In Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order, Chatham House's Peter Salisbury identifies Yemen as a “chaos state” characterized as “a nominal entity that exists largely as lines on a map and as a concept in newspaper reports and policymaker briefings" (p. 45). The traditional solution to restoring order in a “chaos state” is creating a centralized government that dictates legitimacy from the top down. According to Salisbury’s analysis, this approach is unlikely to work in Yemen. Yemen is not purely a contest for power between the Houthis and the government of President Hadi, or purely a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but rather “a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another, and beset by their own complex internal politics and conflicts.”
Al Arabiya identified four members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who have allegedly been advising the Houthis in San’a.
In the international arena, President Bashir of Sudan confirmed the Sudanese government's continued support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The Office of the Governor in al-Mahrah issued a statement asking local customs to refuse the entry of materials such as trucks, fertilizers, pipes, and motorcycles, which could have long-term negative economic effects on farmers as well as food production.
A pro-coalition article asserted that the United Arab Emirates is in command of the coalition/National Army/Southern Resistance offensive advancing toward Hudaydah.
Al Arabiya reported that Tehran evacuated 40 military advisors, as well as UN workers, from San’a following the death of an Iranian Missile expert who was killed last Saturday.
US Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are calling for new sanctions on Iran for its destabilizing activities in Yemen. They have introduced a bill they claim will hold Tehran accountable for their support of the Houthis.
The governor of Ta’iz, Ali al-Mamari, recently described the economic and military conditions of Ta’iz in an interview with Farea al-Muslimi of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. The Houthis stormed Ta’iz in 2015, and fighting between Houthi-Saleh forces and local resistance groups supported by the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition has continued since. The Houthis control Ta’iz’s industrial areas of major economic activity, and in order to keep control of these revenue-generating areas, the Houthis blockade and shell Ta’iz. Al-Mamari details how the central government, particularly the Central Bank of Yemen, neglects Ta’iz - and how the lack of funds contributes to the deteriorating security, education, and public health situation.
A federal judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government from implementing the Trump administration’s third attempted travel ban. The decision came just hours before the new policy was due to go into effect.
Today we're pleased to present a guest post by Yemeni journalist Mohammed Ali Kalfood. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Yemen Peace Project. With the Shiite Houthi movement--apparently allied with former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh--taking over the north of Yemen, where Sunni hard-liners are dominant, and a “legitimate” interim president in the south, where al-Qaeda's local offshoot has a strong presence, the UN-led political process in Yemen seems to have been thrown into a long-term “Islamist” rivalry that threatens the stability and security of this most impoverished Arab country.
It’s been more than three years since the process of the peaceful transition of power started in Yemen, one year after the popular uprising burst forth against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years.
The transition period has been characterized by fierce rivalries over power and territory, which have culminated in a total breakdown of law and order across Yemen, and the collapse of certain parties and factions that previously wielded significant power. Back in 2012, the Islah party—Yemen’s largest opposition party, which includes the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—and the General Peoples’ Congress (GPC) party, chaired by Saleh, signed the GCC Initiative in Riyadh, a negotiated settlement backed by the Gulf states and the United States, which saw Saleh step down, handing the reins of government to his vice president, 'Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, in an interim capacity.
President Hadi, in turn, oversaw the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), an assembly of 565 delegates representing political factions and social groups, in an attempt to formulate a federal system of government and constitution.
But since then, Hadi has continued to face dramatic challenges at the political, economic and security levels. Although the NDC was regionally and internationally cited as a “model,” the post-Saleh period saw sectarian conflict, military assassinations, abduction of foreigners, and acts of sabotage increase in several parts of Yemen.
Moreover, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen –known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – has carried out the deadliest attacks ever since the group began in 2009 and stationed itself in the south of the country. In fact, it had virtually taken control of the southern Abyan province by March 2011, only a month after the popular uprising got under way.
The rise of the Shiite Houthis as new powerbrokers dominating the north and apparently siding with Saleh, is also believed to be another factor that intensified rivalry with the Sunni al-Qaeda in the south. A recently-passed UN resolution intended to punish Saleh and his Houthi allies.
The Houthis, based in their stronghold in the northern province of Saʻdah, started fighting with Sunni hard-liners in the town of Dammaj early in 2013, as the NDC sessions kicked off in March. Then the Houthis advanced through Amran Province and Arhab District before capturing the capital, Sanʻa, in September of 2014. In November they steered towards Radaʻ in central al-Baydha province to fight al-Qaeda there.
As early as 2010, Sunni al-Qaeda publicly vowed to fight the Shiite Houthis, which it regards as heretics. The Houthis are also viewed as Iranian proxies. Al-Qaeda suicide attacks against the Houthis, however, increased dramatically especially in Rada', where more than a dozen attacks had been reported. The Houthi leader, though, has reiterated in his recent speeches that his group will continue to fight al-Qaeda until “it is crushed or driven out.”
Since 2012, the Islah party’s tribal armed men had battled the Houthis in all fronts when the latter advanced from Saʻdah reaching Amran to Hajjah, Sanʻa, Dhamar and Ibb in the mountainous midlands. Al-Jawf province, east Yemen, has also seen fierce clashes. Now the next bout is brewing in the oil-rich Marib province.
Such rivalry between the Shiite Houthis and the Sunni hard-liners, on one hand, is based on a sectarian ground and, on the other hand, there is a political aspect to it. Islah has lost much of its political power, largely at the hands of the Houthis, and is believed to be supporting the violent groups directly and indirectly to reshuffle cards.
The Islah party reportedly used fighters from al-Qaeda in its battles against the Houthis during the last year. While there had been no statements denying such reports, a Twitter account associated with AQAP announced in mid-December that two leading members, 'Ali al-Haniq and Abu Waleed al-San‘ani, were killed fighting alongside the Islah party’s tribesmen in Arhab district, some 35 km to the north of the capital.
The GCC Initiative was snuffed out by the UN-brokered Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) on September 21, 2014--the day the Houthi group took control of the capital. Back then, the Houthis imposed themselves as a new powerbroker, and their feud with the Islah party and its figures was intensified. The Houthis started to strengthen their presence politically, and eliminated Islah’s positions in the state institutions, which they believe the party had “encroached” on since 2012.
Since September 2014, interim president Hadi faced immense pressure by this new rising power. After a four-month stand-off, Hadi tendered his letter of resignation. Following Hadi’s resignation, the Houthis dissolved the parliament as they announced a constitutional declaration, intending to form a two-year transitional council to preside over the country.
Meanwhile, Hadi was held under house arrest for several weeks before he fled to the southern port city of Aden and established himself there as the “legitimate” president. However, the Houthis continue to rule by force as they have staged crackdowns and abducted several members of Islah party.
Backed by the GCC states, Hadi designated Riyadh as a “safe” venue to relocate the political negotiations; meanwhile the stalled talks between the Houthis, Saleh’s party, and their opponents--led by UN special envoy Jamal Benomar--have recently resumed in Sanʻa. The envoy tried to talk the involved actors into relocating the talks outside of the capital, but the Houthis and GPC parties along with four other political parties refused this proposal.
Despite the GCC and PNPA deals as well as the NDC outcomes, several local observers believe that ongoing political talks will not succeed outside of the country since it’s been over three years now and the involved parties in the capital have not yet come to real peaceful and power-sharing terms.
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.
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.
While I work on a couple of long, detailed blog posts—one on the tactics and messaging strategies of AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`ah, and one on why President Hadi might want to take a page out of his predecessor's playbook—I needed to take a minute and flesh out two questions that keep coming up in my interactions on Twitter, but are too big to easily tackle in that format. I don't have answers to either of these questions, so I would love it if readers would offer their thoughts, either here in the comments or on Twitter.
Big Question Number One:
AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`ah: are they one and the same? Most serious analysts and specialists who know a lot about Yemen and/or al-Qa`idah believe that they are. More specifically, they accept the explanation that AQAP itself has offered, that Ansar al-Shari`ah (AAS) is simply a new brand name that AQAP operatives use when they think the al-Qa`idah name might not go over well with locals. This is the interpretation Gregory Johnsen, Aaron Zelin, and Will McCants—three very smart analysts I tend to agree with—accept, and it's the one presented on last week's PBS Frontline special. That program reached a much broader audience than usually pays attention to news from Yemen.
But there are others who don't accept this easy explanation of the relationship between AAS and AQAP. Wall Street Journal correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer has been very vocal, on Twitter at least, in insisting that locals in Abyan view the two organizations as separate and distinct. Knickmeyer claims that "a sizeable number of researchers currently working in Yemen" understand the two to be distinct, although she became inexplicably hostile and refused to talk to me when I tried to discuss this with her on Twitter. Another San`a-based American analyst whom I respect a great deal told me recently that AQAP's leadership has no direct relationship to AAS, and that AAS was originally, according to his sources, made up primarily of mercenaries, though it's not clear exactly to whom they answered.
The two groups still maintain separate media operations. As I'll explain in more detail in an upcoming post, I think that the messaging and media of the two groups tells us a good deal about their relationship. Most importantly, no one in the "AAS and AQAP are the same" camp has yet presented a detailed explanation of the whole operational structure of the unified organization. If AAS is just a marketing campaign, we have to understand how AQAP has been able, in just one year, to transform from a rather small network of militants primarily focused on carrying out bombings and other small operations to a quasi-state entity, capable of commanding a small army and governing whole towns.
Big Question Number Two:
Who really controls armed groups associated with Islah and the Southern Movement in 'Aden and elsewhere in the south? A few minutes ago I had the following interaction with Tweeter Haykal Bafana` after tweeting a story from the Yemen Post about new recruits in the Yemeni army firing at the Defense Minister's car:
This conversation reminded me of another one I had last week with tweeter Amel Ahmed about recent fighting between armed men identified as members of the Southern Movement (al-Hirak) and others identified as Islahi gunmen. Now, it's commonly understood that al-Hirak is not a unitary group with a single, central leadership. So it's very hard to know whom we're talking about when we use phrases like "Hiraki gunmen" or "southern separatist fighters." A recent story in the Guardian explained how some Southern Movement factions are seeking support from/being courted by foreign powers or other factions, including Iran and AQAP. So it's always important to ask, when clashes involving "separatists" are reported in 'Aden, Hadhramawt, or elsewhere in the south, who exactly these separatists are, and who commands, supports, or arms them.
Likewise, it's not clear (at least to me) who the so-called Islah party gunmen are in 'Aden (or in Abyan, as per Haykal's assertion above). Most analysts will tell you that party membership has never been the primary mode of identification, or the primary loyalty, of most Yemenis. Party ranks below family and tribe for most people. But in the past year there have been fighters described as "Islahi" involved in conflicts in al-Jawf, San`a, Arhab, `Aden, and now Abyan. So who are these fighters, and who commands them? Should we assume that all of these groups are in fact commanded and paid by the Islah party leadership? Of course, Islah has never been a perfectly unified entity either, so who among the leading figures in the party is responsible for these militias? Hamid al-Ahmar? 'Abd al-Majid al-Zindani?
As armed groups continue to proliferate throughout Yemen, and as the United States becomes increasingly involved in the Yemeni state's fights against some of these groups, those of us who seek to understand Yemeni affairs need to do a better job of understanding and explaining the issues raised above.
*********** Update: The first response to this post came via Twitter. I can't post Storify pieces in the comments section, so I'll add it here:
Who says you can't fit everything you need to say into a tweet? This entry was originally a very long tweet by our friend and sometimes blogger Fernando Carvajal. It was in response to a conversation (Storified below) between a few Yemen-watchers about why Saudi Arabia hasn't decided to back Yemen's opposition Islah party as a replacement for President Saleh and the GPC. View "What Saudi Arabia wants" on Storify
A strong Yemen means its institutions within the Jumhuriya (Republic) context are strong, this means democracy is strong. This threatens the KSA because even under Abdullah they have a reform project that is to run at a pace comfortable to Al Saud, and if Yemen, or any other neighbor in the peninsula reforms too quickly it will force Al Saud to speed up reform, confront rivals sooner then they want, and it will be a distraction for their own mid- and long-term projects. This will also impact the rest of the GCC of course, not just KSA. Any advance on democratization in yemen would mean the entire Peninsula would have to catch up quicker. Monarchs have not yet figured out how to do this without losing. I'm sure they like King Felipe (Spain) & Queen Elizabeth some, but they dont envy their symbolic positions. [I.e., Gulf rulers aren't ruling out a transition to constitutional monarchy with a functional, empowered parliament, but not on their own schedules and not without maintaining a significant degree of power and wealth.]
On the other hand, a weak Yemen poses other challenges for Al Saud: if the country spirals downward away from "controlled chaos," like Bernard Haykel says, it will force KSA to focus on security issues and neglect mid long term projects, which already carry natural rivals from within the Kingdom. Al Saud can't handle too many rivals or challenges at once; all of this Arab Spring is getting in the way of a mid-term plan to increase hegemony in the region vis a vis Iran, Iraq and yes, Israel. If it has to watch its flank all the time it can't focus on succession, economic stimulus, energy markets, competing with Dubai in finance sector, playing a new role in Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq and placating US on counter-terrorism. People forget that 'terrorists' are still trying to kill Saudis, never mind Iran. We forget migration, human trafficking, tribal disputes along the border. Also, an unstable Yemen means KSA needs to spend more money on tribal leaders to minimize, not end, distabilizing disputes that might end up costing more, like this revolution. This cuts into their own budget, and as the new generation fights amongt themselves, it leaves less cash to go around the family itself.
KSA is not the only Gulf state threatened by a weak Yemen. Oman fears spread of Salafi groups into its territory at a time when the Sultan is also looking at succession, and is also going through an economic crisis. People forget KSA just saved Oman's butt in February with a large contribution to counter any type of Arab Spring there. The UAE, for it's part, can't afford increased instability in Gulf of Aden because it affects its port operations at a time when they can't afford to lose any more cash or investments. AQAP will remain a threat not because of numbers but because it still has a hideout in Yemen for ideologues and small groups of operatives able to reach KSA or the Horn. With Awlaki out of the way and yemen cracking down on visas for Westerners and Asians the training camp factor decreases as well as the recruitment ops, [but none of the Gulf states can afford to neglect counter-terrorism efforts until and unless Yemen is able and willing to address the threat itself.]
People need to forget about the old myth in which Saudi's king 'Abdul 'Aziz told his sons, while on his death bed, to "keep Yemen weak." This was more about the Imam [Yahya] than any crystal ball effect on his part for his successors. The King didn't trust Imam Yahya or Ahmad ibn Yahya or the British in the south so he needed to ensure his son Faysal learned from his campaign in Tihama and prevent the Imam from returning to Najran and Asir (the treaty of 1934 was never intended as a permanent border, until 2000). Being a holy man, the Imam threatened Al Saud's hold on al-Haramain as other Sunni groups (MB) wished the Zaydis could fill the power vacuum after the Ottomans.
The new reality is that KSA and the other Gulf states can't afford to allow Yemen to become too weak, or too strong, yet.