Made by History

History Suggests U.S. Airstrikes Against the Houthis Will Backfire

8 minute read

On Thursday, U.S. and British forces carried out air raids on targets throughout Yemen, hoping to damage the Ansar Allah militia, otherwise known as the Houthis. The strikes were retaliation for attacks on unarmed ships in the Red Sea, as well as U.S. naval vessels, that have crippled global shipping.

History suggests that the strikes are a mistake. They continue a pattern of the world misunderstanding and underestimating the Houthis. These militiamen have overcome significant geographical and technological hurdles to establish control over the Yemeni highlands, while striking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to the point that they were willing to negotiate. The strikes also ignore a long pattern of outside powers trying, and failing, to achieve military objectives in Yemen. 

Air strikes may hurt the Houthis militarily in the short term. Yet, they will hand them a political victory, elevating their status in the Arab world for having expressed solidarity with Hamas and Palestinians, when most Arab states have failed to do so. 

For most of its history, Yemen’s mountainous northern region was a monarchy ruled by a Zaydi—a branch of Shi’a Islam—imam. The monarchy nominally controlled Southern Yemen, but tribes exercised de facto rule. After the British secured the port of Aden in 1839, they signed strategic agreements with surrounding tribes, enabling the British to have de facto control of South Yemen.

In September 1962, a group of military officers seized power in the capital San’a and proclaimed the north of Yemen a republic. Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser—who also had launched a coup and established a republic—hailed the new regime and sent an Egyptian force to aid it in the battle against monarchist tribesmen in the mountains, ready to fight for their imam.

Read More: Who Are the Houthi Rebels? Red Sea Attacks Result in U.S. and U.K. Strikes on Yemen

Yemen’s first civil war turned into a five-year struggle between conservative Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Egypt, who were battling for regional dominance. Though a puritanical Sunni theocracy, Saudi Arabia allied itself with the Shi’a Yemeni monarchy to fight against the secularist republican forces aligned with Nasser’s Egypt. Geopolitical calculations trumped any sectarian differences.

In 1967, Egypt lost the Six-Day War, costing it control over Gaza, in part because its best troops were fighting in Yemen’s civil war. The defeat prompted Nasser to pull his troops from Yemen. That meant that while the republican side held onto the capital of Sana’a, the northern hinterland remained dominated by the Zaydis.

The British also withdrew from Yemen in 1967, leading to the creation of the independent People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in South Yemen—the Arab world’s sole Marxist state.

Things remained static until 1990, when the USSR collapsed and South Yemen lost its Cold War patron. This prompted the north and south to join together to form the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdallah Saleh, a field marshal in the Yemeni army, and a leader in North Yemen, became president. Saleh was a Zaydi, but he projected himself as a nationalist president rather than declaring loyalty to one religious sect, and the Zaydis in the north were marginalized.  

Even so, tensions quickly erupted because the former Marxists believed the north was monopolizing power. In 1994, a second civil war broke out. Once again, Saudi Arabia intervened, this time hoping to boost the south to victory. As in the first civil war, the Saudis cared little about ideology. Instead, they supported the side whose victory would be most likely to ensure a divided Yemen to prevent it from becoming a regional rival. 

The north ultimately prevailed, however, keeping the new country together.

Prior to the civil war in 1994, a puritanical Salafi form of Islam with roots in Saudi Arabia had begun emerging in north Yemen. In response, the Houthi movement arose among students, seeking to promote Zaydism, drawing its name from their leader, Hussein al-Houthi. The student-driven Houthis soon developed into a political party with members in parliament. 

In 2004 the Houthis launched anti-government protests after President Saleh allowed the U.S. to conduct drone strikes on Yemeni territory. The strikes targeted Al Qaeda, but resulted in numerous civilian fatalities. 

Saleh responded by moving to curtail Houthi power. He deployed military forces to crush the Houthis and ordered the assassination of al-Houthi. Despite the loss of their leader, the Houthis armed themselves and fought back. By 2010, the third Yemeni civil war was over, and the Houthis had survived. 

What began as a student movement had evolved into a seasoned militia strong enough to counter the government’s military campaign. What’s more, the Houthis began gaining support from other factions opposed to Saleh. In 2011, they allied with Sunni protesters revolting during the Arab Spring.

Saleh eventually resigned in 2012. His former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, replaced him. Yet, Hadi proved ineffective at unifying factions, because he excluded the Houthis from any meaningful government positions. As a result, the Houthi military, which had grown stronger, seized the capital, and forced Hadi from power. 

Continuing the long pattern, outside powers interjected themselves into the Yemeni conflict. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with U.S. assistance, launched an intense air campaign against the Houthis to restore Hadi’s rule. In response, in 2016, the Houthis fired missiles at an American destroyer off the coast of Yemen.

Read More: How Biden Can Stop Houthi Missile Attacks—Without Risking War

The U.S. struck back, destroying three Houthi radar sites on the Red Sea coast. That deterred the Houthis from taking further action against American targets.

But over the next few years, Iran—seeking to outflank Saudi Arabia—stepped up its support for the Houthis, including providing more advanced missile and drone equipment. With Iranian help, the Houthis made great strides in drone technology, which enabled them to routinely strike targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This sent the clear message that countries interfering in the Yemeni civil war were not invulnerable to retaliation. 

Indeed, the Houthis staged increasingly aggressive drone maneuvers in Saudi Arabia—striking a Saudi Aramco oil refinery, taking photos of a critical water treatment plant to show the Houthis could reach it, and more. And since then, the Houthis have used satellite technology, 3D printing, GPS, and sophisticated coordination among imagery analysts, uplink engineers, mechanics, and pilot crews to stage ever more audacious and successful drone strikes.

The persistent drone attacks were one key reason Saudi Arabia and the UAE extricated themselves from the Yemen conflict in 2022. They concluded that the Houthi strength and mounting military costs, among other factors, made attempts to meddle in Yemeni affairs futile. 

Now, in protest against the Israeli war on Hamas, the Houthis have brought global shipping to its knees thanks to their mastery of drone technology. Their most complex attack to date occurred on Jan. 9, when they launched 18 drones, two cruise missiles, and an anti-ship ballistic missile, intercepted by U.S. and U.K. forces. 

Two days later, those nations responded with airstrikes against Houthi targets.

Yet, despite vastly superior air forces and military technology, history suggests that the U.S. and the U.K. won’t be able to crush the Houthis. Saudi Arabia’s air force tried and failed. And, although American strikes in 2016 forced the Houthis to retreat for a time, the group now has dramatically better weaponry and drone technology. The Houthis are battle-tested after decades of military conflict. And history is littered with failed military campaigns to topple the Zaydi in Yemen—a clear warning to the West.

Attacking the Houthis is also likely to extend their popularity in the Arab world, strengthen their presence in Yemen during an uneasy cease-fire with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as boosting their sponsor, Iran. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two American allies, seek to withdraw from Yemen, the U.S. has made this task even more difficult, as the Houthis are now more emboldened and more popular, allowing them to dictate terms to the two Arab regional powers. 

While it makes sense for the Western powers to want to keep the Red Sea open to shipping, Yemeni history indicates that taking military action against the Houthis won’t deter them, and indeed, might create new problems down the line.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos and co-author of A Concise History of the Middle East, 12th edition. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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