Joe Biden has launched yet another US war in the Middle East with his air strikes on Yemen. The bombing campaign won’t stop attacks on Red Sea shipping — but an end to Israel’s war on Gaza will.

Students from the Sana’a University protesting in solidarity Palestinians and against the US air strikes on Yemen on February 14, 2024, on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen. (Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images)

Over the last four months, the Israeli war on Gaza has spilled over into the rest of the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq. But the most dramatic example has been the link between events in Palestine and Yemen.

Ansar Allah, the movement known as the Huthis, imposed a blockade on ships going to Israel until there was a cease-fire. In response, the United States and the UK have carried out air strikes on Huthi positions in Yemen. The Huthis say they won’t be deterred by military action.

Helen Lackner is one of the leading experts on modern Yemen and the author of several books about the country. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

Before we come to the relationship between what’s been happening in Yemen and the Israeli war on Gaza, could you give people a short introduction to the way things stood on the eve of October 7? What was the balance of forces in the long-running war between Ansar Allah, the movement known as the Huthis, and their opponents? And what were the prospects of a deal that might end the conflict in Yemen?

Helen Lackner

Thank you for bringing this up because most of these issues have now been largely forgotten with what has happened in the last few months. By last October, things appeared to be moving. The truce between the two sides had officially ended the year previously, but in effect it still held after that. The direct negotiations between the Saudis and Ansar Allah had advanced considerably, and it was widely believed that an agreement was going to be finalized very quickly.

There were still a few remaining issues, but the fundamentals seemed to have been agreed upon. It looked as if every effort was being made by the US, the UN, and Oman to try and make sure that some deal was concluded before it became too late, which of course it now is. The main concession that the Huthis appeared to have made was that they were allowing the Saudis to sign the agreement as mediators rather than as participants. That was a very important issue because as participants, they would have been liable for accusations and attacks over the many war crimes that had taken place, mainly between 2015 and 2020.

The negotiations between the Saudis and Ansar Allah had advanced considerably, and it was widely believed that an agreement was going to be finalized very quickly.

The other important development, which is worth mentioning because it is particularly relevant now, is that the Saudis had agreed to pay all government salaries, including those of Huthi military and security people, for at least one year. With the designation of Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization, it is difficult to imagine how the Saudis would make a standard bank transfer at this point, should the agreement still be possible, which is of course a very different issue.

If it had happened, this agreement would have signed and sealed the weakness of the internationally recognized government [IRG], which is currently represented officially by the Presidential Leadership Council [PLC]. It would have been completely marginalized, although the agreement would have been made directly between the Huthis and the PLC if the Saudis were signing as mediators.

The PLC were told what the deal was going to be and what they were going to sign. They were not consulted; they were just informed. There was a similar situation for the UN special envoy and all the work he has been doing. His office would be given the remaining issues to be sorted through  intra-Yemeni negotiations whose task would be to solve the long-term issues. By definition, this framework would also have sealed the strength and power of the Huthis.

Daniel Finn

What was the motivation for Ansar Allah to carry out the attacks on Red Sea shipping? Why, out of all the various governing states and regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, did they stand out as a de facto state body that was taking direct military action in the name of solidarity with Palestine? Could you tell us something about the history of the relationship between Yemen and Palestine and why there might be a particular interest in what’s happening in Gaza on the part of people in Yemen?

Helen Lackner

I think I can talk about why the Huthis have done what they’ve done. It’s much more difficult at this point for me to discuss why everyone else has not done what they haven’t done. Ideologically, the Huthis are very firmly committed to supporting Palestine. That also holds true for almost any Yemeni you speak to, on whichever political side he or she might be.

It would be extremely difficult to find a Yemeni who was pro-Israeli. There are one or two, but they are very marginal elements of the southern separatist groups. Generally, if you’re talking about Yemenis, they are very much supportive of Palestine. If you look back into history, even prior to the republican movements in Yemen, the royalist imamate that was running the northern part of Yemen walked out of the UN meeting in 1947 where the decision was made to create Israel.

Ideologically, the Huthis are very firmly committed to supporting Palestine. That also holds true for almost any Yemeni you speak to.

During the period when Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled in the northern Yemen Arab Republic [YAR], while you had the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [PDRY] in the south, they were at all times supportive of Palestine. When the Israelis attacked Lebanon in 1982, that was one of the few occasions when the rulers of the YAR and the PDRY tried to do something together to solve the problem — they failed, but they did try.

You have a long-lasting and clear position of support for Palestine on the part of every single regime you’ve ever had in Yemen. The only notable exception to this pattern is that today, some of the southern separatists have spoken about looking forward to their visits to Israel. I think that is largely due to their connection with the United Arab Emirates [UAE], which has its normalization agreement with Israel.

Daniel Finn

Do we have a clear sense of how the action taken by Ansar Allah in the Red Sea is perceived by ordinary Yemenis, whether or not they live in the territory that is currently governed by the Huthis? Are they supportive, or is that counterbalanced by fear of what consequences it might have for people in Yemen?

Helen Lackner

The people are largely supportive of what the Huthis are doing, simply because they are doing something. Not only are they doing something, but they are actually taking the most effective action. They recently inflicted serious damage on the British-registered cargo ship, which was the first direct hit since the taking of the Galaxy Leader in November.

At the same time, people are concerned because this has led to a resumption of bombing. Up to 2022, they were being bombed by the Saudis; now they are being bombed by the Americans and the British. From what I hear from people on the ground, the bombs that are falling on Yemen now are much more powerful and create far more damage than what was being dropped earlier.

Obviously, people are concerned about that and there have been examples reported of people trying to prevent the Huthis from putting launchers in their areas because they don’t want to be bombed themselves. It’s a case of mixed feelings. I think people are supportive, but at the same time they are fearful — not only of the direct bombing and the physical damage and death that results from it, but also of the side effects.

The bombs that are falling on Yemen now are much more powerful and create far more damage than what was being dropped earlier.

The other important thing to note is that the support for what the Huthis are doing is not just confined to the areas which they control. They are not fundamentally very popular. People do not like being ruled by the Huthis. Their style of rule is extremely authoritarian and exploitative. People are being taxed and forced to pay for all kinds of things, and there is a strong bias in favor of supporters of Ansar Allah, with little concern for the population as a whole.

However, the campaign against shipping in the Red Sea has enormously boosted their popularity within Yemen, both where they rule and in other parts of the country, as well as beyond the country throughout the Arab world. If you had asked the person in the street outside Yemen, even on the average pro-Palestine demonstration, to tell you what the Huthis were before October, they would probably have said, “What on Earth are you talking about?” Now, everybody knows who they are, and this is making them feel more powerful and effective.

Daniel Finn

Have the other political actors on the Yemeni stage taken public stands on what the Huthis have done? Is there a need for them to balance their own opposition to Ansar Allah against this general feeling of sympathy in Yemen and further afield for what they have done in relation to Palestine?

Helen Lackner

Indeed, that’s precisely what is happening at the moment. On the one hand, the PLC and all the other factions are making pro-Palestinian statements, saying “we have to help Gaza,” while at the same time, they are now calling for the US and the UK to increase their bombing and indeed to go beyond it. The president of the PLC and some of its vice presidents — there are seven — have made statements calling for greater military support for their forces on the ground in terms of equipment and training, although I have not seen them call for US troops to be sent in.

They have also accused the Europeans and the US of supporting the Huthis, which is not what they were doing. This basically was a call from the PLC to cut the funds being sent to Yemen, which would mean stopping the humanitarian support and creating a humanitarian situation much worse than the very bad one which already exists.

Daniel Finn

In terms of the regional political scene, what has been the response of states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Have they taken a clear position on what the Huthis have been doing, and how have they responded to overtures from the US and its allies?

Helen Lackner

They are trying to hedge things and keep out of it. The Saudis have asked the US and the UK to exercise restraint. The Emiratis have said that they don’t want the US to use their bases to launch their attacks. The UK aircraft so far have been flying from their base in Cyprus, while the US ones have been flying from their aircraft carriers or further afield.

The regional states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have avoided being directly involved in the attacks.

The regional states have avoided being directly involved in the attacks. The important one to mention is Oman, because Oman has been the chief mediator in Yemen, particular since the UN special envoy has been marginalized. The Omanis have firmly refused to support the Americans and have firmly stated that they don’t believe in these new military operations.

Daniel Finn

The other side of the regional question is the relationship between Ansar Allah and Iran. It’s very common in Anglophone media to refer to the “Iranian-backed Huthis,” with the implication that they are merely a proxy force, acting in line with instructions from Tehran.

Much the same thing is said about other movements in the wider Middle East, including Hamas and Hezbollah. How would you describe the actual content of the relationship between the Huthis and the Iranian state? How does it compare with those other movements that are sometimes referred to collectively as the “axis of resistance”?

Helen Lackner

They all claim to be part of the axis of resistance: it’s not something that they regard as an insult, unlike the talk of “Iranian-backed” this, that, and the other, which is very tiresome. If you look at these organizations, each one has a very different relationship with Iran. Some are closer than others. In some cases, we can talk about an alliance, while in others, there is more of a relationship of authority between Iran and their activities.

It’s widely believed, and I suspect it’s probably true, that Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran is much closer and has a level of authority in it. In the case of Hamas, it’s clear that Hamas had not informed the Iranians of what they were going to do last October, and there have been various reports of mixed feelings about that from the Iranian point of view. Again, if you look at Iraq, there are different organizations with different levels of closeness to Iran, and I don’t know enough about them to go into detail.

If you look at the relationship between the Huthis and Iran prior to the war that started officially in 2015, it was much more limited. When the Huthis were fighting the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, there was a period when Saleh tried to persuade the US that this was all coming from the Iranians, but the Americans thought that was nonsense. However, from 2015 onward, the relationship has become much closer.

The Huthis are benefiting from some sophisticated Iranian technical equipment for their drones and missiles. How much of that equipment actually comes directly from Iran and how much of it is built by the Huthis themselves based on Iranian blueprints is not a question that I can answer. But it is clear that the missiles and drones have some Iranian technical support. It’s also clear that the Huthis have learned a lot and no longer need as much technical support as they did before.

The Huthis do what they believe they should be doing. If that happens to coincide with what the Iranians want, that’s fine. If not, that’s tough for Iran.

Overall, you have an increasingly close alliance. Iranian Shiism is having a considerable influence on the Huthis, ideologically speaking. The Huthis are Zaidis, which is a Fiver branch of Shiism, as opposed to the Twelver branches that you have in Iran. The Zaidis form the majority of the population in the part of Yemen that the Huthis control, which mostly consists of the highlands. Across the whole country, Zaidis probably constitute about 30 to 35 percent of the Yemeni population.

However, the Huthis are trying to differentiate themselves from mainstream Zaidism by adopting some of the rituals and beliefs and activities that have come from Iran, celebrating various religious occasions that were previously ignored by Zaidism. I don’t think that ideological influence is particularly relevant in terms of the military situation. It is the technology which is helping them, and it is possible that they also get some help in terms of information about which ships are more likely to be suitable targets than others.

At the same time, the Huthis do what they believe they should be doing. If that happens to coincide with what the Iranians want, that’s fine. If it doesn’t coincide, then that’s tough for Iran. The Huthis carry on doing it all the same.

The “proxy” terminology is obviously politically motivated. We now have a situation where Iran is seen as the devil incarnate in our part of the world, and therefore anything that somebody doesn’t like is described as being “Iranian-backed.” But it’s important to have a more reality-based view of what is actually happening.

Daniel Finn

The US has pulled together a coalition of states that have agreed to deploy naval forces in the Red Sea, while the US and the UK have been the only countries carrying out air strikes on Yemeni soil. What has been the impact in purely military terms of the action that the US and the UK have taken? More broadly, what is the political impact going to be on the situation in Yemen?

Helen Lackner

I think the military impact was very neatly summarized by Joe Biden himself when he was asked, “Are the strikes on the Huthis working, and will they continue?” The answer to the first question was “no,” but the answer to the second question was “yes.” The last statement I heard from a US government official was that they are hoping to degrade the military capacity of the Huthis over time.

They obviously must be destroying a lot of stuff, and they have killed a few Huthi operatives. On the other hand, from Ansar Allah’s point of view, they don’t necessarily have to be able to strike and damage a ship. All they have to do is to threaten. To do that, the basic, homemade drones and missiles are quite sufficient. I have no idea whether the weapon that struck the British ship recently was sophisticated or not.

Militarily, this campaign by the US will continue, but it won’t stop the Huthis from launching drones and missiles against the ships.

Militarily, this campaign by the US will continue, but it won’t stop the Huthis from launching drones and missiles against the ships. Politically it has had an impact in the sense that it is certainly worsening the reputation of the US and Britain within Yemen amongst almost everybody, apart from the very few people who are calling for an extension of this campaign.

In the medium to long term, I don’t think it will particularly affect the situation when it comes to an agreement that might end the internal war, mainly because the US and the UK were not very relevant to these negotiations in the first place. The main impact will be in terms of humanitarian support because US involvement in that area is substantial, and the UK also plays a significant role, if not an especially impressive one.

Yemen is no longer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, but that is not because of any improvements in Yemen. It has been overtaken by other awful situations such as Gaza and Sudan. Last year, the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Yemen was financed at 38 percent, which was significantly lower than in previous years. Although that is a pretty depressing figure, it was more or less average for humanitarian response plans worldwide in 2023.

The new humanitarian response plan, which was published very belatedly earlier this month, requires a lot less money than last year’s. At this point, we have no idea how much of it will be financed. The annual pledging conference, which is usually where different states announce what they propose to finance, has not yet been announced. I’m assuming it will happen sometime in the next couple of months.

You have a serious crisis on the humanitarian front. The areas that are in most need are the ones under Huthi control, which is also where 70 percent of the population live. The majority of those in need of humanitarian support live under Huthi control, which has major implications.

It creates a lot of problems for the humanitarian sector, because the Huthis make it extremely difficult for them to work and do their best to control humanitarian aid, directing it more toward those who support them. Similar actions are taken in other parts of the country that are under the control of their opponents, but these are the relevant factors at the moment.

The collapse of the economy is continuing. There have not been any significant improvements. The Huthis have a significant regular income from customs duties and the taxation that they impose on everybody. The duties and taxation do not merely apply to commercial imports, but also to humanitarian imports. Ninety percent of Yemen’s staples like rice and wheat are imported. It was largely self-sufficient in certain commodities like vegetables and some meats, but basic foods are mostly imported.

The majority of those in need of humanitarian support live under Huthi control, which has major implications.

We also have to talk about the designation of the Huthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group by the US. That has serious implications for the humanitarian crisis, because you have thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of Yemeni families for whom remittances from their relatives and friends have played a major role in helping them survive. Those emigrants are mainly based in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, but you also have large Yemeni communities in Britain and the US and to a lesser extent in other countries like France.

Western Union recently announced that they will not be making any more transfers to Yemen, which will affect families who want to send money. They have already experienced great difficulty in sending money toward Huthi-controlled areas through banking systems, and this will be an additional factor making things even harder for them.

Daniel Finn

Are there any new developments or new escalations in one direction or another that you expect to see over the coming months?

Helen Lackner

I’ve never been a great one for predicting things. My feeling is that the Huthis have been very explicit: “We will stop attacking ships in the Red Sea when the Gaza war ends and humanitarian supplies are allowed into Gaza.” Should that war be settled, I believe — and I know others who agree with this — that the Huthis will stop their actions against shipping. In theory, if that happens, the US and the UK should also stop bombing Yemen, which would be another piece of good news.

However, it is very difficult to assess whether anything can happen in the next few months on the Gaza front. In my view, nothing will happen until they have managed to replace the Israeli prime minister with somebody who might be more reasonable, but I wouldn’t like to say how likely that is to happen.

Should the Gaza war be settled, I believe that the Houthis will stop their actions against shipping.

Otherwise, I think the current situation will continue, and the living conditions for people in Yemen will deteriorate further. I suspect it is very unlikely that the US and the UK will do what the PLC is asking them to do. There may be some additional support for the PLC against Ansar Allah, but not very much, and probably not enough for them to defeat the Huthis.

The military strength of the Huthis is too great for the PLC to defeat them, especially since the PLC continues to be a divided entity. It has seven vice presidents because they represent a number of different factions that spend more time disagreeing with each other than they do focusing on how to fight the Huthis. In the short and medium term, the likelihood of the PLC and the internationally recognized government actually developing the capacity to defeat the Huthis is pretty low.

If things settle down in some form or shape in the Middle East, there will be an attempt to resume the deal between the Huthis and the Saudis, which would bring Yemen back to where it would have been in 2015 if the Saudi-led international coalition hadn’t got involved in the civil war.  The Saudis are now talking about reviving the Arab peace plan of 2002 and presenting it as their bottom line. If by some extraordinary miracle that plan was actually to be realized, with the formation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, that would very much change the popular perception of the Saudis in the Arab world, which would also affect the situation in Yemen to some extent.

At the same time, the Emiratis have been undermining the Saudi efforts to reach a solution to the conflict in Yemen. You have an ongoing potential rivalry between those two states, which will obstruct a positive solution to the Yemeni crisis.

Reviving the Saudi–Huthi deal and achieving it would leave the UN special envoy and others with the unenviable task of mediating between the Yemeni factions at a time when the Huthi leadership is on a high. Their obstinacy has been demonstrated for a decade. With their newly discovered role and influence on the world stage and the attendant hubris, they are even less likely to compromise and give space to other visions of Yemen’s future than their own.

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