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Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War

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.

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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.

Op-Ed / Africa

Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War

In the Horn, where cash-strapped regimes often teeter on the brink of financial survival and alliances are made and broken with bewildering regularity, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has found willing partners as Saudi-Iranian tensions escalate.

In the commercial melting pot of Dubai, where British bankers rub shoulders with Afghan carpet sellers, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is fighting a major war in Yemen that has sucked in several other Gulf states and four Horn of Africa countries.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two key external belligerents, have small populations and large bank accounts filled with revenue from vast oil and gas reserves. The former has made the largest financial contribution with the latter supplying most of the troops.

When they decided to intervene militarily in Yemen, in March 2015, to halt a Houthi (a Zaydi, Shiite group) rebel takeover attempt, it became apparent that they would need additional boots on the ground. Conveniently situated ports and air bases were also needed. They found willing partners in Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Most of Yemen, especially its second city, the port of Aden, is closer to Asmara, Djibouti, Khartoum, Mogadishu and Hargeisa than Riyadh, Doha or Dubai. At the Bab al-Mandab – the straits where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet – the country is just 30km from the Eritrean and Djiboutian coastline. Geographically, Horn of Africa involvement in the war makes sense.

The other half of this equation involves the political dynamics of the Gulf states, which collectively form the GCC. The GCC is also attempting to assert itself as a grouping capable of countering a perceived Iranian encroachment. In this context, and whether justified or not, the Houthi rebellion was seen as an Iranian-backed proxy.

Follow the money

Gaining supporters for the Yemen intervention wasn't simply about military power, but was also an assertion of diplomatic strength – particularly with Sunni Arab partners such as Sudan. Regional dynamics are thus likely to provide opportunities for willing partners in the Horn. Sudan, to take one example, has a complex relationship with the Gulf, historically based on two factors.

First, the weak economy has pushed many professional Sudanese to seek employment outside the country. Saudi Arabia hosts up to 900,000 Sudanese migrant workers, the UAE 75,000 and Qatar 30,000. Since the 1989 Islamist coup in Sudan, the diaspora has become a key source of remittances, propping up the very system they were forced to leave due to a stagnant employment market and repressive political culture.

Second, due to the parlous state of the economy, Sudan is perennially searching for new financial backers. In the late 1990s and 2000s, it experienced an oil boom, relying on Chinese, Indian and Malaysian companies to fill the investment gap left by Chevron (a US oil major), which exited in 1990. The 2011 secession of South Sudan brought a sharp dip in oil revenues and exposed the limited Asian appetite in the non-oil economy.

The ideological legacy of the 1989 coup – including the new regime's refusal to show solidarity with the Gulf states by denouncing Iraq's Kuwait invasion in 1990 – brought isolation, and a close relationship with Iran. It was also a source of arms vital for fighting the war in southern Sudan.

Saudi Arabia found Sudan's Iranian links and Islamist sympathies deeply concerning and, as recently as 2014, imposed financial restrictions on its banking sector, and threatened to deport thousands of migrant workers.

A windfall for the Horn of Africa

But in late 2014 Sudan made a much-publicised shift away from Tehran, closing Iranian cultural centres in Khartoum, which it accused of spreading Shiism. When the war in Yemen started, the Saudis made an offer far in excess of what Iran was prepared to commit, with unconfirmed reports stating that Sudan received $2.2 billion in return for diplomatic and military support. Initially Khartoum made only a notional military contribution, but as Saudi and Emirati losses mounted, they asked more of the Sudanese, who in October 2015 deployed what reports estimate to be between 350 and 700 ground troops.

Eritrean, Djiboutian and Somali involvement in Yemen is more opaque. In Eritrea's case, the port of Assab is being used as an air-sea logistical hub for Saudi-Emirati operations. However, unlike Khartoum, Asmara has been silent as to whether it has deployed troops. The UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group wrote in September 2015 that Eritrean troop deployments would constitute "a clear violation" of UN resolution 1907 – which imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea in 2009.

The development of Eritrean relations with Saudi Arabia also appears to have worried Ethiopia, which wants to keep its erstwhile rival diplomatically isolated.

The role of Somalia and Somaliland is even murkier. Somalia made public that it has granted permission for GCC countries to use of its airspace, but it has not confirmed reports that Somali National Army soldiers are, like the Sudanese, deployed in Yemen as mercenaries. And while Somaliland has agreed to rent out port facilities at Berbera it is unknown whether this offer has been taken up. Meanwhile, Djibouti – an established Saudi ally and host of US, French and Japanese military bases – also appears to have permitted the use of its airport infrastructure for some coalition bombing missions, despite some recent tensions in relations.

The internationalisation of the Yemen war is proving a major windfall for the Horn of Africa, providing a source of ready cash and diplomatic support for governments in the region. Their involvement illustrates how regional conflagrations can drag in multiple actors with their own varied motivations. In the meantime, the Saudi-led alliance-building with countries in the Horn is likely to increase.

This article first appeared in The Africa Report.