March 16-23: Pro-Houthi forces take Ta'iz while Hadi's militias hold Aden

Rapidly-developing and troubling events, chiefly at the security and the political levels, have grabbed the headlines of the local press over the last week, which began with the release of government ministers from house arrest, and ended with a series of horrific suicide attacks. Purportedly carried out by ISIS-linked militants, the attacks left hundreds of civilians dead and wounded in the capital, San‘a, and killed 29 soldiers in the southern province of Lahj. Early last week, the Houthi group released Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and his ministers after nearly two months of house arrest. The move was seen as a prelude to Ansar Allah’s forming a new government made up of their own allies.

This came as local reports indicated that President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who established himself in his provisional capital of Aden, held a meeting with several Cabinet members including the former defense minister, Mahmud al-Subayhi. The following day, the Islah Party withdrew from UN-sponsored political talks, hours after Ansar Allah released three Islah members who had been detained for two weeks.

Though the Islah party assigned these three members as delegates in the political talks, the three declined, leaving Islah with its former two delegates, who previously had boycotted the sessions.

As the political talks hit a stumbling block, a prominent Houthi-affiliated prominent journalist and activist, Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

On the next day, fighting between pro-Hadi “Popular committee” militiamen and Special Security Forces (SSF) troops--tied to former president ‘Ali Saleh and Ansar Allah--intensified in Aden. Aden Airport was forced to halt its flights after the rival forces fought for control of the installation. The fighting came to an end and the SSF commander fled, after pro-Hadi armed forces led by provisional defense minister al-Subayhi stormed the airport and the SSF headquarters nearby. Pro-Houthi and pro-Saleh forces, on the other hand, reportedly entered the third largest city of Taiz, which they captured two days later.

On Friday, militants apparently loyal to the so-called Islamic State (IS), headquartered in Iraq, claimed responsibility for attacking two mosques frequented by Houthi Movement supporters in the capital Sana'a. The suicide bombings at the mosques killed more than 130 civilians including 13 children. Later on the same day, 29 soldiers were reportedly slain by IS-linked militants in Lahj.

Over the weekend, President Hadi made his first televised speech since fleeing house arrest and establishing himself in Aden, in which he promised to retake Houthi-controlled areas and secure Yemen’s “unity.”

In his own speech shortly thereafter, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi called for an all-out mobilization of military and security forces, a move seen as a “declaration of war” by most observers.


March 3-8: Hadi calls for talks in Riyadh, foreign missions to Aden

Over the last week, political negotiations between Ansar Allah and Yemen’s other political parties once again dominated local headlines. President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi—having established himself in Aden after escaping from house arrest in Sanʻa—has proposed the Saudi capital of Riyadh as a possible venue for resuming the UN-led talks, which are aimed at breaking out of the long-standing political stalemate in the country. But those talks have reportedly continued in the capital without Hadi. The GPC and the Houthis were said to have agreed to form a presidential council, though UN special envoy to Jamal Benomar denied such reports. 

After Hadi called on the Arab and Western diplomatic missions to relocate to Aden, the Saudi and Emirati embassies resumed their operations while the US embassy announced it will be working from the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The new UK envoy, who has met with Hadi in Aden and handed in his credentials, said his embassy will not relocate to Aden.

Politically isolated as more than a dozen diplomatic missions pulled out of Sanʻa, the Houthis are reportedly seeking to increase engagement with Iran and to establish ties with Russia. Houthi forces were also reported to have stormed the Headquarters of the National Dialogue Conference General Secretariat in the capital.

In his provisional capital, Aden, President Hadi reportedly called for international aid money to be sent to Aden’s branch of the Yemen Central Bank. According to local observers, any such disruption would be “disastrous” if taken, as this poor Arab nation has been depending on foreign aid for years now.


Mafraj Radio #16: 20 Years of Houthi History in 48 Minutes

On the first episode of our third season, we explore the origins and expansion of the Houthi movement, also referred to as Ansar Allah, and we look at how the movement has adjusted to its new-found power, following the fall of Yemen's government. Get ready for 20 years of Houthi history in 48 minutes! This episode features clips from Mafraj Radio episode 1, which featured interviews with Adam Baron and Madeleine Wells Goldburt, and episode 13, which featured Peter Salisbury and Hussain Albukhaiti. This episode also features new interviews with Albokhaiti and Baraa Shiban.

Feb. 17-23: Negotiations in question as Hadi challenges Houthi rule

Local news coverage during the Last week has again been focused on the political process intended to fill the void left by the resignation of the president and the government last month. The political parties involved in UN-led talks reportedly agreed to form a new national legislative body which would include representatives of underrepresented groups in addition to the incumbent members of Yemen’s parliament. The new body would add 250 members to the current roster of 301 members of parliament. It is not clear yet how the new members would be chosen; proclamations made recently by Ansar Allah—the Houthi movement’s political leadership—suggest that the movement’s so-called Revolutionary Committees would appoint new legislators. The Houthis dissolved the sitting parliament by revolutionary decree earlier this month.

Despite the relative ease in the ongoing talks between rival parties, opponents of the Houthi movement accused UN special envoy Jamal Benomar of "legitimizing" what they called the "Houthi coup." Such accusations were implicitly reinforced by the Gulf Cooperation Coucil, which demanded that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution against the Houthis under Chapter VII, which would open the way for possible economic and military measuresRussia and China have been featured in the local media as the main powers that opposed such a resolution, calling instead for supporting the ongoing UN talks "without imposing ready-made solutions from the outside."

President Hadi, who had been under house arrest in capital Sanʻa since he was forced to resign last month, appeared in the southern port city of Aden on February 21, after militia men loyal to him captured parts of the city last week. Hadi issued a statement upon his arrival, positioning himself as the legitimate president of the republic and calling on the international community to regard all steps taken by the Houthis since September as null and illegitimate. It's not yet clear how Hadi made it, amid strict security measures, out of his house and through several checkpoints manned by the Houthis. Unnamed Houthi sources claimed that Hadi was disguised in woman clothes during his escape. Other news suggested that the Houthis let Hadi out under pressure from the UNSC to release him without condition.

Hadi’s escape gave him, along with his old allies in the opposition coalition, a strong position from which to negotiate with Ansar Allah. Backed by Saudi Arabia and the GCC, Hadi has called for negotiations be moved to a safe place. The GCC issued a statement on Monday welcoming Hadi's exit to Aden and pledged its full support for the transition.

Embassy closures shake Houthis' confidence

On Tuesday afternoon, the US State Department announced that its embassy in San‘a had closed, and that all embassy staff had been evacuated from Yemen. The United Kingdom's mission and several other European embassies quickly followed suit. Official statements cited the "security situation" in San‘a as the primary reason for the closures. On Twitter, UK Ambassador Jane Marriott took the leader of the Houthi movement personally to task for security problems, recalling that Ansar Allah had promised to protect foreign missions after its takeover of much of the capital in September. 

It seems another reason for the closures of many of the so-called G10 states' embassies is that foreign diplomats no longer believe they have a trustworthy counterpart in Yemen's government. Yemen's Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to be firmly under Houthi control. In another tweet, Ambassador Marriott bristled at the behavior of a Ministry official during a meeting this week.

According to sources cited by The New York Times, Houthi fighters confiscated the vehicles and weapons of US embassy staff at the airport, and there have been reports of looting at the embassy.* But the same Times article indicates that Ansar Allah officials were caught off-guard by the severe diplomatic backlash their coup has inspired:

A senior member of the Houthi political bureau, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, expressed regret about the American move. “We didn’t want them to go, and we were ready to work with the American Embassy on measures that would ensure their protection and facilitate their work.”

At this point, the Houthis may be falling victim to their own success. When President Hadi and his government resigned following the armed seizure of the Republican Palace and presidential residence, Ansar Allah was left to clean up the mess. Now, facing opprobrium from other Yemeni factions and the international community, they will likely have to soften their stance if they want to cobble together a credible--or even minimally functional--state. Meanwhile, the group is using the parts of the state it already controls--including Yemen's official press agency, SABA--to simulate legitimacy. After the EU's Foreign Affairs Council issued a stern rebuke of the Houthi coup, SABA published a heavily edited version of the EU statement, removing all mentions of Ansar Allah and its responsibility for the current crisis.

[UPDATE: For the record, the US Marine Corps says that no weapons were taken from embassy Marine Security Force. Rather, all large weapons were destroyed ahead of time, and all rifles and pistols were individually smashed with hammers at the airport prior to the Force's departure.]