Trying to defeat this tribal movement could be a nightmare for the US, as Egypt learned.
70,000 Egyptian soldiers and relentless bombing failed to suppress the Houthis in the 1960s.
The Houthi's supporters then, including the UK and Israel, are now its enemies.
As the Houthis in Yemen continue to attack international shipping, and the US and its allies respond with airstrikes, there are calls in the West for more forceful military action.
But while the US enjoys overwhelming military superiority over the Houthis, defeating this tribal movement would be a nightmare. Case in point: Egypt tried to suppress the Houthis in the 1960s. Yet despite sending 70,000 soldiers to Yemen and even using poison gas, the Egyptians under President Gamal Abdel Nasser withdrew in humiliation after losing 10,000 men.
"Some people refer to it as Nasser's Vietnam," Jesse Ferris, author of "Nasser's Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power," told Business Insider.
Like a Broadway theater company, the actors in the Yemen drama remain the same, but their roles change. Even choosing where to begin the story is difficult. Since Biblical times, Yemen has been contested by Romans, Arabs, Turks, British and anyone else with an interest in a poor, mountainous nation that happens to be a nexus for sea and land trade routes. The common denominator is any outsider who fought in Yemen came to regret it.
"I sent a company to Yemen and had to reinforce it with 70,000 soldiers," Nasser, the late Egyptian leader, complained in 1967.
Nasser's lament is the prologue to today's crisis. The Egyptian quagmire began in 1962, when Yemen's monarchy – based on the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam – was overthrown by army officers infatuated with Nasser's vision of a unified Arab world under secular leadership. The so-called Royalists responded by launching a civil war to topple the new Yemen republic.
"Some of the same tribes that are behind the Houthi movement — and that are now in power in Yemen — were the same tribes that Nasser was fighting," said Ferris, who is vice president of strategy at the Israel Democracy Institute.
A few perceptive Egyptian officers warned against Egyptian military intelligence's plan that sending "a limited number of commando teams and paratroopers" armed with "megaphones, smoke-generators and firecrackers" would be sufficient to intimidate the tribes, Ferris wrote in his book.
Instead, from 1962 to 1967, Yemen became an ulcer for Egypt. Egypt entered the war to assist Yemen's military rulers with crushing the Royalist uprising. But even with firepower from tanks, Soviet-made Tu-16 bombers and poison gas – Egypt still couldn't suppress the rebellion. The insurgents lacked arms, but had no shortage of desolate mountains as sanctuaries. Airpower became Egypt's favored weapon, but as Russia and America discovered in Afghanistan, aerial bombardment could not compel tough tribesmen to lay down their arms.
"These are very warlike, independent tribes that are very resistant to foreign intervention and to centralized rule," said Ferris.
The political alignments between 1963 and 2023 are like a world turned upside down. To derail Nasser's secular Pan-Arabism, Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist monarchy supported the Royalists, as did Britain, who feared for its waning empire. Fast forward to 2015 and after, and it is the Houthis who are rebelling against the Yemeni government, while being bombed by Saudi and British aircraft.
The biggest irony of all? Today's Houthis are attacking ships in the Red Sea – and hurling ballistic missiles at Israel – ostensibly in response to Israel's military operations in Gaza. Yet Israel supported the Houthi-dominated rebels in the 1960s.
"One of the incredible things I discovered is that at one point, the Israelis were parachuting supplies to the Royalists in Yemen," said Ferris. "The idea was, pin down Nasser's forces in Yemen." Indeed the rebellion eased Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, a fact that the Houthis have chosen not to publicize.
Yemen's history is a kaleidoscope, but it still provides clues to solving today's crisis. In the 19th Century, the Turks were frustrated that committing several divisions couldn't pacify the tribes. So they switched to a more fruitful strategy of buying off tribal leaders with money and government jobs. Later, in the 20th Century, desperate Egyptian officers even turned to "reading about Lawrence of Arabia's techniques [from the First World War] for pacifying and mobilizing the tribes," Ferris said.
For now, Western bombardment won't coerce the Houthis, while Western boots on the ground would mean an endless and fruitless war in the mountains. Nor does the fact that much of the Yemeni population is starving and dependent on international food aid seem likely to sway the Houthi leadership and their Iranian sponsors. Yet even Iran doesn't have total control over its stubborn ally.
Ultimately, the West's best strategy may be to deal with Yemeni tribal leaders, Ferris said. And, to let nature take its course in a naturally fractious nation where even the Zaydi community is split over supporting the current Houthi leadership, with its incoherent ideology and chants of "Death to America! Death to Israel!" The Houthis will likely discover that it's easier to fight against a government than become one.
"Sooner or later, the Houthis will probably face their own internal rebellion," Ferris said.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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