Yemen's northern wars: a bad situation gets worse

Yemen's government gave up on fighting the so-called Huthi movement (known "officially" as Ansar Allah) back in 2010, but that hasn't stopped the Huthis from getting into conflicts with other groups in Yemen's northern governorates. In recent months, Huthi fighters have fought Salafi students in the town of Dammaj, militias linked to the Islah party in other areas, and fighters alligned with the Hashid tribal confederation's leading family, Bayt al-Ahmar. Right now, the Huthis are engaged in a very bloody campaign in 'Amran Governorate, where they seem to have taken control of key towns in the al-Ahmar family's archipelago of fiefdoms.  [box icon="info"]For background on the Huthi movement, check out our segment on the origins and evolution of the movement, on episode #1 of Mafraj Radio. The Huthi segment, featuring journalist Adam Baron and scholar Madeleine Wells Goldburt, starts at 11:00[/box]

Sadiq al-Ahmar--the paramount shaykh of Hashid--and his brothers command a huge number of men at arms on their own, and they also have allies within Yemen's armed forces. One of the most troubling things I've heard today (specifically from Adam Baron and Shuaib al-Mosawa on Twitter) is that General 'Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, former commander of the infamous First Armored Division and current military advisor to President Hadi, is planning to/has already begun to involve his own forces in the conflict.

There are a few reasons why I find this possibility so worrying. First, 'Ali Muhsin is no longer officially a commander of military forces. It may be taken for granted by Yemenis and Yemen-watchers that he still has the loyalty of units from the disbanded First Armored Division (known in Yemen as al-Firqah), but on paper he is no longer their commander. The military restructuring process which followed 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh's removal from the presidency also removed several members of the former president's family from their commands, but they too are assumed to retain a degree of de facto control over those forces. If 'Ali Muhsin were to commit "his" forces to combat in 'Amran, the facade of military restructuring would be shattered; such a move could encourage other shadow commanders--‘Ali 'Abdullah's son Ahmad, for instance--to take more active and visible roles. The Saleh-commanded factions of the military fought openly against al-Firqah in 2011; that conflict could be rekindled if rival units were to be put into action in the north.

Second, and this is clearly related to the first point, 'Ali Muhsin's overt involvement in the conflict would seriously undermine the presidency and the government. Of course, Hadi's leadership is already questionable, but there are degrees of undermined-ness. For President Hadi to have one of his top advisors engage in an undeclared war on his own initiative would be several degrees worse than the current situation.

Third, it seems unlikely to me that 'Ali Muhsin could commit a portion of Yemen's armed forces to this conflict without dragging the entire state along with it. The Sa‘dah wars of 2004-2010 grew so much larger and bloodier over time because the Yemeni army created new enemies everywhere it went. Local civilians and their tribes took up arms against the army in those wars not necessarily out of love for the Huthi leadership, but because the state had threatened their lives and livelihoods by putting boots on their land. What starts as a battle between al-Firqah and Ansar Allah will almost certainly expand, and other military units in the war zone will join the battle on one side or another.

Yemen has no shortage of crises and conflicts these days, and it's easy to see each negative development as just another chapter in a never-ended story of chaos. But the situation could always get worse, and some developments and decisions have the potential to make things much worse very quickly. In my opinion, we're looking at one such development in 'Amran right now.