Yemen at war: ‘No side is willing to capitulate’

A year since Yemen’s Houthi rebels rallied for reforms, the country has spiralled into a bloody and enduring conflict.

Yemen crisis
After five months of bombing, Yemen has fallen into the grips of a massive humanitarian crisis [Reuters]

Al-Mukalla, Yemen – A year after Yemen’s Houthis rallied to oppose government policies, they have taken the country into a bloody conflict that has killed thousands of people and left millions more at the risk of famine.

The Houthis’ anti-government demonstrations in the summer of 2014, which followed a rise in fuel prices, were initially peaceful, with the group indicating that it did not intend to overthrow the regime by force. On August 18, 2014, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Sanaa, promising to continue further sit-ins and demonstrations until the country instituted a change of government.

One year later, the Houthis remain in control of the capital Sanaa after seizing power violently and forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other key officials into exile. An Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been battling the rebels, and recently retook the southern port city of Aden. Meanwhile, the country is in the grips of a massive humanitarian crisis.

So what went wrong with the revolution the Houthis had been seeking since last August?

TIMELINE: The rise of Yemen’s Houthi rebels 

According to April Longley Alley, a senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group, the Houthis initially garnered support “far beyond their natural base” by using a populist, anti-corruption platform against a widely unpopular transitional government.

The movement’s leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, encouraged his supporters to camp out in key areas of the country to call for the resignation of the government and other reforms, including cheaper fuel prices. The Houthis, who had already been stretching their influence in northern Yemen in the years leading to the uprising, capitalised on popular anti-government sentiment to grab power, analysts noted.

One-Minute Yemen

“This was merely populist rhetoric used to generate public support for a separate campaign to gain power by an alliance of groups, including the military forces of former President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh,” Stephen Day, who authored the book Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen, told Al Jazeera.

Even after the Houthis seized Sanaa and forced the government out, replacing it with their own Revolutionary Committee, the country had not yet been plunged into wider warfare. The turning point, analysts say, was when the Houthis began sidelining other political forces and advancing into Sunni areas, such as Taiz, Mareb and the south.

“Once they had captured Sanaa and, particularly, when they unilaterally replaced the government with a revolutionary council in February 2015, the tide began to shift against them,” Alley told Al Jazeera. “They overestimated their popular appeal and underestimated the need for the inclusion of Yemen’s diverse political components.”

The Houthis’ sectarian rhetoric and ties with Iran – despite the group’s denials that it has received funding or weapons from Iran – provoked the bloody backlash in some parts of Yemen, Day added.

“From the beginning, this campaign was bound to end in disaster, because the Houthis’ sectarian agenda in alliance with Iran… would provoke reaction from larger and more powerful groups inside and outside the country,” he said.

Now that they are in retreat, the Houthis find themselves moving from revolutionary slogans to rallies for support in order to survive and remain relevant during the coming transition phase.

by Fernando Carvajal, Yemen specialist at the University of Exeter

Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen specialist at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera that Hadi also bears some of the blame for failing to hold back the Houthis’ appetite for expansion in the early days of the uprising.

“Hadi failed to counter the Houthi momentum that Saleh eventually capitalised on,” Carvajal told Al Jazeera.

RELATED: Resolution still elusive in war-torn Yemen

Hadi has complained many times that he was unable to exercise his power due to continued meddling by his predecessor, Saleh, who ruled Yemen for three decades before leaving office in 2012, after nationwide protests against his leadership.

Saleh’s critics, including Hadi, have accused him of spurring the Houthi revolt forward in an effort to make his own political comeback.

“Saleh and [his General People’s Congress party] have certainly had a role in shaping the trajectory of the Houthi movement,” Alley said. “Saleh supporters, both in the GPC and in the army, played an important role in facilitating Houthi territorial gains in the north and their capture of Sanaa in September 2014.”

Many of the Houthis’ military victories could not have been achieved without Saleh’s assistance, Day added. But “the ultimate problem is that Houthi and Saleh represent minority interests in a country with pluralist democratic dynamics”.

The UN imposed sanctions on Saleh last year after a panel of experts concluded he was “using” the Houthis to derail the political process. Saleh admitted cooperating with the rebels in May, when the Saudi-led coalition bombed his house in the capital.

But fissures emerged in the alliance in early 2015, when the Houthis expanded their grip on the government and the army at the expense of Saleh’s influence, Alley said. The Saudi-led air campaign, however, brought the two groups back together “against a common enemy”.

Although anti-Houthi forces have recently pushed the rebels out of many provinces in the south and forced them to retreat to their previous strongholds in the north, the Houthis have shown no signs that they intend to give up.

“Now that they are in retreat, the Houthis find themselves moving from revolutionary slogans to rallies for support in order to survive and remain relevant during the coming transition phase,” Carvajal said. “No side is willing to capitulate; therefore, the fight for survival will be more devastating for all sides.”

Source: Al Jazeera