A Houthi Declaration of War

November 14, 2023 Topic: Yemen Region: Middle East Tags: HouthisYemenIsraelBab El-MandebPalestine

A Houthi Declaration of War

The Houthi rebel group's sudden turn from peace talks to missile attacks on Israel threatens to upend the whole Middle East.

Less than a month ago, it seemed as if the Houthi rebel group was on the verge of reaching a peaceful accord with Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized Yemeni republican government. A lull in the active fighting in Yemen had led some to believe that the militant Houthi group had been placated and was ready to sit at the diplomatic table, representing the interests of Yemen’s northern population. The normalization of Saudi-Houthi relations further called into question the purported links between the rebel group and Iran. In stark contrast, however, after the October 7 Gaza attacks, the Houthi leadership authorized the launching of multiple missiles and drones in the direction of Israel’s southern region. Joining a distant war and expending precious resources when the country is suffering from what the UN terms the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis may seem like the behavior of a delusional leadership. However, it was actually undertaken with cold calculation and holds regional consequences far more frightening than a few missiles.

As the war in Yemen has dragged on since the first Houthi assault on the capital city of Sana’a in 2014, the population has grown disgruntled with a dismal humanitarian situation, restricted travel, and draconian rule. The infamous Houthi slogan, “Death to America! Death to Israel! Cursed be the Jews and Victory to Islam!” does little to improve the daily lives of Yemenis. With declining popularity and legitimacy, the Houthis crawled to the negotiating table with Saudi Arabia, ostensibly ready to negotiate a ceasefire and end the conflict. On October 7, Hamas’ unfathomable terrorist attack in Israel presented a political gift to the Houthis as millions of protestors took to the streets across the Middle East, celebrating Hamas and calling for more violence against Israel. Sensing the growing popular outcry and an opportunity to burnish his group’s anti-Israel credentials, Abdul Malek al-Houthi delivered a militant speech, warning the United States and Israel of a potential Houthi entrance into the war with Israel.

Since the 1950s, Arab rulers across the Middle East and North Africa have declared de facto martial law, curtailing the rights of citizens, fostering political corruption, and ignoring the needs and rights of their population. All the while, they remained hidden behind the Arab-Israeli conflict, declaring that domestic politics and conditions were of secondary importance as long as there was an unresolved conflict with Israel. Tunisia’s President Kais Saied even went as far as blaming the devastating September 2023 storm that killed thousands in Libya on a Zionist plot in North Africa. What was once used by Arab states to redirect popular attention away from domestic crises, however, has since been co-opted by militant non-state actors across the region, replacing anti-Israel rhetoric with violence against the state of Israel.

Not since the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which toppled a generation of Middle Eastern dictators, have this number of Yemenis poured out into the streets of Sana’a. In October 2023, the calls on the streets were not for an end to the military dictatorship of longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh but rather for the destruction of Israel, a fervent notion fostered by multiple generations of extremist education. Witnessing the hundreds of thousands of protestors on the street, who coalesced for reasons unrelated to Yemeni politics, the Houthi leadership perceived an opportunity to corral public opinion in their favor. Rather than merely continue chanting their slogan calling for “Death to Israel,” the Houthi military establishment chose to declare war on Israel, launching missiles at the southern port city of Eilat and presumably the Israeli nuclear sites around the city of Dimona. 

With this decision, the Houthis may have managed to resurrect their flagging popularity in Yemen and have all but unilaterally withdrawn from peace negotiations with Saudi Arabia. No longer will they see the need to compromise politically with their adversaries, having pulled off a cynical public relations coup to improve their declining political fortunes. The Houthi declaration of war against Israel was, in effect, a declaration of victory against opposition forces in Yemen, none of which can now compete with the group that has portrayed themselves as holy warriors against Israel. The fact that the Houthis have launched ballistic missiles at Israel and put Yemeni citizens at risk is of little consequence to a Houthi leadership driven by an extremist and violent ideology.

By attacking Israel and entering the conflict alongside Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis have officially broadcast their affiliation with Iran and their position among a coalition that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, paramilitary groups affiliated with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, and the diplomatically isolated Assad government in Syria. Iranian militant proxies are trained for one purpose: to destabilize governments, plunging the region into perpetual turmoil and destruction. Couching their actions in terms of a war against Israel, however, allows these Iranian proxies a wide degree of latitude in their political behavior, as any group or individual opposing their preeminence and rule will now be labeled as Zionist sympathizers. Iran’s coalition of militant proxies has grown in popularity overnight, with their portrayal as heroes by the general populace acting as a testament to the pervasive nature of their global propaganda campaigns. To call this a frightening turn of events for Arab states across the region is a gross understatement. To Yemen’s north, Saudi Arabia is most concerned about the sudden resurgence of the Houthi threat to seize three disputed territories along the disputed border between the two countries.

There is no doubt that Houthi forces will continue to launch missiles at Israel, knowing that even the remote chance of a successful hit would raise their group’s stature in the region exponentially. Yet, the danger of Houthi ascendance and militancy is not limited to Israeli and Saudi territory. The Houthi-controlled section of Yemen overlooks the important maritime choke point of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Only twenty-nine kilometers wide at its narrowest point, it is the fourth busiest waterway in the world, connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This vital waterway, which leads directly into the Suez Canal, hosts 33,000 ships per year, with many of them carrying 6.2 million barrels of oil per day, an estimated 9 percent of the world’s daily oil supply. Houthi militants have previously probed the U.S. and European defenses along the waterway and have threatened to block access to the vital strait in reprisal for any attack on Yemeni territory. Houthi attacks could destabilize shipping lanes, sending the price of oil soaring and holding global commerce hostage.

The Houthi declaration of war against Israel will have ramifications locally, regionally, and globally. Victory will be declared in the civil war in Yemen, with the Houthis having played their most powerful card in attacking Israel and tapping into the vocal popular sentiments celebrating Hamas’ violence. Iran and its proxies have gained the upper hand in the region, with the ability to spread chaos and instability, all in the name of fighting a war against Israel. And the Houthis have driven themselves into the center of diplomatic wrangling in the region, with the ability to hold hostage one of the most important commercial waterways. The world’s focus might be on Gaza now, but recent actions by the Houthis have turned potential threats in the broader Middle East region into real dangers and forced the world to focus attention on them. Yet, we have only begun to see the ramifications of these dangers.

Asher Orkaby, PhD is a research associate and instructor at Harvard University. He was previously an associate research scholar at Princeton University’s Transregional Institute and a residential fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is the author of Beyond the Arab Cold War: The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-68 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Yemen: What Everyone Needs to Know (OUP, 2021).

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