Houthi Expansion and Marginalization

For the second day in a row, we're pleased to offer a piece by PhD candidate and renowned Yemen-watcher Fernando Carvajal. This one covers recent developments in the far north, where the al-Huthi movement is facing battles on several fronts. One of the main issues prolonging Yemen’s instability beyond the recent GCC agreement on transition of power from President Saleh remains the unresolved conflict between Zaydi Houthi rebels and religio-political forces. This issue continues under reported inside and outside Yemen, with only a few videos found online and often brought to our attention by dedicated observers like Aaron Zelin (jihadology.net). The conflict is by no means new, nor confined to events related to the youth revolution, nor is it confined to the six wars fought between Houthis and government forces throughout the predominantly Zaydi northern territories of Saʻdah, al-Jawf and Harf Sufian.

Today’s conflict has reached a point beyond mere political positioning or demands over religious freedom. People still continue to debate its origins, whether it resulted from the new political alignments following the 1994 civil war giving the Sunni Islamists (al-Islah) a share of power, or from broken promises by the regime to the sons of Badr al-Din al-Houthi following the success of the 2000 Border Treaty with Saudi Arabia. Houthis, who were part of the military and ruling party, were instrumental in gaining the support of many Zaydi tribes along the border in order to ensure Saudi Arabia of stability along its southern flank, but in the past 11 years Zaydis had remained targets of Islah’s political agenda in Sanʻa which focused on a stronger hold for Sunni-based education nation-wide. In addition, Zaydis continued to face increasing pressure from Salafist groups bent on engaging Dawa (Calls to Islam) projects in predominantly Zaydi territories, such as the now four-decade-old Damaj ( Saʻdah) Dar al-Hadith center which is part of a major network of teaching centers around the country under the leadership of students of the late Shaykh Moqbil al-Wada’i.

Houthi rebels, led by Abd al-Malik b. Badr al-Din al-Houthi, are now engaged in what could be a war for survival. Following a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2010 the group still remains engaged in armed conflicts in al-Jawf (against Islahi tribesmen), in Saʻdah (vs Salafis in Damaj), in Hajja (against tribes that may offer government forces positions from which to attack Saʻdah) and unarmed conflicts with Islah within Change Square in Sanʻa since late April as they joined the physical occupation of the streets of Sanʻa in support of the Youth Revolution. As a result of their continued marginalization within the political process, Houthis have now moved to a strategy of expansion in order to produce a network of potential launching sites proving them with bargaining power. This expansion includes presence in southern areas as far as ‘Aden, and newly territories such as Rada which would allow them access to Dhamar, an area with Zaydi population. Such positions should be of interest since both Aden and Rada are major targets of Islah during the ten month long revolution and in a post-revolution electoral process as well. Rada has itself witnessed increasing clashes between tribes from al-Ghaysh, loyal to Islah and often associated with Salafist/AQ related training camps (this is where Anwar al-Awlaqi’s brother-in-law comes from as well). The government has so far failed to settle the security issues in Rada, even after visits with Ahmed Ali by the city’s major shaykhs, and while the population has so far remained in support of President Saleh they have threatened to withdraw their support if they have to engage Islahis on their own. Rada is far from joining Islah in a political agreement, and though we see pro-revolution demonstrations in Rada residents indicate they are often under guard of heavily armed men and of low numbers.

We must also keep in mind that the Houthi issue has remained outside the political negotiations that produced the GCC Initiative signed by President Saleh on Wednesday. The Zaydi group, often associated with Iranian elements based in the Yemen Affairs Offices in Tehran and Damascus, has been marginalized politically even though its leadership formed part of the high ranks of the military and were members of parliament. One reason given in Sanʻa for such marginalization has been the fact that there is no viable Zaydi political party active in the negotiations. Al-Haqq party, member of the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), is not recognized legally by the government. Leaders of al-Haqq party have often remain in conflict with the Houthi leadership, and the only contacts of influence for the Houthis have been with personalities outside Yemen that remain in direct conflict with the regime. Neither Mr. Hasan Zaid nor Dr. Mohamed Mutawakkil have been able to produce a rapprochement between the government and Houthis over the past seven years, even though they have full access to the leadership of al-Islah within the JMP that would allow Zaid and Mutawakkil to mediate between Islah and Houthis and pave the way to the end of confrontations with the government.

This week Aaron Zelin posted a video of Salafist shaykh Yahya al-Hajuri from YouTube (dated November 6th) encouraging jihad against the ‘drunk’ Houthis, while we read at the same time this week that Salafis in Damaj and Houthis had agreed to a ceasefire. Last week, before I left Sanʻa I also posted on twitter that Yemeni analysts had mentioned Saʻdah was probably the safest area in Yemen and its economy actually showed signs of growth at a time of complete economic stagnation in Yemen. The accusations against Houthis, which have previously included rapes and forced marriages, in the video of al-Hajuri seem out of place and beyond the Iranian-linked accusations. This conflict in Damaj should also be considered in relative terms and not as an all-out Salafi-Houthi conflict since most Salafis are pre-occupied with the ten-month-old political crisis as they position themselves in support of President Saleh and in direct opposition to Sunnis of al-Islah, mainly seen as Muslim Brothers and not Salafists. This conflict with al-Islah has resulted in a demonizing narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new vanguard of al-Qaeda during sermons, Friday speeches at Sabaeen Stand, even radio talk shows in Sanʻa.

As if things were not yet confusing enough, the role of Saudi Arabia further complicates matters. After the outright failure of Saudi armed forces against Houthis along the border in 2009 the Kingdom had secretly established direct contact with Abd al-Malik al-Houthi and set up confidence building mechanisms in order to avoid clashes along the border. Things were then made more complicated as Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, head of al-Firqa, reached an agreement with Houthis in March in order to prevent clashes between Houthis and Firqa in Saʻdah in order to focus on the political crisis, then he completely disengaged when he defected on 20 March to ‘protect’ the revolution. This situation handed Saʻdah to Houthis and saw the appointment of Faris Man’a, a weapons dealer, as de facto provincial governor. Firqa were withdrawn to the borders of Saʻdah, while Republican Guard forces remained beyond Firqa positions, and Houthis were allowed free movement while encircling Damaj district housing the salafis. All the meanwhile Houthis refused to withdraw from territory gained inside al-Jawf province, to the east of Saʻdah. Since the deals with KSA and Ali Muhsin only addressed the situation in Saʻdah Bakil confederation tribal forces loyal to al-Islah began to engage Houthis in al-Jawf under presumed patronage from KSA. Under Shaykh Ameen al-‘Ukaimi tribal forces had already taken control of al-Jawf and formed a Tribal Council in late March to substitute central government authority and declared their support for the Youth Revolution.

Saudi does not automatically support Salafis in Damaj. The relationship with al-Wada’i’s successor still remains fragile as result of conflicting agendas. It is unclear where Damaj-based Salafists obtain their funding, but they have managed to resist Houthi pressure this year. Houthis still face a long uphill battle in the post transition period, and it seems political actors are in no hurry to take on the issue any time soon. Failure to address the matter immediately will result in prolonged instability and force Houthis to find new staging points around the country in order to exert pressure on the interim government and potentially increasingly destabilize many regions as the 90 day deadline for elections approaches. We must wait to see which political actor assumes the mantel of mediator between Houthis and their religious and political rivals. Just as we see no alternatives for the post of Prime Minister and President in the coming weeks, it is difficult to think of one individual within the JMP or among the Zaydi community willing to take on this task. Also, the previous failure of Qatar to intervene in the matter removes potential international actors able to fill the vacuum. It would also be against Qatar’s interests to represent the Houthis at a time when their vested interests may rest only with Islah and Bayt al-Ahmar as reported by Yemeni journalists and analysts. Iran is often mentioned as a potential mediator, but as the international community continues its rhetoric against Iran vis-à-vis the nuclear issue and Syria’s revolution, it seems highly unlikely the interim government under al-Hadi and BaSundwa will accept any overtures from Tehran and endanger any relations with KSA, the US and the EU at a critical time.