Yemen’s divided Huthi movement is sending mixed signals to the US. After President Trump vetoed Congress’ bipartisan resolution to end Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen, Mohammed Abdelsalam, the spokesman and top negotiator of the Huthi movement, stated that this proves the Americans were also “behind the [Saudi] decision to go to war” in 2015. “Surely we are interested in having a good relationship with the United States. Everyone should know that”, said the “foreign minister” of the self-proclaimed Huthi government in Sana’a, Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, in a recent interview with Voice of America.
Yet “Death to America” is part of the Huthi movement’s traditional slogan (al-shi'ar, the scream in Arabic) inspired by Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric, shouted for the first time in 2000 and still recently heard in Sana’a, during the protests denouncing the fourth year of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
At a first glance, there would be no logic here. Certainly, the Huthis are smart, composite players and local politics is about fluid alliances: in Yemen, the time is always ripe for tactical adjustments. And the Huthis have never been so internally divided. Moreover, given the lengthy stalemate of the war, plus the deadlock in implementing the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement (signed in December 2018), the Sa’da-based movement may have started to think about the next political steps for northern-controlled areas.
Here are some Yemeni, regional and international variables to consider in order to make sense of why a divided Huthi movement is sending mixed signals to Washington.
A static framework of negotiations: UN-led diplomacy still adopts Security Council Resolution 2216 (April 2015) and the conclusions of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (2013-2014, also including Huthi delegates), as a framework for negotiations. The Huthi movement rejects both: in their eyes, the first would imply some sort of large-scale surrender, requiring their withdrawal from occupied territories (the capital Sana’a included) and relinquishment of the arms seized from the (once) regular army. The second document comprises a federal reform scheme, approved by internationally recognized President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi but not implemented so far, which clusters Huthis’ main territories into a new macro-region (Azal), poor in natural resources, with no access to the sea and with high population density. As five years of war have demonstrated, the conflict does not produce winners. Therefore, trying to modify the rules of the diplomatic game appears to the northern movement as the only way to preserve - or do less damage to - acquired territorial gains. This also implies attempting to breach rival alliances, such as the US-Hadi-Saudi Arabia political triangle.
Dwindling tribal support in controlled/influenced regions: Since late 2018, tribal support for or passive toleration of the Huthis by local populations has been deteriorating in at least three areas, Hajja, Amran and Al-Dhalae. In Hajja, the western governorate bordering Saudi Arabia, the truce brokered in 2013 with the local and Salafi-leaning Hajouri tribe has now been broken, leading to a quick escalation of violence since January 2019, mostly in the Kushar district. In Amran, the elders of the influent Bakil tribal confederation threatened in April to withdraw support and fighters from the Huthis after the killing of an elder of an affiliated tribe: Amran is the geographical route connecting Sana’a (the capital) and Sa’da (the Huthi fiefdom). In the southern Al-Dhalae region (neighbouring on the Huthi-controlled Ibb), the insurgents set fire in February to the house of a local tribal leader, Abdul Jaleel Al-Hothaify, blamed for collaborating with the Saudi-led coalition: in the aftermath, clashes erupted between Huthi fighters and local militias. Although the Huthi family is not of tribal lineage (they belong to the Zaydi Hashemite elite, sayyid; plur. sâda), tribal alliances allowed them to extend their leverage beyond Sa’da, in northern tribal areas as well as on the western coast, thus gaining different geographical and social support. Doing so, the alliance of convenience (2014-2017) with the bloc of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was decisive: dwindling tribal support for the Huthis could mean that the insurgents are no longer able to keep this front united. Not by chance, reports of rising repression, arbitrary detentions, torture and kidnapping, also of journalists, in Huthi-held areas are multiplying.
More warfare and less welfare means potential upheavals: “Everyone in America and in Europe should know that our government receives only 30% of the assistance”, Abdulla also stated in the interview, referring to international aid entering Yemen. Declining tribal support and rising violence and repression in Huthi-controlled areas could be symptoms of financial weakening: after four years of war, the Huthi movement has been diverting great economic resources from welfare to warfare. In fact, a war economy in the Huthis’ northern highlands is flourishing, but social inequalities are also on the rise since militias and warlords are profiting from conflict revenues to the detriment of basic services and welfare provision in poor areas already damaged by Saudi airstrikes. To add more uncertainty, the withdrawal of Huthi fighters from the port of Hodeida (plus the Salif port and Ras Isa oil terminal), in compliance with the Stockholm Agreement, would halt their main source of financing.
A bourgeoning, but composite and divided movement: Since the Huthis have grown in numbers and responsibilities, wings and groups are emerging within the movement, although leadership remains a matter of one family, the Al-Huthi, of and based in Sa’da. Indeed, the original, ideological, Iran-allied and militant Sa’da group, shaped by the late Husayn Al-Huthi’s public lectures, is relatively far from the acquired Sana’a-based wing, composed of pragmatic politicians, tribal leaders and businessmen with government experience and interests, willing (publicly) to compromise with opponents, as was observable in Stockholm. Not only is the Sana’a-based wing of the Huthi movement bigger than the Sa’da, including former Saleh’s loyalists (members of his General People’s Congress party and of the Hashid tribal confederation), but it is also fluid in future domestic and regional alliances. As long as the war continues, the Huthis will have to double their political and economic efforts and outlays to prevent desertions from this less ideological group, although the Saudi-led intervention was the glue that has kept this front together so far.
A mounting opinion campaign in the US to end the war in Yemen: although President Donald Trump’s veto was largely expected, what’s new is the (bipartisan) majority in Congress openly opposing the war in Yemen. In November 2018, the US government unprecedentedly demanded the end of the conflict in the midst of the Khashoggi case, halting air-refueling of Saudi aircraft striking in Yemen: but this American pressure on Riyadh vanished in few weeks, provoking further dismay in media and lawmakers. Nowadays, the Huthi movement is trying to capitalize on this public mood (think of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting just awarded to the Associated Press team covering Yemen), with a special eye to lawmakers: “When we speak about the US, we don’t only speak about the administration. We speak about the big US, the big continent of a political system, and the people of the US, their Congress and their Senate”, Abdulla significantly added in the interview. Doing so, the Huthi movement not only adopts the usual narrative of victimhood, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni politics, but also takes the self-proclaimed government scheme further, introducing the language of a “would be” state open to establishing relations with the United States.
What if the United States and Iran go to further escalation? The Trump administration is reportedly considering whether to designate the Huthi movement a terrorist organization: this hypothesis is more likely after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran was included in the American black list for terrorism. In case of a military escalation between Washington and Tehran (and Israel?), the Huthis would find themselves in an uncomfortable geopolitical trap, given their alliance with Iran: the Sa’da movement has managed to improve in warfare and military capabilities due to the support of Tehran, but it still fights for local political goals, not to export revolution or to be involved on new battlefronts. For this reason, the Huthis’ mixed signals to Washington could also include a subtle message for Tehran, sent from the “governative”, less ideological, wing of the movement to reiterate the Huthis’ autonomous agenda with respect to Iran’s regional choices. A way to confirm that the Yemeni insurgents are not Iranian puppets as often described, but pragmatic, smart players able to play with multiple identities, maximizing tactical and territorial gains, although different internal wings have become too complex to handle for the Sa’da leadership, especially in a post-conflict perspective. And this could be exploited by President Hadi and Saudi Arabia.