By Loaai Alakwaa
May 10, 2017
During 2014, Yemen observers suspected former President Ali Abdullah Saleh of facilitating, if not orchestrating, the Houthi military expansion into the Governorates of Amran and Sana’a. At that time, Saleh and his loyalists at the General People Congress (GPC) were leading a counterrevolution against President Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi and his backers from the Islah party (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood), who had spearheaded the “Arab Spring” uprising of 2011. On July 8, 2014, the battle-hardened Houthi fighters, locally known as the Popular Committees (PCs), seized control of the city of Amran, the northwestern gateway into the capital Sana’a. By the evening of September 21, the PCs had captured the Sana’a City Municipality. Although the Houthi-Saleh alliance was implicit at first, it was formalized in early August with the formation of the Supreme Political Committee (SPC). The anti-Hadi coup had achieved its goal.
Deeply Rooted Conflict
Between 2004 and 2010, Saleh’s government waged six brutal military campaigns, known as the Sa’da wars, against the Houthis. At that time, the Houthi movement was comprised of a relatively small militia based in the northern governorate of Sa’da. The Houthis are a Zaydi revivalist movement, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, but closely associated with the Sunni branch of Islam.
Although it may be easier to classify the Houthis as Shi’ites, especially since they have recently started embracing Twelver Shi’ite practices, such a label is technically inaccurate. Retired Colonel Patrick Lang, who served as the U.S. defense attaché in the American embassy in Sana’s in the early 1980s, argues:
“There does not exist a natural affinity between the Yemeni Zaidis and the 12er [i.e. follower of the 12th imam] Shi’ite of southern Iraq and Iran. The Zaidiya follows a system of religious law that more closely resembles that of the Hanafi Sunni “school” of law than that of the Shi’ite of Iran or Iraq. The Zaidi scholars profess no allegiance to the 12er Shi’ite scholarship of the Iranian teachers... ”.
The Houthis harbored numerous grievances with the central government, including, but not limited to, the underdevelopment of their region, increasing cooperation with the U.S. in the post 9/11 era, and the perceived encroachment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-backed Wahhabi (ultra-conservative Salafi) doctrine into the Zaydi heartland. When the pro-Saleh military and tribal forces attempted to arrest Hussein al-Houthi (the founding-father of the Houthi movement, officially named Ansar Allah or Supporters of God), fighting broke out, leading to al-Houthi’s execution and sparking a six-year armed conflict with the Saleh regime.
While ostensibly leading the military campaign against the Houthis, Saleh made a point of deploying mainly units led by Major General Ali Mohsen Saleh al-Ahmar, a veteran general and an influential tribal figure dubbed as the second strongest man in Yemen. Reportedly, General al-Ahmar was the biggest obstacle to Saleh’s plan to hand over the presidency to his eldest son, Ahmed.
Saleh’s plan aimed at hitting two birds with one stone. On one hand, the protracted military campaigns depleted al-Ahmar’s forces and led to tribal blood libels with the tribes of the northern highlands. The battle plans also preserved the better-equipped and well-trained Republican Guard brigades under the command of Brigadier General Ahmed Ali, Saleh’s son and heir. It has been widely reported that every time the military was close to encircling the Houthis, Saleh would order the military to cease-fire and retreat. Other reports, however, confirmed that while fighting the Houthis, Saleh was also arming them. Supplying both sides with weapons to both neutralize and deplete the enemies’ forces was one of the former Yemeni president’s favorite tactics.
Saudi Arabia joined the fighting in 2009, helping Saleh by bombing Houthi positions. In one of the more intriguing episodes of the combat, Saleh’s regime, which provided the Saudi Air Force with the coordinates of bombing targets, provided them with the location of Ali Mohsen’s headquarters, claiming it was a Houthi headquarters. Sensing something was off with the location of the target, Saudi Air Force pilots aborted the mission, double checked the coordinates and discovered that they had almost unwittingly assassinated one of their close allies in Yemen. Despite their support, the Saudis have always been deeply suspicious of Saleh’s motives and this incident reinforced that belief.
In early 2010, both sides signed a cease-fire, ending a conflict that had resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of internally displaced people. In addition to the human and financial toll, the government, in effect, ceded control of Saada and the surrounding areas to the Houthis and their tribal allies. The following year, as the “Arab Spring” spread throughout the Middle East, the Houthis joined the protests, demanding Saleh’s resignation.
After being driven out of power in 2012, Saleh maintained a vast network of tribal, military, and bureaucratic allies, cultivated throughout his three decades in power. During the following couple of years, he would undermine his successor, President Hadi, aided by the latter’s ineffectiveness. More importantly, Saleh would build an alliance with the Houthis and use his military and tribal networks to exact revenge on those whom he felt had betrayed him. Among them were the Houthis’ mortal enemies – Ali Mohsen of the Islah Party and the Al-Ahmar family (not related to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar), then the strongest tribal family in the country.
The Houthis were gaining strength and expanding beyond their region for the first time. They took advantage of the government’s state of paralysis and, aided by Saleh, who instructed his loyalists to stand down and let the Houthis roll through, they eventually took the capital with little resistance.
Since the takeover of Sana’a and the state institutions during the fall of 2014, several developments have occurred. President Hadi was placed under house arrest and when he managed to escape and flee to Aden, Houthi and Saleh forces rolled south, taking over provinces on the way until they reached Aden. With President Hadi facing the prospect of fleeing the country, Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign, ostensibly to support Yemen’s “legitimate” government and prevent the complete takeover of the country.
Operation Decisive Storm, launched on March 26th 2015, shocked observers, perhaps none more than Saleh and the Houthis, who did not expect Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily in the country. This intervention would bring Saleh and the Houthis even closer as they faced a common military threat, despite their history of hostility.
Loaai Alakwaa is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Based in New York, Alakwaa is a Middle East political and security consultant with government and private sector experience. He managed congressional affairs for the Embassy of Yemen in Washington, DC from 2010 to 2014 and worked at the Permanent Mission of Yemen to the United Nations in New York in 2015. Alakwaa has worked on multiple projects in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing on security, political and economic development, and public relations.