There is little doubt that former President Saleh’s legacy in Yemen is a mixed one. While he presided over the unification of Yemen in 1990, the country continued to be severely challenged by a lack of governmental capacity, weak economic growth and political strife. Nevertheless, Saleh had shown on multiple occasions a willingness to compromise. That has not been the case with the Houthis.
Over the past three years, I have spoken to and listened to dozens of Yemeni government officials — both current and former — scholars and activists as they sought to explain the nature of the conflict in Yemen and prescribed steps to resolve it. I would be hard pressed to recall a single person who did not view the Houthis as a primary cause of the conflict and the suffering the Yemeni people have endured. In both word and deed, the Houthis have shown a disturbing disregard for the well-being and safety of the people of Yemen. They have demonstrated their callousness through their siege of Taiz, their continued commandeering of humanitarian aid, including both food and medicine, their recruitment of children and use of landmines, which also primarily impact children.
As the people of Yemen continue to experience serious hardship and as the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi tries to reassert control over territory the Houthis took by force, the Houthis continue to issue bellicose statements seeking to broaden the conflict. They have fired dozens of Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia that have gone as far as Riyadh, killing hundreds of Saudi civilians in the process. The Houthis have also threatened to fire missiles against the United Arab Emirates.
Watching the Houthis operate, one cannot help but think of another militant group that also feels it is entitled to impose its will on a country by force, despite its complex religious cleavages. I am speaking here of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
As the long-suffering people of Yemen experience serious hardship due to the civil war, the Houthis continue to issue bellicose statements seeking to broaden the conflict.
Bellicose rhetoric, aggressive policies that seek to destabilize neighboring countries and an utter disregard for their own people is what the Houthis and Hezbollah have in common. In fact, it is not only a mere lack of regard, but both groups have turned their weapons against their own people, despite their irresponsible — and empty — slogans promising “death” to various countries around the world.
For some Yemeni analysts, the Houthis are not simply trying to replicate the model set by Hezbollah. On multiple occasions, Yemeni activists speaking at various forums, including in Washington, have warned the international community that the Houthis should be viewed through the same lens as terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh. They argue — convincingly — that the Houthis, who fought six different wars against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, simply do not believe in political compromises or peaceful resolutions of conflict. “Violence is the only thing they know. They like to fight. They don’t know anything else,” a prominent Yemeni activist said a few months ago at a think tank event in the US. Their killing of their long-time adversary and one-time ally, Saleh, last week was yet another reminder of who the Houthis are.
Fortunately, their brutality has further diminished the meager support they had in Yemen to begin with. The recent successful advances by government forces supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Houthi strongholds suggests that the brave people of Yemen will not allow the Houthis to turn Yemen into a vassal of Iran and Hezbollah.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer