How Houthis are using war in Gaza to tighten grip on Yemen

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is trumping poverty and starvation when it comes to recruiting for the Houthis
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is trumping poverty and starvation when it comes to recruiting for the Houthis - OSAMAH YAHYA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Houthis are seizing on Yemen’s humanitarian disaster to drive up recruitment and strengthen their iron grip on the country, aid workers have warned.

The Iran-backed group behind the attacks on Red Sea shipping has been weaponising poverty, famine and popular support for Gaza to draw civilians to its cause, they said.

So successful has their recruitment drive been, that the Houthis are now thought to number as many as 100,000 – over half of the total regional militia run by Iran.

Niku Jafarnia from Human Rights Watch, said: “Yemenis are suffering from a lack of water, a lack of food, a lack of electricity – all essential needs that warring parties in Yemen, including the Houthis, have taken active steps towards destroying and blocking.

“And instead of using their resources to meet the needs of populations in their area, they’re holding back humanitarian aid as bait for recruitment.”

Ali Al Jafr, a Yemeni aid worker from the Emirates Red Crescent, said Yemenis were being confronted with impossible choices in a country where many of the population live on less than £1.60 a day. “It is a choice between life and death,” he said.

The price of a bag of flour in Yemen has risen to more than £140
The price of a bag of flour in Yemen has risen to more than £140 - Emirates Red Crescent

Since 2010, the beginning of Yemen’s political instability which led to a bitter battle between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the government and Saudi-led coalition, the price of a bag of flour has risen from 1,500 Yemeni riyals (£4.70) to around 40,000 (£125.70).

Ghanim Bu Abdul who runs a small bakery in Mukalla, South Yemen, said: “We don’t have a [legitimate] government, they don’t care about us. The prices go up and there are no regulations to help us or customers.

“The increase happens suddenly,” he said, sweat dripping down his neck after an electricity outage cut power to the few fans keeping the searing heat (about 40C) at bay.

Dr Adil Bin Obaidalah, a specialist in public health from the Ghail Bawazir Hospital, said while they looked for alternative supplies from India, the grains imported into Yemen are “only fit for animal consumption”.

But as well as capitalising on poverty and famine, the latest Houthi recruitment drive has tapped an issue that is close to the hearts of many Yemenis: Palestine.

Mark Toth, a foreign policy expert, said the economy cannot be separated from the military in a country in the midst of an economic catastrophe.

“Certainly, Yemen’s impoverished economy plays a role in Houthi current recruiting as it has in the past,” he said. “Poverty deepens the humanitarian crisis but the absence of poverty in Yemen wouldn’t come close to solving it. The societal and religious divides would still exist, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would still provide recruiting fodder for the Houthis.”

Aid workers continue to warn about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen
Aid workers continue to warn about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen - Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The influence of Iran, he says, is a key driver. “Tehran’s modus operandi is predicated upon fomenting chaos across the Middle East. To that end, Iran exploits existing conflicts and tensions and in analysing Yemen at high altitude, you can see many of those factors in play,” Mr Toth said.

Jon Sweet, a retired US army intelligence officer, added: “Internally, a civil war, externally, a war with Saudi Arabia, and now, the Palestinian cause which involves Israel and the United States. An ideal breeding ground for Iran and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”

Since it was founded by Hussein al Houthi in the 1990s, the threat posed by Yemen’s Houthi militia has been growing.

A Shi’ite Islamist force backed by Tehran, the group led the civil war in Yemen for almost a decade, during which time it has been trained by Iran’s elite Quds Forces and armed better than many conventional armies.

Commanders from both the IRGC and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group are now on the ground in Yemen helping to direct and oversee Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, Reuters reported.

Tehran’s military aid

Tehran has provided advanced drones, anti-ship cruise missiles, precision-strike ballistic missiles and medium-range missiles to the Houthis, who started targeting commercial vessels in November in solidarity with Palestinians, four regional and two Iranian sources told the news agency.

IRGC commanders and advisers are also providing know-how, data and intelligence support to determine which vessels travelling through the Red Sea each day are destined for Israel and constitute Houthi targets, the sources said.

Boasting a sophisticated arsenal, the Houthis have been using violence and aggression to drive fear into the heart of Yemen’s population. Under the group’s rule there have been hundreds of cases of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture.

The UN has repeatedly warned of the Houthis’ deliberately attacking civilians and civilian targets during the war. The European Parliament claimed in 2021 that since 2004, kidnappings, torture of prisoners, bombings of houses and the displacement of thousands of families had become a daily occurrence under the militia.

Crimes committed against women are “particularly grave”, it warned, amounting to murder, maiming, detention, kidnapping and sexual violence.

Children are not safe either. Since 2014, the Houthis have forcibly recruited at least 10,300 children, opening 52 training camps for young boys.

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