A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen's Battle with the Shiite al Houthi Rebels
Fighting raging in the North of Yemen between the government and Shiite al-Houthi rebels could have a significant impact on Middle East and U.S. security, as well as Yemen’s own survival. The government already faces two other major security threats: a reemergence of al-Qaeda and southern secessionists. If these compounded threats become too overwhelming for the Yemeni government, a failed state could lead to a vacuum filled by al-Qaeda or Iran. Tehran may already view the al-Houthi conflict as its opportunity to gain a foothold in the Peninsula. Stakes for Yemen’s success in the conflict are high.
The Yemeni military has spent the past three weeks pounding the strongholds and bases of the al-Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shiite clan located predominantly in the mountainous Sa’adah province of northwestern Yemen near the border of Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared that military operations would continue until the country is cleared of the rebels. The President then announced that he would deploy reinforcement troops to the northern provinces to assist in the fighting.
The al-Houthi rebels have been fighting the Yemeni government on and off since mid-2004, leading to the deaths and displacements of thousands. The group, currently led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the younger brother of the group’s founder, accuses the Yemeni government of widespread corruption, aligning itself with the United States, allowing too much Wahhabi influence in the country, and years of economic and social neglect in Shiite parts of the country. The government on the other hand accuses the rebels of trying to reinstate the clerical imamate rule that governed northern Yemen for about 1,000 years up until 1962. In July 2008, President Saleh announced that the government would halt all offenses against the rebels in favor of a national dialogue. Sporadic clashes continued, however, and, by early August 2009, the rebels had reportedly taken control of large swaths of Sa’adah province, blockaded military installations in the North, arrested Yemeni soldiers, taken control of sixty-three schools, kidnapped teachers and foreigners, and attacked numerous government buildings and mosques. The Yemeni security apparatus responded on August 11 by saying that it would strike the rebels with an “iron fist.” The outcome of the battle in northern Yemen has significant implications for Yemen, the Middle East, and the United States.
The Yemeni military began air and artillery strikes on al-Houthi strongholds, including the al-Houthi headquarters in Sa’adah, on the same day it announced that it would respond with an iron first. Operation SCORCHED EARTH has subsequently expanded into a full ground operation, with troops being backed by air and artillery support. Fighting has raged primarily in districts in the Sa’adah province, but operations have also occurred along al-Houthi supply routes in Amran province, as well as the Harf Sofiyan district of Amran province – an al-Houthi stronghold about 75 miles North of the capital Sana’a. The efforts in Amran have reportedly resulted in the killing of over one hundred rebels and several key al-Houthi leaders, including that province’s commander, Hussein Khamza, as well as Muhsen Hadi al-Kaoud and Saleh Garman. The Yemeni military strategy appears focused on destroying the arsenals, supply convoys, and petroleum stations of the rebels, retaking roads under rebel control, and clearing houses and fortifications used by the rebels. Yemeni defense sources also claim that the military has now entered into the “cleaning up” phase of operations in several former al-Houthi strongholds. The military has bolstered its efforts with support from armed tribesmen, perhaps in the thousands, arriving in the North from all over the country to help fight the rebels. Tribesmen engaged in the fight include members of the Shiite Hashed tribe, which makes clear that not all of the country’s Shiites are sympathetic with the al-Houthi rebellion.
Operations thus far have not expanded beyond Sa’adah province and the northern parts of Amran province; however, the al-Houthi rebels reportedly do have factions in the northwestern provinces of al-Jawf and Sana’a, as well. Rebels will likely seek refuge in mountainous hideouts or neighboring provinces as the military clears and controls towns and roads in Sa’adah and Amran. Additionally, the al-Houthi leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, who is undoubtedly a target of the operations, still remains at large. Both of these factors increase the chances of expanded operations in the coming days and weeks.
The objective of Operation SCORCHED EARTH is to put a permanent end to the al-Houthi rebellion, either by dismembering the group and destroying its arsenals, or by forcing the rebels to accept the terms of a six-point peace deal. The overture made by Sana’a would require the rebels to: a) fully withdraw from all districts in Sa’adah and remove all road checkpoints; b) descend from all mountain hideouts and end acts of sabotage; c) return all military and civilian equipment seized from the state; d) hand over six foreigners kidnapped in June; e) hand over all kidnapped locals; and f) stop interfering with local government authorities in their duties. Al-Houthi leaders have rejected the peace offer and claimed that it is part of a scheme to “mislead public opinion”. President Saleh’s resolute rhetoric and decision to send reinforcements to the North, however, suggest that he has no intentions of changing his position. The President appears to have learned an important lesson in 2008 about negotiating with the al-Houthi rebels. In February 2008, his government signed a Qatar-brokered peace deal with the rebels, which, among other terms, required the rebels to lay down their arms and descend from their mountainous hideouts. The deal did not last, and the two sides again clashed. Then, in July of the same year, President Saleh announced the end of hostilities in favor of a national dialogue. This peace attempt also proved futile.
The conflict between the Shiite al-Houthi rebels and the predominantly Sunni government may be taking place on a small stage in a country whose role in international politics is usually as a contender for aid dollars, but the implications of this conflict will have an impact well beyond Yemen’s borders. At a regional level, the battle has the potential to emerge as an all-out proxy campaign between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Iranians likely view the al-Houthi rebels as a potential proxy – just like Hizbullah and Hamas – through which to exert influence in the region. Having a proxy right on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia – an arch-rival of Iran – would provide it with leverage in future regional and international negotiations. Saudi Arabia, thus, would like to see the elimination of the al-Houthi rebels. Further, Saudi Arabia has no interest in seeing the al-Houthi rebellion spark a similar movement amongst the Kingdom’s small Shiite population (Shiites make up between five and fifteen percent of Saudi Arabia’s population). Most of the Kingdom’s Shiite population is concentrated in Eastern Province – far from the al-Houthi strongholds in Yemen; however, sectarian tensions in the Wahhabi state remain high following clashes between Shiite pilgrims and state security forces in late February.
Evidence proving Iranian and Saudi meddling in the al-Houthi conflict is scarce although accusations are flying. Yemeni security forces on August 21 discovered six al-Houthi weapons caches in Sa’adah and Amran containing short-range missiles, shells and machine guns, some of which were made in Iran – the most damning evidence yet against Tehran’s support for the rebels. The discovery corresponds with government claims that al-Houthi supporters appearing in court have confessed to using Iranian weapons against the government. Both of these claims need to be taken with a degree of caution however. Yemen has a very extensive underground arms market stemming from mujahideen returning from Afghanistan in the 1980s, a civil war in 1994, and a tribal culture obsessed with weapons. Even though the rebels may have used weapons made in Iran, there still exists a chance that the weapons were not provided directly by the Iranian regime. Additionally, the confessions made in court by the al-Houthi supporters may have come as part of some sort of agreement struck with the government.
These competing Saudi and Iranian interests have also led to a war of words and accusations involving the two countries. The Iranian media has accused the Saudi Air Force of aiding the operations in Sa’adah – a claim that the Yemeni government has refuted. The Iranian media has also reported that the rebels blame Saudi Arabia for instigating the current round of fighting. The Yemeni Information Minister, Hasan Ahmad al-Lawzi, on the other hand, has recently suggested that the al-Houthi rebels are receiving support from Tehran: “There are religious authorities that are trying to interfere in the affairs of our country. These authorities are giving financial and political support to acts of terrorism and destruction which are aimed at the heart of the security and stability of Yemen and especially Sa’adah.” For its part, the Saudi media and government have refrained from any harsh accusations towards Iran. Saudi Arabia has, however, acknowledged communications between high-ranking Yemeni and Saudi security officials.
Leaders from the other predominantly Shiite countries in the region – Iraq and Bahrain – have also recently expressed an interest in the al-Houthi conflict. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s Foreign Committee, Sheikh Hamam Hamaudi, on August 16 called for the establishment an al-Houthi rebel headquarters in Baghdad. The media advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also demonstrated sympathy to the al-Houthi rebels by criticizing the Arab media for conveying an unfair picture of the al-Houthi rebels. In Bahrain, a member of parliament from the ruling Sunni coalition, Sheikh Jassem as-Sa’idi, last week accused members of the country’s largest Shiite opposition party, al-Wefaq, of collaborating with al-Houthi rebels – an accusation that al-Wefaq leaders called a “big lie”. All of these accounts may amount to little more than sectarian rhetoric, but they do illustrate the sympathies of some Iraqi and Bahraini leaders, as well as the increasing attention the al-Houthi conflict is receiving throughout the region.
The success of the Yemeni government’s efforts in the North could also potentially have a significant impact on U.S. national security. Currently, the Yemeni security apparatus faces two other major security threats within its country. First, there is a southern secessionist movement taking place in the provinces of Abyan, Lahij, ‘Adan, Shabwah, and parts of Hadramawt. Regular protests in support of dividing the country into two parts based on its pre-1990 boundaries have escalated into clashes between security forces and the secessionists. The past month has also witnessed attacks by southern secessionists on military checkpoints and convoys. Secondly, a renewed al-Qaeda presence in the country, especially in the province of Ma’rib, has threatened the stability of the Yemeni state. In January, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged, forming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based out of Yemen. In the days prior to the Yemeni military’s current operation in the North, it had been conducting anti-terror operations against known al-Qaeda strongholds.
These three security threats – the al-Houthi rebels, the southern secessionists, and al-Qaeda – are not currently aligned with one another, but they do all view the Yemeni government as corrupt and as a puppet of the West, and would like to see its collapse. Yemen could become a failed and divided state in the event that any of these threats become too overwhelming for Sana’a to handle. Such a situation could lead to the country becoming a new safe haven for terrorists from where to launch attacks against the United States and its allies.
A final element of importance regarding the fighting in northwestern Yemen is that it has generated a difficult internally displaced persons (IDP) situation for the Yemeni government. Officials in the North estimate that 160,000 people have fled their homes in Sa’adah as a result of this latest round of fighting. Most have taken refuge in camps within Sa’adah or Amran. Aid groups, however, have a difficult time operating in these northern provinces. In the first week of the ongoing conflict, the al-Houthi rebels kidnapped fifteen Red Crescent doctors, nurses, and administrators (they have since been released). The rebels two weeks ago entered an IDP camp in Sa’adah and seized humanitarian materials. Yemen’s growing IDP problem in the North is compounded by the burden of an estimated 150,000 refugees from the Horn of Africa – mostly Somalia – which drains much of the UNHCR’s $22 million allocated for Yemen. A humanitarian crisis would only exacerbate the situation facing the Arab world’s poorest country, as it attempts to fend off a worsening economic situation and several critical security threats.
Yemen’s current bout with the al-Houthi rebels comes amidst the brewing of a perfect storm. High stakes for the U.S., its Arab allies, and regional stability rest on a government victory over the rebels. A premature ceasefire or peace deal could lead to an expansion of Iranian influence in the Peninsula. A Yemeni failure to suppress the rebellion quickly and completely may result in the continued diversion and exhaustion of resources to the North, thereby precluding the State from adequately combating its two other security threats. In the worst case scenario, these three major security threats, compounded with an overwhelming IDP and refugee situation, could stretch Saleh’s resources thin enough for his government to collapse and al-Qaeda or Iran and its Shiite proxy to fill the vacuum. The outcome of the battle raging in Yemen’s northwest corner will prove critical to that State’s survival, as well as Middle East and U.S. security.
Aaron Zelin contributed to the preparation of this piece.