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Who are the Houthis and what are their objectives ? | Middle East, the eternal conflict

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Yemenis demonstrate in Al-Hodeida, on the Red Sea, to condemn strikes by US and British forces against Houthi-held towns, January 12, 2024.

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For several weeks, Yemen's Houthis have been attacking ships passing through the Red Sea. In response, the Americans have formed a coalition that is carrying out strikes against Houthi military sites, with the stated aim of protecting global trade. This brought the situation in Yemen and this group, also called Ansar Allah, to the forefront.

In the late 1990s, the Houthi family, of Shiite faith, who once ruled Yemen, launched a movement to protest the central government, which had marginalized them.

Even though they have strong tribal roots, the Houthis are not a tribe, but a religious, political and military group.

In September 2014, the militias of Abd al-Malik Al-Houthi, current leader of the Ansar Allah group, overthrew the government and seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. This sparked a reaction from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which in March 2015 formed a Western-backed military coalition to restore the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Middle East, the eternal conflict

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This deadly war, which left tens of thousands dead and caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, ultimately did not produce the expected results for the coalition. The Houthis have expanded their hold and now control access to strategic locations, such as the port of Al-Hodeida.

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They are the de facto authority in the northwest of the country, summarizes Thomas Juneau, associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Although the Houthis control territories where 60% of the population lives, including the capital, Sanaa, they are not recognized by the international community as the country's legitimate government. Only Iran has done so. The most widely recognized government is in Aden.

The United States has just put the Houthis back on the list of terrorist organizations. The Trump administration had already done so in 2020, but President Biden removed them in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The Houthis are not a creature of Tehran, but their ties are very strong, analysts note.

Iran provides a lot of support to the Houthis, whether military or technological, including tactical intelligence to help them target ships in the Red Sea, says Mr. Juneau. The Iranians also reportedly provided them with long-range missiles and drones.

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Parts seized by the US Navy aboard a Yemeni sailboat intercepted on January 11. Image provided by the United States Central Military Command.

The American Navy also announced that it had intercepted a boat off the coast on January 11 from Somalia which was transporting Iranian weapons components intended for the Houthis. These included propulsion systems, guidance and warheads for medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as air defense systems.

Preliminary analysis indicates that these same weapons were used by the Houthis to threaten and attack innocent sailors aboard international merchant ships transiting by sea Red, specifies the United States Central Military Command (Centcom).

The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and instead say they are fighting a corrupt system and regional aggression. Their local interests, however, align with those of the Iranians, experts note.

What the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea, it is certain that they are doing it thanks to Iranian support, in cooperation and coordination with Iran, but they are not doing it under the orders of Iran. #x27;Iran.

A quote from Thomas Juneau, associate professor at the University of Ottawa

It suits Iran because it x27;is in line with the objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran to oppose Israeli, Saudi and American interests, while ensuring to push insecurity as far from its borders as possible , underlines Mr. Juneau.

The Houthis claim to be acting in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who are suffering the siege and assaults of Israel, which has sworn to destroy Hamas. They therefore claim to prevent the navigation of Israeli boats or those heading towards Israeli ports, until the aggression stops and the siege is lifted.

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Yemen's Houthis have vowed to disrupt the traffic of all Israel-bound ships passing through the Suez Canal, in the Red Sea.

In reality, their goal is essentially to advance their own cause, analysts say. They seek to improve their position in the peace negotiations they are leading with the Saudis, to be recognized as a true resistance movement and to assert themselves as a central pillar of the axis of Iranian resistance, writes Ahmed Aboudouh in a post on the website of the British think tank Chatham House.

The war in Gaza gave the Houthis a pretext to intensify their attacks in the Red Sea, but there had already been attacks in the past, underlines Mr. Juneau, who recalls that the Houthis have been attacking ships for several years. /p>

They seek to become a key, dominant player influencing traffic in the Red Sea and who can obstruct it whenever he wants.

A quote from Thomas Juneau, associate professor at the University of Ottawa

These attacks, widely publicized, give them exposure that goes well beyond the borders of the Arabian Peninsula and thus increase their political capital.

They could in particular use this power of obstruction to try to obtain more concessions in their negotiations with a view to reaching a permanent ceasefire with Riyadh, believes Mr. Juneau.

In addition, their support for the Palestinian cause allows the Houthis to establish their legitimacy among the Yemeni population and in the Arab world, analysts believe.

The attacks have pushed many shipowners to abandon the Red Sea corridor, through which 12% of world trade usually passes. The lengthening of the route has led to an increase in maritime freight transport rates which mainly affects Europe, but could also have repercussions in Canada.

In a post on their website, experts from the Sana'a Center For Strategic Studies note that the Houthis have experience from several years of war against Saudi Arabia, which failed to get them to bend.

Direct military action against the Houthis, who present themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause, will increase their prestige and give them more weight in the Muslim world, the researchers emphasize.

They also believe that the Western response could instead galvanize the Houthis, who could begin attacking American and British bases on the Arabian Peninsula.

What's more, this escalation risks derailing Saudi-backed peace negotiations aimed at ending the Yemeni conflict.

There is no good solution for the United States and its allies, notes Thomas Juneau. It's a threat to the global economy that will remain no matter what, including a ceasefire in Gaza, he believes.

If the US doesn't do enough, it won't hurt the Houthis; on the contrary, they will encourage them. But if they do too much, there is a risk of escalation. The balance will be difficult to find, judges the researcher.

With information from Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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