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Yemen. The Houthis and their Own “Brand”.

By opening the Red Sea front, the Houthis have taken the lead of the Palestinian cause and of anti-Americanism in the region. They address now an Islamic audience broader than the axis led by Iran.

Doing so, the Houthis are capitalizing on traditional anti-Israel and anti-US slogans and symbols of the Iranian galaxy but this time they are also upgrading their status within the Tehran camp.

The Houthis are portraying themselves as the main ´achievers` of the Iranian-related constellation, engendering a transnational competition among pro-Tehran actors: they are the newcomers who have quickly made the headlines.

The Houthis’ military capabilities advancement wouldn’t have been possible without the Iranian support. However, their emboldened and still autonomous posture could become problematic for Iran.

The Houthis are good at exploiting contextual factors to effectively construct political discourse and advance their own interests. The 2023 Red Sea front and the US raids in Yemen are only the most recent demonstrations: the Houthis’ actions are gaining popularity in large segments of Yemen and in the whole region.

In 2001-2002, the Houthis condemned President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s security-oriented alliance with the US to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the context of the war on terror.

The founder Husayn Al-Houthi exploited government’s choice to amplify criticism of Saleh’s regime, paving the way for the Saada wars fought against the central government (2004-10).

As the popular uprising against the Yemeni government broke out in 2011, the Houthis renamed their movement Ansar Allah to attract supporters beyond the Saada-core.

In mid-2014, the Houthis hijacked popular protests for fuel subsides cut in Sanaa to set up camps and denounce the corruption, while gradually taking the armed control of the city. In 2015, the Houthis exploited the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen which followed their coup to depict themselves as “defenders of the nation against
the “foreign aggression”.

The Houthis are materially and immaterially profiting from the alliance with Iran and its armed network. Since 2015, the Houthis have become closer to Iran and gradually more integrated with the “axis of resistance” than before, due to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. They received weapons, military training and advising, intelligence cooperation, and media support from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

This alignment has also strengthened the Houthis’ regional identity, even though as the most external ´planet` of the Iranian constellation. Since October 7th, the Houthis are publicly emphasizing their belonging to the Iranian-led network: “We are in complete coordination with our brothers of the axis of resistance, stated the leader Abdel Malek Al Houthi. They aim to be perceived as the ´vanguard of the axis` stressing, at the same time, their autonomy.

The Houthis have likely understood that they currently are the pro-Iranian actor that can earn more –and risk less- in the Gaza war context. Differently from Tehran and its groups, they are already at war, don’t share power with others and don’t profit from being part of internationally-recognized institutions and legal economy. Furthermore, the Houthis’ access to the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb waterway allows them to damage the Israeli economy and global trade routes, asymmetrically challenging the US maritime power in the area.

However, this doesn’t mean the Houthis are becoming, or will become, more dependent on Iran and the axis. On the contrary, the Houthis are rather exploiting the narrative and symbols of the axis of resistance to advance their own ´brand`, at both the domestic and regional level.

For instance, a poster of Mahdi Al-Mashat (the Houthi president of the Supreme Political Council in Sanaa) stands in the capital side by side with those of axis leaders (such as former Hamas chief Ahmad Yassin, former al-Quds force chief General Qassem Soleimani and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah). Now the Houthis are displaying photos of Soleimani and former Hashd al-Shaabi leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis “to celebrate” their own “enterprises”, as occurred on the Galaxy Leader ship hijacked on November 19, 2023.

Through violent means, the Houthis are emphasizing their ´revolutionary face` to alter the balance of power in Yemen and in the Middle East. The targeting of Israeli-related vessels and, more broadly, of international maritime trade achieves this goal. In this context, the US-UK raids against Houthi military sites allow the Houthis to reinforce their revolutionary message, as they repeat that they are not going to stop their attacks.

The Houthis are currently addressing a broader Islamic audience thanks to the Red Sea low-intensity battlefield, thus transcending confessional sects (Shia, Sunni) and ethnic ones. For instance, a giant poster of Abdel Malek Al Houthi appeared in Istanbul, Turkey, with the Turkish text “we are all Yemenis”.

The Houthis stress the revolutionary character of their armed movement for two reasons. The first is the appeal to the Zaydi Shia tradition, of which the rebellion against an unjust ruler (khuruj) is central feature.

The second is the anti-imperialist discourse the fallen founder Husayn Al Houthi has cultivated since the beginning against the US.
This discourse ideologically paved the way for the alliance with Iran and the axis of resistance.

In his collection of lectures (“Malazim”), Husayn identified the US and Israel as main enemies and frequently mentioned the ayatollah Khomeini as an inspiring leader not because he was an Iranian or a Shia, but because he “resisted” to the Western pressure.

Echoing again the topics of ´revolution` and ´resistance`, he referred to Hezbollah as “head of mujahidin in this world”. Khomeini is instead missing in the current Houthi leader’s speeches: when Abdelmalek mentions Iran, this is mostly related to the “resistance” against Israel, which therefore remains a key issue.

The Houthis’ attacks against Israel and Western maritime targets have generated a global echo which might trigger competition with other pro-Iranian armed groups of the axis. This scenario is especially likely in case the “attack-retaliation scheme” between Iranian-related forces and the US should continue, but without a major escalation. Due to their kinetic maritime actions, the Houthis are in fact portraying themselves as the ´achievers` of the “resistance” against the US and Israel.

This distinguishes the Yemeni armed movement from other Iranian-related actors, many of them with a longer history of ´resistance` alongside the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose frequent attacks haven’t been so effective (ex. more than 170 attacks against US forces by militias in Syria and Iraq), or pursued a ´controlled escalation` path so far (ex. Hezbollah).

The Houthis’ boldness could partly explain recent developments in the axis, pushing some groups to experiment new tactics or heighten the threat level. Since December 2023, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (a militia label created after October 7th to claim attacks against US targets), has threatened to strike against Israeli linked vessels and ports in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming in late January 2024 a drone attack against the Israeli Ashdod port.

The January 28th attack that killed three US soldiers in Jordan (and wounded more than 40 militaries), was also claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq: it occurred two days later the Houthis had directly targeted for the first time an American destroyer (although the Centcom statement still explains the missile was headed “towards” the USS Carney), also striking a British tanker with an anti-ship ballistic missile.

The Houthi-Iran alliance, which has grown due to the war in Yemen, is built upon similar worldviews, shared strategic interests and, most of all, political convenience. The Houthis still need Iran’s weapons to support long-term fighting in Yemen (and in the Red Sea) and Tehran is well aware that the Yemeni armed movement can provide it with an invaluable door on the Red Sea.

However, the quick rise of the Houthi ´brand` can be a double-edged sword for Iran. The Houthis are now more powerful than ever and their actions are gaining popularity in Yemeni and Middle Eastern audiences. Nevertheless, they conserve autonomy in decision-making.

The Israel-Hamas war marks a turning-point for the Houthis: the fact the Yemeni armed movement is now selling its own ´brand` may, at a certain point, generate divergences with Tehran. As the Houthis continue to disrupt maritime trade despite the US-led naval mission “Prosperity Guardian” and the US-UK raids, Washington could opt for retaliation against the Iranian territory ultimately. This is something both Iran and the US seek to avoid.

Without a ceasefire in Gaza, the Houthis could be tempted to further escalate against US interests in the Red Sea and in the region. Washington –who seems to be still overstating the Iranian leverage on Houthis’ decisions- may retaliate by attacking targets in the Iranian territory at last, as deterrence options get narrow. A scenario that would test the limits of the Houthi-Iran alliance. (Photo:123rf)

Eleonora Ardemagni/ISPI

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