Yemen: An introduction to the forgotten conflict – I
by Aram Mirzaei on 28 Oct 2016 1 Comment

For 18 months now, Yemen has been embroiled in a devastating conflict that has killed at least 10,000 people according to official sources, that number is however probably far higher. The Yemeni conflict is characterized by the asymmetric ways it’s being fought on the battlefield and by the massive amount of suffering for the civilian population in the impoverished country.




The current Yemeni conflict can be traced back all the way to 2004, when the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia group in the mountainous northern Yemeni Saadah governorate began a low-level insurgency against the central government in the capital Sanaa. The Houthis have since their uprising called for simple things such as government accountability, end to corruption, fair fuel prices, job opportunities and most importantly, an end to Western influence in Yemen.


Many Yemenis believe the Houthis are right in pushing out Western influence and decision making, and blame U.S. interference for allowing former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to avoid prosecution or exile for crimes against his people during the “Arab Spring” uprising. Under a deal in 2011, in the midst of the “Arab Spring”, he was allowed to step down and still remain in the country. The presidency was essentially handed over in a one-man election, mandated by the Gulf Cooperation Council as Yemen’s first step in transition, to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who many Yemenis regard as a puppet of the United States. It is worthy of notice that Hadi was supposed to only serve for two years until new parliamentary and presidential elections were to be held in 2014, a deal he reneged on.


The Houthis have previously been accused of wanting to replace the republican system with an Islamic Republic modelled after that of Iran, something that the Houthis themselves have on several occasions denied with the main reason for this being the fact that they are a minority in the country. Hussein Al-Bukhari, a man close to the Houthis said that:


“In Iran this kind of ruling has been implemented because the majority of people are Shia. In spite of this, transparent elections are taking place in Iran. However, we cannot apply this system in Yemen because the followers of the Shafi [Sunni] doctrine are bigger in number than the Zaydis [Shia]. For this reason, repeating an Iran-like system is difficult to materialize in Yemen.”[1]


As the security situation in Yemen began to deteriorate, with the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) ever growing stronger, and with their demands for the Yemeni government to act against this terrorist threat being ignored, the once small group in the highlands of Saadah sought to take their destiny into their own hands.


The conflict was sparked in 2004 by the government’s attempt to arrest Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the Zaidi religious leader of the Houthis. For ten years (2004-2014) the insurgency mostly took place in the Saadah governorate and the nearby Hajjah, Amran and Al-Jawf governorates until it reached its culmination in 2014 with the Yemeni government announcement of an increase in fuel prices as part of reforms to subsidy programs, which aimed at unlocking foreign funding and easing pressure on the budget. The lifting of subsidies came after pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which conditioned its continued financial assistance on these “reforms”. Fuel subsidies were among the few widely available social goods in Yemen, keeping down the cost of transport, water, and food, while supporting local industry.


The decision to lift fuel subsidies gave the Houthi movement the reason they needed to rise up and put an end to what they perceived as corruption in Sanaa. After a five day battle with the Yemeni government forces under the control of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by Al-Islah Salafist militias, the Houthis managed to take over the capital of Yemen on 21 September 2014. Massive rallies began to take place inside Sanaa, often in support of the Houthis, accompanied by the famous “scream”, a Houthi calling card which proclaims “Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory to Islam.”


First shouted by Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi in the ancient Grand Mosque of Sanaa in 2004, it was the “Scream” that started the multiple wars of the Yemeni government against the Houthis. Despite the acerbic words, adherents tend to claim it is to call attention to governments of the West, never to harm individuals. The Houthis have never attacked anything of Western interest, and in fact have a common enemy with America; Al-Qaeda.


“We do not really want death to anyone,” said Ali al-Bukhayti, the former spokesperson and official media face of the Houthis, during an interview. “The slogan is simply against the interference of those governments.”


On the same day of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa resigned. After gaining control over key government buildings in Sana’a, the Houthis and government signed a UN-brokered deal to form a unity government. The Houthis, along with several other Yemeni political groups, signed a deal entitled the Peace and Partnership Agreement which provided for the formation of this new unity government.


On 7 November, the UN Security Council placed sanctions on former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, accused of aiding the Houthi campaign, and two additional Houthi commanders, Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim and Abd Al-Khaliq Al-Houthi, for “obstructing the Yemeni political process”. Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress responded by stripping Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi of his party position, accusing him of instigating the sanctions. With the new government sworn in on 9 November, the Houthis and the General People’s Congress refused to participate. The Houthis began to express calls for Yemen to be partitioned into two federal regions, one in the north and one in the south while accusing Hadi of reneging on his promises regarding a new draft constitution and arming AQAP.


After the Houthi takeover of the Saba News Agency headquarters, the Houthi movement’s leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi gave a speech demanding that Hadi move to implement political changes demanded by the Houthis, as well as threatening an armed attack on Ma’rib, a city in central Yemen.


On 20 January, forces loyal to the Houthis attacked the president’s residence and swept into the presidential palace. President Hadi was inside the residence as it came under “heavy shelling” for a half-hour, but he was unharmed and protected by guards, according to Information Minister Nadia al-Sakkaf. Presidential guards surrendered the residence after being assured that Hadi could safely evacuate. On 22 January, Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah tendered their resignations, saying that circumstances in Yemen had been altered by the Houthi advance into the capital in September 2014.


Bahah declared he resigned to “avoid being dragged into an abyss of unconstructive policies based on no law”. While senior Houthi officials reportedly welcomed Hadi’s resignation, a statement from the Houthi leadership said the country’s parliament would have to approve it in order for it to become effective. In the wake of this power vacuum, security officials in the southern city of Aden and other nearby towns declared that they would not take orders from Sanaa, with some of them declaring that they would seek an independent South Yemen. On 25 January, the “Southern Movement” declared secession from the North.


On 27 January, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi called for a meeting in Sanaa on 30 January between the political factions and tribal leaders to put an end to the political chaos in the country. Most factions however boycotted the meeting, with only Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party joining the discussions. Al-Houthi proposed a six-member transitional presidential council with equal representation from the north and the south, something that the Southern Movement refused.


On 1 February, the Houthis issued an ultimatum to Yemen’s political factions warning that if they did not “reach a solution to the current political crisis”, then the Houthi revolutionary leadership would assume formal authority over the state. Almost a week later, a Houthi representative announced on television from the Republican Palace in Sanaa that as of 6 February 2015, the Houthis were taking control of the country. The statement declared the House of Representatives dissolved and said a presidential council would be formed to lead Yemen for two years, while revolutionary committees would be put in charge of forming a new, 551-member parliament.


The conflict begins


On 21 February, one month after Houthi militants confined Hadi to his residence in Sanaa; he escaped out of the capital and traveled to Aden. In a televised address from Aden, he declared that the Houthi takeover was illegitimate and said that he remained the constitutional president of Yemen. Clashes began to erupt in Aden on 19 March between forces loyal to Hadi and those who refused to recognize him as president. The next day, four suicide attacks occurred in the Al-Badr and Al-Hashoosh mosques in Sanaa, killing 142 people and injuring more than 350 worshippers in what marked the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen’s history.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating that “the Islamic state will not rest until they stop the Safawi (Iranian) operation in Yemen”. After these bombings, Abdul Malik-Al Houthi declared that the Houthis and their allies (Republican Guard and pro-Saleh military wings) mobilization for war was imperative under the current circumstances, with Al-Houthi declaring Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including Hadi to be legitimate targets.


Meanwhile Hadi declared Aden to be Yemen’s temporary capital while Sanaa was under Houthi control, declaring that “We will restore security to the country and hoist the flag of Yemen in Sana’a, instead of the Iranian flag”.


Within days, the Houthis forces advances rapidly and captured Taiz while advancing in the southern Lahij and Aden governorates. By 25 March they had reached Aden’s outskirts with the Houthis and their pro-Saleh allies quickly taking over the Aden International Airport. That day, Hadi fled Aden and arrived by plane in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, where he was greeted by the Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud. The next day, the Saudi-led intervention began.


(To be concluded…)

Courtesy The Saker

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