Making sense of Yemen’s feuding factions

An explainer on who is fighting whom and why in the Arabian Peninsula state.

War on terrorism in Yemen
Yemen's restive South has recently seen renewed fighting between the national army and al-Qaeda [EPA]

All around the country, the challenges to Yemen’s new government’s authority are numerous – and serious.

Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was sworn into office this February after being the consensus candidate in a national referendum. He is meant to be overseeing a transition to full democracy in the country following a revolution that erupted in January 2011.

That revolution, however, spurred a violent power struggle between loyalists of the old regime – the family of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for over 30 years – and defected factions of the military and tribes opposed to him.

As fighting broke out across the capital city, Sanaa, in 2011, various rebel groups throughout the country that had long been fighting the government, took advantage of the chaos to sweep across new swathes of territory.

 Army and al-Qaeda face off in Yemen’s south

One such group is the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia ethnic group in Yemen’s North, based in a mountainous region bordering Saudi Arabia. Its armed fighters have been in a tit-for-tat conflict with the Yemeni army since 2004. During last year’s chaos, they pushed further south towards capital, Sanaa.

They say they are seeking more autonomy and redress for what they see as neglect and discrimination.

As far back as 2009, their armed offensive was clearly becoming a regional issue as Saudi Arabia’s military began engaging the group. The Houthis accused Saudi jets of entering Yemeni airspace, something the Saudis deny. And the Saudis accused Houthis of killing their soldiers along the border.

Hadi himself, when he was vice-president of Yemen under Saleh in 2009, accused the Iranians of funding the Houthis. “They are helping them,” he said on a visit to a refugee camp in the North in December 2009, “by money”. Experts view this small, largely hidden conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Many fronts

The Yemeni army’s fight against the Houthis over the past year and a half has been one of containment. The military is split on several fronts and is not currently able to end the conflict outright.

One of those main fronts is in the south, against al-Qaeda-linked fighters. Since 2008, al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been growing in numbers and activity levels. Experts pointed to the successes of drone strikes and offensives against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, which caused many to flee to the relative safety of Yemen’s more lawless rural areas in the south and southeast. Yemen is also the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.

In March the Yemeni army launched an offensive against al-Qaeda-linked groups in Abyan province [EPA]

Bombings in the capital by the group have increased in intensity in recent years, from an attack on the US embassy in 2008 to the suicide bomber who killed more than 120 people last month. Over the past year and a half of political fighting, Ansar al-Sharia, a local al-Qaeda-affiliated group, grabbed swathes of the south, including Abyan province and various towns including its capital, Zinjibar. They have been linked closely to AQAP and are believed to work directly with al-Qaeda fighters, both Yemeni and foreign, in southern provinces.

The Yemeni army is now trying to re-take control of such areas and launched a major offensive since March. That launch coincided with Hadi’s taking official power, as he vowed to crush violent extremist elements. He is helped by the US, and drone strikes in the area have increased in regularity since March. In April, the Washington Post reported that the US President Barack Obama had gained approval from Congress to launch “signature strikes” against suspected militant leaders – which effectively remove the need to confirm whom the target of such strikes are, and target individuals based on suspicion alone.

US military advisers from Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA are present on the ground in Yemen and are helping the Yemeni Army in its current offensive. The move is seen by some to be controversial, and possibly dangerous to the broader “hearts and minds” campaign the Yemeni government is waging in the south. After last month’s suicide attack, which largely targeted soldiers at a military parade rehersal, al-Qaeda announced that they were taking revenge for the army’s war against them and its co-operation with the US military. Following the attack, a statement released by the White House said Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, spoke to Yemeni President Hadi. “Mr Brennan and President Hadi reaffirmed the unshakeable partnership between Yemen and the United States,” the statement read.

Local Popular Resistance Committees, made up of tribal militia fighters from various southern regions, are also fighting al-Qaeda in the current offensive. They have been attributed with successes against the group, using their local knowledge and warfare tactics. Not much is known about these groups, as most announcements on the war are made by Yemeni authorites. Some of the groups may be made up of southern seccessionist fighters, who, although seeking independence from the northern government, are also opposed to al-Qaeda.

As a result, it is unclear who is in charge of certain southern areas, and how the outcome of the fighting in these areas will affect the future of the Yemeni government.

Divided army

This country is facing major challenges and the situation is very fragile – we should never forget this.”

– Jamal Benomar, UN envoy to Yemen

Although Yemen was officially unified in 1990, the South Yemen Movement has been opposed to northern rule since 1994, when a civil war broke out as southerners accused the North of not abiding by the 1990 peace accords. Although the North won the war, and southern leaders fled the country, the Movement remains active today, calling for the South to break away as an independent state. They maintain that they use only peaceful methods such as protest. Yet clashes between armed secessionists and government troops continue. Southern secessionist movements are, however, thought to be split amongst themselves.

While the Yemeni authorities and military clamour to supress autonomy movements in the North and South and battle al-Qaeda, tensions remain between Hadi’s new government and the old regime. Ex-President Saleh placed numerous members of his family in powerful roles in the military and intelligence over the years. His nephew Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security Forces, and his son Ahmed Saleh, is commander of the Republican Guards.

“The situation can get also out of control,” said Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, in April. “I said repeatedly in my briefings with the security council that although we can say that there is progress, when it comes to the implementation of the [power transfer] agreement generally, this country is facing major challenges and the situation is very fragile – we should never forget this.”

Those calling for the removal of all Saleh family members from the army include other military commanders who defected against Saleh’s rule during the revolution such as General Ali Mohsen, commander of the powerful First Amoured Division. Until that happens, the loyalty of the military and intelligence groups will remain split. As Yemen’s army attempts to fight on several different fronts, it is itself divided from within.

Source: Al Jazeera