FRESH AIR

Yemen’s Future: Partition, Hezbollisation or Talibanisation?

May 5, 2023 | Oved Lobel

Anti-Houthi demonstrations in Taiz, Yemen, 2014
Anti-Houthi demonstrations in Taiz, Yemen, 2014

Saudi Arabia has been trying to extricate itself from Yemen and effectively surrender the country to the Houthis – also known as Ansar Allah, the Yemeni organ of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – since at least 2018. With the recent Chinese-brokered agreement to normalise relations, broken off in 2016, between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the first public Saudi-Houthi meeting in Sanaa, that unconditional surrender, under the potential guise of a peace deal, looks close to realisation.

Much like the US in its engagement with the Taliban, the Saudis have sidelined the Yemeni Government and other Yemeni actors and are negotiating their withdrawal directly with the Houthis and IRGC. Whether a fig leaf deal to ostensibly agree on terms for the withdrawal can even be reached, much less implemented, is anybody’s guess.

Among the range of possible outcomes, all bad, the least bad would be if the conflict were to be frozen indefinitely, with Saudi Arabia remaining militarily engaged to protect Marib and other areas loyal to the Yemeni Government, and the Houthis inevitably launching missile and drone strikes but no new offensives to conquer territory.

But the most likely outcome, as in Afghanistan, is total Saudi disengagement from Yemen, with the Houthis escalating militarily and refusing to concede anything of substance and the frustrated and desperate Saudis unilaterally surrendering all the same – probably with a promise that the Houthis won’t attack them if they withdraw all military or economic support for the Yemeni Government and even bankroll the Houthi military machine.

If the Saudis do unilaterally withdraw support for allies in Yemen, there are three potential scenarios for Yemen: Hezbollisation, in which the IRGC pragmatically moves its local arm into politics – while retaining separate security forces and ultimate control – within the façade of a state; partition, in which the Houthis quickly conquer all areas held by the Yemeni Government but at least temporarily do not attempt to conquer areas controlled by UAE proxies in the South; and Talibanisation, in which the Houthis move to conquer the entire country immediately.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios, and it may be more helpful to view all of them as potential steps in a process towards ultimate control. In the end, as in Iraq and Lebanon, which path each local organ of the IRGC pursues will be decided in Iran, based on local and external factors.

Hezbollisation

This is an unlikely but still possible path to virtual control of Yemen. In Iraq, Lebanon and for a time Afghanistan, the IRGC ensured its local organs, initially fighting solely to create totalitarian theocratic clones of the Iranian regime, entered politics while also retaining their own independent militias.

This was also the situation in Yemen in the 1980s, when Ansar Allah in its initial Hezbollah form – and at the same time as Hezbollah in Lebanon – began a terrorist campaign, including bombing the Haddah Cinema complex in Sanaa. By the 1990s, which saw the reunification of Yemen after decades of concentric wars and civil wars, the IRGC began moving the Houthi family into politics while preparing for eventual jihad. As I explained in 2021 in a report on the evolution of the Houthis:

Yemen’s unification in the 1990s and subsequent legalisation of political organisations led to the transformation of The Union of Believing Youth into the Assembly of the Believing Youth and the creation of its political wing, Hizb al-Haqq (The Party of Truth). The future leaders of the insurgency, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi — who was considered “the symbol of the party” by Hizb al-Haqq — and one of his best friends and loyalists, Abdullah al-Razzami, would be its representatives in 1993.

In the scenario of (re)Hezbollisation, the Houthis would enter into direct talks with Yemeni Government representatives and bring them and other Yemeni parties together to form a façade of a unified Yemeni government that would be internationally recognised and receive aid. The Houthis would then plunder and use that aid to protect and entrench their military and political power, as Hezbollah does in Lebanon, and as other IRGC front groups do in Iraq.

There is little reason to believe this will happen, however. In the first place, unlike in Lebanon and Iraq, Iran has essentially achieved military victory and has already constructed a clone of its theocracy parallel to, but with effective control over, the Yemeni state. It is one thing for the IRGC to recognise in Lebanon and Iraq local factors making it too complicated to create a pure Islamic State akin to Iran – although that remains the aspiration – but quite another to dissolve such a state when it has effectively already been successfully built. As I explained in the report:

Ansar Allah… established a parallel shadow state after its coup in 2014, consisting of “popular” and “revolutionary” committees, as well as political commissars (mushrifin) and “Houthified” local allies outside the core of the group (mutahawwithin) that oversee the formal government structures that Ansar Allah has co-opted from governors down to the neighbourhood level and in every sphere, from education to security… the formal and shadow governments in Yemen have begun to merge since 2017 in several areas, with Houthis taking the reins directly as well as fulfilling supervisory roles over government departments.

Furthermore, the Saudis are already reportedly prepared to pay the Houthi regime’s salaries without any concessions from the latter to bring other Yemeni parties on board. Finally, the Saudis have already shown the Houthis, as the Americans did the Taliban, that there’s no need to engage their local clients. Like the Taliban, the Houthis do not recognise the legitimacy of any local government. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Totalitarian revolutionaries… will never genuinely compromise on absolute control. The Houthis are Yemen’s Taliban, and the endeavour to kickstart intra-Yemeni negotiations would end identically to the “intra-Afghan negotiations,” which simply facilitated the Taliban takeover.

Partition

Another possible scenario is an uneasy partition of Yemen between the UAE and Iran following a renewed and successful Houthi offensive to seize Marib, the last substantial stronghold of the Saudi-allied Government forces, for reasons I explored in more detail two years ago. While much has changed since then, it is still likely the UAE will defend territory controlled by its proxies like the Southern Transitional Council (STC) from the Houthis, leading to “a situation akin to the Kurdish entity in northern Syria and its uneasy coexistence with the Bashar al-Assad regime.” It is even probable that the UAE’s proxies would inadvertently help the Houthis by attacking Yemeni government areas, as they have been doing since at least 2017.

On the other hand, the Houthis and the rest of the IRGC network can place the UAE economy at severe risk, as they demonstrated through multiple ballistic missile and drone strikes last year. The ability to hit UAE economic centres could be enough of a Sword of Damocles to force the UAE to surrender territory held by the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen. Moreover, assuming a successful conquest of Yemen’s north and an arrangement with the Saudis, the Houthis could redeploy all their forces and resources to the south to launch offensives and target the area with more drones and ballistic missiles.

Following normalisation with Iran and its client regime in Syria, it’s also unclear whether Abu Dhabi is interested any longer in containing the IRGC anywhere, including Yemen. The UAE’s deepening “special relationship” with Iran could potentially see Abu Dhabi deciding to simply sacrifice the STC.

Talibanisation

The third scenario following Saudi disengagement would be the launch of large Houthi offensives to conquer the entirety of Yemen immediately, with no interim steps and little to no external pushback. It is quite possible that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, obsessed with transforming Saudi Arabia under his “Vision 2030”, would simply refuse to jeopardise Saudi economic development by opening its territory back up to missile and drone strikes by intervening. The UAE, too, for the political and economic reasons mentioned above, may also decide to abandon its proxies. If both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi prove willing to wash their hands of Yemen entirely, then rapid Talibanisation is the most likely outcome.

Conclusion

There are a host of factors that will dictate the timeline and manner of a Houthi conquest of Yemen, but what is not in doubt, as I’ve written before, is that, for both Houthi leaders and their IRGC commanders,  jihad is non-negotiable – particularly after they have begun to taste victory.

Of course, it remains possible that the current talks with the Houthis will lead nowhere and the Saudis remain half-heartedly engaged in the conflict. All public information to date, however, suggests imminent Saudi capitulation and disengagement is much more likely. If so, this would, one way or another, inevitably result in Yemen quickly becoming a theocratic clone of Iran as well as a strategically invaluable military base for the IRGC.

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