Observers can be excused for confusion over events in Yemen. In late January, Ansar Allah—the group often referred to as Houthis—kidnapped President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s chief of staff, sacked the presidential palace, and effectively placed the president and government ministers under house arrest. Ansar Allah’s demands, strangely, were that the president and government stay in power rather than leave.
When President Hadi finally called Ansar Allah’s bluff and resigned, Ansar Allah called all parties to negotiate a solution. On Friday, February 6, Ansar Allah, lacking an agreement, declared the dissolution of parliament, the formation of a new parliamentary body, and the election of a five-member presidential council, whose appointments were subject to review by Ansar Allah’s Revolutionary Committee. Ansar Allah’s leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi said he was generously extending a brotherly hand to all political forces in Yemen. The declaration met with near universal rejection. Even Ali Abdullah Saleh, allied with Ansar Allah, suggested that toying with the Yemeni constitution was a bad idea. By the following Monday, the UN’s special rapporteur, Jamal Benomar, restarted the negotiations and Ansar Allah’s declaration fizzled.
Ansar Allah’s erratic behavior reflects the dominance of its military strategy over its political strategy. After its long wars against the Saleh state in the 2000s, Ansar Allah appears determined to prevent any future Yemeni government from threatening it again. Pushing into the al-Qa‘ida stronghold in Bayda this week, Ansar Allah controls much of the western highlands of Yemen as well as the Red Sea coast. Taiz in the southernmost part of the highlands still resists Ansar Allah, as does the eastern desert areas of Jawf and Marib. The south of Yemen remains far outside Ansar Allah’s reach, though the move into Bayda positions the group’s forces for a possible push into the south for the first time.
Yet Ansar Allah appears to lack the political sophistication to build a stable coalition to rule Yemen. The Yemeni state is not simply a pulpit for the party with the most guns, as Ansar Allah seems to think. Even when the state is so incapable that it hardly functions, Ansar Allah’s toying with the institutions of state—the accepted rules of politics in Yemen as flawed as they are—was categorically rejected across the country as well as in the region. People supported Ansar Allah as an opposition group, but when it attempted to monopolize power, they rejected it. This is not because of sectarianism, but because of Ansar Allah’s failure to build a political coalition accepted by sufficient numbers of Yemen’s diverse political groups.
Ansar Allah’s rise complicated U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, but Yemen’s political difficulties are not necessarily an opening for al-Qa‘ida. Though U.S. training of Yemeni counterterrorism units in Sana ended, U.S. special forces remain in the southern region outside of Ansar Allah’s control, and U.S. drone strikes killed the “mufti” of al-Qa‘ida this week. Tribal groups in the south preparing to battle a possible Ansar Allah push to the area say that they will fight both Ansar Allah and al-Qa‘ida, undermining attempts of al-Qa‘ida to play the sectarian card and lead Sunni resistance to Ansar Allah. Furthermore, Ansar Allah is a mortal enemy of al-Qa‘ida from long ago. While al-Qa‘ida will try to build common cooperation among those resisting Ansar Allah’s advance, al-Qa‘ida has made plenty of Sunni enemies.
Ansar Allah’s Precarious Position
Kidnapping the chief of state, sacking the presidential guard, and surrounding the house of the president and key ministers may appear to be an overreaction, particularly when the demands are to amend the draft constitution and to keep the government in power, not replace it. Ansar Allah’s actions are a result of tension in its strategy to consolidate its position.
On the one hand, Ansar Allah is using every means to extend its military control. Beginning in January 2014, it used its networks of family and tribe to overturn the al-Ahmar leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation and defeat military units allied with the Islah Party. Then, aided by material support from the Iranians and political support from its former enemy, Saleh, it built a coalition of militias, tribal leaders, military leaders, and political leaders that culminated in its control of Sana in September.
On the other hand, Ansar Allah lacks control in the eastern regions where Yemen’s oil and gas and electrical generation is located, and it lacks control of the south. Demonstrations in Sana and Hodeidah show that its legitimacy even in the areas it controls is challenged. Ansar Allah knows that it cannot rule Yemen alone and that it needs the participation of the rest of Yemen’s diverse political groups. Power in Yemen is not assured by force alone but is fractured among many competing centers. As a result, no one group can rule single-handedly. Leaders organize coalitions composed of tribal leaders, military heads, political parties, and foreign powers under a single umbrella. Material resources are important in cementing such coalitions.
Thus, while Ansar Allah is busy exerting its military muscle, it is also striving to ensure enough of a consensus to maintain the central state. While it is now threatening to rule alone, Ansar Allah knows that it is in a precarious position. In particular, its use of force to shape the government undermined its political credibility. While Ansar Allah’s demand to reform government was well received in all of Yemen, its subsequent attempt to dominate the government demonstrated that its demands for reform were a pretext for power.
Saleh had an important role in Ansar Allah’s rise. The former president retains substantial influence in the General People’s Congress, among the military, and among tribal leaders. The fact that Ansar Allah fighters entered Sana and Amran with little resistance was attributed to Saleh’s influence with military leaders and the tribes, respectively. Saleh has an interest in attacking those that split from his network and brought down his regime. Ansar Allah forced Ali Mohsin and Hamid al-Ahmar to flee the country, and it has destroyed much of the property of the Islah Party in Sana and elsewhere. Saleh’s opponents of 2011 are now gone, while he remains in the country. Furthermore, Ansar Allah’s alliance with Iran gives Saleh some breathing room. For the Gulf countries in particular, Saleh may now appear a far lesser evil than Ansar Allah. Though Saleh was refused a place at the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the speaker of parliament and a key member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress, Yahya al-Ra’i, attended.
The relative balance of power between Saleh and Ansar Allah is unclear. It is not apparent whether Saleh has achieved his goals and is now preparing to push Ansar Allah aside in his quest to return his son to power, or whether Ansar Allah used Saleh to consolidate its military dominance. In negotiations following the resignation of Hadi and the failure of Ansar Allah’s new parliamentary body, Saleh is insisting on following the current constitution, according to which parliament must accept or reject Hadi’s resignation and, in the case of acceptance, declare new elections within 60 days. Saleh’s General People’s Congress controls parliament, and today he can play the electoral game better than anyone. Ansar Allah does not feel confident in elections, particularly after the upwelling of hostility toward the group following its attack on the president and failed political initiative. If Ansar Allah begins a war in the east, it will encounter even greater opposition in the areas it already controls.
The Myth and Fear of Sectarian Conflict
Opposition to Ansar Allah is not religious, as many commentators seem to think, but instead stems from its violation of the pact of inclusivity—the National Dialogue—that held Yemeni politics together after the fall of Saleh. Ansar Allah’s grab for power is what has caused its faltering, and is therefore not due to its Zaydi Shi‘i leadership.
Read moreover, the label “Shi‘i rebels” mischaracterizes Ansar Allah. The al-Houthi family does include a long line of prestigious religious scholars of Zaydi Islam, and the movement did begin as a reassertion and revival of Zaydi practice among youth in the north. And religion has played some symbolic role in Ansar Allah’s rise, such as when Sana was decorated by Ansar Allah’s forces for the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, which clearly marked the new power of Ansar Allah in the capital. But celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is not a Zaydi tradition, and Ansar Allah does not pretend to represent Yemen’s Zaydi elite. The Zaydi Sada (elite) are not united behind Ansar Allah; there are Sada dispersed among all of Yemen’s political factions. Read more significantly, Ansar Allah’s fighters are not battling for Zaydism. Ansar Allah recruits fighters from everywhere and from every sect, and its ability to build militias depends upon funding for fighters and credible leadership.
Nonetheless, some Yemenis fear a new sectarian divide. There is a new verb in Yemen, “to Iraqize,” and al-Qa‘ida hopes to exploit sectarian divisions for its own purposes. Al-Qa‘ida wants to gain credence for its bloody attacks by claiming the mantle of defense of Sunni against Shi‘a aggression, as in Iraq, in addition to fighting the Western infidel powers. As Ansar Allah moved south toward Taiz, al-Qa‘ida attacked Ansar Allah’s militias. Fierce battles ensued between Ansar Allah and al-Qa‘ida in Rada, in Bayda Governorate. Ansar Allah was able to overrun al-Qa‘ida’s stronghold in the Qifa tribal area, but at great cost, and al-Qa‘ida continues to exact a heavy price on Ansar Allah’s militias in the region.
The fear is that al-Qa‘ida’s battles with Ansar Allah will align with southern and eastern resistance to Ansar Allah and give al-Qa‘ida credibility and support. However, al-Qa‘ida has made plenty of enemies who are not about to allow it to exploit the current crisis. Its attacks on Yemeni security and military personnel, particularly after 2011, won it the animosity of most Yemenis. Yemenis see al-Qa‘ida as a root of their country’s problems rather than a solution. The Yemeni military in the south, outside of the regions controlled by Ansar Allah, is currently involved in battles against al-Qa‘ida rather than allying with it against Ansar Allah. Al-Qa‘ida does have its supporters, particularly when it is able to provide material aid, but it has far less credibility than Ansar Allah.
Sectarian fears are not restricted to al-Qa‘ida. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states declared a red line for Ansar Allah at the eastern tribal area where the Islah Party leads a tribal coalition along with loyal military units. Gulf support of the eastern tribes and of Islah against the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah aligns with sectarian divisions, giving rise to fear of sectarian civil war. But while it is true that Ansar Allah’s expansion halted when it reached the southern and eastern areas, this is not because Ansar Allah’s leadership is Zaydi. The eastern tribes, the leaders of Taiz, and the tribes of Bayda supported Ansar Allah when it fought against the Saleh regime and demanded reform. However, when Ansar Allah transformed from a regional power to a national power and wanted to impose itself on Yemen’s southern and eastern regions, these areas rejected Ansar Allah’s leadership and resisted the movement’s expansion.
U.S. Policy and Ansar Allah
In the United States, many were surprised to discover U.S. officials’ complacency with Ansar Allah’s newly expanded role in Yemen. Senator John McCain accused the Obama administration of allowing Iran to take over the Middle East and of following a failed counterterrorism policy. Many assumed Ansar Allah’s rise meant free reign for al-Qa‘ida. In reality, of course, Ansar Allah and al-Qa‘ida are mortal enemies. Al-Qa‘ida attacked Ansar Allah immediately upon its arrival in Sana, and Ansar Allah responded by pushing its military campaign into Rada. U.S. drones attacked al-Qa‘ida in the midst of Ansar Allah’s campaign in Rada, demonstrating clearly the merging of U.S. interests with Ansar Allah’s war on al-Qa‘ida.
In spite of Ansar Allah’s close relationship to Iran and the fact that its rallying cry begins with “Death to America,” the White House said that it would work with the group in discussions to end the political crisis and that counterterrorism operations would continue. However, Washington rejected Ansar Allah’s unilateral declaration of a new governing body and closed its embassy in response, along with a host of other European and Gulf countries. The closings are not a result of security concerns—Ansar Allah-controlled Sana is safe—but are designed to undermine the legitimacy of Ansar Allah’s attempt to rule Yemen alone.
U.S. drone attacks continue without interruption. A drone killed three people in a car in the eastern desert region days after Ansar Allah’s overthrow of the government in Sana, killing a key religious leader of al-Qa‘ida. Other drone attacks followed. Ansar Allah opposes the U.S. use of drones as a violation of Yemeni sovereignty, which Ansar Allah defends vigorously, but its opposition to drones, by contrast, is not vigorous. U.S. training of counterterrorism forces in Sana has been discontinued, but the United States has been operating in the south, where Ansar Allah has no presence; it will continue to operate there.
Washington’s pragmatic behavior stems from a realistic assessment that Ansar Allah is an important political force in Yemen that will have a role in shaping the country’s future. Washington’s hope is that the closing of the foreign embassies will force Ansar Allah to negotiate more realistically with the rest of Yemen’s diverse political forces. U.S. behavior also reflects the common animosity it shares with Ansar Allah toward al-Qa‘ida.
The current military buildup in the east is an ominous sign that Ansar Allah has not learned anything from its theatric bungling of Sana politics and is preparing to extend its military campaign into the oil-rich eastern desert. Ansar Allah and opposing Yemeni military units and tribal forces from the eastern desert are amassed in opposing camps east of Sana in preparation for a major war for the Marib, Jawf, and Shabwa regions. Such a move might prove the end of Ansar Allah’s dominance as its political weakness unravels in the areas already under its control, particularly if Saleh’s loyalists turn against it. If Ansar Allah falls apart, Saleh would likely have a major say in the next government.
 Andalus Press, “The Party of Ali Abdalla Saleh Sees the Houthis’ Constitutional Declaration as ‘an Attack against Constitutional Authority,’” (Arabic) February 7, 2015, .
 Abdallah Hamid al-Din, “That Yemen Not Become a Knife in the Side of the Gulf States,” Al-Hayat, January 28, 2015.
 “The Houthi Establish Recruiting Camps in al-Hudeida,” Al Jazeera, October 31, 2014, .
 CBS News, January 25, 2015, .
 “Yemen: Killing of a Prominent Leader of al-Qaeda in an American Attack,” Alhurra, February 5, 2015, .