icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
     
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
     
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

Local security forces wait at a checkpoint in Al Jawf Governorate, Yemen, 5 January 2020. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen

Heavy fighting has started again in Yemen after one of the war’s quietest months. Battles on the northern front lines highlight the flaws of the piecemeal approach to negotiating an end to the war – and the pressing need for a coordinated multi-track effort.

The narrow window of opportunity to end the Yemen war that opened in late 2019 may fast be closing. Fighting along key front lines in northern Yemen, along with Huthi rebel missile strikes and the resumption of Saudi-led aerial bombardment, threatens to tilt the conflict toward a major escalation, reversing tentative steps toward dialogue. There is still a chance to break the cycle by expanding newly opened communication channels between Huthi rebels (who call themselves Ansar Allah) and Saudi Arabia to include the internationally recognised Yemeni government and others in order to negotiate a truce on all major fronts. But success will require a coordinated and continuous regional and international effort.

For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The swing from stalemate and de-escalation to shooting war was sudden. On 18 January, after a month that UN Envoy Martin Griffiths described as one of the conflict’s quietest periods, the government alleges that the Huthis launched missiles at one of its military camps in Marib governorate (the Huthis refuse to confirm responsibility). The strike reportedly killed more than 100 soldiers in one of the war’s deadliest single incidents to date. It came amid intensified combat along previously stalemated front lines in al-Jawf, Nihm and Marib between allies of the Huthis, on one side, and of the government, on the other. These battles became still fiercer after the strike, with both sides suffering heavy losses. The Huthis have since fired several more missiles at military facilities in Marib. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has ramped up its air campaign, launching dozens of raids in what the Huthis argue is a breach of a putative cross-border truce. Saudi officials label the fighting a Huthi attempt to take advantage of border ceasefire negotiations under way since October. For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The fighting underscores the limitations of the current piecemeal regional and international approach to ending the war. This approach, in which Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on the key negotiating tracks in the south and on the border, has been as much about firefighting as conflict prevention. The UN is struggling to sustain the year-old Stockholm Agreement to prevent a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is pressuring the government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) to firm up the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that ended fighting over the southern port city of Aden. Many observers, including Crisis Group, had hoped that the parties could thread these two disparate tracks together with the Saudi-Huthi border de-escalation into a single UN-led process to end the war. Progress in demilitarising Hodeida would, under this view, build confidence among the Yemeni parties; the Riyadh Agreement would prevent a war-within-a-war and lay the groundwork for forming a more inclusive government; and the Saudi-Huthi talks would help remove Yemen from the regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. 

Recent events, however, suggest that the piecemeal approach rests on inherently weak foundations: a series of bilateral agreements designed to halt specific parts of the conflict without tackling their underlying causes, something only national multiparty talks can achieve. Left unaddressed is the fighting between government-aligned forces and the Huthis on fronts in the north and south, making the approach’s success or failure vulnerable to events on the ground. The cause of the sudden escalation in the north is contested, with both the Huthis and the government claiming they are taking defensive measures in response to their rivals’ premeditated aggression. In explaining their expanded military activities, the Huthis cite a series of alleged Saudi airstrikes and ground attacks they say took place before the 18 January missile strike. The government says the Huthis had launched a series of small-scale raids on strategic positions, including highways in government-controlled areas, over the course of January before the Marib strike. What triggered the fighting may in fact have been a local dispute over a checkpoint in al-Jawf governorate early in the month that gradually spiralled out of control. 

Regardless, it is clear that both parties had been preparing for renewed hostilities in the north after a long period of stalemate. The Huthis and the government each claimed their rivals were planning major new operations in the weeks and months before the escalation. Huthi fears may have grown in recent weeks as government forces previously based in the south of Yemen were redeployed to Marib as part of the Riyadh Agreement.

The fighting in the north will have a knock-on effect on each of the ongoing negotiation tracks. Saudi-Huthi talks continue but are strained; hawks in both camps have arguably gained traction, and they have come close to scuttling discussions on several occasions. The Riyadh Agreement has also come under stress since the 18 January missile strike, in part because the Huthis’ refusal to claim it encourages speculation about its provenance. 

Pro-government news sites and social media have spread an unlikely rumour that either the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the STC, the secessionist grouping aligned with Abu Dhabi, fired the missiles. A number of government officials note that the UAE removed its Patriot missile defence system from Marib in mid-2019, leaving the area vulnerable to Huthi short-range missile attacks. Pro-government media have also used the fighting in the north as an opportunity to lambast the Stockholm Agreement, which they see as an artificial stalemate imposed from outside. The government has publicly threatened to leave the agreement. The renewed focus on Stockholm is in part motivated by concern that Saudi Arabia and the UN are close to negotiating a truce in the north at a time when the Huthis remain dominant on the ground. But it may also portend renewed hostilities along the Red Sea coast. 

At the time of writing, the Huthis appeared to be making the biggest gains on the battlefield, reportedly controlling the important Nihm front north east of Sanaa after several days in which both sides claimed a series of largely symbolic victories while suffering numerous casualties. In a sign of deep frustration and fatigue among ordinary Yemenis, public criticism has turned inward: the Huthis’ tribal allies have criticised the rebels for the high cost of what are likely inconclusive battles, while the government’s supporters have similarly reproached President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for failing to gain ground on the Huthis. Some voices in the anti-Huthi bloc blame Riyadh for providing insufficient support at what they believe was a potential turning point in the war. 

The fighting could spark renewed conflict elsewhere in Yemen. Many in the anti-Huthi bloc see it as an opportunity to attend to unfinished business. The widespread narrative in their ranks is that the Stockholm Agreement forestalled a pivotal battle that would have weakened the Huthis and allowed for a national political settlement on more equitable terms. With fighting already raging in the north and in the southern governorate of al-Dhale, many in the anti-Huthi camp believe they could make a renewed push for Hodeida and reignite battles along the border in a rare, coordinated multifront campaign. Many Huthis suspect such a battle was the Riyadh Agreement’s real aim all along. Hawks in the Huthi camp, meanwhile, appear to relish the prospect of a national showdown particularly if, as seemed to be the case at the time of writing, they have come out on top in the latest round of fighting.

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory.

An expansion of the conflict would be a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war. Senior Huthi officials have staked their reputations on the de-escalation initiative with the Saudis, and would likely lose considerable capital within the movement if it fails. Saudi as well as Huthi military leaders were already sceptical of the de-escalation effort and may decide that the only option now is outright military victory. In addition, developments in the U.S.-Iran rivalry may well have motivated Riyadh’s decision to negotiate with the Huthis, following a missile attack on vital Saudi Arabian oil production facilities in September 2019 that was claimed by the Huthis, but widely attributed to Iran. Arguably fearful of a regional war in which U.S. support was uncertain, Riyadh may have sought to mitigate the risk along its southern border by de-escalating with the Huthis and seeking to drive a wedge between them and Iran. But Saudi officials might also have reappraised this approach (or at least slowed it down) after unrest in Iran, huge protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional asymmetrical war strategy, in early January. 

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory. Crisis Group recommends the following: 

  • The UN Security Council should echo UN Envoy Griffiths’ call for a de-escalation, and urge a truce on all fronts or, even stronger, steps toward a nationwide ceasefire, reiterating the point that the only solution to the Yemen war is a political one. 
     
  • The U.S. in particular should push Saudi Arabia, and the UN, the EU and Oman should press the Huthis, to continue talks, maintain the cross-border truce and implement further bilateral de-escalation measures. In parallel, the U.S. and the UN should encourage Saudi Arabia to bring the Yemeni government and its allies into negotiations with the Huthis. 
     
  • The UN should lead the establishment of a national military body, comprising senior military representatives from the government, the Huthi movement, key military officers on major frontlines (as some anti-Huthi commanders like Tariq Saleh on the Red Sea coast do not fall under the direct authority of the government) and Saudi Arabia, overseen by the UN and advised by international ceasefire planning experts. This body would be charged with planning and implementing frontline truces and reopening key roads. It would include political liaisons capable of transmitting proposals directly to their leaders. 
     
  • International and regional support as well as coordination for such an initiative would be critical. Crisis Group has advocated in the past for the formation of a contact group of key regional and international stakeholders including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, as well as the U.S., UK and EU. Such a grouping could meet regularly and divide labour for outreach, pressure and the provision of technical expertise, taking its cues from the UN envoy. A meeting of such a group should take place as soon as possible, making the formation of a military body its immediate task.
     

The present scenario is wearyingly familiar: modest advances toward a political settlement undone by local fighting that explodes into a national escalation, driven by overconfidence or miscalculation on the part of key protagonists. There still is time to stop this dangerous slide, but it may fast run out.