[Note: This was formerly an "Empire Strikes First" column, but I will be modifying it as the ongoing uprisings continue in Yemen and more Wikileaks cables are released, detailing behind the scenes of President Saleh's government.]
Over the past year or so, an unfavorable light has been shining on the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, with our possibly illegal deployment of drones there, and even earlier with Senator Joseph Lieberman’s declaration in December 2009 that, “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.” War almost seems inevitable, at least on a covert level. But while many Americans are baffled as to what and where Yemen is, the Yemeni people have had good reason to fear American foreign policy for the past two decades.
Indeed, the United States has been playing games with Yemen ever since its formation in 1990. On November 29, 1990, the delegate from Yemen voted against a United Nations authorization for the use of force in Iraq, and US Secretary of State James Baker commented that “this will turn out to be the most expensive vote he ever cast.” Within days, US aid to Yemen was greatly reduced.
Perhaps one will recall the USS Cole attack in 2000, which was timed well enough that President Clinton never fully dealt with it, and Bush did not consider it his problem when he took over. Taking place in the Gulf of Aden, in Yemen, this put a bad taint on Yemen. But the attackers were Sudanese and Saudi, not Yemeni, so to blame the attack on the site would be akin to blaming 9/11 on New York City, which is clearly absurd.
The Shi’ite Insurgency in Yemen began in June 2004 when dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Shia Zaidiyyah sect, launched an uprising against the Yemeni government. In June 2004, the Yemeni government offered a bounty of $55,000 for Hussein al-Houthi’s capture and launched an operation aimed at ending his rebellion. MP Hussein al-Houthi was killed on September 10, 2004.
Yemen has been assisting the United States with counter-terrorism in the Middle East since at least 2004, despite not making headlines until recently. This cooperation, which has cost the Yemeni president great political capital, exhibited itself in the form of a buyback program, where the government would purchase weapons to keep them out of the hands of al-Qaeda. By 2004, they had purchased thousands of machine guns, surface to air missiles and MANPADS (shoulder-resting missile launchers), which were destroyed by February 2005. President Saleh warned the US, however, that weapons would still flow in from Korea, China, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
The people were fed up with President Saleh at least as early as May 2005. On Sunday, May 22, the celebration of the fifteenth Unity Day being held in Mukalla was at a cost of more than $300 million, most of which will go into the pockets of those government officials arranging the show. Together with Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar’s clan (speaker of the Parliament and supreme chief the Hashid tribal confederation which includes Saleh’s tribe), all of Yemen’s wealth was being squandered and stolen by Saleh. One anonymous source told the US ambassador at the time that Saleh “listens to no one,” and is “unrealistically and stupidly confident” that he will always make the right decisions. Saleh, he said, does not think strategically and cares only about enriching his own family.
On June 23, 2005, the rebels’ military commander Abdullah al-Ruzami surrendered to Yemeni authorities after tribal mediators worked out a deal with the government.
On July 16, 2005, President Saleh made the dramatic announcement that he would bow out of the 2006 Presidential Election. Few observers believed he was sincere, but Saleh’s declaration placed urgency on the question of who could succeed him as President. There was no clear chain of command should the President step down, die, or become incapacitated while in office. The Vice President was only a figurehead. Other prominent leaders were generally considered to be unacceptable to one or another major tribal or regional constituency within the Republic. The US ambassador, Krajeski, speculated that Saleh would stay in power because no one could successfully oppose him in an open election, he would likely not step down as indicated, and his military was too loyal to him to make a coup attempt. A popular revolt was possible, but as one Yemeni said, “As long as we care more about chewing Qat than democracy, we cannot make a difference.” We now know, of course, that Saleh did stay on after 2006 and that popular revolt did happen to some degree in early 2011.
In December 2005, President Saleh stated in a nationally-televised broadcast that only his personal intervention had prevented a U.S. occupation of the southern port of Aden after the USS Cole Bombing, stating, “By chance, I happened to be down there. If I hadn’t been, Aden would have been occupied as there were eight U.S. warships at the entrance to the port.” Transcripts from the US Senate Armed Services Committee state that no other warships were in the vicinity at the time, however, and it was clear that Saleh had to be constantly in defensive mode when American topics came up.
A new spate of fighting broke out on January 28, 2007, when militants attacked multiple government installations, killing six soldiers and injuring 20 more. Further attacks on January 31, left six more soldiers dead and 10 wounded. A further ten soldiers died and 20 were wounded in an attack on an army roadblock near the Saudi Arabian border on February 1. By February 19, almost 200 members of the security forces and over 100 rebels had died in the fighting.
On March 27, 2007, an unmanned American reconnaissance plane washed up on Yemen’s shore. The government reported it to the media, but falsified the story. Officially, the Yemeni military had shot down a “spy plane” from Iran. Despite Saleh’s belief that the US was spying on his people, he not only covered their tail, but pointed a finger at an innocent Iran, the American government’s preferred punching bag.
A ceasefire agreement was reached on June 16, 2007. The rebel leaders agreed to lay down arms and go into exile in Qatar (by whom the agreement had been mediated), while the government agreed to release rebel prisoners, help pay for reconstruction and assist with IDPs returning home.
Saleh again raised Iran on October 22, 2007, warning the US that Iran might turn on their ally Qatar, and that President Bush should “discipline and tame a child when he is young.” Iraq, said Saleh, was becoming another Iran with Maliki, who Saleh considers a “dog”, in charge. “Maliki represents Iran in Iraq, he is worse than Ahmedinejad.” Yemen suspects Iran of supporting the separatist movement, and Iran is bitter with Yemen for supporting Iraq in the first Gulf War. Yemen’s suspicions are exaggerated in the hopes that the US will declare the rebels a terrorist group, leading to support in controlling their civil unrest. Saleh later claimed in 2009, “If you don’t help, this country will become worse than Somalia.”
The Saudi News Agency reported on November 13, 2007 that Crown Prince Sultan said Yemen and Saudi Arabia were jointly fighting “deviant thought” that was at the root of terrorism.
Elaph.com reported on November 14, 2007, that King Abdullah met with Yemeni opposition figures in London, lending credence to Yemeni allegations of Saudi interference in North-South relations.
The English-language Yemen Times newspaper on November 14, 2007 reported that at a mid-November conference between the two countries Saudi Arabia donated $652 million to Yemen’s development including improving facilities at four hospitals, a power plant in Marib and a number of technical training centers. Arab News reported on November 15 that the Saudi government signed additional contracts for locust control
(training Yemeni and providing vehicles and equipment) and to finance Saudi exports to Yemen. Arab News further reported on November 15 that Saudi Arabia was increasing scholarships for Yemenis from 100 to 150.
Sheikh Abdullah ibn Husayn al-Ahmar died of cancer on December 29, 2007, aged 74, at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Three days of mourning were declared for al-Ahmar, who was considered Yemen’s second most powerful person.
His son Sadeq bin Abdullah al-Ahmar succeeded him in the positions of the Sheikh of the Hashid tribal federation and the Al-Islah tribal confederacy
2008: Fourth War
The Associated Press reported on February 6, 2008 that between October and December 2007, Saudi authorities arrested 880 alleged smugglers, many of whom were Yemenis, along the border. In that same period, Saudi border authorities captured 100 kilograms of explosives, 400 weapons, 50,000 pieces of ammunition, 100 sticks of dynamite, 2,000 kilograms of hashish, four kilograms of marijuana and 40,000 pills.
On March 27, 2008, AFP reported that Yemen handed over to Saudi Arabia four Saudi nationals suspected of ties to al-Qaida. Since signing a 2003 extradition agreement, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have exchanged dozens of terror suspects.
On May 2, 2008, 15 worshipers were killed and 55 wounded in a bombing at the Bin Salman Mosque in Sa’dah as crowds of people left Friday prayers. The government blamed the rebels for the bombing, but Houthi’s group denied being responsible. On May 12, clashes between Yemeni soldiers and rebels near the border with Saudi Arabia killed 13 soldiers and 26 rebels. President Saleh declared an end to fighting in the northern Sa’dah governorate on July 17, 2008.
CIA Deputy Director Stephen R. Kappes and his traveling party, accompanied by the Ambassador, flew on May 28, 2009, to Taiz, some 200 km south of Sana’a, in a Yemeni Air Force M-171 helicopter, to meet with President Saleh at his quarters there. Saleh said he supported the closing of Guantanamo and that all Yemeni prisoners could be sent to Saudi Arabia. Saleh said, “Send them all to Saudi Arabia now. They already have a facility.” He had a visible scar over his eye from where he injured himself in a fall mid-May (he slipped while near his swimming pool). With regards to al-Qaeda, Saleh told Kappes, “I hope this campaign continues and succeeds. We’re doing the same here. Our position is unshakable.” With regards to the rebels in the South, Saleh asserted that “we are not that worried. This is not new. These are the same people who tried to break away in 1994. Then, even with an army and an air force, they failed. They will fail again without external assistance.” However, “Our young people need jobs,” he said, especially if they are to be immunized against the lure of extremist ideology. Saleh did not believe the South was solidified in its views. “Even if we told the south tomorrow, ‘You are free to separate,’ they would turn around the next day and start to fight with each other,” he said, adding that such a lack of internal cohesion greatly diminished the risk to Yemen’s security.
Yemeni troops, backed by tanks and fighter aircraft, launched a major offensive, code-named Operation Scorched Earth, against the rebel stronghold in northern Yemen on August 11, 2009, after the government promised to use an “iron fist” against the rebels.
Mohammed Azzan, presidential adviser for Sa’ada affairs, told PolOff on August 16, 2009, that the Houthis easily obtain weapons inside Yemen, either from battlefield captures or by buying them from corrupt military
commanders and soldiers. Azzan said that the military “covers up its failure” by saying the weapons come from Iran.
A bank robbery in Aden on August 17, 2009 by Islamic militants underscored two important facts: that, yet again, there is no government funding of terrorist activity, and if the state has any fault in the matter it is that they are not organized enough to handle such well-planned attacks. Al-Qaeda members dressed in police uniforms stole $500,000 in broad daylight.
As of August 2009, presidential first cousin and well-connected ruling General People’s Congress Member of Parliament Mohammed al-Qadhi had joined other prominent former insiders (including Tariq al-Fadhli, Mohammed Salim Basenduah and Hamid al-Ahmar) in blaming President Ali Abdullah Saleh for Yemen’s myriad problems, and expressing doubt that the current regime will ever change its wrong-headed policies. Qadhi claimed that strengthening Parliament to serve as a check on the power of the executive was the last remaining hope to salvage Saleh’s government.
On August 17, the Yemeni Socialist Party’s al-Ishtiraki web site carried public statements by Qadhi accusing the President of interfering with Parliamentary affairs and blaming him for the war in Sa’ada and the ongoing restiveness in southern Yemen. Qadhi is among a very small number of well-connected members of the political elite in Yemen who enjoy the influence and position to speak more openly than the rest of the population about President Saleh and his family members.
“Since 1994, he decided that he was the only man capable of making decisions in this country,” Qadhi said on August 23. He added that his father, Abdulillah al-Qadhi, the President’s uncle and among the generals from Sanhan village who installed Saleh as president in 1978, had a falling out with the President over his handling of the 1994 war, although Qadhi himself remained in close contact with Saleh until recently. “I have tried to
tell him that Yemen has serious problems, but he gets angry and shuts me out. He and I fight often about his sons. He doesn’t listen to anyone.” Qadhi said that Saleh’s close-mindedness was reflected even in their home village of Sanhan, where “five or six people are well-off, and there are thousands with nothing.”
Hamid al-Ahmar, Islah Party leader, prominent businessman, and de facto leader of Yemen’s largest tribal confederation said on August 27 that Saleh is now more politically isolated than ever, deprived of the counsel and support of former allies, and beleaguered by more threats to regime stability than he can handle. Ahmar said he would work hard in the coming months to convince Northwest Regional Commander Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, as well as the Saudi government, to support the opposition. By his own admission, however, Ahmar still lacks the necessary support, even within his own opposition Dialogue Committee, to launch broad-based anti-Saleh demonstrations. Referring to the 1998 protests that toppled Suharto, “We cannot copy the Indonesians exactly, but the idea is controlled chaos.”
“(Presidential adviser Abdulkarim) al-Eryani is not as honest nor as useful as he used to be, (Northwest Regional Commander) Ali Muhsin (al-Ahmar) is no longer his ally, and Sheikh Abdullah is no longer in the picture,” he said, referring to his late father, the former Speaker of Parliament and Saleh’s key ally vis-a-vis the tribes. “Who is left? He is all alone.” Ahmar conceded that Saleh is unlikely to meet any of his three conditions. “There’s really no way to verify that Saleh is serious about free and fair elections, but I won’t wait until the 2011 elections to move forward.”
Referencing the influence of Saudi Arabia on Yemen, he said, “If the Saudis were going to put anyone in power instead of Saleh, it would be me — everyone knows I am close to them — but I told them the next president must be a southerner, for the sake of unity.” Further, “Ali Muhsin is a good, honest man, but the last thing we need is another military man as president.”
The only things Islah would impose upon Yemeni society are a ban on the sale of alcohol and on prostitution and escort services. “No one will be forced to wear the headscarf and Yemenis will be allowed to do whatever they want in their own homes — bring your girlfriend home and drink — but just don’t do it public,” Ahmar said. (Alcohol sales outside Western hotels were already banned in Yemen. Islah regularly pushes the government, with some success, to shut down massage parlors in Sana’a that are widely regarded as prostitution sites.)
Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi said in an interview published in London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat on September 12, 2009 that the Houthis “consider the current presidential system illegal and not in accordance with their creed.”
Foreign Minister Abubakir al-Qirbi told Ambassador Janet Sanderson in their September 15, 2009 meeting that Saleh’s primary goal for his upcoming visit to Washington is to “start a new chapter in Yemeni-US relations.” (The visit was since postponed and remained to be re-scheduled.) According to Qirbi, over the past eight years (during the Bush Administration), the relationship has been “overshadowed by terrorism and counter-terrorism,” but a new chapter can begin with the launching of a “strategic dialogue.”
In their September 16 meeting, Dr. Abdulrahman al-Eryani, Minister of Environment and Water, expounded upon Yemen’s “insidious” water crisis and ways to ameliorate it. Eryani described Yemen’s water shortage as the “biggest threat to social stability in the near future.” He noted that 70 percent of unofficial roadblocks stood up by angry citizens are due to water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict. He reported that small riots take place nearly every day in neighborhoods in the Old City of Sana’a because of lack of water, and he predicted that the capital could run out of water as soon as next year. According to Eryani, one of the major causes of Yemen’s dwindling water supply is the lack of water governance.
Hundreds of privately owned, unregulated rigs are used to drill private wells deep into the earth in search of water. The owners of these drills are “running wild, drilling holes everywhere. We need to control these private rigs.” A major obstacle to doing so is that fact that the rig owners are powerful individuals — army officers, sheiks, members of the president’s family, and certain government ministers — who are “untouchable” by the law. Another major cause is agriculture. Up to 85 percent of water is used for
agriculture, and half of that is for growing the narcotic drug qat.
In a September 16 lunch with European Ambassadors, much of the discussion focused on what levers of influence could push the Saleh regime to reform. According to the German Ambassador, “Saleh doesn’t care if we give $80 million or $200 million in development aid. What he wants is political support against the Houthis and the Southern Movement.” In order to gain some reforms from Saleh, the British Ambassador advised, “The brusquer, the blunter, the better. Saleh doesn’t understand anything if it’s framed diplomatically.”
On September 17, more than 80 people were killed in an air raid on a camp for displaced people in northern Yemen.
Hamid al-Ahmar met with Southern Movement leader Ali Nasser Mohammed at the Four Seasons Hotel in
Damascus on or around September 26, 2009 to pitch him the idea of opening direct communication with the Houthis.
Hamid al-Ahmar told EconOff on October 6, 2009 that he is trying to coordinate the efforts of the Houthi rebels and the Southern Movement. Ahmar said he had spoken recently to exiled MP Yahya al-Houthi, brother of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, and met with Southern Movement leader Ali Nasser Mohammed in Damascus to encourage the two parties to work together and further stretch the government’s already strained military resources. By activating the southern front, Ahmar hoped to force the government to shift military assets away from the Sa’ada conflict. In the context of his political party’s Sunni orientation and his family’s staunch support for the regime against the rebels, Ahmar’s outreach to the (Shiite) Houthis is a risky strategy that, if revealed, could backfire for him politically. Ahmar gave no indication of either movement’s willingness to entertain his suggestion that they collaborate against Saleh. This, much like his other
anti-Saleh machinations, provides ample evidence that Ahmar views politics as much a game as a vocation.
Judith Evans, a Times of London reporter who visited the Mazraq IDP camp (Hajja governorate), told PolOff on October 12 that she heard many accounts of atrocities against civilians by the Houthis. She said, “The refugees we spoke to were terrified of the government bombing raids, but it seems the Houthis take things a step further and deliberately target civilians, including children, for instance, shooting them in their houses as an act of revenge for siding with the government.”
Christoph Wilcke, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) who visited Hajja governorate on a fact-finding mission, told PolOffs on October 26 that Houthi foot-soldiers usually do not fight in the areas where they are from, and as a result may not know the name of the local commander, but do identify their top leader as Abdulmalik al-Houthi. Beyond that, according to Wilcke, “it’s not clear where the leadership sits or how it’s structured.”
World Food Program (WFP) Representative Gian Carlo Cirri, who speaks with Houthis to negotiate passage of food aid, told PolOff on November 4 that “there is no such thing as a united Houthi command. The field commanders have a great deal of authority. They don’t agree on key ideological and religious principles.”
The conflict spilled into neighboring Saudi Arabia for the first time on November 4, 2009 when rebels shot dead a Saudi security officer in a cross-border attack. The rebels took control of a mountainous section inside Saudi Arabia, in the border region of Jabal al-Dukhan and occupied two villages inside Saudi territory.
On November 5, Saudi Arabia responded by launching heavy air strikes on rebels in northern Yemen, and moved troops nearer the border. Saudi government officials said only that the air force had bombed Yemeni rebels who had seized a border area inside the kingdom, which they said had now been recaptured. The officials said at least 40 rebels had been killed in the fighting. The Saudi government adviser said no decision had yet been taken to send troops across the border, but made clear Riyadh was no longer prepared to tolerate the Yemeni rebels.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam told AFP on November 13, 2009, that Saudi bombing reached up to 60 kilometers inside Yemeni territory.
On November 14, 2009, Houthi fighters reportedly killed two Saudi soldiers and injured five others in the Jebel al-Dukhan area, which reportedly had come under Saudi control days earlier.
Saudi newspaper al-Riyad falsely reported that Houthi spokesman Abdulsalam was killed in a November 15 Saudi airstrike on the Houthis’ media center in Razeh district — a district that is inside Yemeni territory. On November 15, Hizballah’s al-Manar TV aired a telephone interview with Houthi spokesman Abdulsalam in which he said the Saudis had been compelled to strike the Houthis after the Yemeni government failed to implement the “U.S. plan” to silence and subjugate the Houthis. He said the allegations that the Houthis infiltrated Saudi Arabia are nothing more than a pretext to justify a “U.S.-Yemeni security plan” to prolong the war. The Kuwaiti Ambassador to Yemen met with Minister of Interior Rashad al-Masri on November 15 to discuss security cooperation, presumably related to the war in Sa’ada. On November 15, the Iranian parliament condemned Saudi interference in the conflict and denounced the “killing of Yemeni people by Saudi Arabian fighter jets.” The Yemen Post reported on November 15 that the Speaker of Iran’s Shura Council, Ali Larijani,
accused the US and Saudi Arabia of targeting Shi’ite rebels in Yemen. In a statement posted on the Council’s website, he said the US government was an accomplice in the attacks against the Houthis. In a November
15 al-Jazeera interview, General Yahya Saleh, the president’s nephew and commander of the Central Security Forces Counter-Terrorism Unit, said there is “no doubt” Iran is supporting the Houthis — “the Houthis cannot fund and fight this war with pomegranates and grapes or drugs,” he said. Qadhi told PolOff on November 15 there is growing sentiment among Iranians that they “should not leave Yemen’s Shi’a alone to face aggression from the Saudi and Yemeni governments.”
On November 16, Yemen killed two Houthi commanders, Abbas Aaida and Abu Haider.
Colonel Akram al-Qassmi of the National Security Bureau (NSB) told PolOffs on November 18 that re-establishing the imamate is not the Houthis’ main priority now, but it is part of their ideology. Instead, they are currently focusing on “standing up and strengthening” a Shi’a-dominated region along the Saudi-Yemeni border. “With this deck of cards, the Houthis can abuse the Saudi and Yemeni governments,” he said, much like Hizballah in Lebanon.
Nabil al-Soufi of NewsYemen, who twice traveled secretly to Sa’ada governorate, told PolOff on November 18, “The Houthis have a political agenda, but the war they are waging lacks clear objectives.” He explained that the Houthis were dragged into the sixth war and have to keep fighting to defend themselves. He believes their objective is to control Sa’ada governorate, not to spread Zaydi religious beliefs or to re-establish the imamate, although they use religious rhetoric to advance their political objectives.
On November 19, Saudi forces took control of al-Malaheez, killing the local commander Ali al-Qatwani.
Houthi mediator Hassan Zaid, a Zaydi Hashemite from a prominent Sana’a family and chair of the Haqq party,
the legitimate political arm of the Zaydi movement, told PolOff on November 21 that the Houthis are fighting in self-defense and will stop as soon as the Yemeni government ceases to attack them. He explained that the Houthis’ political goal is to “benefit from the protection of the Constitution and the laws,” including equal citizenship and freedom of expression and religion.
National Democratic Institute (NDI) Deputy Director Murad Zafir told PolOff on November 21 that the Houthis are fighting to preserve their unique identity, religious beliefs and practices by seeking to establish their
own schools and university.
In a letter delivered to President Saleh on November 22, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam attempted to correct the record, saying, “We hope that you do not believe the propaganda presented to you that we want to restore the imamate or that we have anything against the republican system.” He goes on to explain, “We do not want from you more than the right of equal citizenship.” In the letter, Abdulsalam attributed the misunderstanding and marginalization of the Houthis to “the persistence of the official media to deal with us as if we are from another planet.”
Presidential advisor Abdul Karim al-Iryani told the American Ambassador on November 22 that efforts were
underway to agree on terms for a ceasefire. The Houthis have chosen Hassan Zaid, chairman of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and native of Sa’ada, to act as their intermediary with President Saleh. Zaid held a subsequent meeting with the President on November 22 to deliver a letter from Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam agreeing to the five conditions, clarifying their objectives (such as denying that they want to re-establish the imamate), and shaming Saleh for “staying idle while children and women are killed by missiles and airplanes of the Saudi regime.”
Colonel Mansour al-Azi, a senior military intelligence officer, told PolOff on November 24 that the Houthis fight with religious fervor, yelling “God is Great” when running into battle, unafraid of dying because they believe that if they do, they will go directly to paradise.
Hassan Zaid, chairman of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and the Houthis’ intermediary with
President Saleh, told PolOff on December 2 that ceasefire discussions continue moving forward slowly, and progress has been made in terms of the composition of the proposed mediation commission that will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the government’s five points and the Houthis’ demands. The commission will consist of military representatives MG Ali Muhsin, Northwest Regional Commander, Ali al-Jayfi, head of the Giants Brigade, and Faisal Rajab, a southern military commander, and Houthi representatives Abdulkarim Amir Adim al-Houthi, Saleh Ahmed Habra, and Saleh al-Samaad. Houthi mediator Hassan Zaid told PolOff on December 2 that the Houthis would welcome the participation of foreign governments or multilateral
organizations in negotiating a settlement to the conflict.
Saba, the government news agency, reported on December 6 that the Houthis killed an 11-year-old boy in retaliation for his father’s refusal to join them.
An animated Saleh used the occasion of a December 9 meeting with Deputy Director of the CIA Steve Kappes to criticize al-Haq party chairman and Houthi mediator Hassan Zayd and vowed to continue the war until the Houthis are beaten or accepted the Yemeni government’s five-point ceasefire proposal, long the
government’s stated condition for ending fighting.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi on December 13, 2009 urged Tehran to crack down on Iranian groups he accused of aiding Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and held Iran’s government partly to blame. He said, “Religious circles and groups in Iran are providing aid to the Houthis.”
On December 14, presidential advisor Dr. Abdulkarim al-Eryani told the American Ambassador that he believed
that in early December, Houthi leader Abdulkarim al-Houthi had personally signed off on the five-point proposal, which was then given to Saleh. This was hearsay, and likely not true.
The National Security Bureau’s (NSB) Colonel Akram al-Qassmi told PolOff on December 14 that NSB’s officers were working “long hours” in nearly round-the-clock operations to get better intelligence on the Houthis.
President Saleh, addressing a group of “popular forces” in Dhamar City on December 15, praised both regular
and irregular (tribal) recruits from Dhamar and Beidha governorates, and promised even the irregular troops that they would “have a place” in the official army camps after they completed their duties in Sa’ada, where they were soon to be sent.
In a December 16 meeting with the American Ambassador, Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and
Security Rashad al-Alimi said that although the Yemeni government would theoretically accept a signed ceasefire agreement from the Houthis, “The problem with the Houthis is that what they say on the outside is completely different than what they are thinking on the inside. The Houthis will not really concede to a peace agreement while they believe they are strong. They are not yet ready to surrender because they are not weak enough.” He indicated that the government needed to keep hitting the Houthis militarily in order to bring them to a point where they would submit to a political settlement, which Alimi confirmed was the real endgoal.
Al-Bayan and Reuters correspondent Mohammed al-Ghobari told PolOff on December 16 that the Houthis, feeling more desperate and crunched by Yemeni and Saudi forces, were making claims of U.S. involvement in the war to distract from their heavy losses in the first weeks of December.
American airstrikes in Yemen on December 17, 2009 killing 24-34 “terrorists”, 18-28 children and 41-63 civilian adults (depending on sources) angered the people again, despite being endorsed by the government. Religious clerics, tribal leaders and Saleh’s political opposition were furious and feared an American attempt to occupy Yemen. One opposition group said, “We do not support religious, ideological or political
extremism, but to use military violence that kills innocents on the pretext of pursuing criminals is wrong.” Saleh’s continued support of American strikes has surely not quelled their dissatisfaction.
Americans will recall the Christmas bomber of December 25, 2009, which is the incident that sparked Senator Lieberman’s off-the-cuff remark. The reason Yemen was involved was because the bomber was influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki, who may be hiding in Yemen. Yet, he has not received any financing from the state. Blaming the country would be just as sensible as blaming England — where the two terrorists also met — or even the United States, where al-Awlaki was born and still holds citizenship.
Internal struggles continued to plague Yemen. Diplomat Angie Bryan sent a classified report on December 28 saying, “Saleh is overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism. Saudi involvement comes at just the right time for him. Largely unprecedented criticism of Saleh’s leadership within the rarefied circle of Saleh’s closest advisers has increased in recent months, even including longtime Saleh loyalists.”
The Houthi rebels’ January 6, 2010 acceptance in writing of the government’s six conditions for a ceasefire,
including the cessation of attacks in Saudi Arabia, went ignored by a Yemeni government determined to end the five-year rebellion once and for all. In the January 6 letter from Abulmalik al-Houthi, which al-Haq party secretary general and Houthi mediator Hassan Zayd recognized as Houthi’s penmanship and signature, Houthi writes, “We renew what we had announced earlier of accepting the five points with the understanding of our legitimate demands in addressing the effects of the war after installation of a ceasefire. Regarding the territories that are under Saudi control, we will not target them if the Saudis stop their aggression.”
On the military front, the government’s “Blow to the Head” (darabat al-ras) operation is continuing to focus on clearing Sa’ada City of Houthi rebels. “They have closed the gates to Sa’ada City,” Zayd said on January 6, “and are working their way door to door.”
“The President is continuing to include the Houthis in his general calls for dialogue, but it is unclear if his intentions are serious,” NDI Deputy Country Director Murad Zafir said on January 11.
The Yemeni government has committed itself to lying to its people about the source of military strikes. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” President Saleh said in January 2010 talks with General David Petraeus, according to a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks. One wonders what Saleh’s motivation is, as there is no good that can come from military assaults on his own people. Has the US threatened an invasion, or still further reductions in aid? Most likely, he holds on the false hope that we will get bogged down in their civil war.
On January 13, 2010, Operation Blow to the Head was launched in an attempt by the government to capture the city of Sa’adah. Security forces claimed they killed 34 and arrested at least 25 Houthis, as well as killing al-Qaeda in Yemen leader Abdullah al-Mehdar within the next two weeks of fighting.
On January 25, 2010, the Houthis offered a truce and withdrew from 46 positions which they held in Saudi territory. Houthi leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi said they would stop fighting to prevent further civilian casualties and the withdrawal was a gesture for peace, but warned that if the Saudis were to continue fighting the Houthis would go over into open warfare. A Saudi general announced that the Houthis had stopped fighting and were not on Saudi land anymore and that in response the Saudis also stopped fighting saying, “The battle has ended by God’s will.”
On January 30, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi released a video wherein he blamed the government for the recent round of fighting but said that, “Nevertheless, and for the fourth time, I announce our acceptance of the five conditions after the aggression stops … the ball is now in the other party’s court.”
Saleh spoke with counter-terrorism officials on January 31 and demanded more aid, specifically helicopters. Saleh described Americans as “hot-blooded and hasty when you need us” but “cold-blooded and British when we need you”. He asked for a “moderate blood temperature” and measured approach.
The Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) unveiled a joint information-sharing center aimed at coordinating information related to CT operations from all government intelligence bodies in a February 3 ceremony at the CTU headquarters in Sana’a. CTU Commander Kamal al-Sayani said that intelligence-sharing was the “number one challenge” for his forces in conducting and planning CT missions. He said that “almost 80 percent of relevant information never makes it to the tactical CTU leaders in the field.” The new center is the first step towards rectifying that lack of coordination and a positive gesture of inclusion to its constituent members, including the U.S. and the U.K. The old office was small and low-tech, housing only three old computers, and lacked any sort of electronic display board or planning apparatus. All mapping was limited to hard copy maps filed in a series of cabinets, as opposed to their current “geographical support” element which has updated to electronic mapping and printing of customized maps on demand. Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Saleh, presidential son and Commander of the Yemen Special Operations Forces (YSOF), was conspicuous by his absence at the unveiling. The current organizational chart does not include the YSOF, despite the fact that YSOF and the CTU are the two leading CT forces and would certainly need to coordinate operations.
Already by February, Yemen had increased its crackdown on potential extremists, detaining seven Americans since the new year who had overstayed their visas. American Muslims in the Middle East tend to be prone to extremism, and and overstayed visa may be a sign that their trip is more than just tourism.
On July 17, 2010, the Houthis warned on their website that the government was preparing for another offensive against the Houthis. They said the government had been digging trenches from the Sana’a to Sa’ada. They claimed the army was trying to amass servicemen in villages and that soldiers in Amshia Bsfian region were creating an army stronghold on Mount Guide.
On July 20, 2010, clashes broke out between Houthis and members of an army-backed tribe, led by Sheikh Sagheer Aziz in the region of Souffian. A Houthi commander declared that the clashes had broken out because of Yemeni Army attacks on Houthis and local pro-Houthi tribes. During the clashes 49 people were killed, including 20 tribal fighters and 10 Houthi fighters. The Houthis also managed to surround the Yemeni military bases in the region.
On July 23, Houthi spokesman Vayf-Allah al-Shami said calm had returned to the region and that a government committee was trying to mediate a cease-fire between the Houthis and the Bin Aziz tribes in the Souffian region.
On July 27, Houthis captured a military post in al-Zaala, capturing 200 soldiers. On July 29, the Houthis released the 200 soldiers they had captured as a good gesture.
On November 16, 2010, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said providing equipment and training to Yemeni security forces offered the best way to counter the threat posed by al-Qaeda militants. His assessment is correct, and we would be wise to take it seriously. Terrorism in Yemen is an internal affair. Flying drones over the country that will certainly kill innocents, or sending in American soldiers would only lead to still further animosity in the Middle East, and the continued expansion of this “forever war”.
US relations with Yemen were overshadowed by internal issues in early 2011, as unrest swept through the Middle East and Northern Africa. A major demonstration of over 16,000 protesters took place in Sana’a on January 27. By February 3, the numbers had grown to 20,000 people. On March 1, Saleh blamed the United States and Israel for the conflict, an obviously false accusation. The situation crossed over from mostly peaceful to violent on March 18, when protesters in Sana’a were fired upon, resulting in over 40 deaths and ultimately culminating in mass defections and resignations. Two days later, Saleh fired all members of his Cabinet, including Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Mujawar and vice-Prime Ministers Al-Rashad Mouhmmed alaïmy, Abdul-Karim Al-Ar’haby and Sadiq Amin Abu-Rass, but asked them to remain in a caretaker role until he forms a new one. Saleh stated on March 22 that he would be willing to step down by the end of the year as part of a “constitutional transfer of power,” but the opposition rejected the offer out of hand.
On March 24 , Houthi rebels took over the city of Sa’ada from government forces. On March 26 , Houthi rebels declared the cration their own administration in Saada Governorate, independent from Yemeni authorities. A former arms dealer was appointed governor by the Houthis as the previous Sa’dah governor was forced to flee to Sanaa.
By the end of March, six of Yemen’s 18 governorates were out of the government’s control.
In April, the Gulf Co-operation Council attempted to mediate an end to the crisis, drafting several proposals for a transition of power. Toward the end of the month, Saleh signaled he would accept a plan that would see him leave power one month after signing and provided for a national unity government in the lead-up to elections. Though some protesters ballyhooed the deal, criticizing provisions that granted the president immunity from prosecution and required the opposition to join with Saleh and his ministers in the national unity government, opposition leaders eventually agreed to sign it. By the end of the month, though, Saleh reversed course and the government announced he would not sign it, putting the GCC initiative on hold.
In early May, officials again indicated that Saleh would sign the GCC deal, and the opposition agreed to sign as well if Saleh signed it personally in his capacity as president. However, Saleh again backed away, saying the deal did not require his signature, and the opposition followed suit, accusing Saleh of negotiating in bad faith. Protests and violence across the country intensified in the wake of this second reversal by Saleh.
In late May, opposition leaders received assurances that Saleh would sign the GCC plan after all, and they signed the deal the day before the president was scheduled to ink it as well.
But Saleh once again decided not to sign, and a brief but tense standoff occurred on May 22 when Saleh’s supporters surrounded the embassy building of the United Arab Emirates in Sana’a, trapping international diplomats (including the secretary-general of the GCC) inside until the government dispatched a helicopter to ferry them to the presidential palace.
On May 23, a day after Saleh refused to sign the transition agreement, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribal federation, one of the most powerful tribes in the country, declared support for the opposition and his armed supporters came into conflict with loyalist security forces in the capital Sana’a after Saleh ordered al-Ahmar’s arrest. Heavy street fighting ensued, which included artillery and mortar shelling. The militiamen had surrounded and blocked off several government buildings in the capital and people on the ground were reporting that it looked like the situation was deteriorating into a civil war.
As the situation in Sana’a was developing, about 300 Islamic militants attacked and captured the coastal city of Zinjibar (population 20,000). During the takeover of the town, the militants killed five policemen, including a high-ranking officer, and one civilian. Two more soldiers were killed in clashes with militants in Loder.
On day three of the fighting, military units that defected to the opposition were hit for the first time by mortar fire killing three soldiers and wounding 10. By the evening, it was reported that tribesmen took control of the Interior Ministry building, SABA state news agency, and the national airline building.
A ceasefire was announced late on May 27, by al-Ahmar, and the next day, a truce was established.
Opposition demonstrators had occupied the main square of Ta’izz since the start of the uprising against the rule of president Saleh. The protests were for the most part peaceful. However, that changed on May 29, when the military started an operation to crush the protests and clear the demonstrators from their camp at the square. Troops reportedly fired live ammunition and from water cannons on the protesters, burned their tents and bulldozers ran over some of them. The opposition described the event as a massacre.
However, by May 31, the ceasefire had broken down and street fighting continued in Sana’a. Tribesmen had taken control of both the headquarters of the ruling General People’s Congress and the main offices of the water utility.
On June 1, units of the loyalist Presidential Guard, commanded by one of Saleh’s sons, shelled the headquarters of an army brigade belonging to the defected 1st Armored Division, even though the defected military units were holding a neutral position in the conflict between the loyalists and the tribesmen. The worst of the fighting was in the northern Hassaba neighborhood, where tribal fighters seized a number of government ministries and buildings. Government artillery fire heavily damaged the house of al-Ahmar and the government cut the area’s electricity and water supplies. The government units, led by one of Saleh’s sons, and loyalist special forces attacked but failed to recapture the Hassaba administrative building. Tribal fighters also seized the office of the General Prosecutor in the city’s northwest. They were backed up by two armored vehicles from the 1st Armored Division. The Interior Ministry stated that the tribesmen had also captured a five-story building in the pro-Saleh Hadda neighborhood. During the 24 hours since the breakdown of the ceasefire, 47 people were killed on both sides during the heavy street fighting, including 15 tribesmen and 14 soldiers.
On June 3, a bombing at the presidential palace left Saleh injured and seven other top government officials wounded. Saleh, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the parliament chief, the governor of Sana’a and a presidential aide were wounded while they were praying at a mosque inside the palace compound. Saleh was initially said to be injured in the neck and treated on the scene; later reports indicated his wounds were far more severe — including a collapsed lung and burns over 40% of his body. Four presidential guards and Sheikh Ali Mohsen al-Matari, an imam at the mosque, were killed.
As Saleh flew to the Saudi capital of Riyadh for surgery on June 4, a cease-fire was brokered by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi took over as acting president and supreme commander of the armed forces. Despite the ceasefire, sporadic violence continued in the capital. Saleh’s powerful sons also remained in Yemen instead of traveling to Saudi Arabia with their father.
In early July the government rejected the opposition’s demands, including the formation of a transitional council with the goal of formally transferring power from the current administration to a caretaker government intended to oversee Yemen’s first-ever democratic elections. In response, factions of the opposition announced the formation of their own 17-member transitional council on July 16, though the Joint Meeting Parties that have functioned as an umbrella for many of the Yemeni opposition groups during the uprising said the council did not represent them and did not match their “plan” for the country.
On August 6, Saleh left the hospital in Saudi Arabia, but he did not return to Yemen.
The situation continues…