The Middle East Channel

Power Struggle in Yemen’s North

For much of the past decade, outbreaks of violence have occurred with such regularity in northern Yemen that even many people in the capital appear to verge on treating them nearly as white noise. The Yemeni government's April 2004 attempt to arrest Hussein al-Houthi, a Zaidi Shiite cleric and politician, sparked a sequence of six brutal wars. Houthi himself was killed in September of that year, but his followers -- generally referred to as "Houthis" -- proved markedly resilient despite the series of onslaughts from the Yemeni Armed Forces and their tribal allies. As the central government's control over much of the country dissipated in the wake of the 2011 uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis managed to seize virtual control over their strongholds in the far northern province of Saada. While they managed to consolidate their hold on much of Saada in a matter of days, clashes in nearby provinces have continued with alarming regularity, as various foes have aimed to push back against the Houthis' rising power.

Over the weekend, however, a sudden turn in the long-running clashes in the northern province of Amran brought renewed focus to the fighting. Following days of fierce clashes, Houthi fighters managed to rout supporters of the Al-Ahmars, one of Yemen's most powerful tribal families, in their native district. It was a stunning victory underlining the extent of the once-suppressed rebels' strength, drawing a mix of reactions plainly demonstrating the thorny, complicated nature of the conflict in Yemen's north, which arguably threatens to rip the country apart.

Media reports often cast the clashes as rooted in sectarian tensions, but, at its most basic level, the violence is the predictable manifestation of a battle for power spurred by the Houthis' resurgence. Their gains, of course, have come at the expense of traditional power holders. As the Houthis took hold of Saada, once-powerful tribal leaders who backed Saleh's government during past conflicts were effectively forced into exile, while the recent evacuation of a Salafi institute in Saada has only heightened the Houthis' adversaries' perceptions that they are ultimately facing an existential battle. Considering the group's history, it's hard to fault the Houthis for feeling the same way. Accused of fighting a war for expansion, they have largely cast their actions as legitimate self-defense.

The Houthis' ability to take on scores of powerful tribal leaders in their own home turf isn't simply a sign of their rising strength: It's also a result of longstanding tensions within Yemen's tribal system. During his three decades in power, Saleh actively aimed to coopt the power of tribal notables, incorporating them into a vast patronage system. As sheikhs grew wealthy and spent increasing amounts of time in Sanaa, their grasp over their constituency -- traditionally cemented by face to face interaction through mediating or arbitrating disputes -- waned. Many Yemenis complain that tribal sheikhs have increasingly maintained their positions of leadership through their ties to the government, rather than through keeping the respect of the tribes, focusing on their own interests, rather than the interests of those they theoretically represent. Weakened loyalties granted the Houthis an opening. The group has managed to gain the backing of a number of traditionally less influential, but locally based, tribal leaders in areas across northern Yemen; to an even greater extent, they've reaped the benefits as many tribesmen have proven reluctant to fight to defend their theoretical leaders who have come to blows with the group. Notably, the Houthis' invocations of the Zaidi doctrine of khuruj -- the right and duty to revolt against an unjust ruler -- have targeted tribal leaders with ties to Sanaa in addition to the government itself.  

Recent days have certainly seen such rhetoric directed at the al-Ahmar family, though relations between the Houthis and the al-Ahmars haven't always been this adversarial. While the family's late patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, was a staunch backer of Saleh, tensions between the family and the former president had surfaced even prior to the tribal leader's death. Leaked U.S. Embassy cables show that his fourth oldest son, Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, an outspoken Saleh critic and member of the Sunni Islamist Islah party, had begun efforts to coordinate with the Houthis in an alliance of convenience aimed at toppling the former president as early as 2009, foreshadowing the Houthis' and Islahis' joint participation in Yemen's 2011 anti-government uprising. Sheikh Hussein al-Ahmar, who lacks his brother's Islamist politics, had even more cordial relations with the group, going from a mediator to a party in conflicts with the Houthis in the span of less than two years.

Simultaneously, the relationship between the Houthis and Saleh -- or at least many of his supporters -- has undergone a similar shift, even if claims that the former president has provided some form of backing to the group in its conflict with the Ahmars to avenge their role in his ouster are anything but proven: Opposition to Islah has placed both of them on the same side. Even if the Houthis ostensibly pose a threat to their own standing, Saleh-aligned tribal leaders in Amran have largely opted against providing the Ahmars with any support -- some have allegedly gone as far as to provide assistance to the Houthis. The Ahmars' rout fueled open expressions of schadenfreude from Saleh supporters across the country.

That's not to say, however, that the Ahmars were the only ones left reeling from their defeat. Many of those hostile to the Houthis -- including, but not limited to, backers of Islah and other Sunni Islamist factions -- seemed keen for vengeance. Rumors of imminent action from Major General Ali Mohsen -- a former Saleh strongman close to Islah who broke with the former president in 2011 -- echoed throughout the capital, mixing with long-whispered fears that the Houthis could soon move to take Sanaa. The hands of Saleh's successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, appeared to be tied, leaving him with no other option to attempt to mediate: Direct confrontation with the Houthis would threaten to plunge the country into civil war, while lingering divisions have lead many to doubt whether the Yemeni military would even be able to mount a theoretical fight.

The announcement of a cease-fire on Tuesday was met with widespread relief, but renewed violence is widely expected. Despite grumblings in some quarters, analysts and officials here agree that any actions by the Yemeni Armed Forces would be far from advisable: Saleh's heavy-handed efforts to squash the Houthis -- which included a 2009 offensive that was literally named "Operation Scorched Earth" -- failed to lead to any decisive victory, even as the military lay waste to swaths of the country's far north. Political analysts largely argue that the only real option is the Houthis' incorporation into Yemen's mainstream. But it's hard to imagine that taking place as long as the group retains its armed wing. Coming in the wake of the end of Yemen's National Dialogue Conference, the Houthis' gains have only underlined the unlikelihood that the group will disband its militias any time soon.

Adam Baron is a Sanaa-based journalist who reports regularly for the Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @adammbaron.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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