Houthi fighters (Reuters)

Will the Houthis Exploit Their Gains from the Gaza War by Attacking South?


Mon, 05-02-2024 10:10 AM, Aden Time

The Houthis probably believe that by bombing American and Israeli targets in the Red Sea, in retaliation for the ineffective US-UK airstrikes, they have succeeded in sending an indirect message to the Gulf States that would deter these countries from participating in any future Yemeni local battles.

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Many Yemenis nurse negative feelings towards the Houthis for the group’s launching drone attacks in the Red Sea and intercepting vessels heading to Israel, that the Iran-backed group publicizes as their engagement in the Gaza war. 

Their concerns here aren’t about the ramifications of these attacks but rather related to their anxiety about what the Houthis may consider as “a local entitlement” due to their role in the Gaza war.

This concern is a result of the experiences undergone by the people over the past years in which the Houthis exploited the Yemen war to assert themselves and impose a lifestyle consistent with their ideological concepts. This is in addition to the Houthi’s spurning their obligations toward the people in areas under their control as a de facto authority. The Iran-backed group has done so citing the pretext of confronting the “aggression”. Those who demand economic improvement are accused of colluding with the enemy as the so-called “fifth column” (secret agents). 

However, things will be largely different this time in the wake of the Gaza war due to the availability of Houthi pretexts, including fighting for the Palestinian cause, that can be promoted at the popular level to expand their influence in North and South Yemen. This is in addition to the advantageous Houthi position regarding the peace agreement for ending the war in Yemen, especially amid the new Saudi policy toward this file. In addition, some parties that used to introduce themselves as anti-Houthi have dramatically changed their stance.

South Yemen

The Houthis don't conceal their desire to regain control of the South along with North Yemen. However, their pretexts to transform this into reality weren't available earlier as they are today. The Houthis have sought to gain popular legitimacy through the pro-Gaza attacks. Furthermore, they have also sought to strip their rivals of legitimacy by accusing them of supporting “Zionism”. The group proclaims any local stance against their deeds in the Red Sea as pro-Israeli. The Houthis then use this excuse to fight them. The Yemeni Internationally-Recognized Government (YIRG) has condemned the Houthi’s navigation threat in the Red Sea. At the same time, it has also condemned the Israeli violence in Gaza. This is the same position held by the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The difference this time is that the stance adopted by some parties affiliated with the ’YIRG‘ largely works toward enhancing the Houthi’s promotion of their discourse at the popular level.

Although the position of these parties is covered within the “unity of ranks” slogan, its outcome serves the interests of the Houthis who have already begun heading southward with their latest drone operations in Shabwa, Lahj, Abyan, and Al-Dhalea. 

The Houthi’s plans haven’t been limited to airstrikes; they have begun mobilization on the ground in more than one Southern governorate. This indicates that the group is in a hurry to exploit what it considers as “popular support” in its favor in the North to move toward the South. The Houthis fear that international and regional developments may hinder this scheme. This isn’t limited to making use of popular support, which may not necessarily translate to accepting the Houthi ambitions. They also want to exploit the stances of some anti-Houthis parties such as the Islah Party (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood), which has placed its large popular base at the Houthi’s disposal.

Notwithstanding the Islah Party’s pro-Houthi stance, the party has tried to deny these accusations by occasionally posting anti-Houthi press stories on its official website.

Opponents' Position

The danger posed by some actors that present themselves as anti-Houthi parties isn’t due to their affiliation with the legitimacy camp, which places the latter at the risk of internal infiltration. The real threat is that these parties control important areas in Marib, Wadi Hadramout, Taiz, Al-Jawf, and others. Some of these areas are located in South while others are adjacent to it. 

What is more dangerous is that these parties have close ties with the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which could play a role in paving the way for the Houthis to move southward. It is important to refer here to the relationship of the three groups (Islah, AQAP and Houthis) with Iran which is keen to expand the Houthi influence inside and outside Yemen. It is worth mentioning that the Islah Party and AQAP have engaged together in a fierce war against the Southern forces in Abyan and Shabwa over the past years. 

The Saudi Gift

What is more dangerous than the aforementioned threats is the new Saudi approach toward the peace negotiations. Riyadh has been negotiating with the Houthis, away from the local parties that oppose the group. Saudi Arabia has announced concessions to end the war in Yemen and thereby secure its territories from any cross-border Houthi attacks. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has given the Houthis through the peace deal what the group failed to achieve over the years of war. 

Undoubtedly, the Houthis are fully aware of the importance of the Saudi position of exiting the war and will accordingly seek to take advantage by moving toward South Yemen and the Northern areas not in their control. 

Practically, Saudi Arabia has tried to prevent the formation of a Southern force capable of protecting South Yemen from the Houthi threat. It established forces affiliated with the Islah Party and the Salafists and deployed them in areas controlled by the Southern forces. Moreover, Riyadh is currently trying to hinder the progress of the Southern forces toward Wadi Hadramout where it is working to establish new forces.

It is important to note that the two parties – Houthis and Riyadh - have courted each other recently. Saudi Arabia considers the Gaza war as one of the reasons behind the Red Sea attacks. This is seen as a clear Saudi rejection of the US’ position. The Houthis have also praised the Saudi stance, as seen in an interview to Reuters by Houthi Spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam. He described the Saudis as “brothers” for the first time. Media platforms affiliated with the Houthis considered this as a “remarkable” development in the relationship between the group and Riyadh.

Mohammed Abdulsalam himself reposted a “tweet” on “X” by the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan who said that what is happening in the Red Sea is closely-linked to Gaza. 

Fears and Preparations

The recent moves and stance of the STC reveals its real concerns about the incoming threats that mainly target South Yemen.

For example, STC welcomed the US’ re-designation of the Houthis as a ’Specially Designated Global Terrorist‘ group. STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi told ’the Guardian'' that “the US-led air campaign against Houthis will not be enough”. He “called on the West to supplement the air strikes by providing arms, training and intelligence sharing to Yemeni government forces on the ground”.

In order to use the American operations to effectively weaken the Houthis, Al-Zubaidi warned ”the US-led coalition of repeating the same mistakes as the Arab-led coalition in Yemen when they concentrated airstrikes on Houthi positions without sufficient ground forces to supplement those strikes”.

In terms of the measures, Al-Zubaidi said: “We are in the process of organizing meetings to ask the US to expand and coordinate operations and strikes to make sure they are effective and comprehensive. What we need is military equipment, capacity building, and training for ground forces, as well as intel sharing. If there is stronger intelligence sharing, we can make joint assessments of how effective US airstrikes have been”.

At the level of practical moves, Al-Zubaidi visited Mayyun which is considered the most important island in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and serves as a ground bulwark to control it. He was accompanied by the Minister of Defense in the Aden government and his former colleague Mahmoud Al-Subaihi. 


- The Houthis may find a set of local, regional and international circumstances as an opportunity to achieve what they have failed to do over the past years or what was a delayed project for them. We here mean the expansion of their circle of influence in the North and South. 

- The Houthi military drone operations against some Southern governorates and their mobilization campaign over the past days and weeks reveals the group's ill intentions toward the South.

- The Houthis probably believe that by bombing American and Israeli targets in the Red Sea, in retaliation for the ineffective American-British airstrikes, they have succeeded in sending an indirect message to the Gulf states that would deter these countries from participating in any future Yemeni local battles. For the Houthis, what enhances this belief is the Saudi stance toward the Red Sea operations and Riyadh's new approach to the peace agreement in Yemen.

- However, since the Houthis have become a real threat to international navigation in the Red Sea, the United States may resort to ground operations, in partnership with Yemeni parties, especially after the airstrikes have failed to reduce the Houthi naval attacks.

- The aforementioned points are merely calculations regarding the Houthis. This may turn to be miscalculations, especially in terms of the popular stance as the people have responded mainly to the Palestinian issue and not to the group’s project.

*Ibrahim Ali is the pseudonym of a researcher specializing in armed group affairs. He has requested anonymity for personal reasons.

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic that was published on January 25, 2024

YemenHouthisIslahAQAPSTCSouth YemenAttacksUS-led CoalitionGaza