Civil War in North Yemen

Uncertain Fronts

At first glance, it appears to be a Shiite-Sunni proxy war between the rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet, the situation on the ground is far from simple. The civil war in North Yemen is also about power in Sanaa – as well as saving face after five years of fighting. A report by Klaus Heymach

Yemeni soldier (photo: DW/Heymanch)
For the past two months, the war in Saada province between Shiite rebels and government troops has experienced renewed fervour

​​Whenever those in power in Sanaa talk about the rebels in the border region with Saudi Arabia, it sounds like it's a battle with Satan himself – Iran provides the weapons, rebels are united with terrorists from al Qaida, and their allies are former socialists in South Yemen striving for separatism. The Shiite rebels appear to pose an incalculable risk to stability and security in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni government, however, has yet to provide proof for what they regard as a diabolical alliance. They haven't even attempted to provide a plausible reason for the supposed closing of ranks between fundamentalist Sunnis, Shiites, and former socialists.

Strict news blackout

The government has imposed a strict news blackout on the fighting, which began five years ago in Saada province. Local journalists who speak with rebel leaders land in jail. What the rebels and the government really want in North Yemen therefore remains unclear.

The only indisputable fact is that the roots of the conflict reach back far into the past – perhaps even to the early 1980s, when Saudi Arabia deported the Salafi scholar Sheik Muqbil bin Hadii al Wadi'I back to his native Yemen. This was the beginning of Salafi missionary work in Saada province.

Offensive against rebel troops in Saana (photo: DW)
There have been numerous casualties since the government began its sixth offensive against the rebels. According to UN estimates, some 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting

​​The population here consists mostly of Zaidis, members of a Shiite minority sect that traces its roots back to the Prophet Mohammed. This includes the Houthis clan.

They feel persecuted by fundamentalist Sunnis and abandoned by the central government in Sanaa. In 2004, latent protests against growing poverty, religious strife, and the pro-American course of the government escalated into all-out armed struggle.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh accused the rebels of wanting to abolish the republic and once again install an iman as head of state as was the case until the 1962 revolution, which ended the then Zaidi rule.

The spectre of Iran

"We merely want free elections," counters Yahya al-Huthi. The 50-year-old is regarded as the political head of the rebellion in exile. He currently lives in Germany. His brother Abdulmalik commands the fighting in the mountains around Saada – with weapons from Iran, claims the president.

"That is pure propaganda," says Huthi. "Saleh brings Iran into the picture in order to raise fears abroad. The regime continues with the war because it wants to attract foreign aid and money."

Map of Yemen (source: Wikipedia/CIA World Factbook)
The northern province of Saada lies on the border with Saudi Arabia, where government troops and Shiite rebels have been engaged in heavy fighting for months

​​Gregory D. Johnsen, a Middle East expert at Princeton University, also thinks this is an "attempt by the Yemeni government to frame its domestic problems in a larger context." In addition, it can be seen as a call for international attention, writes the Yemen expert in his blog:

"Yemen fears being neglected and forgotten, as Pakistan and Afghanistan were during the 1990s. By linking the Huthis with Iran and al Qaida, the government thereby creates a greater opportunity to combat them. It can say that it is defending itself against a Shiite threat or is fighting against al Qaida."

The war in the north is far from being the only front in which the government in Sanaa is fighting. Although Saleh has succeeded during his 31 years in power to hold his country together better than any other ruler in Sanaa, his power is crumbling nevertheless.

Danger of separation and terror

There are increased calls in the formerly socialist South Yemen to once again separate from the domineering north. Al Qaida, which for a long time used the country solely as a place of refuge, has now declared foreigners and Western facilities as open targets. And in light of dwindling oil reserves and shrinking exports, the poverty-stricken country now faces economic collapse.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: AP)
The government under President Ali Abdullah Saleh accuses the rebels of wanting to set up a Shiite theocracy in Yemen

​​Middle East expert Gregory D. Johnsen therefore sees the new offensive in North Yemen as a clear message to the opposition in Aden. "The Yemeni government has thereby drawn a line in the sand. Instead of taking direct action against the south, it has fire a loud and deadly warning shot over the bow."

Others doubt whether this warning will have any effect. Despite the concentrated military might at his disposal, President Saleh has failed to defeat the rebels. "The war illustrates that the government will finally be forced to give up. The rebels already control Saada province and the government can do nothing against them," says political scientist Abdallah al-Faqih from the University of Sanaa.

Air strikes, destroyed villages, and civilian casualties have merely resulted in greater support for the rebels. According to estimates by the United Nations, some 150,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, while no one has figures on the thousands killed.

A peace agreement brokered by Qatar two years ago failed to re-establish trust between the Huthis and the government. The rebels now demand that President Saleh step down. "There won't be any reforms with Saleh at the helm," says Yahya al-Huthi. "He has to go." Only then will a fresh political start be at all possible, he continues.

An explosive mixture

As a result, protests reflect a mixture of religious, political, clan, and social grievances. Civilians are the ones who suffer. One of the few aid organizations attempting to distribute food, tents, and medicine despite the fighting is Islamic Relief. It is "extremely difficult to maintain aid here," says country director Khalid al-Mulad, who distributes food for the UN World Food Programme.

Yahya al-Huthi (photo: DW/Heymach)
Yahya al-Huthi, political head of the rebels in exile, demands the resignation of President Saleh and the freezing of development aid until there is a fresh political start in Yemen

​​Fighting has long-since spread from Saada province to the neighbouring three governorates. "There are refugees everywhere, and many have no access to food or water." It is hardly possible to distinguish between civilians and rebels, says Mulad, and it is becoming increasingly dangerous for aid workers to remain.

In some clan areas, no more aid is being provided on security grounds. The homeless and displaced are left to their own fate.

An end to the war is not in sight. In his Revolution Day speech to the nation on 26 September, President Saleh stressed that he would not give up "even if it takes five or six years."

The rebels are also committed to continue their fight. "Our people will not permit themselves to be suppressed," says Huthi. The Zaidis resisted the Ottomans for 400 years and will "fight back for as long as it takes" in this conflict as well.

Germany, one of the most important donor countries to Yemen, will be guilty of promoting the war if it continues to support Saleh with aid, says Huthi.

"Saleh is using aid to suppress his own people. Stop the development aid!" Funding should only resume when Yemen is a free and democratic state, he says. "And when we are no longer ruled by a dictator."

Klaus Heymach

© 2009

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Klaus Heymach worked as a freelance journalist in Yemen. His book "Post Box Sanaa" was published last year.

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