31 Mar 2015

Yemen: a war with many fronts and many forces

Why have Yemen’s rebel Houthis sided with the country’s former president, who for so long fought them, against the current government? And how are the Islamic State group and Iran involved?

Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement is at war with the anti-Houthi coalition led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The rebels took control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa last September, forcing President Hadi to flee to his palace in Aden, in the south of the country.

Then, on 25 March, the Houthis captured a strategic military base in the southern port city of Aden and took the defence minister hostage. Hadi fled Aden for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, calling on the UN and Arab nations to stage an urgent military intervention. Saudi Arabia began air strikes six days ago, and is threatening to employ ground troops.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a rebel group made up of Shia Muslims who adhere to a branch of Islam known as Zaidism. Zaidis account for one third of Yemen’s population and ruled what was North Yemen for 1,000 years, until the 1962 revolution.

They take their name from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led the group’s first uprising in 2004 and was killed the same year by the Yemeni army. After his death, Zaidi fighters fought an insurgency from their stronghold in the north until an uneasy peace agreement was fudged in 2010.

They are fighting for a change of government and for more rights in Yemen, which retains the dubious honour of being the poorest country in the Arab world.

Unravelling of the Arab Spring dream

In 2011, protests across the country demanded the end of the reign of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had become the first president of what was North Yemen in 1978. Saleh secured unification of the country with the Soviet-backed Southern Yemen in 1990, surviving several assassination attempts but not the Arab Spring.

He reluctantly gave power to the current President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in February 2012, in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that ensured him lifetime immunity from prosecution. The ushering in of a transitional period of political reform, without the country breaking into a protracted civil conflict, allowed many to view Yemen as one of the precious few “success stories” of the popular uprising that swept and reshaped the Arab world.

Max Abrahms, from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, told Channel 4 News the present collapse can be traced back to the actions of former president Saleh, who “stepped aside instead of stepping down”, appointing his deputy to take the reins while continuing to pursue his political ambitions for his son.

Uncomfortable coalition

Having spent much of own time in office fighting the Houthis, Saleh – who once described ruling Yemen as a process of “dancing on the heads of snakes” – has been working with them to destabilise the government he was forced out of.

This allegiance goes some way to describing the military successes won by the Houthis, says Abrahms. Houthis, who continued to be marginalised under the transitional government, had much to gain from the coalition: in a report issued last month, the United Nations said Saleh had amassed between $32bn and $60bn through corruption in his 33 years in power. It appears his support for the rebel fighters changed their fortunes decisively.

“The new alliance between the Houthis and the former leader is a purely political expedient,” says Abrahms. “The Houthi’s are a minority in Yemen, and for it while it was perplexing in a Sunni majority country how they were making so many military successes.

“A lot of people suspected they were due to Iranian support, but it could turn out this relationship may be overstated, and some of their gains could be because of the support of the former leader.”

Proxy wars

That is not to say Iran is not involved. Zaidism has long links to Iran, and the current conflict could be understood as a proxy war between the Sunni Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which is currently flexing its muscles in nuclear negotiations.

Over the weekend, the Arab league agreed to a joint military force to “counter security threats”, and the Saudi-led air strikes are being supported by regional Arab partners, who have been providing military personnel and equipment. Nuclear Pakistan said it was deciding today whether it would be contributing ground troops, and a Saudi official told Reuters they had already pledged the use of a navy ship.

International Editor Lindsey Hilsum looks at the various countries contributing to the air strike attacks against Yemen (below).

Islamists on the peninsula

The Islamic State group announced its arrival in the country last month with a trademark spectacle of barbarity, claiming responsibility for two suicide attacks on mosques which killed 143 people and injured 366. The attacks, against Shia mosques in Sana’a, are different from those of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), Abrahms said, and represents a sectarian decline set to continue.

AQAP tends not to boast about attacks on civilians, or at least Muslim civilians, and it seems the conflict will exacerbate the sectarian tensions AQAP rely on for recruitment.

“We are at the beginning of a civil war, where there will be much more blood-letting over the establishment of power. There will be few beneficiaries of the chaos in Yemen, and it seems likely that IS and AQAP will be strengthened the longer it continues.”

As the turmoil continues for Yemen’s 25 million inhabitants, AQAP has taken advantage of the chaos to claim controls of towns across the beleaguered state. Refugees continue to flee into camps inside and across Yemen’s borders, and aid agencies said yesterday the air strikes had killed 40 people in one such camp, in Mazraq.