Houthis protest against Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in September 2015. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Henry Ridgwell.
In September 2019, the United States held direct negotiations with Houthi rebels for the first time in four years. The United States should continue to negotiate with the Houthis to influence them toward combating two mutual enemies: AQAP and ISIS in Yemen. The Houthis’ military capability and their potential to influence the Yemeni population render them an essential partner to ending al-Qaeda and ISIS strongholds in Yemen.
Houthi military forces have the capability to defeat AQAP and ISIS. Since 2015, the Saudi-led Gulf coalition employed naval and ground forces and launched hundreds of airstrikes against Houthi forces. However, the Houthis have firmly held their territory while simultaneously increasing their military capacity and lethality. Andreas Kreig, professor at King’s College London, stated that current Houthi capabilities are “far more advanced than anything the Yemeni armed forces had before the civil war.”[i] The Houthis, for example, have acquired the Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missiles from Iran.[ii] Houthi combat tactics have also progressed, as demonstrated on September 30, 2019, when the Houthis launched a major attack against Saudi military forces and captured 2,000 Saudi soldiers, armored vehicles, and munitions.[iii]
The negligent and imprecise Gulf coalition bombings coupled with Houthi military successes have allowed Houthi forces to garner ever greater support from the Yemeni population.[iv] Yemeni expert Sama’a Al-Hamdani notes that “[m]any [Houthi] supporters are politically and religiously agnostic pragmatists whose support for the group is based on immediate interests,” and the populations’ interests include avoiding airstrikes, conflict between Yemeni tribes, and religious radicalization.[v] Gulf coalition airstrikes have targeted large civilian gatherings, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Yemenis who, before the airstrikes, vacillated on which side to support in the war.[vi] The wanton destruction by Saudi-led forces is increasingly pushing them toward the Houthi position. To capitalize on the frustration of the Yemeni population, Houthi leadership adopted a noninterference approach—or a hands-off type of policy— towards the Northern Yemeni tribes.[vii]
Conversely, AQAP and ISIS have vigorously attempted to integrate and recruit from the Yemeni tribes. So far, the tribes have neither supported nor fought either group, but they do view AQAP and ISIS as the most likely actors to further destabilize Yemen.[viii] For this reason, AQAP and ISIS have avoided being overly confrontational with the tribes because “[al-Qaeda] knows that it does not stand a chance if the tribes turn against them.”[ix]
Instances of US collaboration with an adversary against a common enemy is not unprecedented. The United States supported PKK affiliates and al-Qaeda affiliates against ISIS and the al-Assad regime during the Syrian civil war and the Kosovo Liberation Army in the 1990s.[x] Yet, before any U.S.-Houthi collaboration, Houthis must relinquish their long-range missiles—capable of reaching Saudi Arabia—and adhere to U.N. control of the Port of Hodeidah.
Houthi military capability and influence over the Yemeni population, the United
States would be increasingly able to discuss collaboration against AQAP and
ISIS. The United States should provide intelligence to Houthis about AQAP’s and
ISIS’s locations in Yemen while simultaneously building relationships with local
tribes through the Houthis. There will be limits to collaboration, of course: Intelligence
on Gulf states’ and US weaponry should not be provided to the Houthis, for
example. But careful, measured cooperation could significantly enhance US
regional leverage and allow ISIS and AQAP to be more successfully combatted.
[i] Mohamad Ali Harissi, “Yemeni Houthi rebels’ long-range arsenal grows lethal,” July 23, 2019, The Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/yemeni-houthi-rebels-long-range-arsenal-grows-lethal/.
[ii] Michael Knights, “The Houthi War Machine: From Guerrilla War to State Capture,” September 2018, Combating Terrorism Center, https://ctc.usma.edu/houthi-war-machine-guerrilla-war-state-capture/.
[iii] The Japan Times, “Yemen’s Houthi rebels claim capture of over 2,000 Saudi troops in ‘major attack,” September 30, 2019, The Japan Times, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/09/30/world/yemens-houthi-rebels-claim-capture-2000-saudi-troops-major-attack/#.XZ4KdpNKhp9.
[iv] Sama’a Al-Hamdani, “Understanding the Houthi Faction in Yemen,” April 7, 2019, Lawfare, https://www.lawfareblog.com/understanding-houthi-faction-yemen and Nicolas Niarchos, “How the U.S. Is Making The War In Yemen Worse,” January 15, 2018, The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/how-the-us-is-making-the-war-in-yemen-worse.
[v] Sama’a Al-Hamdani, “Understanding the Houthi Faction in Yemen,” April 7, 2019, Lawfare, https://www.lawfareblog.com/understanding-houthi-faction-yemen.
[vi] Al Jazeera, “Yemen’s war: Four years on, what Houthi rule looks like,” March 26, 2019, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/yemen-war-years-houthi-rule-190323080134193.html.
Nicolas Niarchos, “How the U.S. Is Making The War In Yemen Worse,” January 15, 2018, The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/how-the-us-is-making-the-war-in-yemen-worse.
[vii] Sama’a Al-Hamdani, “Understanding the Houthi Faction in Yemen,” April 7, 2019, Lawfare, https://www.lawfareblog.com/understanding-houthi-faction-yemen.
[viii] Nadwa Al-Dawsari, “Foe Not Friend: Yemeni Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” 2018, Project on Middle East Democracy, https://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Dawsari_FINAL_180201.pdf.
[ix] Nadwa Al-Dawsari, “Foe Not Friend: Yemeni Tribes and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” 2018, Project on Middle East Democracy, https://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Dawsari_FINAL_180201.pdf.
[x] Liz Sly, Sarah Dadouch, Asser Khattab, “Syrian Kurds see American betrayal and warn fight against ISIS is now in doubt,” October 7, 2019, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-kurds-see-american-betrayal-and-warn-alliance-against-isis-is-now-in-doubt/2019/10/07/96c425da-e902-11e9-a329-7378fbfa1b63_story.html;Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” January 23, 2016, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html;and Cameron Abadi, “The Small War That Wasn’t,” January 2, 2019, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/02/the-small-war-that-wasnt/.