In March 2015, Saudi Arabia unleashed a full-scale military campaign against the Houthis, who had captured most of Yemen a few months earlier. The Saudis had assembled a coalition of nine states, and they made clear that they considered the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, a mortal threat on their southern border. The war has turned much of Yemen into a wasteland and has killed at least 10,000 civilians, mostly in errant airstrikes. The real number is probably much higher, but verifying casualties in Yemen’s remote areas is extremely difficult. Some 14 million people are facing starvation, in what the United Nations has said could soon become the worst famine seen in the world in 100 years. Disease is rampant, including the world’s worst modern outbreak of cholera.
The Houthis, who are named for their founding family, have lost much of the southern territory they once ruled, but in most ways the war has made them stronger. Battle has sharpened their skills and hardened their resolve. It appears to have deepened their hold over a population that is weary of revolt and desperate for order of any kind. Some families, I was told, keep donation boxes with the words “In the Path of God” printed on them; everyone, young and old, contributes what cash they can to the war effort. Just before I arrived, members of a northern tribe not far from Sana, the capital city, packed up several hundred vehicles with grapes, vegetables, sheep, calves, cash and weapons. The convoy drove some 170 miles, across mountains and deserts — at constant risk of Saudi airstrikes — to support Houthi fighters on the front line near the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah.
It is tempting to see a certain poetic justice in the Houthis’ vengeful rage against Saudi Arabia. Their movement was born, three decades ago, largely as a reaction to Riyadh’s reckless promotion of its own intolerant strain of Salafi Islam in the Houthi heartland of northwestern Yemen. Since then, the Saudis — with the help of Yemen’s former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh — have done all they could to corrupt or compromise every political force strong enough to pose a threat. The Houthis are a result: a band of fearless insurgents who know how to fight but little else. They claim a divine mandate, and they have tortured, killed and imprisoned their critics, rights groups say, just as their predecessors did. They have recruited child soldiers, used starvation as a weapon and have allowed no dissenting views to be aired in the media. They have little will or capacity to run a modern state, and at times have seemed unwilling or unable to negotiate for peace. But this, too, is partly a measure of Saudi Arabia’s fatal arrogance toward its neighbor, a long-term policy of keeping Yemen weak and divided.
That policy may now be bringing the Saudis’ worst fears to life. [Continue reading…]