No end in sight for Huthi-Islah conflict

Friend-of-the-blog Fernando Carvajal gives us his take on the ongoing conflict between the Huthi movement and the Islah party. Fernando is a PhD candidate at University of Exeter (UK). He currently resides in Sanʻa.  After two years of a volatile cease fire between Zaydi rebels and government forces, and a year after Yemeni president ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh agreed to step down, the threat of all-out war still looms in northern Yemen. Tensions remain high in three provinces surrounding the Huthi stronghold Saʻdah, not to mention the capital Sanʻa.

Most attention in recent weeks has focused on the delayed National Dialogue, which is mandated by the GCC Initiative to help unify the various conflictive regions. While not much is reported of the increasing tensions between particularly the Huthis—a rebel group in control of territory in northern Yemen—and the Islah party, which has grown more powerful in the course of the Arab Spring. This conflict between a Zaydi (Shiʻah) group and a Sunni political party, composed of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi elements, has been downplayed as a mere political conflict, not a sectarian one. Yet, as tensions increase as a result of both armed conflicts in northern provinces and Islah’s increasing political domination of the transition government, political rhetoric has focused on public attacks with religious underpinnings.

Milestones of conflict

Analysis refrains from calling armed conflicts in 2011 a civil war, even though the same conflicts existed between the same parties in the same areas prior to the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. While the six wars fought between 2004 and 2009 involved direct conflict between Huthis and government forces, since 2011 clashes have [maily] involved armed militias. This new level of conflict produced a new dynamic whereby the state, in this case represented by transition president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, is unable to directly control the conflict. As a result, analysts have gauged the potential for expanded armed conflict based on perceived degrees of escalation.

As religious holidays, such as ‘Eid al-Adha or ‘Eid al-Ghadir, came to an end peacefully, fears of potential sparks for all-out conflict began to diminish. Analysts continue to forecast the potential for a civil war, however, rising from a number of small, sustained skirmishes in cities and villages in northern provinces like ‘Amran, Hajjah, and al-Jawf. At the start of the Islamic holiday ‘Eid al-Adha (25 October) many expected Huthi and Islahi militias to take advantage of the security forces’ low guard to expand their physical presence around the capital Sanʻa and other areas. Yet, no major incidents were reported, and Zaydi celebrations of Eid al-Ghadir in Sanʻa remained peaceful.

In late October, a suspected US drone killed three al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in a camp along the Saʻdah/al-Jawf border. Both of these provinces are under Huthi influence, leading Huthis to warn both the Hadi government and the US of grave consequences if Huthis were targeted in a similar manner. Yet, this rebel group has been accused of cooperating with the US against AQAP.

On November 11, 2012 Huthi rebels agreed to sign a de-escalation agreement with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) at the home of Dr. Yasin Saʻid Noman, Secretary-General of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Since the JMP is led by al-Islah party as senior partner, this was hailed as a major achievement. But the agreement focused on ending media attacks, and was not a cease-fire between Islah and Huthis. This was evident when within a few days of signing the agreement clashes were once again reported in al-Shabwan, al-Jawf Province.

Convenient Alliances

The tension between the two groups is far from cooling. No efforts have been made to engage in a dialogue between the two religious forces, and this serves continued political posturing. Instead various  alliances of convenience are formed, which represent efforts to counter Islah’s rise since the signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative on 23 November 2011. Such shifting alliances are too often neglected in analysis.

The new political environment has brought old foes together. Huthi expansion into southern provinces, and funding from Iran for exiled southern leaders such as Ali Salem al-Baydh has created strange bedfellows. Huthi and Southern Movement (Hirak) elements have joined forces to counter their common foe Islah in places like the port city of ‘Aden. And, although Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi, the first leader of the Huthi rebels, raised arms in 2004 against the government of former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, the deposed president is said to have opened channels with Husayn’s brother and successor, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Huthi.

Sources in Sanʻa indicate former president Saleh has met Huthi representatives such as Saleh Habrah, Saleh al-Wijman, Yusef al-Madani and others. People close to actors in Beirut point to meetings between Yemeni politicians and Abu Mustafa of Hezbollah and diplomat ‘Ali al-Hajj. Media outlets in Sanʻa affiliated with the General People’s Congress (GPC), headed by ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, have also refrained from attacking the Southern Movement since the summer, giving an impression of an unofficial agreement. Hirak have also refrained from slogans against the ‘Zaydi Occupiers,’ which have previously been used since 2007. Islah has attempted to co-opt the Southern Movement through its own southern organizations, led by Nabil Ghanem. But the memories of Islah’s role against current leaders of Hirak in the 1994 civil war, still form an important part of the Southern narrative.

In a conversation with ‘Ali al-Emad, spokesman of ‘Abd al-Malik al-Huthi in Sanʻa, details were provided as to the gap between propaganda and the Huthi’s political aims. Al-Emad admitted to effective political expansion by his group beyond Saʻdah, crediting political gains among young Yemenis, who may not be Zaydis or Shiʻah themselves. Al-Emad also insists that “Hirak trusts the Huthis,” and while he did not completely deny possible financial support from Iran for the movement, he questioned the bias implicit in this question, as it is well known that Saudi Arabia supports Islah [and the GPC, among others].

During our conversation, ‘Ali al-Emad commented on the role of the US Embassy during the transition. While he does not expect US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein to visit Saʻdah any time soon, he denied any Huthi role in the 13 September attack on the embassy in Sanʻa. Recalling the fact that the Huthis did not sign the GCC Initiative, al-Emad points to their willingness to participate in the National Dialogue through the role played by Muhammad al-Bukhaity and Dr. Ahmad Sharaf al-Din. He pointed to good relations with the European Union, having hosted a European delegation to Saʻdah accompanying Dr. Yasin Saʻid Noman earlier this year.


While low-level confrontations with Islah do not yet amount to a sectarian war, the attack on a Huthi celebration of Ashoura on 24 November in Sanʻa may be a new level of escalation. It also still remains to be seen if alliances of convenience will hold over time as political positioning continues in the absence of a National Dialogue conference. The cohesiveness of the Huthi group may also suffer from internal vulnerabilities as time passes. ‘Abd al-Malik’s leadership is constantly challenged by his cousin Muhammad ‘Abd al-Thim al-Huthi, considered more of a religious leader. As a result of increasing confrontations with Islah and Salafi elements, and in the absence of direct dialogue toward a permanent cease-fire, time will have more of a negative affect for efforts to achieve comprehensive reconciliation, particularly in northern provinces.