Houthis’ endurance a sign of recklessness, not resilience
If taking out the president of the Houthi militia with an airstrike was meant to shake the Iranian-backed militia, it certainly did not show on the face of its leader, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, who calmly announced Saleh Al-Sammad’s death on television four days later. In a nine-minute announcement, Al-Houthi vowed to avenge Al-Sammad’s death, and later fulfilled this promise by firing two ballistic missiles toward an Aramco facility in Jizan, as well as eight others on the day of the funeral. Despite the leadership loss, the Houthis’ ability to project power and endurance in the past three years of conflict has been an essential component of their civil war.
Recent military developments on the ground and their leadership loss indicate that the Houthis’ projected resilience is more of a myth than a fact. The Houthis today are at their weakest since their military grab in September 2014. Fierce ground operations against the group intensified due to the increasing divisions inside the movement, mostly associated with the defection and subsequent execution of their former ally, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, head of the General People’s Congress. Fissures among the former partners deepened as GPC members defected en masse, while the rest have been forced into submission following the loss of their leader. As the Houthis’ supporters shifted positions and allied with the Arab coalition, the militia found itself in a vulnerable position, which it continued to mask with a projection of power through its ballistic missile launches.
In addition, the rise of southern forces and Yemen’s national army forced the Houthis into humiliating defeats in Shabwa in the south, Khokha on the Red Sea coast and, most recently, in the Houthis’ northern homeland of Saada. According to coalition statements, the legitimate forces in Yemen now control 85 percent of territory and the Houthis have lost a sizable amount of fighters and commanders. Yemeni experts attributed the increased recruitment in child military conscripts under 15 to the Houthis’ depleting army.
Moreover, the Arab coalition’s ability to target high-profile Houthi affiliates and gain information on the Houthi leadership’s whereabouts suggest a significant breach in the militia’s security, which constitutes a real threat to the group. The leaks are indicative of discontent among Houthi ranks and rising enmity within the movement, as more key individuals become aligned with the Arab coalition.
The Houthis’ willingness to gamble with the lives of ordinary Yemenis is more suggestive of reckless behavior than tactical maneuvering.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
In addition, the Houthis’ ability to make money has been severely affected as their shipments of weapons and finances from Iran are being regularly intercepted. This severely diminishes their military capabilities on the ground, prompting them to use their stockpiles of ballistic weapons, which so far have had no real impact on the ground. Furthermore, the alleged death of Fares Mana’a, the Houthis’ primary weapons smuggler, is also bound to shake the movement. The financial squeeze ultimately impacts the civilian populations, who bear the brunt of arduous taxes imposed by the militia, as well as the inflated prices of essential commodities, including cooking gas (which has tripled in price in the past year.)
Meanwhile, new ground operations are yielding results. Real pressure is mounting through the forces of Brig. Gen. Tareq Saleh, the late president’s nephew, which are distributed along the coast of Al-Hodeidah. Tareq’s forces consist of the remnants of the former elite Presidential Guards, and the paramilitary Central Security Forces, forming what is now known as the Republican Guards. By virtue of their former alliance with the Houthis, the Republican Guards possess intimate knowledge and valuable insights on the Houthis’ military capability and limitations.
The deployment of Tareq’s forces to the east of the Red Sea port of Mocha cuts off essential routes for the militia, as they lie on the main roads leading east into Taiz and north to Hodeidah. Such increased pressure around the port of Hodeidah, the Houthis’ most prized port and lucrative economic source, represents a significant concern for the militia, which has managed to keep the Saudi-led coalition away from the port by signaling the sirens of a humanitarian catastrophe if an airstrike is to take place.
While all these losses hurt the Houthis, the militia still maintains an illusion of power through flaunting its ability to endure the Arab coalition’s military campaign despite its limited means. In a similar vein, the coalition cannot claim victory no matter how successful it is in weakening the Houthis’ forces because the challenges of fighting the militia remain the same. The Houthis derive their position of military “resilience” through entrenching themselves in densely populated urban centers and around civilian populations where they cannot easily be hunted down by airstrikes. In addition, through their stockpiles of weapons — whether the ones they already had from Yemen’s army or acquired and developed with Iran’s assistance — give them the ability to strike at the capitals of the Arab coalition without fear of a backlash. The Houthis’ willingness to gamble with the lives of ordinary Yemenis is more suggestive of reckless behavior than tactical maneuvering.
As international and regional countries are attempting to end this conflict, one must realize that the Houthis are actually in a weakened position. The movement has expediently sacrificed the lives of its fighters, child soldiers, children and millions of Yemeni people, who have been living in horrid conditions since its overthrow of the government three years ago. The group’s defiance despite extensive losses is prolonging the suffering, but it is also uniting efforts against them. The Houthis may choose to continue to flaunt their ability to withstand military pressure and launch failed missile attacks into neighboring countries, but their defiance despite the extensive losses they are incurring is nothing more than a sign of heedless logic rather than actual resilience.
- Fatima Abo Alasrar is a senior analyst for the Arabia Foundation in Washington DC. Twitter: @YemeniFatima