The Houthis’ Next Move – and the Next Stage of the Yemen War

By Ari Heistein

Ari Heistein served as chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Following that, he worked in business development for a cyber intelligence company. Today, he works to bring innovative Israeli startups into the U.S. federal market.

OPINION — The Houthis have launched attacks on Israel and international shipping over the past nine months as a means rather than an end. For that reason, it was always clear that this campaign which began shortly after Hamas’s October 7th massacre was a prologue to the next stage of the Houthis’ increasingly dangerous evolution. It seems that we are fast approaching the next step in the Houthi playbook.

The indicators of this upcoming shift are the Houthis’ recent escalation on a number of fronts that had been frozen since the Israel-Hamas war began.

On the domestic front, just before October 7th, the Houthis announced that they would reshuffle their government to eliminate any remnants of the regime of deposed President and former Houthi ally of convenience Ali Abdullah Saleh. What remains of Saleh’s GPC party in Sanaa had voiced solidarity with teachers’ protests demanding the Houthis pay their long overdue salaries in the summer of 2023, and so the Houthis responded with an announcement that they would remove the last remaining GPC officials from official positions and confiscate their assets. After delaying this purge since October, it now appears imminent. It is also noteworthy that in recent weeks there have been unprecedented attacks on the Houthis’ other domestic enemies: dozens of aid workers, musicians, and others who are seen as undermining the regime’s extremist ideology have been arrested.

Similarly, the Houthi-Saudi dynamic, which has been largely frozen for the past two years in a de facto ceasefire, is heating up. The Houthis have launched a PR campaign threatening Saudi Arabia’s ports, airports, and banks, under the threatening slogan “try us.” While Sanaa may have enjoyed slow-rolling negotiations Riyadh in order to extract maximalist concessions while constantly moving the goal posts, it would appear that this no longer serves their interests. More likely, they either need to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia in order to inject cash into their dismal economy, or they need to renew hostilities with the kingdom in order to provide a plausible explanation to the 20 million frustrated Yemenis under their control for why the economic situation is so miserable. These options are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as it is conceivable that the Houthis could renew attacks on Saudi Arabia in order to create urgency for an agreement, but one way or another it appears that the Houthis want to break out of their current stalemate with the kingdom.

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Behind the shift

This begs the question:  Why are the Houthis changing tack when it appears that their malign activities in the region are facing minimal resistance from regional or global powers?

There are a number of possible explanations as to why the Houthis have come to the conclusion that they ought to prepare for what comes next.

First, they may sense that they are getting closer and closer to “beating a dead horse” on the Palestinian issue. No doubt, many Yemenis were excited by the prospect that their Houthi compatriots showed solidarity with Hamas and Gaza on the international stage by attacking global shipping and firing at Israel; it may have further impressed them that the international community did not seem to have the wherewithal to cope with the Houthi threat. However, the Houthi attacks did not resolve Yemenis’ fundamental problems attributed to the group’s rule: an abysmal economy, brutal repression, radicalization of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children, and a regime that privileges a few families associated with the Houthi elite. Therefore, it is easy to see how Yemenis’ excitement to protest in celebration of an oppressive regime for making aggressive gestures in support of a far-off people would wane over time. In essence, for many in Yemen, the urgency of the Israel-Hamas crisis is declining, and so people have returned to thinking about their daily challenges for which they blame the regime in charge.

Second, the Houthis may be preparing for the end of the Israel-Hamas war.  While a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is far from certain, it certainly looks more probable now than it has in months. Presumably, the Houthis would also have inside information from their Iranian, Hezbollah, and Hamas counterparts regarding Hamas’s willingness to strike such a deal. If they have depended on their actions in “solidarity with Palestine” over the past nine months to build credibility among their public, they would certainly like to have a plan in place by the time the war ends.

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It seems that the Houthis will pick up where they left off on October 6th, but they will do so better positioned to deal with their ongoing challenges. They have demonstrated the extremely dangerous military platforms in their possession, including UASs, USVs, ASBMs, ASCMs, and they have gained operational experience in using them. This is unlikely to have been lost on the Saudis and may deter Riyadh from more confrontational options in coping with the militia positioned along the kingdom’s southern border. In addition, by claiming the Palestinian mantle and launching attacks against Israel and Red Sea shipping, the Houthis likely gained new legitimacy and support while continuing to quietly disappear many of those it viewed as enemies due to their unwillingness to tow the Houthi line.

While it is premature to declare the end of the Houthis’ Red Sea campaign, which has actually escalated recently, it is clear that Houthi policies are undergoing significant changes. Even after this shift and the conclusion of the Israel-Hamas war, it would be foolish to expect the group to altogether cease its attacks on Israel or Red Sea shipping; instead of serving as the centerpiece of the group’s policy, as they have for the past nine months, these attacks will be useful tools for sporadic boosts to Houthi popularity among Yemenis and for deterring the Houthis’ adversaries from interfering with the group’s designs. If it works, that will provide the Houthis with the opportunity they need to advance their long-term goals: building up an even more dangerous arsenal while reshaping Yemeni society in their image.

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