This is the first installment of the Heretics Mountain series on Yemen. For the introductory page, please click HERE
The Formation of the Republic of Yemen
Yemen is one of the oldest continuously occupied land masses in the world and has historically been a crossroads for international trade passing through the middle eastern region. The demographic make-up of Yemen is fairly straightforward with the majority of its inhabitants classified as Yemeni Arabs. Approximately 55% of the population is Sunni, while the remaining 45% are listed as Zaidi Shiia. The slight minority Zaidi population is concentrated heavily in the north, including the critical capital city of Sanaa. Its land area is approximately 203,000 square miles and features more than 1,200 miles of coast line. Of note, Yemen forms the southern and southwestern portion of the Arabian Peninsula and represents the eastern portion of the economically and strategically important Bab al Mandeb straight that connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Yemen is bordered to the west by the Red Sea, the north by Saudi Arabia, the east by Oman, and the south by the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Like many of its regional counterparts Yemen spent much of existence as a trade state loosely governed by various regional superpowers including pagan, Jewish, Christian, and finally Muslim kingdoms. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 and the collapse of the Ottoman empire contributed to the establishment of the Zaidi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. This Kingdom remained in place until 1962 when the Yemen Arab Republic was formed, via revolution, as the ruling power of the northern reaches of the country. This revolution ended 1,000 continuous years of Zaidi Imam rule over northern Yemen, a detail which is not insignificant in context of the present day conflict in the country.
The modern state of Yemen was formed in 1990 when the north and south unified to form the Republic of Yemen (ROY). Shortly after the formation of the ROY, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq caused a major rift between northern Yemen (primarily Zaidi), southern Yemen (primarily Sunni and loyal to KSA), and Saudi Arabia. The government, based in the capital city of Sanaa, opposed intervention in the invasion of Kuwait by non-Arab nations, and voted against a UN resolution on the use of force to counter the Iraqi invasion into Kuwait. This angered KSA and resulted in the expulsion of 800,000 Yemenis from KSA. This lead to food shortages, riots, and eventually civil war between the northern and southern armies of Yemen who had not yet integrated. In 1994 the northern armies defeated the southern armies, despite KSA’s support of the south, and effectively ended the civil war.
The ROY is characterized as a developing country with its government often described as a kleptocracy (rule by thieves). Transparency International ranked the ROY as 164 of 182 governments on their international perception corruption index. From 1999 to 2011, the ROY was controlled by a power sharing agreement between the first directly elected president, Ali Abdullah Saleh; a powerful Army general, Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar; and the leader of the Islamist Islah party, Abdullah al Ahmar. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) exercised influence over the tribal dynamics of Yemen via “Patronage Payments” distributed by Abdullah al Ahmar to the tribes of Yemen; an act designed to increase the autonomy of the Sunni tribes from the ROY. Despite the official unification of Yemen, the country remained divided between the Zaidi Shiites of the north, the Sunni tribes of the south, and the ROY which exercised control over only a small portion of the country through the capital city of Sanaa.
The Rise of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi
In June of 2004 the Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi launched an insurgency against the Yemeni government in the northern governorate of Sa’dah, claiming ROY policies discriminated against the Zaidi people and was too closely allied with the United States and KSA. al-Houthi’s goals were primarily centered on social equality and ending government corruption, issues that nearly every Yemeni could strongly identify. Al-Houthi’s insurgency drew upon the estimated 8-10 million Zaidi Shiites in Yemen and gave rise to the Houthis, named for their loyalty to the figurehead al-Houthi. The Houthis spread their insurgency to the neighboring governorates of Hajjah and al-Jawf as well as Jizan province, KSA; effectively covering the entire northwestern region of Yemen.
The Houthis primary military strategy was to conduct operations from within the difficult mountainous terrain of northern Yemen, areas where ROY troops had no training or experience fighting. This strategy was extremely effective and resulted in a serious drain on ROY’s military resources. In the September of 2004 the ROY launched several large scale operations to kill or capture members of the Houthi insurgency and on 10 September 2004, killed al-Houthi, leaving his brother Abdul Malik al-Houthi as the leader of the Houthi insurgency. This did not slow the Houthis, who continued fighting with the ROY until a February 2010 ceasefire. In total, an estimated 30,000 casualties resulted from the fighting. The ceasefire was largely viewed as a victory for the Houthi insurgency as they maintained their control over the contentious areas and popular support continued to grow as ROY corruption increased in light of the struggling economy due to the protracted conflict.
The End of the ROY
The unsteady ceasefire lasted merely one year. By January 2011 a groundswell of Zaidi popular support for the Houthi rebellion and government reform resulted in a large protest of over 16,000 in the capital city of Sanaa. In February of 2011, popular pressure led president Saleh to announced that he would not run for election in 2013. The following day 20,000 protestors appeared on the streets of Sanaa. These protests were bolstered by “pro-democracy” demonstrations of the populations in Tunisia and Egypt now referred to as the Arab Spring. In late February, Houthi rebellion leadership officially endorsed the protests as a means of effecting change and countering the corruption of the central government. By March of 2011, Houthi rebels seized complete control of Saddah governorate, established an independent government, and used its military to close off the city to ROY forces. This moved General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, the primary military commander of the anti-Houthi operations, to resign his post in order to protect protestors. Over the next four months, the Houthis fought for political and military control over al-Jawf with Al Qaeda militants who opposed the Shiia Houthis independence. By the fall of 2011 the Houthis had seized control of Sadaah, al-Jawf, and Amran governorates. During this period, President Saleh signed an agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to cede power to his vice presidency; ending his 33 continuous years of political dominance. This deal with the GCC sparked widespread protest among the Zaidi population and further fueled their unwillingness to negotiate with the ROY. President Saleh’s replacement, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was voted into office with overwhelming popular support.
By late 2012, the Zaidi were staging anti-US protests and the Houthis capitalized on this sentiment by utilizing anti-US slogans as part of their resistance of the central government who had allied with the US to counter AQAP in southern Yemen. The final spark for the takeover of the Sanaa government was precipitated by a loan agreement negotiated between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the ROY over the course of 2013. The ROY was strained heavily by its battle with AQAP in the south and the more than 10 years of struggle against the Houthi rebels in the north. In order to ease the financial burden, they sought a loan from the IMF which stipulated that Yemen drastically reduce its more than 3-billion-dollar energy subsidies. This agreement effectively doubled gas prices across the country and sparked economic depression and protest. The Houthi rebels seized on the widespread discontent to make its push towards the capital in September 2014. During the ensuing struggle the Houthis fought with both pro ROY forces as well as AQAP. During the fighting the Houthi rebels made statements that ROY President Hadi had secret agreements with AQAP to aid one another in resisting the Houthi takeover, further fueling popular support for their movement. By January 2015, the Houthis had seized full control of the capital, forcing the resignation of President Hadi and effectively ending the former ROY.
What it Looks Like Today
In present day the governments of KSA, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have formed a coalition to counter the Houthi takeover of Yemen and have invaded northern Yemen in an attempt to return to power the former ROY. US counter AQAP operations in the region have been severely hampered due to the lack of a working relationship between the Houthis, who claim the US assisted the ROY in targeting Houthi rebels, and the US military. The Houthi controlled regions of Yemen stretches from the Governorate of Sadaah to the governorate of Taiz in the south west of the country, an area proximal to the port controlling Bab al Mandeb. The Saudi led coalition has had little to no success in countering the Houthis, and the Sunni tribes have consistently lost ground in their efforts to stem the tide of Houthi control. It is unclear as to whether or not this sudden shift in political power is a net benefit for the people of Yemen or its constituent components. Until the country gains a semblance of stability and security it will be difficult to make such a determination. The impact of the Houthi insurgency on US foreign policy has the potential to grow exponentially. The US maintained a working relationship with the ROY from 2004 to 2014 primarily centered on targeting AQAP terrorist targets. After the Houthi takeover of the capital these operations have largely ceased due to the unwillingness of the Houthis to directly cooperate with the US. The Houthi rebellion has sparked instability within the country that has led to an increase in ISIL activity within the Sunni tribal areas of southern Yemen. While the Houthis have historically been effective in countering AQAP and Sunni Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) on the peninsula, it is unlikely that they are powerful enough to simultaneously stabilize the new government, counter the Saudi led invasion, and prevent the growth of Sunni VEOs. This has a direct impact of the US national strategy of targeting international terrorist groups. Additionally, the US Navy 5th fleet has traditionally played a major role in underwriting the security of the Bab al Mandeb straight as part of its mission to secure the waterways for US and international trade. It is possible that the instability caused by the Houthi takeover of the government of Yemen could present an opportunity for either Houthis or VEOs to leverage the vulnerability of this strategically important waterway. In order for the US to achieve its current strategic objectives in the region (stability, counter terrorism, security of US and international trade), it will likely be forced to expand its involvement in Yemen beyond the Counter Terrorism (CT) operations it previously conducted in cooperation with the ROY. This will likely involve the difficult task of acting as a broker between their ally Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi led government of Yemen.
This concludes Part I of the series. The next installment will focus on the dynamics of the successful Houthi Insurgency and hopefully and add some context for our predictions in later installments.
This article reprinted with permission from The Heretic’s Mountain.