Out of Sight out of Mind: The Battle for Yemen’s North

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After at least six months of handwringing, Yemen’s President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih has finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) deal to step down as president of Yemen. It would require Salih to step down when a new president is elected after 90 days from the date of signing. There is hope for the future, yet there is much to fix and many challenges ahead in Yemen. The next government will have a difficult time putting the country back together as Salih’s dithering has led to a loss of control at the fringes of Yemeni society in the south, but even more so in its volatile north. The Huthis, a revivalist Zaydi movement, whose main base of operation is in Sa‘da, is wrestling control of Yemen’s northern governorates from the Yemeni state, its tribal allies, and Islamist factions.

Within a few hours of Salih signing the GCC deal, the leader of the Huthis, ‘Abd al-Malik Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, released a communiqué denouncing the deal. ‘Abd al-Malik emphatically stated: “We consider any agreement with the oppressor is a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and the wounded, and a disregard for the sacrifices of the Yemeni people and a painful stab against the free rebels who have endured all kinds of suffering and imprisonment, torture and murder of more than ten months.” ‘Abd al-Malik proclaimed that the revolution would continue until the demands and goals of the revolutionaries are met.

Prior to the Yemeni uprising that began following the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late January 2011, between 2004 and 2010, the Yemeni state fought the Huthis in six rounds of battles; the last with the help of the Saudis. Besides their pent up antipathy toward Salih’s regime, one reason that the Huthis may be against the resolution is because they have made a lot of progress over the past few months in taking over three governorates in northern Yemen. The past few months have seen renewed fighting in northern Yemen this time between the Huthis and Islah, one of the main opposition parties in Yemen that is a coalition of Ikhwanis (the Muslims Brothers), Salafis, and tribal elements from the Hashid tribal federation.

At the outset of the Yemeni uprising, ‘Abd al-Malik announced his support for the pro-democratic protests and for regime change. Large crowds of Huthi supporters joined in protests in Sa‘da where the Huthis main base of operations lies. At the same time, the Huthis saw an opportunity to wrestle control of Sa‘da back from the state as Salih’s regime became isolated in Sana‘a. On March 26, the Huthis took Sa‘da and installed new military checkpoints as well as established their own administration in Sa‘da Governorate, independent from Yemeni authorities; appointing former arms dealer Fares Mana‘a as the new governor.

The Huthis also began an offensive in al-Jawf Governorate, which is southeast of Sa‘da. Fighting picked up in July against fighters from Islah where hundreds are believed to have died on both sides. There are reports that the Huthis are in control of al-Jawf now, too, and have now turned its attention to Hajjah Governorate, which is south of Sa‘da. On November 9, the Huthis beat back the pro-government Kashir and Aahm tribes and were able to take control of Kuhlan Ash Sharaf District, which is vital since there is a highway there that connects Sana‘a to the Red Sea. Pro-government sources in Hajjah believe the Huthis are taking these strategic positions to prepare an attack on Sana‘a. If Hajjah falls to the Huthis they will be in control of three governorates in northern Yemen.

Another issue at hand is increasing tensions with the Salafis at the Dammaj Institute in Sa‘da, which could exacerbate already thick sectarian tensions. A month ago, the Huthis laid siege to the Dammaj Institute complex after a letter from Imam Yahya al-Hajuri, the principal of Dammaj Institute, was leaked to the Huthis. In the letter, al-Hajuri thanked Brigadier General Yahya Mohamed ‘Abdullah Salih, the president’s nephew and chief commander of Yemen’s security forces, as well as the Saudis for fighting the Huthis in previous rounds of battle. The Huthis are also claiming that Salafis are bringing weapons inside their educational institutions. Making matters worse, al-Hajuri has sanctioned a jihad against the Huthis.

Attempts at reconciliation have been futile, as both sides have broken multiple potential ceasefires over the past few weeks with continued low-level fighting. Tensions have also been heighted because according to ‘Abd al-Malik, two weeks ago, the Huthis foiled a suicide attack in al-Jawf on Eid al-Ghadir, which is celebrated by Shi‘a to commemorate the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s speech appointing ‘Ali ibn ‘Abi Talib as his successor, which is a contentious issue between Sunnis and Sh‘ia. Although ‘Abd al-Malik blamed the failed attack on the United States as a way to ratchet up sectarian strife as he did in August when there was a successful car-bombing, this case like the one in August was most likely perpetrated by elements in or affiliated with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Earlier in the year, AQAP declared jihad against the Huthis, whom they view as agents of the Iranians or as they call them rawafid (a derogatory term for Shi‘a meaning rejectionists). AQAP also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that killed ‘Abd al-Malik’s father, Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, who was seen as the most influential Zaydi scholar of the past generation, and later his funeral procession both in late November 2010. Additionally, there are reports on global jihadi forums that AQAP has set up training camps in Sa‘da with 200-300 fighters.

There is no end in sight for the potential of even more expanded fighting in Yemen’s north between the Huthis and Salafi elements as well as AQAP. The destabilization of Yemen’s north has been a worry of the Saudi regime, which is one of the main reasons they entered the sixth battle between the Yemeni state and the Huthis in late 2009 and early 2010. As Gregory Johnsen has noted on numerous occasions, Saudis main policy with regard to Yemen is to keep it stabilized enough so it that does not become a failed state, at the same time, not strong enough so that it does not challenge the Saudi state.

If the Saudi’s decide to join the fight again to try and suppress the Huthis it has regional implications as well. Although the Huthis follow the Zaydi school of Shi’ism while the Iranians practice Imami (or Twelver) Shi’ism there is a level of affinity. Unlike Hizbullah, HAMAS, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad the Huthis are not an official proxy of the Iranian state. That said, due to the sectarian overtones of the fight between the Saudis and the Huthis, Iranian media endorsed the side of the Huthis. The Iranian government also decided to name some of their streets after Huthi “martyrs” from the fighting. As such, the conflict in northern Yemen could quickly become another chess match between the Saudis and Iranians in their cold war.

Even if the conflict in northern Yemen does not become a strategic regional battle, the fragile state of the northern governorates is a worry to the fractured Yemeni state. Indeed, the new Yemeni government has much to deal with including a spiraling economy, depleted water and energy resources, continued humanitarian disasters, secessionism in the South, and disillusioned youth who jump started the uprising; yet a resolution to the decade-plus long grievances of the Huthi movement and the Zaydi population in the north at large would go a long way in hopefully providing space for the new Yemeni government to deal with even more dire issues.

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