How to Handle the Houthis
(Photograph of Houthi Fighters courtesy of BBC)
By Ben Tannenbaum
For a group whose slogan reads, “Death to America and damnation to the Jews,” the Houthis actually seem somewhat reasonable. The Houthi movement, which follows the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam, claimed power in Yemen early this year. They overthrew the President of Yemen, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a man that had received U.S. support. At first glance, the pro-Iranian Houthi power grab looks like a setback for American interests. However, the Houthis can help the United States combat terrorism and have acted with political moderation.
Militarily, the Houthis have offered tacit support for American efforts against Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate- known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)– currently controls large portions of southern Yemen. AQAP also gained notoriety when it claimed involvement in the Paris massacre against Charlie Hebdo. During the Hadi administration America coordinated with the Yemeni government against AQAP. Many analysts feared that the new Houthi government would hinder U.S. counter-terror efforts. Yet so far, the Houthis have not opposed American actions. Despite their anti-Western rhetoric, the Houthis have accepted the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. This makes sense from a strategic perspective. As Sunni extremists, AQAP stands in direct opposition to the Houthi movement. Therefore America and the Houthis share a common enemy. The Houthi regime benefits from American actions against Al-Qaeda. This shared goal provides potential for U.S.-Houthi collaboration.
The Houthis have also acted moderately within domestic Yemeni politics. The group promotes populist economic policies, gaining supporters even among some northern Sunnis. The Houthis’ (admittedly still limited) ability to gain cross-sectarian support stands out in a sharply polarized region. Further, Houthi power-sharing offers actually appear quite reasonable. They have reappointed some of Hadi’s ministers and proposed ceding meaningful power to Sunni factions. Additionally, the Houthis have developed ties with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite a despotic style, Saleh provided relative stability before his 2011 ouster. The Houthis seem to realize that they cannot unilaterally govern Yemen and its 65% Sunni majority. Of course, many Yemeni Sunnis remain unconvinced. The prominent Islah party has rejected Houthi proposals. Yet we cannot ignore the Houthis’ hold on power. A cross-sectarian coalition led by the Houthis offers the most realistic chance to stabilize Yemen.
However, America has not yet fostered diplomatic ties with the Houthi group. Instead the U.S. closed its embassy in Sana’a. Other western nations have followed suit. In fairness, closing the embassy can protect American citizens from physical danger. Further, concerns about the Houthis’ Iranian ties remain valid. Yet isolating the Houthis does not represent a viable strategy. Unable to stabilize a government, Yemen will likely descend into increased factional chaos. This instability breeds terror. Additional turmoil could also result in South Yemeni secession, which would prove disastrous for U.S. interests. A South Yemen state would contain the core Al-Qaeda power base. Meanwhile North Yemen would still maintain Houthi-Iranian influence, just untempered by a moderate Sunni population. A stable and unified Yemen remains the best solution. Despite their faults, the Houthis provide the only real chance of achieving this goal.by