces fighting against countries or other groups hostile to our interests.

The Mujahideen in Afghanistan were the most notorious and among the most successful. However, the Forces Armées Nationales Tchadiennes (FANT) forces in Chad were arguably even more victorious over the Libyan forces, who ultimately played an important role in undermining Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and weakening his aggressive plans for North Africa. Similarly, the Nicaraguan contras eventually forced the government of Daniel Ortega to agree to genuine elections in 1990, which removed Ortega and the USSR-backed Sandinistas from power. The same approach produced more mixed results in the case of Angola, but forced the USSR-backed MPLA to agree to real elections in 1992, in which UNITA was able to contest and secure a draw. In Yemen, following the same approach would mean arming, equipping and training ROYG forces. While some advanced guided anti-tank missiles and other systems could be provided, most of the weapons should come from old Soviet stockpiles. In Yemen, 1950s T-55 tanks and D-30 guns are still the kings and queens of the battlefield and there is no need to provide the ROYG with the same kind of equipment that the Ukrainians so desperately need to repel a Russian invasion. And all of this would ideally be done by CIA paramilitary assets rather than US military forces. Ideally, this would also mean continuing to use US air and naval assets to defend maritime transport in the Red Sea, to degrade Houthi military assets and to intercept Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, although the last has proved difficult. The US could also consider providing direct air support to ROYG ground forces, which could be extremely helpful to them. In addition, the US should keep up this military pressure on the Houthis not only until they are prepared to agree to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea, but until they are willing to lay down their arms and agree to a new political deal for Yemen that would restore a national government in which they could participate as individual Yemenis, able to organise as a political party, but nothing more. Least bad option No policy proposal is free of flaws and doubts. This is especially true when considering policy options towards the Middle East at this time, when the United States has squandered so many opportunities in the past. I will only maintain that the plan of action I have outlined above is the least bad of all our realistic plans of action. The main flaw in my proposed approach is that ROYG is definitely not an ideal partner. Again, it is largely a mix of political and tribal entities whose only bond is their hatred of the Houthis. They could easily fall apart as soon as the Houthis are defeated, and possibly even before. While this is a serious flaw and would have to be factored into US plans, it need not be an obstacle. The Afghan Mujahideen were equally fragmented, and of course, their alliance fell apart as soon as the Soviets were driven out. But this example also provides a useful remedy: America’s biggest mistake in Afghanistan was to walk away after the Soviets retreated. Had we really conducted a 'Charlie Wilson War’ and maintained our involvement thereafter, there is reason to believe that Afghanistan might have turned out very differently and probably without the Taliban in power. In fact, none of the opposition groups that the US supported in the 1980s and 1990s were ideal partners. They were all terribly flawed in various ways. But they all accomplished important missions in defence of key American interests. We should take encouragement from these achievements, while preparing to address the shortcomings of ROYG in ways we simply did not do with Muja, FANT, the Contras, or UNITA.

As for the likely alternatives, they all seem worse to me. Less likely to achieve America’s goals, and at a higher cost. I have noted the flaws in the current administration’s approach, even as I appreciate their willingness to defend American interests in a way that none of their predecessors did. While I am not opposed to the idea of directly striking Iranian targets, particularly military and intelligence targets, I am sceptical about whether this will achieve our goals in Yemen. The Houthis have their own interests, and their profits are so significant that unless their control of Yemen is threatened, I very much doubt that Tehran could order them to stop further attacks on the Red Sea, even if direct US strikes on Iranian assets would convince Khameinei that he should try to do so. Again, the Houthis are allies of Iran, not proxies, and are like rabid dogs, extremely difficult to control and likely to bite the hand that feeds them. Over the past decade, following the Israeli model, the US has increasingly relied on targeted killings as a tactic against difficult actors in the Middle East. What I call 'War by Assassination’ can certainly help degrade an adversary, but to date it has yet to win any war by itself. Moreover, neither we nor the Israelis have yet succeeded in applying it to force the enemy. Despite Israel’s sustained, successful campaign of targeted assassinations, Iran has not shut down its nuclear programme, and insofar as it has occasionally stopped it, these interruptions have come as a result of diplomacy backed by tough sanctions and the threat of more force. Israel’s assassination campaign may have hampered its work, but that is all it can claim, and it is not even clear that it has done so. America’s own targeted assassination campaigns – against ISIS, the Iranian-supported Hashd ash-Shaabi groups in Iraq, against the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere – have also harmed these groups by killing important leaders, but none of them have been sufficient to make any of them give up their harmful actions, or even their attacks on Americans. The most notorious of all targeted killings, that of Kasim Sulaymani in 2020, is also the best illustration. Because Sulaymani was exceptionally talented and trusted by Khameinei, his death was a serious blow to Iran’s aggressive expansion in the Middle East and left Tehran and its allies disorganised for several years. But it did not persuade Iran to abandon its violent campaign of Middle East domination. It may even have given it additional momentum. To conclude my remarks by returning to the subject of the merits of this action plan, it is the only one of these proposals that offers the prospect of the complete destruction of the Houthis’ military power. It certainly won’t happen quickly, but it is a realistic long-term prospect. And doing so would be a huge blow to Iran, depriving it of an important ally in a key part of the world. Moreover, it would give reassurance to America’s allies that the US is no longer surrendering the Middle East to Iran, or even relegated to merely playing defence, while Iran attacks wherever it can until it inevitably finds a chink in the armour it can exploit. Helping the Yemeni coalition government fight the Houthis and push them out of the areas they have taken over would send a key signal to our allies that the United States is finally ready to help them reclaim their lives and their lands. Nothing could have a more beneficial effect on a region that desperately needs to believe that a better way is possible and that it is not abandoned by the United States to the mercy of Tehran’s sovereignty.

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