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Followers of Yemen's al-Houthi Shi'ite group ride in an open vehicle while carrying weapons to secure a road in the northwestern province of Saada, on 4 June 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Yemen Conflict Alert

In Yemen’s far North, a patchwork of ceasefires between the Huthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, and its various adversaries is in peril. The Yemeni government needs to take bold action, in coordination with the international community, to prevent a relapse of violence that would almost certainly be more difficult to contain than the last round.

The threat of renewed violence comes at a delicate moment in Yemen’s transition. Having completed the National Dialogue Conference in January, the country now has a blueprint for a new federal state and democratic reform. Yet, the vision is aspirational at best and events on the ground are moving in a different direction. If rekindled, fighting in the North could significantly derail implementation by further fracturing political consensus and undermining already weak state authority.

The latest bout of fighting escalated in October 2013, when Huthi fighters surrounded the Dar al-Hadith Institute in Dammaj, a city in the Saada governorate, accusing Salafis there of recruiting foreign fighters and preparing for battle. The Salafis accused Huthis (revivalists of the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam) of unprovoked aggression against peaceful religious students. Fighting soon spread throughout five northern governorates, from the Saudi border in Kitaf to the gates of the Yemeni capital in the Arhab region.

In the course of recent combat, two loosely aligned fronts crystallised. On one side, the Ahmars – the pre-eminent family of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation – recruited and materially supported Salafi fighters. Their coalition allegedly has been supported by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the family) through his loyalists in the Yemeni army in Amran governorate, and indirectly by the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, through its tribal affiliates. On the other side are seasoned Huthi fighters aligned with disgruntled northern tribesmen opposed to the Ahmars and Islah, many of whom have ties with the General People’s Congress (GPC) party and/or its founder, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Huthis have been winning. The January 2014 ceasefire signed in Dammaj, requiring Salafi fighters to evacuate and temporarily relocate to Sanaa, was a clear victory. The Huthis also won the battle for Kitaf, completing their conquest of the Saada governorate. More importantly, they pushed south into Amran, where they aligned with Hashid tribesmen long frustrated with the Ahmars. On 3 February, they destroyed an Ahmar family home, symbolically ending the family’s decades-long hegemony over the Hashid confederation. In Arhab, Islah-affiliated tribesmen managed to hold the line, nothing more.

After months of fighting, the state has little to no control over the far North. The Huthis administer their areas, providing security that the state has thus far been unable to deliver. While Huthis claim that they will relinquish heavy weapons and will support the political transition, opponents are deeply sceptical, claiming that the group seeks to establish a religious theocracy in Yemen or, at a minimum, to mimic the Lebanese Hizbollah model of a state within a state.

Huthi victory in Amran has stoked fears that the group, emboldened by its substantial advances, will attempt an invasion of Sanaa. These fears are overplayed. The Huthis already exert significant political influence in the capital, and an attack could well backfire by jeopardising their popular support, damaging their international standing and bringing the army, which thus far has remained neutral – officially at least – into the fight against them. Yet, all parties are armed in the capital, and they might not act fully rationally should clashes renew.

To date, President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi has chosen, shrewdly, to remain neutral and to avoid military action that almost certainly would complicate the situation and worsen the violence. He instead has supported presidential committees that belatedly have negotiated ceasefires, first in Dammaj and more recently in Arhab and Hashid (in Amran governorate). However, these are tenuous and by their nature limited. A comprehensive peace requires that each side realise some key demands: for the Huthis, the right to peacefully propagate their religious ideas, mobilise supporters and engage in political activity; for their opponents, that Huthis relinquish heavy weapons to the state and advance their agenda only through peaceful party politics.

Both sets of demands are desirable in and of themselves and conform to the results of the national dialogue. Yet, achieving them will be far from simple: it will require the design of and commitment to a plan of action and an oversight mechanism that are linked to political power sharing and security sector reform at the national level.

During this fragile lull, the Yemeni government and international community should act decisively to prevent a rekindling of violence as a first step toward a durable peace agreement. This requires several steps:

  • President Hadi should immediately convene and oversee negotiations to solidify a comprehensive ceasefire in the North and to lay the foundations for a durable peace agreement. Discussions should include high-level stakeholders, including Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi, the leader of his movement; Ahmar family members; Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and senior Islah, GPC and Salafi leaders.
     
  • A peace plan should be based on the existing ceasefire arrangements and guided by national dialogue outcomes, including principles of political inclusion, freedom of religious belief and gradual disarmament of all non-state actors.
     
  • The Ahmars, Islah and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities.
     
  • The Huthis should agree to a sequenced program for transferring heavy weapons to the state, as the government simultaneously undertakes steps to ensure the neutrality of its institutions, especially the security services. This process could be started immediately, by removing controversial military commanders, especially in Amran, as well as by appointing less partisan governors in Amran and Jawf to replace the current Islah affiliates. Subsequently, further changes of local government officials and police should be negotiated to ensure, as far as possible, political neutrality or, at a minimum, adequate participation of all local stakeholders.
     
  • All parties should agree to refrain from military activity in Sanaa and to pursue de-escalation and disarmament in the capital.
     
  • To demonstrate the international community’s support for Hadi’s negotiation efforts, members of the G-10 (a diplomatic group based in Sanaa consisting of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU) – and especially Saudi Arabia and the U.S. – should back negotiations publicly and, if the Yemeni president requests, participate in talks and assist with implementation.
     
  • Monitoring of the agreement must include a local component – possibly through inclusive, tribally based security initiatives.

Sanaa/Brussels

How to End the War in Yemen

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Since the September attack on Saudi oil facilities, Riyadh and the Houthis have taken a step back from all-out war. All parties, including the United States, should seize this rare opportunity to resolve the conflict.

With all of U.S. President Donald Trump’s troubles at home and abroad, his administration could use a win. There is low-hanging fruit in Yemen, and the ripple effects of success there could go far beyond the impoverished and war-torn country. Houthi rebels (who prefer to be called Ansar Allah) have made an offer of de-escalation that, if built on quickly, could help extract the United States from the bloody and unwinnable war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. It would reduce threats to Saudi Arabia and its oil infrastructure at a time of rising tensions with Iran. And it would open a door to wider de-escalation inside Yemen and possibly across the region. 

On Sept. 20, the Houthis—who control northwestern Yemen and have been at war with a variety of Yemeni groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2015— announced a unilateral suspension of strikes on Saudi Arabia. In return, they asked for a halt to Saudi airstrikes and a lifting of restrictions on access to northern Yemen. 

They did this on the heels of claiming the Sept. 14 attacks against Saudi Aramco oil facilities, a claim that few believe and which has bound the group closer than ever to Iran in the eyes of its opponents. While the Houthis routinely fire missiles and send drones into Saudi territory, experts say the sophistication of the swarm attack points to Iran. According to Saudi and U.S. officials, the direction of the attack was from the north, rather than from Yemen to the south.

Read the full article on the website of  Foreign Policy.