The Houthis fought five wars against the government’s forces during Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, and attacked Saudi Arabia in 2009. They also undermined the UN-sponsored Yemeni agreement when they seized power in Sanaa in September 2014.
Saudi Arabia wants two things from Yemen. First, to restore legitimacy there, because accomplishing peace and stability in this neighboring country is of vital importance to the Kingdom. Second, to protect its borders and lands from terrorism and trafficking.
Riyadh suspects that the Houthi movement is a Trojan horse for Tehran, with the aim of encircling the Kingdom. The Houthis are actively attacking the southern Saudi border and its cities and, if not for Saudi Arabia’s strong defense capabilities, the Houthis’ missiles would have caused panic and serious damage to cities such as Jeddah, Makkah and Taif.
As long as more than two-thirds of Yemen’s territory is liberated and ruled by legitimate forces under the Saudi-led coalition’s umbrella, Riyadh has three options. The first is to continue to fight hostile forces everywhere in Yemen — Saleh’s forces, the Houthi militias and Al Qaeda. The second is to make do with what it has already achieved, and continue to provide the legitimate government with military support to strengthen its influence in the region. The third is to focus on protecting its lands and establish a buffer zone south of its borders, which would include the Saada governorate.
I believe the first option, an all-out war, would go on for too long, and in my opinion it is no longer necessary with the existence of a legitimate government in Aden. Besides, Sanaa barely has influence on the rest of the world. The second option, completely walking out of war, is not feasible because several forces — such as Iran and Al-Qaeda — would become active, causing the legitimacy to deteriorate. However, the third option, which entails wiping out hostile forces in northern Yemen and creating a buffer zone, would eliminate the Houthis on their home territory, and if the campaign succeeded it would serve the interests of both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, because most of the conflict has been created by the Houthis. If Saada were conquered, northern Yemen would have peace and the Kingdom would be safe — and maybe afterwards the Sanaa matter could be tackled.
The Houthis are a minority in Yemen, accounting for no more than 3 percent of the population, although the number of their supporters may be twice that because of their intellectual, political and military activities. I don’t have reliable information about their militias and the areas into which they have spread, but we all know they are a small extremist religious group that is politically and ideologically affiliated with Iran.
If the Iranian-backed insurgents were conquered in their home territory, Saada governorate, rebellion throughout Yemen would end.
The danger of the Houthis is clear when they are compared to Al-Qaeda, who they so much resemble. Their small number of supporters does not make them any less dangerous because they are committed to the ideology of jihad, or holy war — their own interpretations of it, of course. Thus, if not besieged, the Houthis will remain a chronic, dangerous issue for everyone.
We can collaborate with the Yemeni tribes in the north, because they have always been allies of Saudi Arabia and brought stability to that region, in order to defeat the Houthis in Saada, which is their tribal and military headquarters. By conquering Saada, we would wipe out all their militias in other conflict areas. When they withdraw from Sanaa as a result of the war on Saada, it will be easier to come to a peaceful resolution with other parties in the city.
Since the beginning of the war, the Houthis and Saleh’s forces have had nothing but failure. They failed to establish their own state and failed to prevent the legitimacy’s return from exile. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that they are capable of further confrontation — as militias, not armies. If the Houthis were eliminated in their home territory, Saada, rebellion in Yemen would end.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.