Last month, the Houthis, a Shia group that both Washington and the Yemeni government claim is backed by Iran, won a battle in Yemen. It was notable for two main reasons: One, it was against a military unit once believed to be Yemen's most powerful. And two, it took place on the western edge of the country's capital, Sanaa.
Shortly after the victory, the Houthis signed a peace deal with representatives of the Yemeni establishment that gave the group political power for the first time. Over the next few days, checkpoints manned by Yemeni men in traditional garb sprang up across Sanaa. Many of the men decorated their guns, their cars, and even their foreheads with stickers and banners bearing the Houthis' sarkha slogan spelled out in red and green on a white background:
"Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam."
The sarkha is visible just about everywhere the Houthis are. It's a supremely effective piece of marketing, marking anyone who chooses to display it as a supporter of the group. The slogan's presence in Sanaa has come to be seen as a signal that the Houthis — once a small religious revivalist movement, now a popular and powerful political movement — are an unstoppable military force that is effectively in control of the capital. When the slogan is seen elsewhere in the country, it is seen as a sign that the Houthis are on their way.
And the slogan is everywhere. In central Yemen, the group is battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the extremist movement that the US government saw as the most dangerous radical Islamist group in the world before the Islamic State sprang up in Syria and Iraq. In mid-October, sarkha-bedecked men took control of Hodeidah port on Yemen's western coast. The group has also expanded south into Ibb and Taiz provinces, where it is battling both al Qaeda affiliates and local tribes.
Where a year ago they would have scoffed at such an idea, residents of Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen, are now genuinely worried that the Houthis, who hail from the other side of the country, could soon be surveying the Indian Ocean.
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As Yemenis come to terms with this new reality, questions are being asked about just how powerful the Houthis, who spent the better part of the past decade getting pummeled by government forces in the north of the country, really are.
Is the group the conquering juggernaut it now appears to be, or has it been, as many suspect, the beneficiary of a strange mix of infighting elites, nods to political expedience, and governmental incompetency?
A "slow-burning coup." That's what a government official says to VICE News when asked how the Houthis were able to take Sanaa with such ease in September. He blames the group's success on former Yemen President Ali Abdulla Saleh, who was ousted after 33 years in power by popular unrest and infighting among elites in 2011. According to the official, Saleh was furious when Islah, Yemen's main Sunni Islamist party, and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a conservative Sunni military commander and onetime Saleh loyalist, split from his regime during the Arab Spring. The official believes Saleh has been hell-bent on revenge ever since.
Khaled, who lives in central Sanaa but was working outside the capital during the fighting there, described his surprise to VICE News upon returning to find friends and acquaintances who were agnostic in their politics manning Houthi checkpoints in the city center. "I know these people," he said. "They aren't Houthis. They… couldn't care less about the Houthis."
Saleh, the official says — his comments were echoed by a number of diplomats, officials, and others in the capital — eased the way for Houthi militias as they took Amran, the province that separates the Houthis' northern stronghold of Sadah from Sanaa. (Amran has also long been an Islah stronghold.) Saleh allegedly told loyalists in Amran to support the movement and did the same in Sanaa, even instructing his people to help seize the streets once fighting with Mohsen's men had come to an end, creating the illusion that the Houthis controlled the capital. Many believe that Saleh hopes to maneuver his way back into power.
Sanaa residents have by now realized that most Houthi checkpoints are manned not by fighters from Sadah, but by locals. As a result, talk has been less about the "Houthi takeover" of Sanaa and more about the "takeover of Sanaa."
This reassessment is not unique to the capital city. A resident of Taiz disputes the extent to which the "Houthi" presence in the area is made up of bona fide fighters from the north. "All the people here that I can see who say they are Houthis, I recognize," he says, indicating that the supposed Houthis are instead locals. He adds that the bulk of the armed men in the city come from a local division of the Republican Guard, a military unit once run by Saleh's son. Even the fighters who aren't local, he says, aren't from Sadah. Their accents don't match up.
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The Houthis were also helped by the reluctance of current President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to enter the fight,. Hadi encouraged Mohsen and Islah to push the group back in Amran and to defend the capital, but he refused to commit his own loyalists to the battle. It was widely assumed after the fighting in September that Houthi militias had routed Islamist militias and the remnants of the First Armoured Division, a military unit loyal to Mohsen. Once the rout was complete, conventional wisdom went, Hadi was powerless to do anything but sign the peace deal with the Houthis.
But sources with ties to the president and Islah — the Sunni Islamist party — say that even the Houthis were surprised by the ease with which they entered the capital. This, they say, is largely because by the time the group descended, Hadi had already conceded defeat and Mohsen and Islah had decided that if the president wouldn't fight, they wouldn't either.
Hadi had told the few military units truly under his control to stand down, possibly in the hope that fighting between the Houthis and their rivals would weaken both sides — both of whom Hadi saw as thwarting his efforts to consolidate power.
Islah members had gathered a militia of 3,000 to 5,000 men in the capital to fight the Houthis, and were in close contact with Mohsen and leaders of paramilitary forces that reported to the interior ministry. But Mohsen and Islah smelled a rat. "Hadi asked Islah to fight," says a source with close ties to Islah, recounting details given to him by party leaders that are supported by interviews conducted since Sanaa fell. "They said, 'Okay, no problem — but you first. If the army fights, we will support them.'"
Hadi also told Mohsen to fight, but Mohsen received no practical support from the president. And so Mohsen reportedly went to see the president at the palace shortly before the deal was signed. "He said to Hadi, 'If you won't support me I will go,'" a source said. "Hadi said he would not, so Mohsen left." Once this happened, the source says, Islah's leadership told its members — including interior ministry officials — not to fight the Houthis. "[They] had been stabbed in the back," he said.
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This is not to say the Houthis aren't a force to be reckoned with. They have undoubtedly evolved into one of Yemen's strongest fighting forces, garnering widespread support in the north of the country even among people who do not share their Zaydi religious beliefs.
Their fighters may not have taken Sanaa alone, but they did defeat Mohsen's men after a yearlong campaign in the north of the country that has seen them capture and retain vast swathes of territory previously occupied by powerful Islah-backed militias. While they may not make up the majority of fighters everywhere in Ibb and Taiz, they are almost certainly present.
In Sanaa, many checkpoints are manned by men who, although not fighters from the north, are genuine Houthi supporters rather than Saleh loyalists. "We wouldn't have got anywhere without local support," says a Houthi source with close ties to the group's leadership. "In most of the country it's maybe ten Houthi fighters from Sadah to 100 men from local areas."
And they are deadly serious about eradicating AQAP, which has in turn been ratcheting up its anti-Houthi rhetoric of late, painting its battle with the group as an existential struggle between the Shia Houthis and AQAP as the defender of the country's majority Sunni population. The fighting in Al Baydah province in central Yemen has killed many Houthi men — real Houthi fighters, not local ringers — yet the group's desire to break AQAP's grip on the north of the country remains undimmed.
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The Houthis are new to military success and expansion, and it remains to be seen whether or not their grip on power will last. Many in Yemen believe that by expanding rapidly beyond Sanaa and taking on AQAP in unfamiliar territory will stretch the group to the breaking point.
Their tenuous relationship with Saleh also throws into question the durability of the alleged Houthi-Saleh alliance. Many Yemenis predict Saleh and the Houthis will duke it out in a final battle for power — and the Houthis' supporters remain supremely confident on that front. At one roadblock in the Radio district in central Sanaa, 24-year-old Zayd Mohammed scoffed at the idea that Saleh had a future in Yemen.
"We don't like him," Mohammed told VICE News. "He fought six wars with us. He killed people. We will catch him and we will judge him. His people will bring him to us. They know he was a criminal."
Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco