Some elements of the Houthi leadership may have concluded that the movement still has the upper hand militarily, meaning that a return to war could either allow them to win outright or to strengthen their position ahead of future negotiations.
Frustrated by the failure of Yemen’s warring factions to extend the ceasefire on October 1, thereby allowing the country’s eight-year conflict to resume, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking has placed the blame squarely on the Houthi rebels. In a news conference on October 5, Lenderking noted the Yemeni government’s inability to meet a series of last-minute “maximalist” Houthi demands, including a request that the Yemeni government pay the salaries of civil servants within Houthi territory—a demand that the envoy described as “entirely unreasonable,” adding that “some Houthi leaders understand this.” If this is the case, why are the Houthis attempting to disrupt the ceasefire negotiations?
After the Truce
The first factor to consider is that the leadership of the Houthis may be divided on the benefits of a ceasefire with Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Certainly, Yemeni civilians, including those living under Houthi control, have gained a reprieve from the destructive violence of the civil war, and this may have influenced the group’s agreement to suspend the war for six months. On the other hand, other elements of the Houthi leadership may have concluded that the movement still has the upper hand militarily, meaning that a return to war could either allow them to win outright or to strengthen their position ahead of future negotiations.
Second, ceasefires are by their very nature temporary and contingent on the interests of the parties that agree to them. In this case, the temporary truce that began on April 2, 2022 was intended to lead to negotiations for an ultimate political solution to the Yemen crisis, which has caused tens of thousands of deaths from violence and from malnutrition and disease alone.
Both the United Nations and Oman, which have taken mediation roles in the conflict, have reportedly used their offices to broker an enduring settlement, but with little success. Although the public is not privy to the details of such talks, presumably they entail some type of power-sharing arrangement between the Houthis and the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) that now governs the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The Houthis may have concluded that a political settlement with the PLC would provide them with less power than they currently enjoy. The group still controls much of northern Yemen; any political solution would mean giving up this control in exchange for an uncertain payoff, which Houthi leaders are loath to do.
Third, it is not clear that Yemen as a country can be held together. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which maintains a representative in the Presidential Leadership Council, has long advocated for a separate state in southern Yemen and has a powerful outside patron in the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis fully grasp the divisions between the STC and the other members of the PLC, and those tensions have undoubtedly influenced Houthis positions at the negotiating table. If Yemen cannot be held together, the Houthi logic goes, there is little point in negotiating for a long-term political solution; instead, it would be better to maintain control over the north in preparation for a de facto partition of the country.
These three observations aside, ideology has played an outsized role in the Houthis’ decision to let the ceasefire expire. Many observers have forgotten that the Houthi movement is, at its core, fueled by ideology. Houthi thought represents a mixture of revivalist Zaydi Shi’ism which, prior to the civil war, had been under pressure from Sunni Muslim proselytizers. This is joined by a so-called anti-imperialist ideology that binds the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia together into a cabal that must be opposed at any cost. History has shown that ideological movements, especially religious extremist or militant groups, can be very inflexible because they believe they have “truth” on their side.
The Houthis have made great efforts to educate young people in the group’s militant ideology, similar to what totalitarian governments did in the last century. Educational initiatives seek to prepare the next generation of fighters to continue the struggle with equal ideological zeal. Although there may be some Houthi leaders who are more pragmatic and willing to compromise, the zealots appear to have won the internal debate at this point.
The extent to which Iran has shaped Houthi positions vis-à-vis the Presidential Leadership Council and its Saudi patrons is difficult to determine. The Houthis, who have received military assistance from Iran, as well as from Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, see themselves as part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” an Iran-led grouping of state and non-state actors opposed to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Iran is undoubtedly worried about Israel’s growing ties to the Gulf Arab states and may see a continuation of the Yemen conflict as an opportunity to keep both Saudi Arabia and the UAE bogged down in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, rather than allowing them to turn their attention to the Gulf.
This is a dangerous game for Iran to play, as it has the potential to anger Washington and scuttle whatever slim chances there are in revitalizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Moreover, such a policy would almost surely set back the bilateral talks between Tehran and Riyadh in Baghdad that aim to resolve the two countries’ ongoing disputes.
On the other hand, as in all patron-client relationships, the Houthis retain a degree of autonomy from Iran, and it is not certain that Tehran could control the group if it wished to pursue its own aims. The Houthis, while happy to receive Iranian arms, remain an autonomous group with their own agenda. Moreover, Tehran may be so consumed with its own domestic affairs and the ongoing protest movements that it may not be in a position to play a determinative role in Houthi decisions in any event.
Whatever the nature of the Houthis’ connection to Iran, the group will be under mounting international pressure to agree to another extension of the ceasefire in the coming weeks. The international community, though distracted by the Ukraine crisis, must redouble its efforts to compel the Houthis to return to the ceasefire agreement. At the same time, international stakeholders should work with the group’s more pragmatic elements to begin serious talks about the political future of Yemen. These moderate voices undoubtedly understand that the military campaign cannot continue forever, and the Houthis’ failure to seize the oil-rich Marib province last year reinforced the message that there are limits to what they may achieve on the battlefield. Whether the movement’s pragmatists can prevail over the zealots, however, remains to be seen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.