The Houthis have detained Yemeni staff in the US compound in a daring attack, which might be a message to Washington that they are in charge in the capital.
The Houthis, a Shia militia alliance, in a show of strength, stormed the US compound, which hosts the American embassy, in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, detaining its security personnel.
The Americans announced that the majority of detained Yemeni personnel were released by the Houthis while some still appear to be under detention. The Houthis have been at war with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the US backed Riyadh against the group — until the Biden administration’s decision to pull out from the conflict.
But why did this happen all of a sudden despite the fact that Sanaa has been under Houthi control for the last seven years?
Sami Hamdi, a Middle Eastern political analyst and head of the International Interest, a political risk group, thinks that the Houthis’ recent move to raid the US embassy has to do with the fighting in oil-rich Marib, a crucial Yemeni province under the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
“The Houthis are really throwing everything at Marib, increasing resources in order to take that province. There is a concern that somewhat, perhaps, they are compromising security in other areas [like the capital], where they believe they are firmly in control,” Hamdi tells TRT World.
“In regards to detaining Yemeni security personnel in the US embassy, it’s a lot about flexing muscles on the part of the Houthis in a manner that sends a message that we are in charge and we are dominant and we are able to assert ourselves without provoking the US into engaging any serious actions [against the Houthis],” Hamdi says.
In 2019, some Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia groups attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, eliciting an aggressive response from the then-Trump administration, which ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the leading general of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“They only detained Yemeni employees, they did not seek to detain any American employees. This was a conscious decision on the part of the Houthis,” Hamdi says.
It shows that the Houthis don’t want to put the Biden administration in a position to act “aggressively” against them in the same manner Trump did against Soleimani back in the day, according to Hamdi.
The recent incident is also more likely related to some local issues in Sanaa, Hamdi says. Najat Sayim Khalil, an Istanbul-based Yemeni expert and a former academic at the Sanaa University, also believes that it’s related to the Houthis’ seeking to empower their political position in the capital.
“Most of the Yemeni people hate the US. The Houthis attacked the US embassy to show ordinary people that ‘we attacked America’. It’s a show,” Sayim tells TRT World.
What’s happening behind the scenes?
In recent weeks, there have been some backdoor negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis. The Yemeni group appears unhappy about some conditions placed on them to ensure peace in the war-torn country, Hamdi says.
Also, remarkably, two days before the Houthi attack on the US embassy, the heads of missions of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council accredited to Yemen (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US), met with Saudi ambassador to Yemen Muhammad Al Jaber.
While the P5 heads urged the need for a political solution, they also reiterated their support for the UN-recognised Yemeni government, with which the Houthis have fought since the beginning of the civil war. The US embassy to Yemen released a statement after the P5 meeting, which criticised the Houthis.
“They [P5 heads] condemned the Houthi cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia. They stressed the need for calm, including an immediate end to the escalation in Marib,” said the statement from the US embassy to Yemen. While the Houthis might stop targeting Saudi territory, for them, quitting Marib is highly unlikely.
In addition to all this, on Tuesday, the US envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, visited Aden, a port city under the control of the Yemeni government, meeting the prime minister and other top officials alongside Chargé d’Affaires of the US embassy to Yemen, Cathy Westley.
Since the relocation of the US ambassador and key staff from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in 2015 at the height of the civil war, a charge d’affaires has led American diplomatic staff relegated to the country.
“Americans are increasingly surprised with the stubbornness of the Houthis and it appears the US envoy did not appreciate the extent to which the Houthis have been resisting to terms that have been put forward to them,” Hamdi says.
The Houthis, which continue to advance across the country against Saudi-led forces, are also happy about the fact that the international attention is on Riyadh, seeing it as an opportunity to seize more territories, according to Hamdi.
There has been no real political statement from Washington until now in regard to the Houthi storming of the US embassy.
“Americans prefer to close the door on this chapter and bury the story as opposed to reacting in a manner as Trump did in regard to Qassem Soleimani,” Hamdi views.
The Houthis "genuinely" believe that the Americans will not do anything, which will “hamper” the Shia group from claiming Marib, according to Hamdi. “The US is not necessarily antagonistic toward what they are trying to achieve,” the political analyst says.
“I think the Houthis want to start a new relationship with the US because they believe they are in a stronger position across the country,” says Sayim, the Yemeni academic.
But Republicans were not happy about it. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican lawmaker, compared the Houthi storming of the US embassy to previous incidents against American missions. “Tehran in 1979, Benghazi in 2012, Kabul and now Sanaa in 2021. It’s almost like our enemies sense weakness when certain people hold office,” he tweeted.
All incidents, Crenshaw referred to, happened under the watch of a Democratic president.
Is there any Iranian hand?
Iran, a Shia-majority country, has backed the Houthis during the civil war. But Hamdi thinks Tehran’s connections with the Yemeni group are not the same as its ties with Iraqi Shia militias over whom Iranians command a huge influence.
“The Houthis are the allies of Iran. That’s true. But they are not necessarily an entity that follows the orders of Iran. Tehran does not have power to order them what Iran wishes them to do,” the analyst says.
The Houthis are fighting against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government not because Iran wants them to do so, but due to their long-held belief that they are entitled to rule the country for historical and religious reasons, according to Hamdi.
“It’s more likely a unilateral action on the part of the Houthis than anything to do with Iran. The Houthis are saying ‘Listen! We are not accepting conditions being placed on us. We are the ones who tell what conditions we want’,” he says.
“We are still seeing a sort of a wrestling match taking place.”