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Opinion: War is a way of life for the Houthis

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

“We think of war as a last resort. They think of it as a way of life.” That’s the way Elisabeth Kendall describes the Houthis, a Yemeni militant group that has attacked commercial shipping in the Red Sea in nominal support of Hamas, becoming the target of missile and air strikes by the US and UK last week.

Kendall, the head of Girton College at Cambridge University, is an expert on Yemen, a country where she has done extensive fieldwork for more than a decade. Kendall’s expertise in Arabic poetry piqued her interest in the country, which she first visited in 2012.

Elisabeth Kendall - Courtesy Elisabeth Kendall
Elisabeth Kendall - Courtesy Elisabeth Kendall

The Houthis are Zaydis, a minority Shiite Muslim sect that makes up around a third of Yemen’s overall population. They have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country. In 2014, the Houthis captured the Yemeni capital Sanaa, sparking a civil war with the government, which was backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis today control essential parts of Yemen, including Sanaa, the populous north of the country, and the critical port of Hudaydah, which sits on the Red Sea approaches to the Suez Canal.

I spoke to Kendall on Sunday to get her take on who the Houthis are and what motivates them. Kendall thinks last week’s US and UK strikes on Houthi targets will not do much to deter the Houthis. She also explained how and why Iran and the Houthis have grown closer in recent years. Kendall also suggested that any future conflict with the Houthis would likely be long-lasting.

Our discussion was edited for clarity.

PETER BERGEN: What did you make of the US and UK strikes in Yemen last week against multiple Houthi targets?

ELISABETH KENDALL: I could understand why they happened and the rationale behind them. I think they’re probably ill-advised because I don’t think they’re going to do what they are intended to do. I don’t think they’ll deter the Houthis. They will have the opposite effect.

This is such an unequal war because the whole character of war has changed. It’s not about the biggest military. It’s more about who has the biggest appetite to just keep going. The Houthis know we’re not going to launch a land war because not only would it be unbelievably unpopular with all our allies in the Arab world, but it would be immensely unpopular back home as well with voters who don’t want to see us mire ourselves in another Afghanistan or another Iraq. And we’ve seen from both of those countries that it doesn’t matter if you have a stronger military. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win.

The Houthis have been fighting in civil wars in Yemen on and off since 2004. Let’s say you’re 22 years old, and you’re in the Houthi territories, particularly those up in the north, which is very populous. You will barely remember anything other than war. And that’s really important because we think of war as a last resort. They think of it as a way of life.

BERGEN: The US and UK aim is to try and restore deterrence so that the Houthis stop attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Are you saying that the deterrence won’t necessarily be restored?

KENDALL: I would have favored building up legitimate institutions inside Yemen to undermine the Houthis. I think having strikes on Arab soil by the US and the UK at a time when we’re already pretty unpopular around the Arab world just plays into their hands.

So, I think it plays into their narratives of the US and its allies as the aggressors, and at a time when Israel’s already bombing mercilessly in Gaza — this just makes it seem as though this really is a war against Muslims. Of course, we know better than that, but it’s very easy to frame it like that on their part.

The Houthis have this massive advantage, which is that they don’t care about casualties, and they also don’t have to be accurate, as we have to be accurate when we’re operating in these theatres because we don’t want to kill civilians. All they have to do is lob missiles and drones into the Red Sea to have the effect that they want, which is to disrupt global shipping, rattle financial markets, create fear and look heroic at the same time. So, by taking out some of their launch sites, we have probably taken out some of their capability, but they will have expected that. They will have hidden some of their military assets.

BERGEN: What do the Houthis believe?

KENDALL: Their slogan is “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam,” a slogan adopted in the early 2000s. So, it’s been with them for about 20 years, but it’s not something that they’ve lived with since the foundation of Israel.

BERGEN: The Houthis practice a particular form of Shi’ism that is fairly distinct from the clerics in Iran and also, obviously, very distinct from the Sunni Islam practiced by Hamas. My impression was always that the Houthis were kind of a ragtag militia that didn’t have much of a relationship with Iran a decade ago, but when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entered the civil war in Yemen in 2015, dropping bombs on Houthi targets, Iran got much more involved, and they’ve been arming the Houthis with armed drones and ballistic missiles and other kinds of more advanced weaponry.

KENDALL: They have been getting ever closer to Iran. Now, when I first started really looking at the relationship between Iran and the Houthis with a paper that I did for the Atlantic Council in 2017 called “Iran’s Fingerprints in Yemen,” there really wasn’t that much evidence of Iran’s influence on the Houthis.

Now, as the civil war in Yemen proceeded, the Houthis needed their weapons replenished, and what they were being replenished with was increasingly sophisticated in terms of attack drones and missiles, and it was very clear that that was coming from Iran. And some of it was definitely being smuggled overland from the east of Yemen, where I was working. And it was a cheap option for Iran.

Saudi Arabia had three publicly stated war aims. One was to support the so-called internationally recognized government. Another was to prevent Yemen from fragmenting and, of course, to safeguard its own southern border. And number three was to contain the influence of Iran.

You could argue it didn’t really achieve any of those. In fact, it achieved the opposite. But I think we also need to be aware that we don’t know what would have happened had the Saudis not entered the war in 2015. It could be that the Houthis could have taken over all of Yemen.

The Saudis have flown 25,000 airstrikes over the Houthis. There’s nothing left to bomb. They’re bombing things for the second or third time, though there has now been a truce for more than a year, and the bombings have stopped.

BERGEN: So, the Houthis have obviously sustained a tremendous beating from the Saudis from the air for more than seven years. You mentioned a figure of 25,000 bombings. That would seem to suggest that they can weather the kind of strikes that the US and the UK have undertaken?

KENDALL: Yes.

Not only have the Iranians been supplying weapons, but there have been some insidious cultural influences. The Houthis have had religious indoctrination, and they seem much more Iranian-Shi’i than they do Zaydi now. (Zaydi Shi’ism, practiced by the Houthis, differs from the orthodox Shi’ism practiced by the clerics running Iran.) And when the Houthi leader speaks, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, it’s almost like he’s the mouthpiece of God. And that really wasn’t the case previously. We also see the Houthis carrying a lot of green banners. These weren’t parts of their natural Zaydi roots. So, they have become increasingly “Iranian-ized,” if that’s a word.

BERGEN: How did that happen?

KENDALL: Well, by intention on the part of Iran and also by necessity, because the Houthis didn’t have other allies.

BERGEN: Is there evidence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard trainers training the Houthis? Or Houthis going to Iran for training?

KENDALL: Well, we know that the Houthis’ leadership goes to Iran, and the training that IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) have come to Yemen to assist, and Hezbollah trainers have been in Yemen.

BERGEN:  So, how do the Houthis get their funding?

KENDALL: Well, they get some from Iran. But, of course, they also control a lot of coastline and ports and imports and aid, and they can weaponize aid and food that’s coming in. They can impose taxes. And, of course, the leadership has got very well-lined pockets because there’s a war economy. Smuggling is a massive business, and a lot of people have gotten rich on the back of it.

BERGEN: The UN did say, until maybe Gaza replaced Yemen, that Yemen was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Is that accurate as far as you’re concerned?

KENDALL: I think it has been an absolute catastrophe. I’m not in a position to judge it against other catastrophes, and I do think the UN has a slight tendency to exaggerate whatever it is raising money for in the moment. But there’s no doubt that millions of people have been suffering very badly. At one point, more than a million cases of cholera, and things like measles, came back as killer diseases.

The Houthis have not been brilliant at governing; there is rubbish in the streets, and there has been hunger, very severe hunger. It’s like slowly boiling a frog in Yemen. Because it’s such a community, you don’t go hungry immediately. Whole communities gradually go hungry because they share, and then they share until they’ve got nothing left. And so you sort of starve gradually, and that has been what’s happening.

The Houthis consider that to be something quite useful for organizing journalists’ trips to hospitals, getting lots of photo opportunities and then blaming Saudi Arabia and the West.

Thousands of demonstrators gather at the call of the Iranian-backed Houthis to organize a demonstration in support of Gaza in Sanaa, Yemen on January 05, 2024. - Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Thousands of demonstrators gather at the call of the Iranian-backed Houthis to organize a demonstration in support of Gaza in Sanaa, Yemen on January 05, 2024. - Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

BERGEN: There’s a lively debate in Washington about whether or not to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which former President Donald Trump did and then President Joe Biden revoked and now is reconsidering. What do you think of that debate?

KENDALL: I think it’s a bit of a red herring. I don’t think it would make the slightest bit of difference whether the US designated them or not. The only people who would suffer would be the Yemeni people, and that was why the designation was removed by Biden because it’s going to be very awkward for aid organizations to get in to do their work once the Houthi-controlled ports and the Houthi companies are designated. The other issue with it is that people forget that Trump only did this during his last days in office. It was a parting gift to the Saudis and something to hamstring Biden. So, it wasn’t as though this was anything that Trump considered a really good idea. He left it as a mess for Biden, who then had to revoke it and therefore look weak.

The other thing that’s really important here is that if the Houthis were designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, that would make this Yemeni peace process that the United Nations Special Envoy announced on December 23 very difficult because, on the one hand, you’d have America seeing them as a terrorist organization, and the United Nations trying to mediate a power-sharing government recognized by the international community with this group of terrorists. So, probably, the domestic peace talks would fall through, and America would be blamed.

BERGEN: Hezbollah in the early 1980s was just a small rag-tag militia in southern Beirut with some Iranian support. Today, they effectively control the government of Lebanon, are very well armed, and are a more effective military force than the Lebanese army.

I use the phrase “ragtag militia” to describe the Houthis in the pre-2014 time period. Are they on the way to becoming a Hezbollah-like entity? They obviously control the capital of Yemen. They obviously are well-armed. They can strike neighboring countries, not only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but even trying to target Israel.

KENDALL: Yes, I think it’s a good analogy. I think they’re on the way to becoming Hezbollah.

BERGEN: Proxy relationships can vary from fully cooperative to somewhat fraught, and Hezbollah is fully cooperative with Iran. How would you define the relationship with the Houthis and Iran? Are the Houthis a fully blown proxy of Iran, or do they follow their own path?

KENDALL: Yeah, I think it is slightly different from Hezbollah. They’re not joined at the hip with Iran in the way that Hezbollah are, and I don’t also think — so quite an important point here too — is that I don’t think there’s a great sense of brotherhood and loyalty between Hezbollah and the Houthis.

The Houthis are really a bit of a wild card in the Arab world. People don’t quite know what to make of them, and they’re quite hot-headed. They’re fine to collaborate when it suits them, and they have no problem stabbing you in the back when it doesn’t which is what happened to Ali Abdullah Saleh. (In 2015, Saleh, the longtime Yemeni dictator, joined the Houthi rebels, only to be later murdered by the Houthis when Saleh seemed to be trying to make peace with the Saudis.)

They’re not a direct proxy, and Iran has no command and control directly. Of course, it would hamper their cause significantly if Iran stopped supplying them with weapons, but it wouldn’t stop them.

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