Civil War in Yemen

An Uncertain Peace

Civil war has been waged in Yemen for years, largely unnoticed by the world community. In the northern Yemeni province of Saada, Zaidi Houthi rebels fight against government military forces. The conflict increasingly seems to be turning into a proxy war over regional supremacy, however. By Hanna Labonté

When Yemeni rebel leader Abdul Malak al-Houthi agreed to a peace offer by the government in Sana'a on 8 August, this development, like the fighting during the past five months, was lost in the excitement of Olympic fever.

Just in time for his thirtieth anniversary in office on 17 July, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, completely unexpectedly and without any explanation declared an end to the fighting, although the rebels in the north had reported heavy clashes the day before. Since then, the situation has been calm except for minor incidents.

In April of this year, after more than four-years of continually interrupted fighting, the conflict between Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and government troops flared up again and eventually spread to approximately 20 kilometers outside the capital city of Sana'a.

Qatari intervention fails again

The conflict between al-Houthi's Zaidi Shiite followers, who live in the Saada region in the Yemeni-Saudi border area, and the government in Sana'a has been raging with brief interruptions since 2004. The central government in Sana'a alleges that the rebels want to restore the Zaidi Imamate, which ruled in northern Yemen until 1962, and sees this as a threat to its existence.

After earlier Qatari intervention, it had initially appeared as though a peaceful resolution could finally be achieved. Mediation efforts at the end of 2007 were unsuccessful, but the second Doha Declaration, which was adopted in mid-February of 2008, and subsequent visits by several Qatari delegations resulted in an end to the fighting that had been taking place in the remote Saada region of northern Yemen.

Map of Yemen (photo:
The fighting took place primarily in the remote Yemeni highlands

​​In mid-April, renewed and more intense fighting broke out, however, after a high-ranking Yemeni officer was caught in an ambush; the Qatari delegation gave up and left. The war then spread to other regions of northern Yemen as well, primarily because the government wanted to combat the conflict with the help of tribal forces, through which new, territorial interests influenced the progress of the war.

Religious, political, and tribal

Whether the conflict is in fact religious, political, or tribal cannot be said with certainty. It is clear that the Houthi rebels are primarily Shiite Zaidis, while the ruling majority in Yemen are Sunnis, with the exception of President Saleh, who is also a Zaidi.

Yemen is generally very concerned about emphasizing the religious unity and balance of the country, so most Yemenis think that the numbers of Shiites and Sunnis are roughly equal, although, in fact, Sunnis make up approximately 70% of the population. Political calculation is behind the distorted information that the people believe.

When the fighting flared up again at the end of 2007, however, shortly before the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, Yemeni newspapers reported for the first time on Sunni army commanders who called the Zaidi Houthi rebels heretics and infidels and thus saw them as grounds for holy war. Although the government quickly took countermeasures, the bitter aftertaste remained.

A proxy war?

The conflicting parties finally accused each other of being subsidized by foreign financial backers. The remarkable thing is that Saudi Arabia and Yemen – always archenemies – are cultivating surprisingly good diplomatic relations at the moment. It is obvious that Wahhabite Saudi Arabia has no interest in a Shiite uprising at the already troubled southern border, especially since they are keeping an eye on their own Shiite minority.

It is also likely that Wahhabite financial backers generously provide religious institutions in Yemen with financial and material resources and, in return, want to see their Islamic interpretation, which is critical of the Shia, propagated.

By the same token, the allegation that the Houthi rebels are supported by Iran, among others, is certainly not completely unfounded. The Yemeni lawmaker Ahmed Saif Hashed thus refers in the Washington Post to a proxy war being fought by the two countries which are trying to gain supremacy in the Islamic world.

Devastated region

The people of Yemen are suffering, above all, in the fiercely embattled Saada province, which was formerly quite affluent compared to the rest of the country. A specially appointed government committee visited the area last week and confirmed the destruction of over 4,000 houses and farms, 116 schools, and 36 health centers. Some farms have not been cultivated for four years or have been completely devastated, also bringing famine to the population. Children are particularly vulnerable to disease.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: AP)
Despite occasional resignation announcements, former general Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for 30 years

​​It is uncertain whether the fifth peace agreement will hold. In the opinion of experts, this is dependent on several factors – for one thing, on how well the weak central government keeps the northern tribes and its own military forces under control. It is also contingent on the agreements contained in the peace treaty.

If the conflict breaks out again, it could become bloodier than before, since the Houthi rebels discovered the "advantages" of a regional expansion of the conflict beyond Saada during the last war.

It is probable that the situation will remain calm until the elections in April of 2009. If this time is devoted to safeguarding the peace, the chances for lasting peace are good.

Hanna Labonté

© 2008

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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