Yemen on the verge of all-out civil war

Right now, it is apparent that Yemen is rapidly sliding into all out chaos. A few weeks ago, we described the populous yet impoverished nation as experiencing a four-way civil war, involving the central government, the Houthis, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  and the socialists and others in the South.

With the resignation of President Hadi and the Houthi seizure of power in Sana’a, conditions in Yemen are changing rapidly. We shall start by summarizing some recent developments that illustrate the current situation.

UN Security Council resolution

On Feb. 15, as nine foreign embassies, including that of the U.S., shuttered their doors and sent staff home, the United Nations Security Council unanimously called for the Houthis to withdraw their forces from government buildings, engage in UN-organized negotiations with other forces in Yemen, and release former President Hadi and other Cabinet officials held under house arrest.

The resolution raised the possibility of sanctions against Yemen, although the call did not go as far as the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, which has called for military intervention under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. That document sets out the Security Council’s powers to maintain peace and allows the Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.”

Houthis reply with defiance

The Houthis responded to this call with defiance. “The Yemeni people will not bow to any threat or warning. This will only make them stronger, more aware and more adherent to their principles,” read a statement released Saturday evening by the Houthis on their official Facebook page.

Houthi Political Office member Mohammad Al-Bukhaiti told the Yemen Times on Sunday the GCC’s statement was released “to please American interests” and said it would not undermine “the Yemeni people’s revolution.”

“The Yemeni people will not stop fighting corruption, terrorism and building their future state. We rely on God and the Yemeni people alone—we move in line with our faith in God, not any loyalty to America,” said Al-Bukhaiti. (Yemen Times)

Houthi repression in Ibb, elsewhere

Meanwhile, on Feb. 15, Houthi armed men fired on an anti-Houthi demonstration in the agricultural city of Ibb.

“In the city of Ibb, which the militia have held since last year, protesters chanted: “Huthi, Iran: Yemen is not Lebanon!”, in reference to predominantly Shia Iran’s alleged support for the militia.

“They also shouted slogans against Russia, which is thought to be reluctant to take a hard line against the Huthis at the UN Security Council.

“Witnesses said the Huthis fired warning shots to disperse the protest, wounding at least six people.

“Similar demonstrations took place in the Shia-populated city of Dhammar, which is also under Huthi control, and the southern city of Daleh, where protesters demanded political parties end their UN-brokered talks with the militia in Sanaa.” (Middle East North Africa Financial Network)

In addition, credible accusations have been made against the Houthis, charging them with incidents of torture and of abducting political opponents.

On the same day that the UN resolution was announced, men from several tribes in Marib province successfully defended a government military camp in nearby Hadramout that was under attack by forces suspected of being AQAP.

On Feb. 16, a popular committee in Abyan governorate in the south raided and took over a special security forces compound in the city of Zunjubar. According to the Yemen Times:

“Naser Al-Hawshabi, a popular committee member in the city, said armed members broke into the compound on Monday after giving the soldiers a warning beforehand. No resistance was offered and the soldiers have since departed, giving the popular committee full control of the barracks. …

“Al-Hawshabi said the attack is part of a wider campaign to reinstate Southern Yemen as an independent state.

“’When the legitimate president [Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi] resigned under pressure from the Houthis, the popular committee realized it was time to remove any bastion of Houthi authority in the south, which includes the special forces,’ he said, adding that Monday’s attack was a first step towards extending control throughout Abyan governorate.

“’We are determined to free government institutions in the south from the grip of Houthis who took over the government in Sana’a,’ he said. The resignation of President Hadi, who is originally from Abyan’s Al-Wade’a district, has provoked a backlash from many popular committee members in the governorate, according to local journalist Jamal Mansour.

“Mansour says the Special Security Forces’ barracks in Zunjubar had remained almost empty since 2011, leaving Abyan vulnerable to infiltration by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).”

The popular committees in Abyan were formed in 2012 to provide support in operations against AQAP.

How to characterize the forces in Yemen

A few years ago, a video of a TED Talk called “The danger of a single story” made the rounds. In it, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, makes the important point that by showing “a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, [and] that is what they become.” The single story reduces a complex nationality or group to just one thing.

When it comes to understanding Yemen as a whole as well as understanding the different forces in the current situation, we must be very wary of the “single story” that lays out each group as being entirely one thing, without any overlap or connection to any of the other groups.

The (now seemingly defunct) central government of Yemen was well known to be weak, its power extending generally only as far as the main roads. The former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was famously corrupt and adept at pitting the various tribes one against another. While on the one hand, he was a key U.S. ally in the fight against AQAP, it has been alleged that he also has his own ties to AQAP:

“In November [2014], the United Nations Security Council committee tasked with overseeing sanctions in Yemen imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, alleging that he had been trying to undermine the country’s post-Arab Spring transition. The committee said that its panel of experts had received allegations that Saleh himself had been using AQAP ‘to conduct assassinations and attacks against military installations in order to weaken President [Abed Rabbo Mansour] Hadi and create discontent within the army and broader Yemeni population.’ Two weeks later, the committee deleted the reference to AQAP, saying simply that Saleh ‘supports violent actions of some Yemenis by providing them funds and political support.'” (Foreign Policy)

Since Saleh’s departure from power, President Hadi has continued many of the same policies of the Saleh government, in particular cooperation with the United States in the fight against AQAP.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

AQAP is known in the West primarily for its involvement in dramatic acts of terrorism that have impacted Westerners, such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. While AQAP’s ideology is not wildly popular in Yemen, they are a flexible and resilient fighting force that has successfully exploited local conditions and distrust of the central government (and now perhaps distrust of the Houthis) as well as negotiating family and tribal loyalties to survive and continue to grow. (“AQAP’s Resilience” Combating Terrorism Center)

Tribes in Yemen

A traditional source of power in Yemen has been the tribes. Here again, it is important not to lump all tribes together into one category. Clearly, each tribal group sees itself as distinct from others; further, within each tribe, there is stratification between the often wealthy and powerful leaders and the mostly impoverished grassroots tribesmen.

Last spring, a number of tribes in the South negotiated a sort of truce with AQAP. The tribes took a neutral position out of fear that the fight between AQAP and the military could destabilize their areas.

“To mitigate the danger, southern tribes negotiated a deal with militant members to refrain from fighting the military in return for guaranteeing their safety. Al-Awaleq, one of the largest tribes in South Yemen, signed an agreement with al-Qaeda representatives stating just that. … The debate as to whether the tribes support a war against al-Qaeda is not relevant. Even if all the tribal leaders support the offensive, they cannot change the conditions that led to their members joining the extremist group—and it is certainly understandable that they would not risk their fragile social order for a government they distrust.” (Tribes and AQAP in South Yemen)

The Houthis

The Houthis are a tribe from the northernmost part of Yemen. Religiously, they are Zaidis, a form of Shi’a Islam found only in Yemen. It is clear that they are currently being supported by Iran. Their struggle started out some years back as a fight for greater autonomy in their region, but has evolved into a struggle to become the leaders of the entire country. They have made overtures in Sana’a to the so-called muhamasheen, or the “marginalized,” a community of extremely poor people in Yemen.

The Houthis have attempted to offer reassurances to Yemen’s tiny remaining Jewish community, many of whom have been evacuated from their homes in Sa’ada, site of the fiercest fighting of the Houthi rebellion. “Jews are safe and no harm will come to them,” said Abu al-Fadl, who like other leaders in the movement goes by a nom de guerre and not his given name. “The problem of the Houthis is not with the Jews of Yemen but with Israel, which occupies Palestine,” he added.

Despite their claims to being a leadership for all of Yemen, the Houthis are not trusted by many, and their actions (abducting and torturing political opponents, repressing demonstrations) do not foster further trust. They are especially not trusted by people in the South, for a confluence of factors: religious differences (Sunni vs. Zaidi) ideological differences (secular socialist vs. sectarian) and cultural (self-identified sophisticated urban dwellers vs. perceived crude highland bumpkins ).

The Houthis have in essence taken over from the now-deposed central government, utilizing inclusive-sounding and anti-imperialist/anti-Zionist rhetoric. However, they are in no position to actually take action against the United States, which has continued to engage in drone killings, and has left U.S. Special Forces personnel in the country as part of the “war on terror.”

Southern Movement

The Southern Movement clearly represents the most progressive element in the four-way mix of forces. It, however, can hardly be considered monolithic. The South of Yemen has a history unique from that of the North in that it was colonized by Britain, liberated by Yemeni Marxists, and existed as a socialist state until reunification with the Republic of Yemen in 1989. The socialist South was decisively defeated in the 1994 civil war. Currently, the Southern secessionist movement has numerous trends ranging from those calling for complete and immediate secession to those seeking greater rights and autonomy within a united Yemen. In terms of the forces found within the movement, again there is a range from socialists to (non-AQAP) Islamists to tribal elements. Lack of unity within the movement is one of the obstacles it faces. (The Political Challenge of Yemen’s Southern Movement)

Additionally, there are no forces outside of Yemen that are providing support to the movement, in contrast to the support given the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen by the Soviet Union. Additional obstacles faced by the Southern Movement is the fact that the South of Yemen while geographically large, is demographically much smaller than the North; at unification in 1991 the North had some 12 million inhabitants in contrast to 3 million in the South.

As can be seen, the situation in Yemen is teetering on the brink of all-out civil war, in which no force appears to be in a position to be able to win quickly. The country is facing the threat of outside intervention, which is incapable of bringing true peace or stability to this beautiful land and can only intensify the damage and destruction. All progressive people should oppose imperialist intervention in Yemen and defend the right of the Yemeni people to self-determination.

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