Why do Houthis take on stronger military powers?
The battled-hardened and ruthless Houthis are undeterred by air strikes by the US and UK and are not afraid to engage in unequal battles with the US Navy
The Houthis of Yemen have been catching some of the strongest armies in the world by surprise. They are still launching missiles at ships they think are connected to the US, UK, or Israel, and even at some that are not. The Houthis have greatly affected global trade, forcing commercial ships and tankers go thousands of miles out of their way. They have not been deterred or scared off by air strikes from the US on their missile sites, promising instead to strike back against US and UK properties.
The Houthis represent a minority community from the mountainous north-western part of Yemen and named after Hussein Al-Houthi, who started the movement. They battled Yemen's powerful leader in the early 2000s. Then, when he was removed by the Arab Spring demonstrations, they moved to the capital, Sana'a, and took control in 2014. A former President Saleh, upset about being removed from power, handed over his faithful Republican Guard to the Houthis. This allowed them to control areas where over 80% of Yemen's people live. Following this, the Houthis quickly assassinated him.
Since the Houthis took control, Yemen, the least wealthy Arab country, has been devastated by the civil war. Around 150,000 people have died, and millions now rely on aid for food because of the conflict. For seven years, the Houthis have withstood a large but unsuccessful effort by a group of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, concerned about the Houthis' connections with Iran, to remove them.
Mohammed Al-Basha, a Middle East specialist at Navanti, a consultancy in Virginia, told the BBC that the hardened Houthis have developed a ruthless streak following several battles spread over twenty years.
Starting from mid-November 2023, the Houthis have been using their large collection of missiles and drones to attack ships that come close to the narrow Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, a crucial passage at the southern end of the Red Sea, linking it to the Indian Ocean and a key route for global trade.
Their goal was to target ships connected to Israel to help Hamas. They promised to keep up these attacks until Israel stopped its actions in Gaza. When American and British navy ships defended cargo ships near Yemen's Red Sea coast, the Houthis actually attacked these warships. In one of these encounters, the Houthis lost three of their fast boats and 10 sailors in an unequal battle with the US Navy.
Despite that defeat, attacking the US and British navies, according to Mohammed Al-Basha, highlights the Houthis' confidence and a strong sense of pride. Many of the Houthis believe that they have God's support and that history is on their side, said Al-Basha.
The Houthis, who mostly practice Zaidi Shia Islam in a country where most people are Sunni Muslims, make up just about 15% of Yemen's population. Yet, they believe they are the rightful leaders of Yemen. Edmund Fitton-Brown, who served as the UK ambassador to Yemen from 2015 to 2017, described while talking to the BBC that Houthis are more inclined towards war, violence, and cruelty compared to the rest of the population.
The United Nations and other countries have tried to stop the civil war in Yemen. The Saudis, who support Yemen's recognised but overthrown government, have managed to reach a delicate peace agreement with the Houthis. Edmund Fitton-Brown, who had some experience of talking with them in these discussions, recalled that it was extremely challenging.
They were tough to deal with, were unfriendly, unpredictable, and often lost their temper. They would show up late, or left meetings abruptly. They demanded to be treated like very important people and always wanted to have Qat, also spelled khat which is a plant whose leaves are chewed for their mild stimulant effects.
Since the Houthis started attacking ships and the US and UK fought back by bombing their missile sites, there have been big protests approved by the government in Yemen against Western countries.
Al-Basha says that by standing against the US, UK and Saudi Arabia, and by fighting against Israel, the Houthis have become more popular in the Arab world. Yemen however is still split, with groups opposing the Houthis found in areas of northeastern Yemen, Maarib, Taiz, and the southern regions. The Houthis are unlikely to win if there is an honest, open and fair election, he believes.
Fitton-Brown argued that the Houthis forced people join street protests by terrorising them. They organise protests and declare these days as no-work days and expect people to show up. Many joined them because they needed a job and wanted to make money. In places they don't control, people really dislike them but that has not deterred them.
The seemingly never-ending supply of drones and weapons Houthis use against ships, is suspected to come from Iran. The supplies are secretly delivered by small boats at sea or are smuggled across the desert border with Oman, says Fitton-Brown.
If there's a ceasefire in Gaza, the Houthis might claim victory. If Iran starts worrying about the Houthis, it has enough power to make the Houthis to stop; but for now, it's a stalemate.
The Houthis are clearly not giving up, even though many of their missile launching places have been destroyed by air strikes led by the US. The southern Red Sea and the nearby Gulf of Aden will continue to be unsafe places for some time to come.
The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru