Defending Palestinians helps Houthis bolster support in Yemen

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In 2010, when Yemen’s former strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was still alive and in power, local authorities in the capital, Sanaa, staged a spectacle of sorts to celebrate national unity, already fraying at the seams. ‘era.

It’s memorable, if only because it was so bizarre.

Children dressed as villains representing various threats facing the country. Dressed in black capes and horror movie masks, they snuck on stage to steal the Yemeni flag… until children playing Yemeni soldiers arrived to retrieve it.

Just four years later, one of the threats described at the time – a little-observed Shiite clan rebel group at the time – would swoop down from its mountain bases in northern Yemen to seize the capital and oust Saleh’s successor.

A decade later, they would insert themselves onto the world stage by attacking international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, in what they see as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians being bombed by Israel in Gaza.

Analysts say it’s a strategy that allows the Houthis to recruit new recruits in a country where they control two-thirds of the population, often through brutal means.

“There have been protests and support from Palestinians in the past, but you haven’t seen a specific group try to use that to increase recruitment or, you know, try to rally the public,” Baara said Shiban, a Yemeni. human rights activist and research associate at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

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Shiban says they are also using their anger over the United States and Britain’s decision to launch airstrikes against Houthi targets to distract from growing criticism at home.

“People were starting to put pressure (on the Houthis) over paying salaries and fulfilling their humanitarian obligations,” he said. “And it’s an easy way to first distract attention and then secondly try to crush any possibility of people protesting or showing discontent with their government.”

An uneasy truce in Yemen

Ahmed Nagi, senior analyst on Yemen for the International Crisis Group, agrees.

“This war in Gaza was in a way a way out for the Houthis to tell people that we are not talking about anything right now because we are at war and there is something more important than the problems internal,” he said.

Arrests of activists and vocal critics of the Houthis have increased in recent weeks.

“No one has paid that much attention to this type of arrest because everyone is busy with what is happening in Gaza and what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea,” Nagi said.

After the Houthis seized power in Sanaa in 2014, Yemen fell into a civil war that turned into a proxy battle between a Saudi-led coalition supporting the ousted government, which decamped to the southern city of Aden and Iran, which supported the Houthis. .

According to UN figures, around 377,000 people have been killed in the conflict in 2022, with 60 percent of deaths attributed to indirect causes, including famine and lack of health care.

A boy, with his back to the camera, looks out at a mountainous landscape with heavily damaged buildings in the foreground.
A Yemeni child looks at buildings damaged during an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez in 2018. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

An uneasy truce – or lull in fighting – has lasted since April 2022. Many now fear that the Red Sea crisis will reignite fighting in Yemen and plunge the country even deeper into a humanitarian disaster from which it is far from. to be close. to get out of.

According to the World Food Program, 1.3 million pregnant or lactating women and 2.2 million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition.

Last month, 26 aid agencies issued a joint warning, saying any disruption to aid distribution would be catastrophic.

“Political leaders must take into account the dire humanitarian consequences of the military escalation and refrain from any actions that could lead to a resumption of large-scale armed conflict in Yemen,” the statement said. “The recent escalation also highlights the risk of a broader regional and international confrontation that could undermine Yemen’s fragile peace process and long-term recovery.”

Concerns about a “new cycle of violence”

The Houthi militia ordered aid workers with British or American passports to leave the country. And some NGOs are now reassessing security issues in the wake of Western airstrikes.

“A new cycle of violence will be a real disaster. Not only in areas controlled by the Houthis, but for the whole of Yemen,” said prominent human rights activist Radhya Almutawakel in a telephone interview from Sanaa.

“People are waiting for a political agreement, not a new war.”

A deal was in the works before current events, she insists, at least between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

Almutawakel chairs a non-governmental organization called Mwatana for Human Rights in Yemen, which documents rights violations in many different forms. In December, Houthi officials blocked her and other members of the organization from leaving the country for a work trip.

She says they are used to being harassed. “We cover all of Yemen, (which) is controlled by different armed groups, and they are committing horrible violations, including the Houthis.”

A cargo ship at port with an inflatable rubber boat nearby.
A coast guard boat passes a commercial container ship docked at the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeidah in Yemen, in this file photo taken on February 25, 2023. (Khaled Abdallah/Reuters)

Other groups range from al-Qaeda affiliates in the south to Islamic State to pro-government militias, including one called the Brigade of Giants, made up mainly of Salafist tribesmen and financed by the United Arab Emirates.

“We try to ensure our security as much as possible by being very independent and neutral and having very good relations with many international (organizations),” Almutawakel said.

She calls Washington and London’s response to the Houthi attacks erroneous.

“(It) will not protect the Red Sea,” she said. “It’s not even going to defeat an armed group. It’s very difficult to participate in a war with an armed group that has never been defeated (in) nine years of war.”

Especially a group that has grown stronger over the years thanks to help from Iran.

Seeking a bigger regional role

Baraa Shiban says the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea have propelled them up the ladder of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” made up of regional militias.

He says this speaks to the Houthis’ ambition.

“They want to control the rest of Yemen,” Shiban said. “The second thing is they want to play a bigger role in the region. They think they can play a big role, just like Hezbollah, and not just in Yemen.”

So far, the Houthis have not been discouraged by Western airstrikes.

On Thursday, US Central Command said it struck a ground control station in Yemen and 10 Houthi drones that it said “posed an imminent threat” to US merchant ships and naval vessels in the region.

The day before, a Houthi spokesperson said the group would continue to attack US and British warships in the Red Sea in “self-defense”.

WATCH | US and British forces target Houthi rebels in Yemen:

US, UK launch airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen

US and British military forces launched airstrikes on sites in Yemen on Thursday evening, saying the strikes targeted areas harboring radar, missile and drone capabilities used by Iran-backed Houthi forces to attack ships in the Red Sea.

Shiban says the Houthis have shown they can fight, but not that they can govern.

But not all the criticism in Yemen is reserved for the Houthis. Far from there. The internationally recognized government is now led by an Aden-based cabinet called the Presidential Leadership Council. It also includes the Southern Transitional Council, itself made up of breakaway southern tribal groups, some funded by the United Arab Emirates.

“(The Southern Transitional Council wants) to have its own negotiating team, independent of the internationally recognized government,” Ahmed Nagi said, if and when the time comes for Yemen’s warring parties to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal to long term.

For the moment, this perspective seems frozen.

“The Houthis are a fanatical armed group,” Almutawakel said. “But they are not the only fanatical armed group in Yemen.”

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