Politics and proxy wars

We are pleased to present a fascinating guest-post by an experienced scholar/analyst who has been in Yemen for most of the revolution. This piece provides a rare insight into the dynamics of the multiple armed conflicts occurring around the country right now. Fernando Carvajalis a PhD candidate and Yemen specialist at the University of Exeter (UK) and is currently in Sanʻa. He has conducted field work throughout Yemen since 2000.

(This piece will be updated to include events following a cease-fire in al-Jawf between Huthi rebels and tribesmen this week)

A Revolution by Proxy

As the number of pundits add their voices to warnings of Yemen’s ‘Somaliazation’ local analysts and officials remain confident escalation will be averted. This confidence remains misunderstood outside the country due to a reality that sees a number of ongoing low-intensity conflicts in areas like Arhab (Sanʻa), Abyan, al-Jawf, al-Haima, Hodeida (Western Province), Hadhramawt (Eastern Province), Lahj, Mareb, Nahm, and Taʻiz. While covering such conflicts local and foreign media present skirmishes between pro-Revolution and pro-Government forces as mainly battles to “protect protestors” on the one hand, and erratic knee-jerk reactions by the regime to cling on to power while President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovers in Riyadh from injuries sustained during and attempted assassination on 3 June inside his Presidential Palace in the Capital Sanʻa.  As sources in Yemen begin to confirm the ongoing clashes across the country developed from a strategy of war by proxy “in order to slowly weaken the enemy” within an intra-regime power struggle.

While former Prime Minister Dr Abd al-Karem al-Iryani indicates that “the only solution to the conflict is a peaceful one within the parameters of the GGC Initiative”, the opposition continues to prepare for violent escalation amid news of President Saleh’s release from a hospital in Riyadh this past Saturday, August 6.  Sanʻa residents and media outlets soon jumped on this possibility when new clashes were reported this past weekend in the area of al-Hassaba, under limited control of tribal militias loyal to Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar (head of the Hashid tribal confederation) who now heads the new Tribal Alliance.  The skirmishes ended quickly with casualties on both sides, which included a colonel of the Republican Guard under the leadership of Saleh’ son Ahmed Ali.  Such clashes inside the Capital city began two weeks before the attempted assassination on Saleh and ended with a cease-fire brokered by the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and “still managed behind the scenes to prevent any major escalation” says Nasser al-Muwada, an independent analyst in Sanʻa.

Origins of intra-regime power struggle

Soon after President Saleh announced three major amendments to the constitution on 29 December 2010, the opposition Joint Meeting Party (JMP) began to voice its condemnation of the amendments that could extend Saleh’s rule by a third seven-year term. The JMP’s primary financial supporter, Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar (brother of Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar) also increased his opposition to Saleh’s regime through his National Solidarity Forum.  Since the Arab Spring protests began in February, Shaykh Hamid has remained a staunch supporter of the youth movement in Sanʻa and Mareb, as he once promised he would to a US Embassy official in 2009 and revealed through a cable published by WikiLeaks. Although Hamid remains one of the most outspoken opponents to President Saleh, many people in Yemen recognize that he had been part and parcel of the regime along with his brothers who held positions such as Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Executive of the ruling General People’s Congress, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport and positions within Yemen’s Oil Company.  In 2006 Shaykh Hamid was the primary supporter of Faysal Bin Shamlan’s presidential campaign and other candidates of al-Islah party, the Sunni Islamist party within the JMP coalition.  Soon after Hamid also increased his public rants against Saleh and his son Ahmed during interviews with Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite network. Hamid was also the man supporting the efforts to establish the National Dialogue process through the National Solidarity Forum under the Chairmanship of former Foreign Minister Mohammad Basundwa.  The National Dialogue process was suspended in 2009 after a final meeting issuing a communiqué with proposals for a national reconciliation, but this statement also included a direct accusation against President Saleh as the person responsible for Yemen’s crises and the primary obstacle to reconciliation.

As cables published by WikiLeaks also showed Brg. Gen. Ali Muhsin Saleh al-Ahmar (of Senhan), commander of the North-West Army Command known as al-Firqahh and former primary ally of President Saleh, had a gripe to settle with Saleh. In the cables released early this year there is an account of an attempt to kill Ali Muhsin during the protracted conflict with Zaydi Huthi rebels in the north regions of the country in 2009.  We learned how Saudi Arabia’s Air Force was given coordinates to Ali Muhsin’s position rather than the location of rebel tribesmen presumably in order to eliminate another source of opposition to the rise of Ahmed Ali as successor to President Saleh.  Such tension within the regime unraveled two days after the March 18 massacre of unarmed youth protesters in Sanʻa when Ali Muhsin publicly announced his opposition to Saleh and declared himself and his troops protectors of the Youth Revolution, setting up a security corridor around the expanded area controlled by the youth in Sanʻa.  His ‘defection’ also prompted dozens of government officials including members of the al-Ahmar family, in Yemen and abroad, to resign their posts and either declare their support of the Youth movement or simply join Gen. Ali Muhsin.  Although al-Firqah’s area of operation covered the northern provinces bordering Saudi Arabia its headquarters are in Sanʻa across from Sanʻa University and behind the Yemen Economic Corporation.

Both primary opponents to President Saleh, the al-Ahmar family and Ali Muhsin, have always been staunch supporters of al-Islah party.  In particular, the former due to the late patriarch’s (Shaykh Abdullah Hussain al-Ahmar) role as tribal leader within the party and Speaker of Parliament from 1993 until his death in late 2007.  The party itself remained the primary partner in government with the GPC since the end of the 1994 Civil War.  Led by its charismatic spiritual leader, Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, al-Islah is also the strongest party headed by Secretary General - within the JMP coalition.  Shaykh Zindani, as head of Yemen’s cleric council made a number of attempts in February and March on behalf of Saleh to disperse the street protests in Sanʻa through TV interviews and an impromptu appearance on the main stage at Change Square in Sanʻa, where he gave a log winded speech about the coming Islamic Caliphate, his pride and admiration over what the youth had accomplished to the minute, and finally on how the crisis should end through dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition, dismissing early on any role within the process for the disenfranchised youth joining the Arab Spring.

Alternative Strategies by Proxy

At the end of March, nearly two months since the sit-in at Change Square in Sanʻa began, fighting erupted once again in the northern province of al-Jawf, bordering Saudi Arabia.  The province had already fallen to a tribal council formed by Shaykh Ameen al-Ukaimi in opposition to President Saleh.  This province also borders Sa’dah province, under full control of Huthi rebels after the elected governor retreated to Sanʻa and was replaced by Shaykh Faysal Mana’a, under what Yemenis believe to have been an agreement between Huthi leader Abdul Malek Badr al-Din al-Huthi and Gen. Ali Muhsin.  The agreement would guarantee both sides a cease-fire while Ali Muhsin ‘protected’ the Youth Revolution.  The cease-fire in Sa’dah has lasted but the four month-long clashes between Huthi tribesmen and pro-Islah tribesmen in al-Jawf presents itself as a proxy war outside Sa’dah aimed at weakening al-Huthi’s forces and support until an eventual settlement of the political crisis in Sanʻa.  Analysts in Sanʻa also mentioned that al-Firqah has sent personnel in civilian clothes to join the fight and that as result of the ongoing conflicts elsewhere and the lack of funding and resources, the pro-Islah fighters are primary funded by Saudi Arabia under the same goals, to weaken a potential growing threat from al-Huthi.

While the conflict in al-Jawf has largely gone unnoticed by media outside Yemen it has been well covered by Yemeni journalists like Muhammad Ghazuan with a nine page report published by as-Shara newspaper on 30 July.  This coverage also raised a number of questions for Yemenis following the conflict in the city of Taʻiz.  In the past two months clashes escalated between government armed forces and militias led by Shaykh Hamoud al-Maghlafi , a known member of the Muslim Brotherhood wing of al-Islah party, former bodyguard of Shaykh Zindani and former employee of the Ministry of Education as mentioned during brief conversations with Dr. Mustafa Bahran (former minister of Electricity) and journalist Nasser Arrabyee.  Shaykh al-Maghlafi declared himself and his militia as “protectors” of the youth movement in Taʻiz following a bloody attack on Freedom Square by elements of the Republican Guard.  The aim of the attack was to disperse protestors from the sit-in, as the government had done in late April in al-Mansura District of Aden.  The Square was later retaken by the youth and continues to organize demonstrations against President Saleh and his relatives remaining in power.  A Source inside al-Firqah also corroborated information that indicates Gen. Ali Muhsin granted leave to junior officers and soldiers of al-Firqah, such as Commander Sadeq Serhan, in order to join the militia in Taʻiz against government forces.  Dr. Bahran also commented that if it were not for financial, personnel and material support from Firqah soldiers, al-Maghlafi would be unable to independently maintain his position against government forces.  The situation in Taʻiz is extremely unique, for although the area within the province has been a hotbed of dissent since the early twentieth century, it has always been led by intellectual movements rather than direct violence against rulers.

Toward a “Compromise of Weakness”

Clashes in al-Jawf and Taʻiz are clear examples of what al-Muwada referred to as “battles of attrition” (harb Istinzaf). The fighting in Arhab, which began in mid-July, now represents the most brutal confrontations between opposition forces and the government of President Saleh.  News of government soldiers and tribesmen dying by the hundreds in an area controlling the northern entrance to the Capital and where Mount as-Sama’ overlooks Sanʻa International Airport, which also serves as a main runway for the Yemeni Air Force, have captured the attention of international media networks.  This village is also where Shakh Zindani resides since his failed attempt to disperse the youth at Change Square. Confrontations in Arhab represent more than simple clashes between a desperate group of relatives of Saleh and villagers.  Observers agree this is a major strategic battle by both the regime and al-Firqah since “the road from Arhab represents the door into Sanʻa” and would provide either side with a strategic artery into the Capital for reinforcements and logistical support, said Dr. Bahran.

The source within Firqah also confirmed information that soldiers in civilian clothes travelled to Arhab in order to join tribesmen led by Shaykh Mansour al-Hanaiq (Minister of Parliament for Arhab, cleric of the Muslim Brotherhood wing of Islah and right hand man of Shaykh Zindani).  Officials within the government have no doubt al-Hanaiq coordinated with Ali Muhsin prior to the battle against the 3rd Brigade’s camp on Mount as-Sama’ on 28 July.  Nasser Arrabyee and members of al-Islah party also confirmed al-Hanaiq position and role in Arhab. It is presumed Firqah’s headquarters in Sanʻa currently hold around 39 light-armed units of 600 soldiers each, which include some of the recently defected soldiers from the Republican Guard and Central Security looking for salaries around one hundred and twenty dollars per month, and they are mostly identified by sources as non-active reserves who carried no weapons upon defecting.  Same source indicated many soldiers abandoned their posts during the Holy Month of Ramadan.  The tribes of the Bakil confederation in Arhab allied to al-Islah party form part of a strategy that would eventually push south into Sanʻa from the airport road past al-Imam University and as far as the area of al-Qa’a, near Tahrir Square where the Republican Palace is located. While such analysis may seem outrageous to some observers, Yemeni analysts indicate it is also urgent for Ali Muhsin to advance prior to the potential arrival of president Saleh, where a take-over of the airport would symbolically deprive the president of a landing strip of significant relevance as Saleh aims for a triumphant return.

Such confrontations where the opposition avoids direct conflict with government forces primarily aims at dispersing the armed forces throughout a number of battle theatres requiring an overwhelming show of force against low funded and undermanned tribal militias.  This has given further credibility to claims by foreign observers that Yemen is close to a Somaliazation as it breaks up into conflict areas led by perceived war-lords.  The presence of al-Qaʻidah affiliates in the southern provinces of Abyan and Lahj also adds to such alarmist scenarios that ignore a political crisis as both the creator and manager of the armed conflicts.  The proxy battles have government forces gravitating toward areas claimed by the opposition, which prevents them from providing stronger support to forces based in Sanʻa. Also, analyst view the clashes as “a controlled armed struggle with a variable escalation” aimed at producing “a military balance of power” which no side can win.  The strategy is also evident in Firqah’s daily containment of protestors and during Friday prayers, when some groups agitate the masses to march toward the Presidential Palace producing direct clashes and further civilian casualties.  While the clashes represent tactical moves by the opposition led by Ali Muhsin, neither side seems to move strategically because they recognize the country could break up into pieces and would be beyond their ability to regain territories upon taking power, in the case of the opposition, or upon an agreement for the regime.  Abd al-Ghani al-Iryani, an independent analyst based in Sanʻa, repeated what analyst Ahmed Saif Hassan has called the “compromise of weakness” necessary for a peaceful end to the crisis avoiding a ‘committed step’ that would launch all out war between a number of factions with divided allegiances.

Muwada agrees with Dr. Abd al- Kareem al-Iryani in that the only solution is a peaceful transition under the GCC Initiative and mediation of both Saudi Arabia and the United States.  Both sides are beholden to Saudi support during the crisis and after it is resolved.  Yemen’s government will continue its dependence on Saudi aid that is beyond the capacity of Western governments, and the opposition also requires aid in order to sustain expanding patronage networks to balance the regime in order to avoid a civil war or retribution by elements of the regime as result of the violence perpetrated in recent months.  Observers in Sanʻa also believe that Saleh’s regime has no chance of survival after this crisis due primarily to its internal weakness created by defections and overt opposition more so than as direct result of the now fragment and powerless Youth Revolution. Yet, we cannot dismiss the youth movement as completely irrelevant since the course of events developing in Yemen prior to the resignation of Tunisian President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali (January 15) under the leadership of the JMP would not have led to such dissent within the regime or violent clashes in such short period of time.  The youth movement accelerated events as they joined the Arab Spring tsunami, and the escalation of conflict between the regime and its opponents would have continued simply through dialogue following Saleh’s preemptive speech in Parliament on February 2nd, when he promised to withdraw amendments submitted by the ruling party in December 2010.  Any violence would have erupted in 2012 as political opponents began to position themselves for Parliamentary elections and scheduled presidential elections of 2013.