From a militia to a semi-state, the Houthis have strengthened their presence in Sanaa, despite near-daily aerial raids.
Sanaa, Yemen – At a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa, Abu Ali and his colleagues are on duty, inspecting passengers and vehicles entering the capital city which has been under Houthi control since 2014.
The driver stops the bus, opens the door and hands over a list of the passengers on board. Abu Ali looks at the names, glances at the seated passengers, and says: “ID cards please.”
All passengers rummage in their pockets or handbags, they had made sure their documents were ready. Abu Ali starts from the front seat of the bus and takes about 10 minutes to look at the passengers’ passports or ID cards. Nobody on the bus questions his authority.
Today, and after four years of war, the Houthis have transformed themselves from an isolated militia in Saada to a local state that rules the bulk of Yemen’s north with an iron fist. They have deepened their influence through a combination of force and strengthening alliances with powerful tribes and leading Yemeni figures using political expedience or buying loyalties.
On a local level, they have established a system of administration by appointing “supervisors” in every district. The supervisors take all the decisions needed for day-to-day administration, escalating any larger decisions up to higher Houthi management. Their points of focus are largely security, maintaining control, and mobilising more people to fight for their cause.
“The Houthis have proved to be more capable to govern than the legitimate government,” Abdulaziz Mohammed, a passenger on the bus from Aden to Sanaa, told Al Jazeera. “If we strike a comparison between Sanaa and Aden, Sanaa is better with regard to security.”
The popular support for the Houthis today is strengthened by the ever-present threat of aerial bombings by the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The coalition, which started its bombing campaign four years ago, has resulted in thousands of deaths and enormous destruction to the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Houthi takeover of Sanaa
The Houthis are Zaidi Shia originating from Saada in northern Yemen, their official name is Ansar Allah, or the supporters of God. They gained prominence after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and have survived repeated attempts by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, supported by Saudi Arabia, to eradicate them. They share an ideological affinity with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and with Iran by extension.
After the advent of the Arab Spring to Yemen, President Saleh was removed and replaced by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Sunni politician from the south. The Houthis were unhappy with this arrangement, as well as with their allotment in the proposed reconfiguration of Yemen into a federation of sorts.
In 2014, the Houthis formed an alliance with Saleh and elements of the armed forces who were still loyal to him and opposed to Hadi, who was seen by some as a Saudi puppet. They moved on Sanaa in September 2014 and overthrew Hadi. They soon took the port city of Hodeidah as well and began to move on Aden.
The situation was dangerous for Saudi Arabia, which did not want to see vital shipping lanes under the control of the Houthis and its regional rival, Iran. And thus, Operation Decisive Storm was born, a coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that went to war to reinstate Hadi and the internationally recognised government he headed.
Decisive Storm backfires
Operation Decisive Storm was declared on March 26, 2015, with many expecting the coalition, that also included Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar – until 2017 -, to defeat the Houthis quickly.
Backed by the US and a host of other nations, including several European countries, the coalition embarked on a relentless aerial bombardment that continues to this day. But instead of defeating the Houthis and their loyalists in Yemen, the destruction it wrought increased anger and enmity towards the Saudi-UAE-led bloc.
Ali Alamrani, a 40-year-old resident of Sanaa, said, “Saudi Arabia has the right to worry about its national security or the so-called Iranian influence in Yemen but it does not have the right to spend four years destroying our vital facilities such as bridges, schools and hospitals.
“When I see this destruction by the coalition, I am convinced it doesn’t want good for Yemen. Instead, it wants to make Yemen kneel. I am also convinced that the Houthis are defending Yemen against this unfair destruction and humiliation of Yemenis.”
The longer the war lingers, the more opponents the coalition creates in Yemen, political experts in Sanaa told Al Jazeera.
“The coalition is not against the Houthis only; it is against the entire Yemen,” Mohammed Abdu, a Sanaa-based political writer, said. “If they [the coalition] were honest, they would have ended the war earlier. Since they want to turn Yemen into a fragmented, unstable and chaotic state, this has taken longer.”
“For example, the UAE is supporting southern secessionists in order to undermine Yemen’s legitimate [Hadi] government. The coalition intentionally works to weaken the government and keep President Hadi in exile in Saudi Arabia. These practices can never be for the good of Yemen,” Abdu told Al Jazeera.
In spite of its massive military force, the Saudi-led coalition has failed to suppress the Houthis over four years of air raids, numerous ground contingents and marine forces and weapons.
“So far, the coalition is not victorious, and should they win the war one day, it is a military failure that all the coalition countries spent several years to defeat a militia in Yemen,” said Abdu.
At a press conference in Sanaa last week, Houthi military spokesperson Yahia Sarie said that they would continue to manufacture weapons capable of hitting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The defiant Houthi narrative was continued by Houthi defence minister, General Mohammed al-Atifi, who said in a speech that the fifth year of war will be different.
“The aggressors [the coalition] will pay the price of their intransigence, and the fifth year of resistance will be the year of surprises, a year of great and decisive victory,” Houthi-run Saba news agency quoted al-Atifi as saying. “Our armed forces today have cadres, expertise, competencies and strategic deterrent weapons that can defeat the coalition,” he added.
Whether these statements are a matter of exaggeration or real confidence, the fact remains that Yemen will continue to see a prolonged war between the Houthis and their opponents as long as the UN-sponsored peace efforts remain at a dead end.
Remembering the ‘black night’
Operation Decisive Storm was coined by Saudi Arabia as a crucial military intervention to “cut off Iran’s hands in Yemen”, while the Houthis mark March 26 as a celebration of their steadfastness.
However, Yemeni civilians have nothing to celebrate on this day.
Faisal Mohammed, a 32-year-old resident in Sanaa, said he vividly remembers the worst night of his life.
“It was midnight of March 26, 2015, when the Saudi-led Arab coalition made Sanaa a city of horror. The earth was shaking, the explosions were heard everywhere and the warplanes awakened the entire city, casting fear among all civilians. It was a black and fearful night,” Mohammed recalled.
“Four years of war have been like 40 years. The fifth year of suffering has started and only God knows when life in Yemen will return to normal,” said Mohammed.
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