Houthi fighters (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

From Fragile Truce to Maritime Turmoil: Unraveling the Houthis’ Peace Trojan Horse in Yemen


Wed, 24-01-2024 06:26 PM, Aden

What really changed with the Red Sea attacks is the internationalization of the Houthi threat. Previously, there was ideologically-driven misjudgment of the Houthis, portraying them as local Yemenis with limited aspirations in Yemen. 

Ala Mohsen (South24 Center) 


Since the beginning of the civil war in Yemen, there has not been this level of optimism regarding the resolution of the conflict, with a widespread belief that the country is ripe for peace. In 2022, the UN was finally able to negotiate a long-term truce between the warring parties that started in April 2022 and is partially operational to date. The truce effectively brought a halt to the Saudi airstrikes and significantly reduced battle-related violence at the domestic front. This development can be attributed mainly to two factors. First, the international community prioritized ending the conflict in Yemen and spent substantial resources to pressure the Saudis to end their operations, under the assumption that the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen was mainly responsible for the tremendous humanitarian crisis without being able to defeat the Houthis. Second, there were shifts in the priorities within the Saudi foreign policy, especially in the aftermath of their deal with Iran and later the Houthis, which redirected its focus from defeating the Houthis to exiting the Yemeni quagmire. In addition, Saudi Arabia, which has been bankrolling its local Yemeni allies since 2015, has become too exhausted financially to sustain these operations. Instead, it pivoted to zeroing on its foreign policy problems and concentrate instead on achieving its national vision plans for 2030 1. In this new identity, the Saudis aim to revise their political engagement in Yemen - from being involved in direct conflict to taking on the role of a mediator.

However, none of these reasons have anything to do with the Yemenis themselves, but rather reflect an inorganic top-down process that does not take the local dynamics into consideration. The seeds for the conflict remain unaddressed, and no viable and well-negotiated roadmap is on the table. 

This roadmap 2 has already faced opposition from local entities, notably the Southern Transition Council, due to its failure to address the Southern issue within the framework of UN-mediated negotiations. To the Houthis, engaging in peace talks is merely a demonstration of the other parties’ capitulations that validates their triumph. As a result, these compromises have given the Houthis substantial morale boosting, especially considering they have gotten their demands met or in the process of being met, including the easing of restrictions on their ports, the exiting of foreign troops and paying the salaries for state employees under their control from revenues under their rivals (areas under the Internationally Recognized Government and the oil-rich Southern governorates). At the same time, the Houthis have not reciprocated with measures required under their part of the deal, and continue with their blockade in Taiz and sustained attacks against the Yemen Government and STC-affiliate forces in various fronts. 

Violence as a Houthi strategy? 

Political violence has been the Houthis' favorite repertoire to achieve their goals. The only exception is during times when the group is weak, or they are losing on the ground. Under such circumstances, the Houthis are keen to adhere to peace agreements. However, they tend to be tactical in nature, as they serve the purpose of impeding the advances of their adversaries and strategically buying time for the reorganization necessary to prepare for subsequent engagements. For instance, during the Hodeidah battle (in 2018) when the joint forces were close to capturing the entire governorate, including its critical port, the Houthis eagerly accepted the Stockholm agreement. This agreement effectively saved them from losing the city without handing the security affairs to a local police force as the agreement dictates. There are ample historical precedents to believe that the Houthis are only using the peace talks as a strategic maneuver to expedite the Saudi withdrawal from Yemen, giving them a relative military advantage against their domestic rivals. As soon as Saudi Arabia is officially out of Yemen, they will intensify their intentions of resuming military operations to take control of the entire Yemeni territory.

Violence is also an integral part of the Houthi belief system too. The Houthis adhere to a revolutionary ideology that vilifies those who do not share their struggle against the US-led order of oppression and imperialism. Additionally, engaging in politics requires compromise, a strategy that often succeeds in moderating radical groups. However, this approach was not effective in the case of the Houthis, who adhere to exclusive politics and staunchly believe in their divine mandate to govern 3. The Houthis acknowledge other Yemenis only when they submit to their authority and remain subservient, as exemplified by the marginalization of General People Congress party cadres in Sana’a. For this reason, the Houthis have repeatedly described the current conflict as a war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, rather than a civil war among different Yemeni factions. This characterization positions them as the representatives of the national interests of Yemen and its people at large, while reducing their rivals and opponents as mere proxies and agents for global and regional powers such as the United States, Israel, or even Saudi Arabia.

But unlike other maximalist Islamist groups, such as AQAP and ISIS, the Houthis are more subtle in their tactics. They employ a long-term double-faced strategy, being openly willing to participate in the political process while capturing territory violently on the ground. This simultaneous approach aims at enhancing their bargaining power and securing political gains, even if that means taking Machiavellian measures. An illustrative example is during Yemen’s transition period in 2012. While Houthi negotiators were taking part in the National Dialogue Conference in Sanaa, their fighters were capturing towns and cities in Saada and Amran. After forcibly placing President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and his government under house arrest, the civil war later erupted because the Houthis were determined to employ violence to extend their control to all parts of the country.

Maritime attacks in the Red Sea

To date, the Houthis have carried out close to 30 marine attacks on commercial ships, disrupting global shipping and causing significant delays and higher insurance premiums. Some companies, including MAERSK, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd and BP have paused their activities in the Red Sea, rerouting their operations to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In response to these attacks, the US established a multinational naval task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian to secure the southern part of the Red Sea. On January 12, 2024 the task force conducted its first limited airstrikes against Houthi targets to send a clear message. The scope of these operations is limited for the time being; however they could escalate in the next period in the face of continued Houthi intransigence. The situation remains tense, but it is unlikely that the Houthis will be deterred from continuing their hostilities in the Red Sea, at least given the limited measures taken by the US and its allies against the group.

In light of the Houthis' violent nature, maritime attacks should come as no surprise, especially given the Houthis’ organic linkage to the Iran-led Axis of Resistance in the region. However, that does not deny that there are instrumental objectives behind these moves. The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, ostensibly against Israeli ships or ships bound for Israel, are a strategic move to gain popular support, strengthen their domestic position and save their deteriorating legitimacy. The Houthi rebels have faced growing domestic opposition due to issues such as unpopular government reforms, excessive repression, curtail of freedoms and failure to pay salaries. Their attacks on Western and Israeli interests would make them heroes without addressing domestic demands or fixing problems at home. As Yemenis overwhelmingly stand in support of Palestinian rights against Israeli occupation, the Palestinian cause becomes a winning card, particularly at a time when Israel is committing heinous atrocities against civilians in Gaza. By projecting power in support of the Palestinian cause, the Houthis have been able to rally supporters, recruit new fighters and achieve moral victory against their rivals in the eyes of the masses.

Ramifications on the peace process

Some have warned that the Houthi attacks will undermine the peace process in Yemen. However, we have to keep in mind the prospects for peace have been elusive, due to inherent challenges that have diminished its chances of success. Primarily reflecting the interests of the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, the peace deal has fallen short of addressing the broader concerns of Yemenis. Although hostilities between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have ceased, the Houthi group has continued to attack its rivals. Prior to the Red Sea attacks, daily breaches of the truce occurred in various regions, including Dhalea, Taiz, Marib, Hajjah, Hodeidah and Shabwah. The Houthis even attacked Bahraini positions near the Saudi border, killing four soldiers in September last year. In this context, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have only intensified the fears held by many Yemenis-reaffirming the perception that violence is endemic to the group. In a recent statement, STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi has declared the truce to be dead, in view of the numerous Houthi violations and transgressions. 

But what really changed with the Red Sea attacks is the internationalization of the Houthi threat. Previously, there was ideologically-driven misjudgment of the Houthis, portraying them as local Yemenis with limited aspirations in Yemen that have nothing to do with the politics of resistance led by Iran or their capability to undermine international security. The Saudi campaign — rather than the Houthi activities themselves which triggered the war— was seen as detrimental to peace in Yemen. That is why, when Biden came to power in 2021, one of the first foreign policy steps he took was to revoke the designations of Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. From the early days of the new US Administration, it was clear that the Saudis were not going to receive the unwavering support they got from the Trump Administration regarding their campaign, or even the tacit support they received from the previous Obama Administration. Specifically, the Biden Administration was pressuring the Saudis to end their campaign in Yemen and coerce the Yemen Internationally Recognized Government to share power with the Houthis. During the Stockholm Agreement negotiations, Yemeni government officials were explicitly warned they would be sanctioned as instigators  if they don’t accept the peace deal with the Houthis.
For better or worse, the recent attacks in the Red Sea have revealed to the international community the fears that most Yemenis have expressed regarding the disastrous effects of a hastened peace deal. Now, the Biden Administration realizes the risks that Houthis pose for the region, and that they have been wrong in their previous evaluation of the Houthis. These Red Sea attacks serve as a wake-up call for the international policymakers to revise their assessment of the Houthis, and to realize the real risk they pose not only to the peace and security of Yemen but to international security altogether. The bombing of Houthi targets in Yemen as well the re-listing of the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group by the Biden Administration are indicative of that revision. However, these changes would also have tangible effects on the local Yemen peace process, especially given that the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC: the executive body of Yemen's internationally recognized government) and the anti-Houthi factions were not dissatisfied with the top-down peace process that was pushed by international policymakers and diplomats. From now on, international pressures on the PLC will be alleviated, even if Saudi Arabia itself is no longer interested in escalating tensions with the Houthis.

Lessons and recommendations: Containing the Houthi threat

The Houthis’ continued threats to global interests have highlighted the need for a comprehensive strategy that includes both incentives and deterrents to push the Houthis toward meaningful engagement in the peace process. So far, the Houthis have been drawn to the peace process through incentives only, with no effective deterrents in place. Consequently, many Yemeni activists complain that the international community is pampering the Houthis, indirectly rewarding their violent behavior. Such an approach has increased the Houthis’ confidence while weakening and demoralizing their rivals, who were repeatedly coerced into giving concessions without any return. The Houthis' revolutionary zeal, coupled with the counterproductive foreign policy of the great powers, has reinforced the group’s belligerence, as they believe there are no consequences to bear. As a result, the Houthi rebels have shown a lack of commitment to uphold peace and have pushed for escalation locally and regionally as a means to accumulate political power.

While diplomatic efforts are necessary, a realistic and more effective approach should take into account the Houthi group's violent tendencies and the red lines they are willing to cross to achieve their goals. A firm response is needed now than later. When the ISIS rose to power in Iraq and Syria in 2013, the international community dealt with their threat promptly through the establishment of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. To wait for a few more years would have been a fatal mistake, as it would be allowing the group to get stronger. Therefore, it is time to use another tool that has proven successful with violent groups such as the Houthis. While incentive-based diplomacy alone has so far failed to moderate the Houthis or push them towards meaningful peace in Yemen or the Red Sea, a combination of deterrence and incentives remains a better strategy in pushing the group toward a lasting ceasefire and a comprehensive peace agreement. 

Understandably, the international community faces the dilemma of addressing the Houthi challenge without inadvertently reigniting the Yemeni conflict. But the reality is that the resolution of the Yemeni conflict is still distant, and the local peace process cannot be used as a pretext for inaction as the costs would be too high for the world to bear. Therefore, measures must be undertaken to protect commercial interests in vital transit lanes like the Red Sea and to send strong messages to other groups that such actions are off-limits. The Red Sea holds significant importance, as 12% of world trade and 30% of global container traffic passes through this maritime route. The Houthis should not have the freedom to threaten these international waters and impede the flow of maritime shipping. An effective response to Houthi aggression will not only deter them from attacking commercial ships in the future but it will also have the indirect effect of limiting the group’s ability to undermine the Yemen peace process at large. 

(1. Vision 2030’ is an ambitious roadmap for Saudi Arabia's transformation announced by Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman.
(2. In April 2023, Saudi Arabia came out with a roadmap draft following direct talks in Sanaa between a Saudi delegation and the Houthis, with Omani mediation. The roadmap includes a proposal that divides the path of the negotiations into three phases over two years.
(3. Since the beginning of the Houthi coup against the state in 2014, the group has tried to revive a legacy of class racism that was left behind by the Yemenis decades ago, particularly since the September 26 Revolution in North Yemen in 1962 against the imamate rule. The Houthis have also resorted to relentless moves to impose their ideological messaging in an attempt to prove that the “Wilaya” is their divine racial right. Houthis stick to their theory of “divine right” to rule and their notion of superiority.

Ala Mohsen 

Non-resident researcher at South24 Center, a doctoral researcher in political science at the University of Utah.

*Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author.

YemenHouthisRed SeaIsraelAttacksIslamist groupsAQAPISISUSUSBiden