On Sunday, September 21, militias aligned with Zaydi-Shia Houthi rebels over-ran Yemen’s capital. Having advanced into Sana’a from the northwest, the Houthis gained strategic advantage over a number of army units, and overpowered parts of the former First Armored Division, a military faction that defected to the opposition in 2011.
Upon arriving in Sana’a, Houthi militias proceeded to take over several institutions and private buildings. These included the campus of the ultra-conservative al-Iman University, a number of government institutions, including the Central Bank and Ministry of Defense, homes belonging to members of the Islamist party Islah, and properties owned by the prominent Hashid tribal leaders, the al-Ahmar family. These recent gains by the Houthi rebels, also referred to as Ansar Allah, come on the heels of the movement’s major military victories in the northern provinces against militias aligned with Sunni Islamists.
These Houthi successes have brought about a historical shift in power relations in northern Yemen. The momentum gained by the armed forces of Sayyid Abdul-Malek Badr al-Din al-Houthi has now transformed into political influence that directly impacts the direction of Yemen’s ongoing political transition sponsored by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The Houthi Take Over of Sana’a: A Year in the Making
The Houthis’ decisive victory in northern Amran a year ago against tribal elements under Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar and his family, followed by the expulsion in January 2014 of Salafist elements from the city of Damaj in Sadah province put in motion a series of events that gave Houthi rebels and their leadership unprecedented power over Sana’a’s political elite.
In 2013, the Houthis managed to consolidate control over Sadah province by eliminating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) elements from Kitaf district, including a number of suspected AQAP bases that gave the group access to the Saudi-Yemeni border. Sources in Sana’a claim the Houthis and Saudi Arabia negotiated a modus vivendi based on a Houthi commitment to guard the border area against unauthorized incursions. This also gave the Houthis control over valuable smuggling routes.
These clear victories over powerful elements in northern Yemen created momentum for the Houthis. In July, the movement overran Amran city, just fifty kilometers from Sana’a. This victory, primarily over General Hamid al-Qushaybi, commander of the 310th Brigade and an ally of General Ali Muhsin, former leader of the First Armored Division, was facilitated by the retreat of tribal elements loyal to al-Ahmar and Salafi militias aligned with Islah.
The Houthi incursion into the capital was preceded by a call to protest government policies implemented in late July. Abdul-Malek used a televised speech on August 17 to rally opposition against the government’s decision to remove fuel subsidies.
During his speech, the young leader announced a number of demands on behalf of the Yemeni people, resurrecting a call to revolution similar to events that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. Aside from focusing on the fuel subsidies and the impact new prices would have on the majority of people, al-Houthi demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Salem BaSundwa and the dissolution of the cabinet. In the same announcement, he demanded implementation of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference that concluded in January of this year.
In response, thousands of Houthi supporters and militia members flooded the streets of Sana’a and set up camps around strategic areas in the outskirts of the capital. The Houthi siege involved choking major arteries leading into and out of Sana’a, as well as encircling areas throughout the city belonging to their rivals, such as Ali Muhsin, the al-Ahmar family, and Islah.
After nearly a month of protests in the capital, which were met by pro-government demonstrations led by Islah and other political elements, the Houthis called in armed elements to respond to alleged attacks by Islah militias against Houthi loyalist in Wadi Dhahar, a few kilometers north-west of the capital. This led to a Houthi blitz into Shamlan district, in northwestern Sana’a, which gave Houthi militias a direct path into the headquarters of the First Armored Division (Firqa).
The advance into Sahmlan left dozens of Yemeni soldiers dead. The government was unable to recover their bodies, as the Houthis ferociously pressed into an area holding a number of homes belonging to Islah members and military officers loyal to General Ali Muhsin.
Houthi militias then moved on vital government institutions. The movement’s leaders claimed their actions aimed to prevent “terrorist” elements from taking advantage of the chaos. The group’s militias set up numerous check points, often manned by under-aged armed youth, to control the movement of ‘wanted fugitives’ (meaning Islah members and al-Ahmar loyalists).
Houthi control over the Ministry of Defense, which was previously targeted by AQAP in December 2013, was temporary, but the Central Bank remained under Houthi armed guard and institutions like the Ministry of Human Rights were not abandoned until late September.
Houthi claims of potential terrorist threats in Sana’a coincided with media reports about AQAP operatives flooding the capital in anticipation of the government’s fall. In addition to these media reports, Jalal Bil’ayd, commander of AQAP affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, announced in early September that his fighters were already laying in wait in Sana’a to fight Houthis and government forces.
AQAP took responsibility for the September 23 attack on Houthi elements using an improvised explosive device (IED) near Yemen’s state television station. The terrorist organization also set off a later explosion at a hospital used by Houthis in Majzar, a district in the eastern oil rich province of Mareb, and attacked security officers in al-Baydha province in central Yemen.
These events gave a degree of credibility to Houthi claims of impending terror acts. On September 27, Ansar al-Sharia claimed to have launched a rocket in the direction of the U.S. embassy’s main gate. On September 29, AQAP’s Nasser Bin Ali al-Ansi announced the imminent expansion of clashes between Houthi rebels and the AQAP. Areas like al-Baydha province and al-Sadda, Ibb are now witnessing mounting hostilities between Houthis and AQAP elements.
The Peace and National Partnership Agreement
On September 21, the Peace and National Partnership Agreement was signed at the Presidential Palace under the watchful eye of UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar. The agreement marked the beginning of a ceasefire between the warring parties. The text of the agreement partly met Houthi demands, especially after Prime Minister BaSundwa submitted his resignation earlier that day. Fuel subsidies were not restored, but President Hadi committed to forming a new government following the appointment of a new prime minister.
In many ways, the agreement is more symbolic than practical. The document openly ignores the fact that, as a non-state actor, the Houthis have no incentives to fulfill the agreement’s commitments. Indeed, since its signing, the Houthis have vowed to eliminate the political influence of rivals like Islah party, Ali Muhsin and the al-Ahmar family. The document begins by focusing on the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, rather than on the security vacuum created by the expanding violence. Not until article thirteen is the security situation addressed. Specific details on this are, however, excluded from the main text and found instead in the Annex, which was signed on September 29. Houthi representatives initially refused to sign the ten-article Annex to the main text of the agreement. This portion of the agreement committed Houthi leaders to withdrawing from areas occupied by Islah affiliates, possibly providing the party with territory to regroup.
Some believe the partnership agreement was a result of Benomar’s insistence that Yemen’s transitional process be re-emphasized in a document that was supposed to prioritize stability in north Yemen. Houthi rebels continue to insist on terminating the GCC Initiative signed in 2011, while Benomar has supported the agreement’s continuing relevance to the transitional period. Notably, the partnership agreement makes no mention of the Group of Ten (the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, GCC, European Union, United States, UK, France, China, and Russia) that sponsored the 2011 agreement, nor were their representatives present at the signing ceremony.
A New Power Balance
In northern Yemen, the Houthis have established a new military-political order in less than thirteen months. Abdul-Malek al-Houthi has single handedly created an environment where the main players now are President Hadi and himself, while former president Ali Abdullah Saleh repositions himself in an attempt to remain relevant. The power brokers of old, such as Ali Muhsin and the al-Ahmar family, are no longer in charge.
Ali Muhsin, who is now reportedly in exile in Saudi Arabia, represented Islah’s military pillar, while the al-Ahmar’s were tribal hegemons. Their roles in Islah were both empowering for the organization, while at the same time constraining for the party’s ideologues. Since 1994, they have both been vital to sustaining Islah’s place in government. Holding only forty-six out of 301 seats in parliament (since 2003), Islah never had major influence over society. Instead, its power emanated from its alliance with Muhsin and the al-Ahmars. Now both have been rendered impotent by decisive Houthi victories in their previous strongholds.
Houthi militias reportedly looted the Firqa Headquarters in Sana’a, driving tanks and other heavy weapons out in daylight toward Amran province. Some speculated this was evidence that troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were involved, as ordinary tribesmen would not have the skill to operate such equipment. People forget, however, that thanks to their six-year battle against the Saleh government (from 2004 to 2010), the Houthis have a long track record of capturing and using military equipment.
While many claim the siege of Sana’a was aided, or perhaps even planned, by Saleh, it is unlikely al-Houthi and his forces are under the deposed president’s influence. Instead, it is Saleh who is under Houthi protection, now that his main rivals, Islah, Ali Muhsin, and the al-Ahmars, have been neutralized.
For the Houthis, their main concern should now be the damage being done to their image by rogue elements in Sana’a. They must also avoid overextending themselves, while their core base in Sadah remains under threat. Ansar Allah is still untested by a capable rival, and yet overconfidence in its capabilities may bog the group down in a protracted conflict with Salafist and AQAP elements in the north, central region, and the southwest of Yemen. Abdul-Malek al-Houthi may begin to feel pressure from more ambitious elements within the ranks, possibly exacerbating internal rifts over the group’s final goals.
Expanded Security Role
In his speeches, al-Houthi has claimed his forces came to Sana’a in order to protect the people. Indeed, the Houthis have now replaced government security forces in the two northern provinces of Amran and al-Jawf, which they control. In the absence of a well-equipped and efficient national military, the Houthis may continue to fill the security vacuum in areas subject to their authority. This will involve dealing with destabilizing elements, like AQAP and its surrogate Ansar al-Sharia, which hope to establish more stable safe-havens after being dislodged by government forces in April from camps in Shebwa and Abyan.
It remains to be seen if AQAP can capitalize on anti-Houthi sentiments in the central region (Ibb, Taiz and al-Dhale) and rally Islah to confront Ansar Allah. Since the creation of Ansar al-Sharia Central Region, as well as an offshoot militant group under the leadership of Ma’moon Andulhamid Hatem that was announced in late March, AQAP has made clear its intention to confront the Houthi presence wherever it can. While the threat from AQAP may have dissipated in northern Yemen, the terrorist group remains highly active in a number of southern provinces. Aside from the attack on Houthis in Sadah, close to the Saudi border, and the IED in Sana’a, no major AQAP attack has been reported in north Yemen in recent weeks. In recent days, however, direct confrontations between Ansar al-Sharia and Houthis in Rada’, al-Baydha, al-Saddah, and Odain in Ibb provinces, in central Yemen, have resulted in a number of casualties on both sides.
The presence of Ansar al-Sharia remains concerning for both President Hadi and the Houthis. Neither can afford renewed efforts by Islamic militants to establish safe-havens from which to launch attacks on government institutions or train and deploy elements to attack Houthi positions in the north. Houthis cannot afford further gains by Ansar al-Sharia leaders in recruiting tribal forces as surrogates, such as the recent alliance with Madh’haj tribes in al-Baydha.
Challenges from Transformation and Expansion
By developing a highly efficient, political and military wing in Ansar Allah, al-Houthi built an image of order and security in Amran and Sadah. Having pledged to withdraw from Sana’a, it is highly unlikely the Houthis will be allowed to replicate these accomplishments in the capital, although there is no place in Yemen in need of security more than Sana’a. With the movement’s unprecedented gains in the capital, it is likely the Houthis will not withdraw completely but rather remain out of sight within Sana’a and its surrounding districts.
Houthi gains have transformed Yemeni politics. In turn, these events are also transforming the Zaydi-Shia. Their victories have delivered a number of unintended consequences, leading to expanded political responsibilities. The siege of the Red Sea port city of Hodeida on October 14 is clear evidence of expanded responsibilities, which will eventually strain Houthi capabilities. Following the siege of Hodeida, Houthis ousted governor Sakhr al-Waji, a high profile member of al-Islah, and immediately replaced him with Taha Mutawakkil, a high-ranking Houthi leader and preacher from Sana’a. Houthi ambitions remain unclear, however, as the siege of Sana’a proved the group was unwilling or unprepared, to take over the seat of government. Controlling a number of local or provincial seats is not as compromising as controlling the central government, after all.
With negotiations underway since October 20 to form a new government under recently appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, it remains to be seen whether the Houthis will officially embrace their expanding political responsibilities or remain on the margins, constantly challenging government authority and replacing it when necessary.