23.01.2015 Author: Alexander Orlov

Yemen: The Start of the Houthi Offensive

Y4535345As the security situation in Yemen deteriorated further in late December, the gap between leading political forces became even deeper, as political parties started to voice a desire to replace President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a leader that had been deprived of any real political power anyway. This trend has recently been reinforced by Washington, London and Riyadh, having realized that there’s no sense in backing the sitting president.

At the same time there is the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who dismissed Mansur Hadi from his post as deputy chairman and secretary general of the once ruling General People’s Congress party. Saleh had recently been visited by a special envoy from Saudi Arabia that proposed he visit the Kingdom to be provided with necessary medical treatment but Saleh rejected this offer,assuming that this could be an attempt to lure him out of the country. As for Mansur Hadi, his talks with the Houthis ended in a disastrous fashion, especially in the fields of security and finance. The Yemeni President refused to appoint a Houthi representative chief of staff leading to the Ministry of Defense office being blocked by Shia rebels.

This situation was exploited by Ansar al-Sharia militants (formerly Al-Qaeda), that organized a series of terrorist attacks in downtownSanaa, where a number of prominent Houthi leaders reside. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that a number of demonstrators were killed near the presidential palace, which led to armed clashes between the Houthis and a number of local tribes in the outskirts of the Yemeni capital.

Ultimately, all of these developments led to a major face-off between the Houthi forces and Sunni tribes in the Ma’rib Governorate, the latter are heavily supported by the Al-Islah (Muslim Brotherhood) and Ansar al-Sharia movements sponsored by Saudi Arabia. This governorate is located 10 kilometers to the east of Sana’a, and it’s the center of the oil and gas industry of the country. The Houthis are busy expanding their area of influence, pushing hard to establish control over the key production zones. In mid-January the Houthis dispatched a large armed force to Ma’rib which was opposed by more than 30 thousand militants formed by Shafi’i (Sunni) tribal groups under the direct guidance of Al-Islah and Ansar al-Sharia . The Sunnis have managed to disarm the 62nd Army brigade while it was on the move, capturing several tanks and multiple rocket launchers. In response the Houthis have strengthened their units in this area, since it’s where oil and gas refineries are situated, along with export pipelines and two thermal power plants that are supplying electricity to the capital and the north of the country. Needless to say that the potential clash has endangered the whole Yemeni economy. To make matters worse the Sunni tribes, knowing that they would have to retreat should the Houthis launch a major offensive, began announcing intentions to blow up all the industrial facilities they could reach, which have already been on the verge of closing due to a sharp decline in oil prices.

In this situation the President decided to order the Minister of Defence and the Interior Minister to attempt settling the matter by negotiations with all parties involved. The Yemeni authorities have also expressed their willingness to change the governor of Ma’rib and ensure the return of captured military equipment that had been captured by local tribes from military warehouses. It seems that the government has managed to agree on the division of territories between the Houthis and Sunni tribes and should be ensured by  government forces. But the desire of Shiite insurgents to take control of the energy sector of the country is too tempting, since it basically means the redistribution of property in their favor. Should the armed conflict in the Ma’rib Governorate break out, it will mean widespread sectarian war in Yemen, just like it is now in Iraq.

Political means failed to prevent guns from talking. Early in the morning on January 19 the Presidential Palace in Sana’a witnessed a heavy exchange of fire between units of the National Guard, that were trusted with guarding the palace, and Houthis that were using artillery and heavy machine guns. Latter on, as the barrage continued, the palace guards were reinforced with armored units. In response the Houthis have pulled even more units from the northern governorates of Saada and Amran. In this situation President Mansur Hadi summoned an urgent meeting of the country’s elites.

Despite the the intensity of the fire, it wore off a bit the next day, though local skirmishes continued. As a result of the fight the Houthis have managed to completely surround the presidential palace and block access to the house the president resides in, yet they abstained from capturing it. The purpose of Ansar Allah (the military wing of the Houthi community) – was to force Mansur Hadi, to make changes in the draft of a new Constitution to establish a new administrative division of Yemen that would only have 6 districts. There is also the issue of control over the Ma’rib Governorate since disputes over it can result in widespread military engagements. On top of it all, Ansar Allah accused the President of cooperating with the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist organization and the promotion of corruption

In this situation, the US and Britain tried to organize a collective demarche against the Houthis by accusing the leader of the Ansar Allah Abdul-Malik for the disruption of the fragile peace. But suddenly the GCC countries protested against it, out of fear that any hostile action against the Houthis may push them into expanding the combat zone and into an attempt to capture Ma’rib.

In any case, a temporary decrease in tensions is just a short break that should allow the Houthis to regroup their forces. They have been expanding their zone of influence  confidently so it’s highly unlikely that they would stop any time soon. New armed clashes are underway, primarily in the Ma’rib Governorate.

And developments were quick to follow when late on January 22 the President of Yemen announced his resignation after a new assault that the Shiite rebels launched on his residence. After his resignation the speaker of Parliament will become an interim head of state. The Houthis celebrated this decision of the former president. Mansur Hadi apologized to the people of Yemen for not being able to get the country out of the political crisis. Thus, the Houthis have made one more step towards establishing total control of the country.

Alexander Orlov, political scientist, expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”