Potential New Yemen War: Houthi Attacks on Ships Could be Initial Salvo

A day after a member of Yemen’s Presidential Command Council warned that the Iran-backed Houthis may be escalating attacks on other groups in Yemen, a new report indicates that the Houthis are “preparing for a possible military confrontation in Yemen.”

The two reports are from Al-Ain News in the UAE and indicate sources are telling UAE media about the growing Houthi threat. So far, the Houthis have been attacking ships and claim to be supporting Hamas in Gaza. However, they may be using this as leverage and cover for the next phase of their campaign, a war against the government forces of an already divided Yemen.

The article notes that the Houthis are “recruiting thousands of young men and children under the slogan and claims of ‘Supporting Palestine.’” In fact, the Houthis now appear to be seeking to use their claims of support for Gaza to inflame tensions closer to home.

According to the report the Houthis openly recruit under the banner of “Al-Aqsa Flood” and they are training the new recruits. Under the guise of the attacks on the Red Sea, this training may be preparations to “launch a future round of war that will assassinate the peace process in Yemen.”

Yemen’s peace process goes back several years. In addition, China helped broker Saudi-Iran normalization and Riyadh had sought to end the war in Yemen. The Houthis began the war a decade ago and sought to take over most of Yemen. The Saudis intervened in 2015 against the Houthi threat. Iran has used the Houthis over the last several years as a testing ground for new drones and missiles. For instance, Shahed 136 drones sent to Russia were exported to the Houthis first.

Newly recruited fighters who joined a Houthi military force intended to be sent to fight in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, march during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen December 2, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)

According to the Al-Ain report the Houthi have now recruited some 10,000 fighters in one district based off the propaganda regarding their support for Hamas. Using the Iraqi model of 2014 and the “popular mobilization units,” they have created a “population mobilization” as well.

The Iraqis did this to fight ISIS based on a Fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. In Iraq’s case, the fatwa was necessary to mobilize Shi’ite fighters to defend Baghdad from ISIS. In Yemen, the Houthis are creating a fake emergency and crisis to exploit it to potentially recruit men to fight and then use them for a different reason. What that means is the Houthis pretend they care about Palestinians, but their real goal may be a bait and switch.

Houthi recruitments

The report notes that “during the last three months, the Houthis mobilized 20,000 members from the Sanaa districts, another 20,000 from the Hajjah districts, and 6,000 from the Taiz districts that they control, while the militia leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, claimed to prepare 165,000 members to ‘fight the battle of the “promised conquest and holy jihad.’” The Houthis are also alleged to recruit children. A human rights group told Al-Ain media that “the Houthis’ targeting of children and adolescents in particular in recruitment operations extends over two decades…but recently the recruitment rate has increased frighteningly.”

Like Hamas, the Houthis use summer camps to put arms in the hands of children. It is not summer yet, though, so the new round of child militarization will have to wait a few months if the Houthis intend to use the summer camps for this purpose. The report also says the Houthis exploit poverty and unemployment to recruit people for war. Now the Houthis are accused of sending 6,000 men to Marib governorate in preparation for a possible offensive. “Observers believe that these Houthi crowds indicate that the militias are heading towards internal escalation and have nothing to do with ‘Palestine.’”

It now appears that recognition of the Houthi threat, and how they exploited the Gaza war, is leading to concern in the region. This may represent a turning of the tide in understanding how Iran has mobilized groups and exploited October 7.

For Iran, the attack on Israel was a huge watershed event. It is now possible Iran is using this all over the Middle East to build up its proxies. The Houthis may want to “return Yemen to the war zone again, by leaving the de-escalation agreement for a comprehensive escalation, and annexing more land or completing the imposition of absolute control over areas of wealth,” one expert told Al-Ain media.

It is important now to pay close attention to Yemen. If these reports are accurate the Houthis are now on the move and this could reflect larger moves by Iranian groups in the region. They may be preparing something for Ramadan and the months after. October 7 may have been the opening shot of a much larger war.