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INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP - CONFLICT ALERT
Sanaa/Brussels, 26 February 2014:
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: