In its press release dated June 24, Mwatana Organization for Human Rights reported on gross violations of human rights committed by the Houthi movement--also known as Ansar Allah--in detention centers under their control. The report investigated approximately 30 cases of torture taking place in private detention centers and interrogation rooms where Houthis have reportedly adopted torture as a tool for interrogating detainees and denied access to medical care.
This episode includes the first two installments in a new recurring feature we're calling the Wartime Journal. We’ve asked contributors in different parts of Yemen to record audio journal entries for us, conveying their own personal experience of Yemen’s ongoing war. Our first journal entry comes from Yemen’s capital, San’a.
Amnesty International’s May report on detention and disappearance in Houthi-controlled Yemen examines 60 cases of Houthi forces arresting political opposition figures, activists, and journalists as part of their efforts to suppress opposition. Those arrested are held without charge for as long as 17 months, sometimes tortured and mistreated, and consistently denied legal representation. To arrive at their findings, Amnesty conducted interviews between May 2015 and April 2016 with 12 former detainees and over 60 relatives and friends of those imprisoned, as well as activists and lawyers.
Amnesty was unable to determine the exact number of political detainees, but one San’a-based lawyer said relatives of more than 200 detainees have submitted reports of arbitrary arrest and detention. The total number of political prisoners held by Houthi forces in Yemen is likely much higher.
Those who have witnessed or have been subject to arrest say that Ansarullah, the Houthi’s political wing, “carried out detentions in homes, in front of family members, at security checkpoints, at workplaces, or in public venues such as mosques, without arrest warrants and with no explanation of the reasons or grounds for detention, and without providing any information about where the detained were being taken.”
We found out that [our relative] was being tortured in a barbaric manner and his health was deteriorating. We begged the Houthis in every way possible to permit us to visit him but they continued to refuse our requests...After many mediation efforts with Houthi officials and their political office [Ansarullah], we were permitted to see him for a short visit in Eid al-Adha...Since then [mid-September], we have not been able to see him or check up on him.
Detainees who are suspected to have voiced opposition to the Houthi takeover or spoken in favor of the Saudi-led coalition are labelled as “dawa’ish” (supporters of ISIS), or “supporters of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition aggression on Yemen,” in an attempt to justify their detention. Some journalists are accused of providing GPS coordinates to the coalition.
Amnesty International recommends that “The de facto Houthi authorities and aligned institutions in San’a, as well as the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and any post-war government, should ensure that...all such cases are investigated impartially and independently and that individuals against whom sufficient admissible evidence is found of responsibility for serious violations, are prosecuted in proceedings that fully respect international fair trial standards. Victims and their families must receive full reparation.”
Monday March 7The spokesperson for Missionaries of Charity confirmed on Monday that Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian Catholic priest, was abducted by gunmen during the March 4th storming of Aden’s retirement home. Attackers handcuffed 16 victims, including four nuns, and shot them in the head before reportedly destroying the chapel and the center. The Indian embassy in Djibouti was trying to determine the whereabouts of the priest, saying that they would “spare no efforts” to rescue him.
Tuesday March 8 A Houthi-controlled administrative body confirmed on Tuesday that group officials were in Saudi Arabia for talks on ending Yemen’s war. The meeting, which reportedly followed a week of secret preparatory talks, was the first between the two warring parties since the conflict began a year ago.
A UNHCR press release on Tuesday stated that 2.4 million people in Yemen have been displaced as a result of the conflict and the situation is likely to worsen. The statement “implores all sides to allow humanitarian access to the hardest hit-areas, where most of the displaced are located,” while also reporting that only 2% of its $1.8 billion aid request has yet been funded.
Wednesday March 9 Saudi Press Agency reported on Wednesday that Yemeni tribal meditators facilitated the release of seven Yemenis held by the kingdom in exchange for a detained Saudi lieutenant. The report also said that the border was calm, signaling the first steps towards a possible peace since the beginning of the 11-month-long conflict.
Thursday March 10 A number of Saudi and pro-Houthi outlets reported that coalition forces launched airstrikes on Ta’iz, San’a governorate, and Amran on Thursday. The Saudi report claimed the killing of 30 “Houthi fighters,” while a pro-Houthi outlet says that the shelling resulted in extensive damage to residential buildings and stores.
The Guardian reported on Thursday that a UK cross party committee is launching a full-scale inquiry into British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. A high court is also examining whether the government’s actions break the UK’s arms export laws, which state that export licenses cannot be granted if there is a clear risk the arms will be used to break international humanitarian law.
Friday March 11 To accompany a documentary recently aired on HBO, VICE published a piece on the Saudi-led coalition’s violations of humanitarian law and the complicity of the US and the UK. The piece explains why it is so difficult to assign responsibility for, let alone punish, these violations.
John Kerry held talks in Saudi Arabia on Friday with King Salman and Foreign Minister Adel el-Jubeir, among others, to “reassure officials of US-Saudi ties” while also stressing the need to end the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-kerry-saudi-idUSKCN0WD26J
Saturday March 12 Pro-Hadi government forces reportedly reclaimed areas in the western and southern suburbs of Ta’iz on Saturday, reopening key roads and passages for humanitarian aid that the Houthis have been blocking for nine months. At least 48 people were killed and 120 wounded in the Ta’iz clashes.
Clashes between security forces and “unknown gunmen,” who were later reported to belong to al-Qaeda, broke out in Aden on Saturday. Mareb Press reported later that evening that coalition forces launched airstrikes on governmental buildings in the al-Mansurah district of Aden (for the first time since the temporary capital was “liberated”) in response to the clashes and the shooting by al-Qaeda militants of a coalition Apache helicopter. Over 20 people were reportedly killed in the fighting.
Sunday March 13 Human Rights Watch reported on Sunday that Houthi officials confiscated the passport of the executive director of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, Abdulrasheed al-Faqih, upon his arrival at San’a airport on March 4. Al-Faqih was returning from an international media conference in Amman when his passport was taken, preventing him from traveling outside Yemen. This is the second travel ban the Houthis have imposed on a rights advocate in the past six months.
A recent piece by Jillian Schwedler for the Atlantic Council explains the basis for the Houthi-Saleh alliance and its impending collapse. This marriage of convenience between historically opposed parties is not likely to outlast the ongoing war, and will possibly fall apart even earlier. A Houthi-led march in Sanʻa, which commemorated the five-year anniversary of the revolution that ended in Saleh’s forced resignation, may be the most recent indication of the alliance’s disintegration. For over a decade, and up until the 2012-14 transition period, Saleh and the Houthis butted heads. Though at first Saleh supported the Zaydi revivalist movement--seeing it as a useful counterbalance to Saudi influence in the far north, he turned on the Houthis in the early 2000s, wary of Husayn al-Houthi’s rapidly-growing power. Husayn, who was succeeded by his younger brother Abd al-Malik after his death, assembled militias in 2004 to defend the movement against the regime’s crackdown. The conflict between the Houthis and Saleh continued for years; their eventual alliance was rooted not in mutual interests but in mutual opposition to Hadi’s monopolization of the transition process.
“Between the Houthis and Saleh, there is more than enough hubris to go around. Each seems convinced it can dispense the other with ease once the Saudi-led campaign ends. But with no signs of that happening soon, will the coalition endure?”
Saleh benefits from the Houthis’ experienced militias, strong alliances with northern tribes, and their followers, who rally to their message of Zaydi (and, more generally, Yemeni) empowerment. The Houthis, meanwhile, face strong opposition and cannot survive without Saleh’s formally-trained national army and support from his patronage networks.
There is no end in sight for the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and this is putting a strain on the already uncomfortable alliance. Both parties are likely looking for ways to split from each other as soon as the dust settles. This may be more easily achieved by the Houthis. They are currently in mid-level negotiations with the Saudis, who are reportedly insistent that Saleh not be a part of Yemen’s future.
Houthi forces surrounding Ta‘iz have been reportedly denying entry to aid vehicles and confiscating food and medical supplies from civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented a number of instances, some dating back to at least September, of the Houthis stopping Ta‘iz residents at checkpoints surrounding the city and confiscating fuel, food, medicine, and clothing. Medical aid trucks belonging to the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières have been turned away from Ta‘iz, preventing the delivery of essential medical supplies, such as oxygen tanks and vaccinations. These practices constitute a violation of international humanitarian law and have had grave consequences for the residents of Ta‘iz. One hospital reported that six premature infants have died in the last two months because the hospital lacks the oxygen tanks and generators necessary to run their incubators.
“The Houthis are denying necessities to residents of Ta‘iz because they happen to be living in areas that opposition forces control,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Seizing property from civilians is already unlawful, but taking their food and medical supplies is simply cruel.”
Although Houthi forces surround Ta‘iz and maintain checkpoints outside of the city, opposition forces commanded by Shaykh Hamud al-Mikhlafi--including the Sunni Islah party and salafi groups--control the city center.
Ta‘iz has been subjected to indiscriminate shelling and some of the heaviest ground fighting in the conflict, forcing two-thirds of its population to flee while the remaining residents are in desperate need of food and medical aid.
A new report by Human Rights Watch details the Houthi forces' practice of arbitrarily detaining and disappearing individuals with ties--real or imagined--to the Islah Party or other opposition groups. The report provides details of more than 20 cases of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance, out of 35 cases confirmed by HRW investigators. The people illegally detained by the Houthis include political activists, Islah party members, journalists, and lawyers. According to one Yemeni attorney interviewed by HRW, more than 800 people are currently being held by Houthi authorities in and around San‘a:
He said that based on information he has gathered from sources knowledgeable about detentions, the Houthis were holding at least 250 at al-Thawra pretrial detention facility, 180 at Habra pretrial detention facility, 167 at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), 165 opposition figures at Sanaa Central Prison, 73 at the Political Security Organization’s headquarters, 20 at al-Judairi police station, 10 at one of the homes of the former First Armored Division commander, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and an unknown number at Zain al-Abdeen mosque in Hiziyaz.
Based on interviews with witnesses and family members, the report claims that Houthi authorities are depriving many detainees of food and water, preventing them from contacting anyone on the outside, and holding them in otherwise illegal and abusive conditions. One journalism student, for example, who has been imprisoned for more than four months, was "first held for three days without food or being allowed to use the bathroom." A professor at San‘a University's medical school "was being held in a three-by-three meter cell with 14 other men and was only allowed to use the bathroom once a day."
On the surrounding rocky hills some four kilometers to the west of Marib City, pro-Houthi forces have been holding positions since early this month, while the Saudi-led coalition’s own forces along with local tribal fighters fight to sweep them out of the way to the capital, Sanʻa. The coalition’s ground offensive in the oil-rich governorate of Marib, in central Yemen, is part of a larger strategy to take control of Sanʻa, some 175 km to the west of the governorate. The ongoing battle in Marib, though, seems to have produced a standoff so far, two weeks after the ground offensive officially began on September 13, hours after the exiled President Hadi and his government in Riyadh backed out of UN-sponsored talks to end the months-long conflict in Yemen.
According to several sources in Marib, however, clashes between tribal fighters and pro-Houthi forces were already taking place more than a week earlier. The coalition-trained Maribi fighters and coalition armed forces were “sent as reinforcements.”
“The fighting broke out late in August in Sirwah district [northwest of Marib], when the Houthis attempted to make a push toward Marib City,” a tribal elder in the city told the YPP via telephone, indicating that the clashes between the warring parties were escalating day by day.
Coalition forces based in the Safer area, to the east of Marib City, have been reportedly preparing to mount a ground offensive as part of their larger campaign to “liberate” Houthi-controlled Sanʻa, in what was allegedly dubbed “Operation Sweeping Current.”
Meanwhile, pro-Houthi forces were able to advance on the rocky hills outside Marib, after fierce clashes along three fronts there killed dozens on both sides, according to local tribal and military sources.
On September 4, Houthis also fired a short-range ballistic missile from Bayhan district of the neighboring Shabwah province, killing 67 Emirati, Saudi, Bahraini soldiers as well as an unknown number of local tribal fighters at a camp in Safer.
By September 8, four days after the ballistic missile attack, hundreds of trained tribal fighters along with a number of coalition’s own forces were seen heading for Marib city, coming from Safer.
“At least 700 local fighters, who were trained in Saudi Arabia along with troops from the coalition forces, have arrived in the headquarters of the 3rd Military Region and a military base in Sahn al-Jin area,” military sources in Marib told the YPP, pointing out that the military base in the area is used as a training camp for the local fighters.
The military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that these allied troops were “sent as reinforcements on Tuesday [September 8],” after the pro-Houthi forces took control of three positions near the rocky hills.
Despite those reinforcements, the pro-Houthi forces “started to carry out heavy missile attacks using Katyusha and Uragan BM-27 rocket launchers, targeting both the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the training camp,” said the sources, adding that several coalition troops were killed, and a number of armored vehicles destroyed.
On that day, the UAE government officially stated that one Emirati soldier was killed in the Marib fighting. There had been no official comments from the other Gulf States participating in the current ground offensive, but Houthi-affiliated media outlets claimed that two Qatari soldiers were killed, and that a score of armored vehicles were totally destroyed. Those figures could not be confirmed independently.
In response, the tribal fighters fought their way back to the western areas of al-Jufaina, Edat al-Raa’ and Tabbat al-Masaryah, where pro-Houthi forces are holding their positions. Coalition fighter jets and Apache helicopters provided the Maribi fighters with air support, according to both military sources.
On September 12, the Saudi-led coalition officially announced the ground offensive in Marib, hours after the exiled government in Riyadh announced it would not participate in the UN-backed peace talks, which were expected to be held in few days later.
On Friday, September 25, at least 1,000 local fighters, who had been trained in Saudi Arabia, crossed through the town of al-Abr in Hadhramawt governorate, and headed for Marib aboard military armored vehicles and tanks.
The military sources said that these troops arrived at the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the military base in Sahn al-Jin area. “But this time, the troops advanced under an air cover and after heavy airstrikes” on Houthi positions. According to several tribal sources in Marib, the fighters aboard military armored trucks pushed into the western fronts under heavy aerial cover on Saturday, indicating that al-Jufaina and Tabbat al-Masaryah fronts have seen the most brutal fighting.
On Sunday, a weapons depot in Tabbat al-Masaryah was bombed by airstrikes and flames were seen rising above this rocky hill front, according to the sources. The airstrikes have also targeted a Houthi checkpoint in Harib area of Shabwah, on the border with Marib, killing a number of Houthi fighters including their leader, who was identified as Abo Malek al-Khawlani.
On Monday, the tribal fighters closed in on the pro-Houthi forces at the Tabbat al-Masaryah front in the northwest, and were poised to drive them out from two positions, said a local tribal source, indicating that the push uphill was preceded with the heaviest airstrikes and the artillery shells yet seen. However, the Houthi-affiliated TV channel al-Masira said that Houthi forces were making "a tactical retreat," and that "the aggressors were using internationally banned missiles".
The fighting is not over yet in Marib; on Sunday the convoy of one of the Yemeni military commanders in charge of “liberating” Marib, Brigadier al-Qumayri, hit a landmine planted by the pro-Houthi forces. Four of al-Qumayri's body guards were killed, including his son, Hamza, and several others were injured, while he survived the bombing unscathed, according to a tribal source.
Update: Yemen Press reported on Tuesday that tribal and coalition forces had gained full control of Marib Dam, as well as Tabbat al-Masaryah. The YPP's sources confirmed those reports.
The Saudi-led aerial offensive and the civil conflict on the ground continue into a fourth month now. Over 2800 Yemenis have been killed and thousands of others injured, while over one million have been internally displaced. Saudi Arabia’s stated goals haven’t yet been achieved: the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces keep on advancing, while President Hadi and his government are still in exile. The humanitarian situation has become more dire than ever: 8.6 million Yemenis need urgent medical help; 21.1 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, while half of Yemen’s population is food insecure.
Moreover, the health system has been virtually paralyzed, and Dengue fever on—top of Malaria—has rapidly spread, particularly in the coastal areas. In addition to a score of dengue fever cases registered in the port city of Mukalla in Hadramout province, 85 cases have been registered in the historical town of Hajarayn alone over the past week.
Last Monday, after the collapse of the Geneva talks, the Houthi-Saleh delegation headed to Oman, where they reportedly held talks with Southern Movement leaders. Flying back to Sanʻa Friday, the airplane carrying the delegates was prevented from landing in the Sana’a International Airport. After finally landing on Saturday, a delegate stated that the Houthis are mulling over the prospect of forming a partnership government, and that they have no plans to attend additional peace talks.
The Saudi-led airstrikes have been hitting several cities since the beginning of Ramadan, mainly where ground fighting is taking place, in Marib, al-Jawf, Aden, Taʻiz, Lahj, al-Baydha, and Shabwah. Other cities, including Hajjah, al-Hudaydah, and Raima were also hit by airstrikes over the past weeks.
Two historical sites in both Raima and Hajjah were struck, bringing to 25 the number of such sites that have been targeted by Saudi warplanes. In the southern city of Aden, Houthi fighters shelled the only oil refinery, destroying much of the city’s fuel reserves and releasing a massive cloud of oil smoke over residential areas.
As Yemen’s war continues, media coverage over the last week focused on UN-sponsored negotiations, originally set to begin on Sunday. The three-day talks in Geneva, billed as “preliminary inclusive consultations,” which aim at ending the months-long war in Yemen, began on Monday, June 15, following week-long quibbles over the representation and the mechanism for talks. But the talks were inaugurated with only delegates of the exiled government in Riyadh in attendance, while the Yemeni delegates from Sanʻa—representing the Houthi movement and its allies—were stranded in Djibouti for nearly 24 hours. The talks were supposed to start Sunday, but were postponed after the delegates did not board the UN airplane at the Sanʻa International Airport on Friday.
Although the talks between the conflicting political parties were delayed, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has already called for an immediate two-week ceasefire during the holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Thursday.
Over the past week, Saudi warplanes conducted airstrikes in at least 12 cities including the capital, Sanʻa, where both residential areas and pro-Houthi/Saleh figures were targeted.
On Friday, a neighborhood in the Old City of Sanʻa—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—was hit by airstrikes, flatting at least five houses and killing seven civilians. On Saturday, the home of former special forces commander Yahyah Mohammed Abdullah Saleh was hit along with other nearby houses of his relatives. Strikes continued past the official start of the Geneva talks; Sanʻa was reportedly struck by several airstrikes on Monday.
In cities where the civil conflict is intensifying, the Saudi-led airstrikes continue to provide air cover for the so-called “Popular Resistance.”
In the eastern city of Marib, two main tribal encampments, Nakhla and Suhail, were captured by the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces. In the neighboring Jawf province, these forces also captured the provincial city, Hazm, after weeks of heavy clashes. In southern city of Aden, the oil refinery was forced to halt operations, while fierce clashes took place in Maʻalla and Buraiqah areas. The central city of Taʻiz has seen the fiercest clashes in two months as mortar and tank shells have reportedly hit several downtown residential areas.
It’s been nearly two months and a half (74 days as of Monday, June 8) since the Saudi-led aerial offensive was launched to achieve the stated goals: the Houthis’ advancement has not yet been halted, nor has been restored to power the exiled government in Riyadh. Over the past week, both pro-Houthi fighters and pro-Saleh forces intensified their cross-border attacks, while the Saudi airstrikes continued to pound their bases and target their leading members in several cities, including the capital, Sanʻa.
On Friday, the Republican Guards, loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, failed to advance on the Saudi city of Jaizan, as Houthi fighters continued to attack the neighboring areas. On Saturday, pro-Houthi fighters fired a Scud missile targeting the Khamis Mushait airbase inside Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi Air Defense Forces intercepted the missile. Using such a ballistic missile in the battle, the Houthi spokesperson said, is like a “quantum leap” and a “warning message.”
As June 14 was finally set for the Geneva talks, the aerial and cross-border attacks intensified, and both sides have reinforced their positions. Such escalation of fighting is likely to undermine the UN-backed efforts, although the political parties, including the Houthis, have agreed to participate in the upcoming Geneva talks without preconditions. Meanwhile, Houthi delegates flew to the Russian capital, Moscow, for meetings with Kremlin officials, which follow their weeks-long talks with American and Iranian officials in the Omani capital, Muscat.
On the ground, combat continues to flare up largely in Aden, Taʻiz, Marib and al-Dhaliʻ cities as Saudi airstrikes serve as air cover for the so-called “popular resistance.”
As of May 31, over 2200 Yemenis had been killed across the country, half of them civilians, and 10,000 injured, while nearly 10,000 others have fled to Djibouti as refuges. The number of the IDPs has amounted to more than one million people; most of them are forced to live in public spaces and unhealthy conditions.
The last week’s press coverage has chiefly focused on the continuous Saudi-led air war and the civil conflict on the ground, along with the cross-border attacks by pro-Houthi fighters. Also, the political talks in Oman and the UN-backed efforts in both Sanʻa and Riyadh have grabbed several headlines. The Saudi air war is now in its third month, and seems to be no closer to its stated goals of forcing a Houthi retreat and returning Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi to power. Nearly 2000 people have so far been killed by this aerial war and the civil conflict, while 8,000 more have been injured. At least 10,000 Yemenis have sought refuge in Djibouti.
Aid agencies, which couldn’t bring in sufficient supplies during the first “humanitarian pause,” continue to voice their serious concerns over the catastrophic health situation. At least 158 health facilities have been shut down due to the war, while several others were struck by Saudi warplanes. Nearly 8.6 million people urgently need medical care, and local experts say roughly 13 million Yemenis urgently need aid of some kind. Yemen’s patrimony is also reportedly being ravaged by the airstrikes, including Dhamar’s historical museum and the Marib Dam.
Clashes between the pro-Saleh/pro-Houhti forces and their various opponents have continued to intensify in four Yemeni cities: Aden Taʻiz, Marib and Shabwa.
In the eastern Marib, more than a dozen Houthi/Saleh fighters were killed in Sirwah district and seven civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting. In Aden, clashes intensified in several districts including Khor Maksar, near the airport. In the central city of Taʻiz, the fighting downtown and the Saudi airstrikes have killed civilians after the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces captured a strategic mountain, home to the ancient and famous al-Qahirah Fortress. In the southeastern Shabwah Governorate, the Houthi/Saleh forces have advanced in the city and gained new areas. On the borders with Saudi Arabia, pro-Houthi fighters hit Najran’s airport along with military bases there and in Jaizan city as well. Their TV Channel, al-Masirah, aired footage of new, locally-produced missiles called “Earthquake.”
As the UN-sponsored conference in Geneva was postponed indefinitely, the Houthi delegates continued their talks in Oman over the past week, which are believed to involve US and Iranian officials. The delegates were reported to have reached an initial agreement to end the war in Yemen. But the exiled government in Riyadh rejected such an agreement, saying that “such talks will not make stability possible in Yemen.” The rival political parties seemed to have agreed on holding the Geneva conference in two weeks, following the UN envoy’s meeting on Monday with the exiled government in Riyadh – three days after he visited Sanʻa for the second time.
If you haven't already, I strongly recommend that you read Adam Baron's latest piece of Yemen-alysis for the ECFR. In it, Baron does a great job of summarizing recent developments on several fronts (both literal and figurative) of Yemen's internationalized conflict. One of the most important points he makes is that Saudi Arabia's vicious campaign of airstrikes, while drawing considerable criticism from the outside world, is "remarkably popular" within Saudi Arabia. Here's how Baron puts it:
While the Saudi offensive has seemingly failed to notch up significant success, it has proven remarkably popular domestically. Furthermore, contacts have noted a surge of popularity for Mohammed bin Salman. These factors, in addition to Hadi and other exiled officials’ unreserved support for the offensive in the hopes that its success would lead to their return to power, have ensured that the Saudis are under little to no pressure to bring an end to the conflict. In short, while it may appear from the outside that Saudi Arabia is under tremendous pressure to end the war, from an internal perspective, it is just the opposite.
There's so much more packed into this short piece that everyone should read and take to heart, so please read the whole thing. But one other paragraph in particular is worthy of special attention here. It concerns the gains al-Qaeda has made since the start of the war.
As the power vacuum has been exacerbated, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage to dramatic effect, seizing control of Mukalla and much of the eastern province of Hadramawt. For the first time, AQAP is openly and actively embedding itself in and coordinating with Yemeni tribes; tribal contacts in Shabwa have said that even a number of staunchly anti-AQAP tribal leaders have agreed to truces with the group. This suggests that the situation in Al-Bayda, where AQAP fighters have openly fought alongside anti-Houthi fighters, risks becoming the norm in much of the rest of the country.
So, Saudi Arabia continues to escalate and is eager to find allies inside Yemen who can actually fight and win. AQAP--one of the most effective fighting forces in the country--is operating in the open, and making new friends. I have an official policy about making predictions on this blog ("don't do it"), so I'll let you map out your own worst-case scenarios from here.
Mafraj Blog contributor Mohammed Ali Kalfood reports on the conflict in Marib. For more on this issue, listen to our interview with Nadwa al-Dawsari on episode 18 of Mafraj Radio. In five encampments spread along three sides of Marib city in east Yemen, local tribal fighters have been holding their ground against forces loyal to the Houthi movement and former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh since last September, when the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital. Following the fall of Sanʻa, pro-Houthi units advanced on Marib, as well as other strategically important parts of the country.
Since then, sporadic clashes have taken place in Marib Governorate, where crucial elements of Yemen’s energy sector are located. Thousands of armed tribesmen, who hail from five key tribes in the province, have mobilized their local fighters to repel the Houthi fighters advancing on their fatherland along with pro-Saleh forces.
The Houthis and their allies claim that the Marib tribes are harboring elements of al-Qaeda in Yemen, a justification that has been disputed by several local observers.
“We have solid evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Marib, as tribes have provided refuge for its elements,” Tawfiq al-Himyari, a member on the Houthi movement’s ‘Revolutionary Committee’ in Sanʻa, said in an interview.
Four months after the Houthis’ seizure of the capital—days before the now-exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi was placed under house arrest—the movement’s leader, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, issued four demands in a televised speech. One of those demands was that President Hadi act immediately to secure Marib, where, al-Houthi said, al-Qaeda elements and allied saboteurs continued to carry out attacks on an important oil pipeline and the national electricity grid. Back then, al-Houthi also accused both Hadi and the Islamist Islah party of empowering al-Qaeda.
Soon after the Houthis siezed power and placed Hadi under house arrest, Marib’s major tribes “openly expressed their support” to President Hadi. On the day the Houthis announced their “constitutional declaration” in the capital, Marib tribes announced their “autonomy” from Sanʻa as their fighters established their encampments, effectively closing all entrances to Marib province.
But ‘Ali al-Qibli Namran, Chief of the Tribal Federation in Marib, argues that there is no presence of al-Qaeda in the province, and that is just “an excuse” the Houthis like to make.
“Al-Houthi always raises and makes up excuses that are, as a matter of fact, issues of concern to the public and the international community in order to gain acquiescence and overlook his expansion into the cities and provinces he wants to control,” Namran said.
"If there is anyone suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda, then the government, with the cooperation of the people of Marib, have the sole responsibility to fight and arrest him, and if al-Qaeda had a presence in Marib, it would have attacked oil and electricity facilities as well as army camps.”
But al-Qaeda has carried out sporadic attacks in this oil-rich province, and its presence there is believed to pre-date the first US drone strike in Yemen in 2002. According to local experts, the Houthi expansion into other parts of Yemen may also increase rivalry with the local branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
“The expansion of the Houthi group into several areas has ratcheted up rivalry with the extremist factions, and paved the way for such factions to be recruited as fighters,” said Ahmed Arami, a writer and political analyst from Radaʻ district of al-Baydha, which the Houthis entered last November “to fight al-Qaeda there,” before they turned to the neighboring province of Marib.
The Houthis also used the phenomenon of attacks on oil and power installations to justify their invasion of Marib. Such attacks became common after the May 2010 killing of Marib’s deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani. Al-Shabwani, who was negotiating with AQAP on behalf of the Yemeni government, was allegedly killed by an American missile strike based on intelligence provided by then-President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh.
Clashes have chiefly been taking place in the western districts of Marib since September, although lately the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have tried to advance on the city from the northern, western, and southern sides, according to local tribal sources.
“Five tribal encampments have been set up: in Nakhla of al-Wadi district to the north of Marib; in al-Suhail of Sirwah district to the northwest; in al-Washamah of Jouba district, and Najd al-Majma’ah of al-Rahabah district to the southwest; as well as al-Labanat of Sirwah district to the northwest,” one of the tribal elders of the Jihm tribe, ‘Abdullah Bin Tayman said.
“We will defend and protect the province at any cost,” said Tayman, indicating that all tribes have vowed, “Marib will never be captured by the Houthis, who are backed Saleh and Iran.”
While the Houthis were seeking to mobilize tribal support on their side, other tribes from the neighboring provinces of al-Jawf, al-Baydha, and Shabwa have sided with the tribal fighters of Marib and joined the battle as well, according to local sources.
According to tribal elder Tayman, “clashes have lately intensified in Sirwah district and nearby areas,” adding that “the tribal resistance has lost at least 50 tribesmen while scores of Houthis and their allies [pro-Saleh forces] have been killed.”
Analysts in Sanʻa say that the Marib frontline has been “slowly but surely escalating,” although since President Hadi was forced to flee his provisional capital of Aden, the fighting has become more focused on the southern part of Yemen.
“The fighting in Marib, as in several Yemeni cities, is merely politically motivated, and gradually increasing and becoming a real threat to the entire country, especially when half of the 800 megawatt of power, which the country produces, in addition to the majority of oil derivatives, come from Marib,” said Ahmed al-Hasaani, a political analyst in Sanʻa.
According to Saeed al-Youssifi, a local activist in Marib, the five-day “humanitarian pause” agreed to by Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah did not include a cessation of combat in Marib.
“After the ceasefire began [on Tuesday, May 12], clashes broke out again and lasted for about 12 hours,” said al-Youssifi, adding that “the Saudi warplanes have been providing air cover for the tribal fighters.”
However, fighting on the Marib frontline over the past seven months seems to have produced a standoff, although fierce clashes have spread to three bordering provinces, al-Jawf, al-Baydha and Shabwah, where the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have apparently gained ground, according to several local activists in Marib.
While the Marib battle has not been a major topic in ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s recent speeches, Revolutionary Committee member Tawfiq al-Himyari argued that “the battle in Marib has yet to begin to purge the city of al-Qaeda and its partners.”
Early last week, the humanitarian crisis facing the Yemeni people was dominating the headlines of the local press coverage, but as of Tuesday, the “abrupt ending” of the so-called Operation Decisive Storm has complicated news coverage. For the Saudi warplanes continue to strike in several parts of Yemen as the civil conflict on the ground expands onto new fronts. On Monday – one day before Saudi Arabia announced the second phase of its campaign in Yemen, dubbed ‘Operation Restoration of Hope’ – a huge explosion rocked the capital Sanʻa, killing at least 25 people and injuring hundreds of others.
The month-long Saudi aerial offensive has been officially reported to have killed at least 915 civilians, including 143 children and 95 women, and wounded 3943 others. In addition to the weeklong power outage across several main cities in the country, public water towers and resources were greatly damaged by the airstrikes in seven Yemeni provinces.
Complicating the already horrific humanitarian situation, Oxfam’s warehouses in Saʻdah were bombed by Saudi airstrikes. A number of Save the Children’s staffers in Sanʻa were injured and their workplace damaged by Monday’s earthquake-like explosion. Aid agencies, including ICRC, continue to warn of serious humanitarian catastrophe in the country.
Despite all that, the Saudi warplanes continue to strike as civil conflicts continue in several fronts between pro-Houthi/Saleh forces and their various opponents.
In the oil-rich province of Marib, clashes continue in western districts, where the power transmitting lines have been knocked out, and repair teams are still unable to reach affected areas.
In the central city of Taʻiz, clashes spread through downtown streets and suburbs since the beginning of the past week. Pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have captured the 35th Armored Brigade, which declared its support to President Hadi. The unit has ties to General ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who is serving as Hadi’s military advisor in Riyadh.
Taking advantage of the Saudi airstrikes, al-Qaeda in the eastern Hadramout Governorate took control of the capital city, al-Mukalla, and captured one of the biggest mechanized military bases, which includes 70 armored tanks.
Failing to restore Hadi to power, Saudi Arabia, however, continues its campaign, while the Houthis continue to engage in clashes with their rivals in the southern cities. The Houthi spokesperson said in a statement that they will engage in political talks only if “the Saudi aggression is completely stopped.”
As the Saudi air offensive continued last week, the local press coverage continued to spotlight the civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis facing the people, while underlining the coalition’s failure to achieve the stated objectives of its campaign. It’s been three weeks now, and as of Saturday at least 1,200 aerial attacks have been reported. The Saudi airstrikes have so far killed more than 2,500 Yemenis in at least eight Yemeni provinces over 18 days.
In the capital Sanʻa alone, 385 civilians were reportedly killed during the first two weeks. In Taʻiz province, a neighborhood inhabited by Muhammashin (Marginalized People) was hit by an airstrike, killing at least 12 people, including women and children. In Saʻdah province, more than a dozen people were killed by aerial attacks targeting government buildings, homes and gas stations. One airstrike hit a gas station, incinerating at least 12 people and wounding 49 others.
Since the Saudi-led air offensive was launched, Yemenis have been facing a humanitarian crisis as thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded, and more than 120,000 people have been internally displaced. In the conflict-stricken areas aid efforts have been hindered and medical workers have been isolated in hospitals with no medical supplies. Moreover, Yemen’s economic losses during this three-week period have been estimated at over $1 billion. As the sea and air ports have been blockaded, experts warn the crisis will escalate as Yemen is largely dependent on imports.
Moreover, in the eastern province of Marib the power transmitting lines were knocked out as clashes erupted between Houthis and tribal fighters, leaving the capital and other major cities in the dark for three days now. But two reasons were said to be behind the massive power outage across Yemen: the ongoing fighting in Marib and the more long-term shortage of diesel.
While the Saudi-led campaign aims to halt pro-Houthi/Saleh forces advancing on southern cities, those forces continue to take control of key areas in the south, where al-Qaeda enjoys a strong presence. The pro-Houthi/Saleh forces captured Attaq, the provincial capital of the southeastern province Shabwah, last week. In the same area, al-Qaeda was reported to have slaughtered at least 13 soldiers.
On the other hand, the exiled president, ‘Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, named former Prime Minister Khaled Bahah as his Vice-president – a move that was seen as a gambit to strengthen the embattled executive branch. Three days later and after a week of closed-door negations, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis.
Over the last week, local press coverage had underlined the dramatic aftermath of 13 days of continuous aerial attacks by a Saudi-led coalition, which, in addition to hundreds of casualties, have caused a fuel shortage, long power outages, the suspension of educational institutions, and mass evacuations of foreigners. The aerial attacks were reported to have left 857 civilians dead in different parts of Yemen, including 160 children under the age of 15. Also, at least 100,000 people have been internally displaced.
On the outskirts of the capital, Sanʻa, at least 11 people from a single family were killed by an airstrike. In the same area, six people were killed and eight others were wounded. Two more people were killed and three others were wounded in Sanhan village, not far from the capital. In the western port city of al-Hudaydah, an airstrike hit a dairy factory killing more than 33 workers. Also in al-Hudaydah, five trucks loaded with wheat were shelled while on their way to Taʻiz province. In the southern province of Lahj, a cement factory was bombed, where dozens were killed and wounded. In Saʻdah province, at least nine people from a single family, including four children, were killed by an airstrike.
As the Saudi aerial attacks were launched on March 26, a fuel crisis began, leaving Sanʻa residents with only a few hours of daily electricity supply from diesel-run stations, while schools and universities in the capital have been put on hold for another week.
Moreover, as the Saudi-led campaign—which is ostensibly intended to halt the advance of pro-Houthi and pro-Saleh forces—entered its second week, the Houthis entered the southern port city of Aden with tanks and armored vehicles. The city saw fierce clashes over the past two weeks, in which more than 500 people have died. The situation in Aden continues to deteriorate, while Arab and western countries continue to evacuate their nationals from the city’s seaport.
Meanwhile, the Islah Party announced its support for the Saud-led Operation Decisive Storm. Since then, Ansar Allah’s forces have stormed the party’s headquarters as well as the homes of leaders and members, abducting more than 300 in at least six Yemeni provinces.
On this episode we discuss Yemen's escalating civil war between forces aligned with the Houthi movement and former president 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh on one side, and Yemen's recently-ousted president 'Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi and other regional factions on the other. On March 25, a coalition of foreign governments led by Saudi Arabia joined the war, launching hundreds of airstrikes against pro-Houthi and pro-Saleh forces. Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed so far, most of them civilians.
Coverage of the war in Yemen has, as always, been spotty. Here are some of the more important pieces on the current situation: Yemen specialist Adam Baron spoke to NPR's Morning Edition today about why foreign observers shouldn't view Yemen's conflict as primarily sectarian, and the many dangers of escalating and regionalizing the conflict.
Adam Baron is also featured on this excellent ECFR panel discussion of the Yemeni conflict, along with Nawal al-Maghafi and Mina al-Oraibi. Nawal's account of sneaking into Sa‘dah in 2010 to report on the Houthi movement is particularly gripping.
Abubakr al-Shamahi of Al-Araby has a rather useful video explaining the Yemeni conflict in four minutes.
Medicins Sans Frontieres reports that it's dealing with hundreds of victims of fighting in Aden, Lahj, and al-Dhali‘, as well as casualties from airstrikes in northern Yemen. MSF says it cannot bring in desperately-needed supplies and personnel because the Saudi-led coalition is blocking humanitarian shipments from Yemen's air and seaports.
ICRC has also complained about the blockade on relief supplies.
UNICEF reports that at least 62 children have been killed in recent fighting. More than two dozen civilians were killed when coalition forces bombed an IDP camp in Sa‘dah on Monday. On Tuesday, coalition strikes destroyed a dairy factory in al-Hudaydah, killing at least 37 civilians. Fighting continued Tuesday in the northern parts of the city of Aden.
The Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign, labeled Operation Decisive Storm, has divided the local media since it was launched last week. Besides, fresh news websites have emerged while some of those which had previously suspended operations have resurfaced. The campaign, ostensibly intended to halting the Houthi movement’s expansion across the country, started two days after UN envoy Jamal Benomar cancelled the political talks between the Houthis and their opponents, which had only just resumed in the capital, Sanʻa.
While such a campaign seems to have ended any possibility of political negations, the Saudi King called on the Houthis to participate in talks proposed to be held in Riyadh – a proposal that was rejected by the Houthis along with four other political parties earlier last month.
President Hadi’s newly appointed Foreign Minister, Riyadh Yasin (who, like Hadi, is currently in Saudi Arabia), said that the political process is dependent on the Saudi-led campaign.
In the days since the campaign was launched, Ansar Allah has not yet responded militarily toward Saudi Arabia as local observers expected. However, the group's leader gave a speech threatening Saudi Arabia with strong response if it continues the airstrikes.
While the airstrikes continue to hit pro-Houthi/Saleh military bases in different parts of Yemen, civilians have been killed and wounded. On the first day of this campaign, when the Sanʻa airport and al-Dailami airbase were bombed, 27 people were reportedly killed including 15 children. All schools in Sanʻa have been closed, while students of Sanʻa University were called in to continue.
Pakistan’s prime minister was quick to join the Saudi-led coalition and pledged to send ground troops, but later backpedaled under pressure from the public and government officials. A high-level Pakistani delegation is currently in Riyadh, and the government has promised not to commit forces to Decisive Storm before the issue is discussed at an all-party conference. Pakistan and other countries, including China, have acted to evacuate their citizens from Yemen, while the Indian premier asked Saudi Arabia to help his country evacuate Indian nationals. Sudan is currently reviewing how to evacuate its nationals, and its president confirmed he may ground troops to Yemen.