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.

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The Middle East Channel

Bombings Hit Iraq Near Baghdad’s “Green Zone”

Multiple bombings struck the Iraqi capital of Baghdad during rush-hour Wednesday, mainly near the heavily-fortified "Green Zone," killing at least 22 people and wounding an estimated 30 others. The Green Zone houses Iraq's Parliament, the prime minister's office, and Western embassies. According to security sources, two parked cars exploded across from the ministry of foreign affairs. The interior ministry said a suicide bomber detonated explosives as he was being searched. Another suicide bomber blew himself up outside a restaurant one street away from the Green Zone, according to security sources. Additionally, a car bomb exploded in the commercial area of Khilani Square. The attacks came a day after two rockets exploded in the Green Zone and a series of bombings around Baghdad killed at least seven people.

Syria

The United Nations has released a report assessing the impact of the nearly three-year war in Syria on children. U.N. investigators found that all parties in the conflict had committed "grave violations against children" and that at least 10,000 children had been killed between March 2011 and November 2013. According to the report, children have been tortured and raped in government detention, used as human shields, and recruited to fight with the opposition. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the Syrian government forces' use of barrel bombs in attacks on the northern city of Aleppo saying it was the "latest barbaric act of the Syrian regime." According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights over 150 people have been killed by barrel bombings in the past four days. Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) signed a truce with the rival Islamist faction Suqour al-Sham on Tuesday. Suqour al-Sham had linked with a coalition of rebel groups fighting ISIL because of alleged abuses against civilians and rival opposition groups. Clashes between the rival groups since January 3 have killed over 1,700 people. The U.S. representative to the Syrian opposition, Ambassador Robert S. Ford, has notified the State Department that he plans to retire at the end of February. Ford was ambassador to Syria at the onset of the conflict and was active against President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on the opposition. U.S. officials have not released information on a successor.

Headlines  

  • A suspect in the killings of two Tunisian opposition politicians was among seven militants killed in a police raid on Monday in the suburbs of Tunis.
  • A grenade hit a school in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi Wednesday causing an explosion that injured an estimated 12 children.
  • Saudi Arabia issued a decree threatening three to 20 year prison terms for citizens who fight in conflicts abroad in apparent efforts to stem the flow of Saudis to the Syrian conflict.
  • The United States has called on Egypt to release three Al Jazeera journalists stating that the "restrictions on freedom of expression" are a concern.
  • The king of Bahrain has approved a law increasing penalties for anyone who publicly insults him imposing a jail term of up to seven years and a $26,500 fine. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Zamzam and the Jordanian Brotherhood' (Tareq Al-Naimat, Sada)

"The Zamzam founders say that they are trying to break down the duopoly of the regime versus the Brotherhood, which has dominated both local and regional politics, and create a third way toward achieving political reform in a country exhausted by economic crises. Likewise, the sweeping scope of the initiative is reminiscent of the Brotherhood's style of presenting itself as simultaneously expert in economics, politics, social policy, and moral guidance. Zamzam has not convinced observers that it is a new political project able to effect change in the political arena -- particularly given the experience of the Wasat Party, a group that broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1990s and which saw little success in attracting Brotherhood supporters.

The political atmosphere and public mood in Jordan hardly create a friendly environment for fostering new political parties. After decades of deterrence and intimidation of political engagement, as well as the failure on the part of parties themselves to gain broad popular support, Zamzam's chances of convincing the masses that it is a worthwhile entity appear remote. It is also noteworthy that the regime welcomed the Zamzam Initiative with significant state-run media coverage of the launch announcement, attended by government officials. This suggests that the regime wants to portray Zamzam as an alternative to the Brotherhood, which it claims is splintering and weakening. This reception has also raised doubts about the initiative's neutrality and whether it is being used by the regime to weaken its staunchest political opponents."

'Saudi Arabia's anti-terror law not enough' (Madawi Al-Rasheed, Al-Monitor)

"The Saudi regime wants the world to see those Saudi jihadists as independent non-state actors over which the government exercises no control, thus absolving it of any responsibility. This raises an important question with regard to the government's ability to control the flow of its own citizens to overseas destinations, where they assist other rebels. However, such an explanation does not seem appropriate in the Saudi context for one simple reason: Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries where religion, believed to be a source of inspiration for jihadists, is the realm of the individual and part of an independent civil society. In Saudi Arabia, the state and religion are fused and tend to support one another. The former provides institutions and funding to regulate religious activities and education, while the latter enjoys those benefits in return for supporting government decisions. The two may occasionally collide over specific policies, especially those that touch on social life, but in general, the relationship is harmonious.

Yet, the problem in Saudi Arabia started when a dogmatic Wahhabi tradition struggled to maintain control over the dissenting voices that emerged from within its rank and file. The more this tradition insisted on obeying political leaders, the more it fragmented and mutated, producing lethal outcomes that came to haunt not only Saudi Arabia but also the world. The government called upon its most trusted clerics to eliminate the challenge of a fragmenting religious tradition, but it was too late. It was difficult to debate religion in a country where monolithic interpretations, conformity and obedience are the norm. Top-down religion proved to be detrimental not only to society but also to religion itself. The more the religious tradition fragmented, the more the Saudi government felt it needed to control it to mitigate further dissent. It promoted debate to absolve itself from responsibility and put the full perceived burden on society. Supported by a large media empire, the state wanted everyone to believe that society is radical, while it is in fact progressive. In this way, the government protected itself from being seen as an accomplice in providing an institutional niche for radicals."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

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