The Iranian-backed Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah or “God’s Supporters,” is an armed religious and political movement of Yemenis that emerged in the 1990s. Since 2004, the Houthi insurgency has escalated into one of the most devastating civil wars in the Arab region’s history, thanks in major part to the more recent brutal intervention of a nine-member coalition strike force led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Since the Shi’ite militia’s takeover of Yemen in 2014, the group has been fighting with elements of the army and a number of tribal fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-UAE-led Arab coalition backing him.
The stated goal of the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition was to restore Hadi’s government to power, and it has launched a series of major offensives to take down the rebel group to achieve this goal. One of the coalition’s airstrikes killed the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC), Saleh al-Sammad, on April 19, 2018, in the Hodeidah province. Al-Sammad, who was originally from the Saada province in northwestern Yemen, the main Houthi stronghold, was second on the coalition’s most-wanted hit list of Houthi leaders after Abdul Malik al-Houthi.
In April, almost a year after al-Sammad’s assassination, the Houthis announced the trial of U.S. President Donald Trump along with 61 Yemenis and foreigners, all believed to be involved in the assassination of the former head of the SPC. After finding ten suspects guilty, the criminal court in the western province of Hodeidah held its first hearing, trying Trump and the remaining 51 foreign and Yemeni defendants in absentia in late April, as reported by the pro-Houthi faction of state news agency Saba. (In 2015, Houthi rebels had seized the news agency and it has since been divided into two factions— pro-Houthi and pro-Hadi.)
Trump’s trial, which has drawn media attention on a national level, is part of a broader political and media strategy by the Houthis to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Commenting on the incident, the group’s leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi said in a televised statement in April 2018 that “this crime [would] not go by without accountability.” He added that “the forces of this aggression led by Washington and the Saudi regime are legally responsible for such a crime and all its implications.” Trump’s trial, which has drawn media attention on a national level, is part of a broader political and media strategy by the Houthis to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region.
“Death to America”
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to intense hostility towards Washington and its Middle Eastern policy, not only from the Houthis but also other Arab movements, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The U.S.’ interventions have fueled Houthi anti-American ideology and helped the rebel group attract the support of allies such as Iran and Russia. Following the Iraq invasion, Houthi militia painted their trademark slogan: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory for Islam,” on the main entrance to the old city of Sana’a.
The Houthis’ opponents claim that part of the slogan is a translation of a chant commonly used in protests in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: “Death to Israel, death to America.” The same phrases are used today in squares, mosques, and gatherings across Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen.
“These slogans express how upset we are about the U.S. foreign policy in this region and how we think they are responsible for events in this region,” Mohamed Abdel Salam, a Houthi spokesman, told Fox News in August 2018. “We believe that Saudi Arabia is not carrying it, this war, against us alone. It is supported by the U.S. Therefore, [the] U.S. is killing children,” he added.
The Houthis have also posted pictures of dead children killed by U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes on social media with the hashtag #AmericaIsKillingYemensChildren
The Houthis have also posted pictures of dead children killed by U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes on social media with the hashtag #AmericaIsKillingYemensChildren (in Arabic) since the Saudi-led intervention began in Yemen four years ago.
The U.S. Supports Saudi-Led War in Yemen
Yemen was once described by former U.S. President Barack Obama as a model for his administration’s counter-terrorism campaign in the Middle East. In January 2015, U.S. intelligence officials claimed that Iran had tried to dissuade the Houthis from taking over Sana’a and overthrowing President Hadi. While Tehran allegedly favored a less radical course, the Houthi leadership was riding on its success and decided to move forward with their plan. Senior American defense official, Michael Vickers, said at the time that Washington was in an “alliance of convenience” with the Houthis against al-Qaeda.
Although the Houthis still consider al-Qaeda their enemy, Washington, and its regional allies—particularly Saudi Arabia, which views Yemen as a means to more influence in the Middle East—are considered more dangerous adversaries.
When Riyadh intervened in Yemen to contain Iran’s growing regional influence by confronting the Houthis, the Obama administration had to choose between supporting Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed rebel group. It is not surprising that it chose to stand by the Saudi crown, considering U.S. economic interests and longstanding alliance with the kingdom, which dates back to the 1950s.
Houthi Resentment of the U.S. Continues to Rise
For over four years, the U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen, by fueling its aircraft and locating targets. The war has caused the worst humanitarian disaster in the world and the most serious famine anywhere in 100 years. Human right groups report that between January 2016 and November 2018 alone, the conflict claimed more than 60,000 lives. Moreover, while half of the 28 million people who make up Yemen’s population are starving, the country is also currently suffering from the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.
As Yemen is on the brink of complete collapse, Washington’s involvement in the conflict has become increasingly controversial.
As Yemen is on the brink of complete collapse, Washington’s involvement in the conflict has become increasingly controversial. Despite U.S. lawmakers’ efforts to end U.S. support for “the illegal war,” strong Saudi-U.S. relations and bilateral arms deals have made this difficult, according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Under the Trump administration, Yemen has become a proxy conflict between Iran and the U.S. through its support of Saudi Arabia. Trump has repeatedly defended the war, most recently on April 17, vetoing a historic Congressional Joint War Powers Resolution to end U.S. military support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump’s insistence on confronting Iran in Yemen is only likely to lead to more death, displacement, and famine, and of course, growing animosity towards the U.S. and its interests.
The Houthis’ trial of Trump for the murder of their political leader may only be symbolic, but it sends a clear message that U.S. interference in Yemen and its ongoing complicity in the worst humanitarian crisis of our time is unacceptable.