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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Houthi rebels try to extend their control while UN tries to broker political deal in Yemen

Houthi rebels who have taken control of the government in Yemen have extended their control into areas where they now face resistance from well-armed Sunni tribesmen as well as the Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Nadwa Dawsari, a researcher on Yemeni tribe, said of the Houthis who have expanded their influence from their base in North Yemen east to the Red Sea and south to capture the capital Sanaa and even south into territory where Sunnis dominate:" "Traditional Yemeni political actors used to find middle ground and didn't let their clashes lead to a full-blown civil war. The Houthis don't seem to be interested in compromising. They mix a lack of experience in politics with, as their own leader has said, limitless ambitions. The fact that Iran is involved aggravates things and brings in a regional dimension that makes a conflict harder to avoid.""

While there may not have been a full-blown civil war in Yemen for some time there was an extended conflict in which radical jihadist groups were dislodged from areas they controlled. This conflict continues as AQAP and other jihadist groups use guerrilla tactics against the government. In some areas AQAP appears to be joining up with local Sunni tribes against the Shia Houthis. This can only strengthen AQAP. Dawsari rightly notes that intermittent government attacks in the past on areas of Houthi control in the north destroyed whole villages. Ironically, the former president Saleh, who attacked the Houthis while in power, now appears to be allied with them. He still has considerable influence in the army. The Houthis were able to take control in Sanaa, the capital, without much resistance from Yemeni armed forces.

 The Houthis would like to extend their control to areas that have resources that could provide revenue to operate the government. The Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, warned leaders in areas not under Houthi control: "If people try to play games which affect the economy, the people will resist them. The revolution, the people, the army and the security forces will stand against them." Saudi Arabia withdrew all aid from Yemen late last year. The High Revolutionary Council which at present is running the government is busy trying for create state institutions that confirm to the Constitutional Declaration as well as "drawing up the conditions and standards as well as mechanisms to select members of the National Council."The Council is the group that will form a transitional government before new elections.

As well as facing opposition from Sunni tribes in the south, the Houthi government faces a problem of finance to pay public salaries and grow the economy. They need control of areas such as Marib province that contains not only oil but generating plants for electricity. The Houthis may face fierce resistance by Sunnis who are well armed with Grad and Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles. Sheikh Hamad Wuhayt leader of a group of Sunni fighters in Marib said: "We'll blow up the oil and gas wells if the Houthis use planes after the air force fell into their control, and we'll cut off the road to the capital." Tribal leaders claim that Saudi Arabia continues to pay them cash allowances even though aid has been cut off to the Yemen government. They deny that Saudi Arabia provides them arms. Saudi Arabia may worry that as Sunni tribes forge alliances with AQAP that some arms provided to Sunni tribes could end up with AQAP. Already AQAP over ran a military base in the south capturing many weapons as the Yemen forces who manned the base put up little resistance as they did not want troops supporting the Houthi government to take it over.

The UN has opposed the Houthi coup:"The United Nations Security Council on Sunday unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that Shiite rebels immediately relinquish control of Yemen’s government in a crisis that has pushed the Arab world’s poorest country near collapse." The resolution is not under Chapter 7 of the UN charter allowing military enforcement of the resolution. The resolution condemns what it calls the group's illegitimate seizure of power. Actually the Houthis were hoping that the UN talks would produce a government that they could accept but they made little progress. The U.S.-allied president Hadi and his whole cabinet resigned after they were unable to produce a solution acceptable to the Houthis. The Houthis realize that they are a minority in Yemen and would like to control the makeup of the government rather than rule themselves. Only when the UN talks appeared not to be able to work out a political solution did they step in and take power. They probably realize that they will need allies in areas where they lack control. The group even sacked one of its top military commanders who failed to reach a settlement with other political factions.

The southern secessionist movement, Al-Hirak, has offered to work with the Shiite Houthi movement to ease the political crisis. The group may see the Houthi power grab as an opportunity bargain for more autonomy for the south. Both the Houthis and southern secessionists rejected the division of Yemen into six federal areas. Mohamed Helboub, a senior member of Al-Hirak, claims "“The Houthis are not ready or capable of carrying out the task they have taken up, particularly as they did not think they would reach this position so quickly. They have now crossed a line and they will find it very difficult to go back..[However], as the Houthis are part of Yemen’s political makeup, we are ready to work with them to find a way out of this quagmire."" Al-Hirak has been pushing for a possible complete separation and the formation of an independent state in the south such as existed previously before unification. Helboub went on: "We are looking for a comprehensive national solution, and if this solution is incumbent on Yemen to be split into two separate states, then that is what we will do." The Houthis may see granting considerable autonomy or even independence might be preferable to trying to rule in an area quite hostile to them.

 The increasing unrest in Yemen has led to the US evacuating their embassy personnel and also for the Philippines to order an evacuation of all Filipino nationals from Yemen. Recently, there are reports, as exemplified by the appended video, that UN-sponsored talks have brought the parties close to a political deal. It remains to be seen whether the Houthis will accept or respect any such deal.

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