Yemeni Rebels Maneuver the Government into Talks

6 MINS READAug 22, 2014 | 17:23 GMT
Yemeni Rebels Maneuver the Government into Talks
Followers of the Shiite al-Houthi group watch Shiite leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi speaking on a giant screen during a rally marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed at a football stadium on Jan. 13.

Yemen's al-Houthi rebels, affiliated with the Zaidi sect of Shi'ism found in northern Yemen, have capitalized on their recent territorial gains and are now effectively laying siege to the capital and threatening to topple the Sunni government. Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi's recent moves coincide with the demoralization of Yemen's military from continued losses and Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's inability to manage the country's competing interests.

The al-Houthis and their armed tribal allies do not seem likely to try to occupy the capital by force, aware of the potential domestic and foreign repercussions of such a move. Rather, al-Houthi will use the rebel threat to force Hadi's government to make concessions. Hadi will likely make political compromises, such as removing Cabinet and senior leadership officials, rework the boundaries of a proposed federalization plan, and offer the al-Houthis both a larger role within the government and greater local autonomy, making them more powerful within Yemen. This would also allow the al-Houthis' traditional supporters in Iran to threaten their Saudi rivals to the north. Perhaps more importantly, political unrest will force Hadi to shift more of his limited military forces toward the capital, giving actors such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and southern secessionist forces an opportunity to expand their areas of influence.

Yemenis are quite familiar with the concept of northern highland tribesmen marching on Sanaa. Twice before — first in the 17th century and then again in 1911 — the armies of Yemen's Zaidi imamate laid siege to Sanaa and ousted its Ottoman rulers. In the midst of northern Yemen's civil war (1962-1970), the Saudi-backed Zaidi royalists bombarded Sanaa for nearly four months before ceding it to the control of the newly formed Yemen Arab Republic. This time, the al-Houthis, fresh from a string of battlefield successes against their traditional rivals within Yemen's armed forces and northern Sunni tribes, have acquired advanced weaponry and occupy strategic territory north of Sanaa.

However, in a televised speech on Aug. 17, al-Houthi demanded that Hadi overturn a recently implemented and unpopular fuel subsidy cut and dissolve the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa. Al-Houthi also demanded that a more representative governing body be established and ordered his supporters to stage demonstrations on the streets of Yemen until the government conceded. He gave president Hadi a deadline of Aug. 22, after which he threatened to use alternative measures.

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

Over the past week, thousands of al-Houthi supporters have taken to the streets of Sanaa and set up camps at most of the main approaches to the city. By Aug. 22, demonstrators had established more camps within the city and were gathered around key government buildings, while al-Houthi fighters built fortifications in the mountains surrounding Sanaa. In response, Hadi held an extraordinary emergency meeting with his army leadership to enact emergency plans, distributing the elite Presidential Forces at key positions throughout the city and calling up the Fourth Brigade of Yemen's reservists. Reports from the local newspaper Aden al-Ghad on Aug. 20 claimed that the Yemeni air force transferred dozens of military aircraft from Sanaa's airport to nearby air bases to prevent them from falling into al-Houthi hands in anticipation of potential hostilities.

The Rebels Accumulate Influence

By framing the call for demonstrations as a general protest against deteriorating social conditions and fuel subsidy cuts, al-Houthi is trying to tap into pre-existing popular frustrations. Hadi is aware that his predecessor was forced to step down following mass protests in 2011, and knows he is in a dangerous position while the local population suffers from high unemployment, insufficient water and electricity supplies, and a lack of government services. Steep increases in gasoline and diesel prices, which make it more expensive to transport goods and run generators, have further exacerbated these tensions. In response, Hadi quickly called for a dialogue with the al-Houthi leadership Aug. 20, inviting the al-Houthis to join a new unity government and sending a 10-member negotiating committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Abid bin Daghr to Saada. Reports also surfaced Aug. 19 that a Yemeni delegation had left to negotiate with the Iranians — using Oman as an intermediary — to convince the al-Houthis to cease hostilities.

Despite al-Houthi's military posturing, it remains unlikely that he will order his armed forces into the capital. Such a move would only expose his fighters to potential urban fighting against local security forces and militant Sunnis and tie down large portions of the rebels' manpower in occupying Sanaa. Doing so would also serve to unite northern tribesmen and Salafist militants — potentially including elements who were previously neutral or supportive of the Zaidi cause — against the al-Houthis. Even potential reprisals from Saudi Arabia — which initiated an airstrike campaign that forced the capitulation of the al-Houthis when they appeared likely to overwhelm Yemeni forces in 2009 — may convince the rebels to avoid movements that would force Riyadh to check the Shiite threat across its southern border. Nevertheless, Stratfor is closely watching the situation for any signs of a shift in this calculation in the near future.

Instead of pushing into the capital, al-Houthi will try to use his forces to intimidate Hadi into concessions on longstanding political issues. The Yemen Times on Aug. 21 cited sources claiming that the al-Houthis are demanding 10 ministry positions in the future government, the right to maintain their arms and that some 20,000 of their supporters be integrated into the national military — in addition to their initial demands that fuel subsidy cuts be overturned and the government resign. They have also included their demand that the Hajja and al-Jawf governorates be included in their proposed federal region, which would grant them access to the Red Sea and hydrocarbon reserves. As a signal that negotiations are making initial progress, al-Houthi in a televised speech on Aug. 21 urged his supporters to continue their demonstrations through the weekend — beyond the initial deadline — but without resorting to violence.

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

Sanaa's Likely Response

With most of his military units tied down in other regions of the country and those based near Sanaa demoralized by repeated defeats at the hands of the al-Houthis, Hadi likely will be forced to capitulate to al-Houthi pressure. Hadi probably will remain in power, as the al-Houthis have avoided criticizing him directly and know there are few alternative candidates who could take Hadi's position. However, at a minimum, Hadi will probably be forced to dissolve his Cabinet, demand Basindwa's resignation and overturn the controversial fuel subsidy cuts. The formation of a national unity government with the al-Houthis entitled to a share of key positions and adjustments to the federalization plan are likely to be key areas of negotiation and probable concession. In fact, Stratfor's sources within Yemen have indicated that al-Houthi will settle for regional autonomy and greater representation within the central government.

The prospect of a more politically involved al-Houthi movement with increased autonomy will unnerve the Saudis, who are keen on limiting Shiite unrest in their own territories and are worried that Iran could use the al-Houthis to stir up trouble on their southern border. The potential for another Saudi intervention remains, although Riyadh's influence within Yemen's political and tribal landscape has deteriorated over the past few years, limiting Saudi options. For Iran, an empowered al-Houthi resistance is a valuable tool to use in bargaining with the Saudis over more critical interests, such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

However, perhaps the most import outcome of this week's political strife in Sanaa is the potential blowback in other regions of Yemen. Groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the southern secessionist Hirak movement could capitalize on Yemen's security focus on the al-Houthi threat by expanding their influence. If political instability becomes protracted, power vacuums could develop in some of the more remote regions of Yemen, allowing these groups to pose greater threats to the central government.

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