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Yemen: Pulling the Strings

How did Yemen’s Houthis take Sanaa so easily? Was former President Saleh part of an unlikely alliance with the group?

Filmmaker: Gamal al-Moliky

The current crisis in Yemen is a very complex one.

This film focuses on one aspect of it: how the Houthis were able to move south from their northern base and take the capital, Sanaa, quite so easily, and whether former President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have played a role in this move.

Founded in the early 1990s by Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, the Houthis grew into a strong military force.

As Zaidi Shia, they were convinced of their right to participate in the national government and fought a series of six wars against the Saleh regime between 2004 and 2010. Here, we look at the rise of the Houthis and their move south from their northern stronghold of Saada Province, and explore the possibility that there was more to former President Saleh’s role in this than was apparent at the time.

Some who had been closely associated with Saleh and served in the army during battles against the Houthis testify here about what they saw as double dealing.

Fahad al-Sharafi was a leading member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party during the third Houthi war.

“I was part of the presidential committee when the president ordered the First Armoured Division and the 17th Infantry to withdraw. These honourable men had to leave behind the sacrifices they’d made,” he says. “They even had to leave the bodies of their comrades without covering or burying them.”

These incidents which I lived day-by-day made me feel that we were in a country ruled by a gang.

by Fahad al-Sharafi, General People's Congress Party

Abdullah al-Hadhari is a Brigadier-General in the Yemeni Army and has a PhD in international law. He took part in the six wars against the Houthis and was surprised at some of the orders coming out of Sanaa.

“I think the ceasefire was the biggest crime,” he says. “Tribes supporting us were being annihilated and killed, but the government turned a blind eye on the pretext of the ceasefire.”  

“All these tribes were served up to the Houthis on a golden platter,” Sharafi says. “Many tribes fought alongside the government and achieved victory, but the government gave them up during the truce.”

Al-Sharafi also spotted what he felt was double-dealing between Saleh and the businessman, politician and arms dealer, Fares Manaa, while he was negotiating peace deals with the Houthis.

“The Houthis had four trucks loaded with weapons that were used against the people of Ghamar while Fares was part of a mediation committee,” Sharafi says. “He was on a mediation committee and supplied weapons to the Houthis at the same time.”

In February 2011, Yemenis protested against President Saleh and his government on the streets of Sanaa. Houthis took part in the Youth Revolution which led to Saleh handing over power to Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But some Yemenis thought that their commitment to their own cause was greater than to the general good. The revolution seemed also to galvanise the Houthis and give them both the opportunity and encouragement they needed to initiate their move south. They duly made their gradual way towards the capital, attacking the cities and villages in their path.

At the same time, Saleh began plotting how to take revenge on those who had opposed him during the revolution, including leading military figures like Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Qushaibi. It’s possible that Saleh manipulated the Houthis to serve his interests in a proxy war against his own political enemies, including President Hadi.

As the Houthi rebellion gained momentum in 2014, forces in the Yemeni Army and Republican Guard who had remained loyal to Saleh, may have colluded with the Houthis to help pave their way to the capital. When they arrived there, they were able to take the city with unusual ease, explained by interviewees in the film, by the lack of resistance by army groups involved in this double dealing.

“I believe the Minister of Defence betrayed Yemen, the nation and his military honour. He betrayed the Arab nation because he handed over Sanaa to the Houthis instead of defending it as a national and constitutional duty,” Hadhari laments.

Peace talks are planned in Kuwait in the coming days, involving the three main players: the internationally-recognised government of President Hadi with the Sunni tribes, the Houthis and Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party.

The film concludes that if factional in-fighting and Machiavellian plans had not been hatched by Saleh, the Houthis and all the other parties involved, Yemen might have been spared such a prolonged and damaging civil conflict.

Origins of a Modern Crisis

Professor James Wertz on Yemen: Pulling the Strings

Consumed by the impending popular election in Afghanistan and the extended occupation of Iraq that followed premature claims of US victory there, much of the West largely ignored the Houthi uprising that began in June 2004 destabilising an uneasy coalition of tribal, political, and military forces that governed the republic of Yemen. The first Houthi uprising, led by Hussein al-Houthi in the north, and the five subsequent battles for political and cultural recognition between 2004 and 2010 lay the foundation of the modern crisis in which political capital is hedged by tribal and political leaders as Yemen endures civil war.

Those uprisings, the penultimate overtaking of the political capital city of Sanaa, and the suspicion of conspiracy that ties former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the very rebels striking against his regime are the focus of filmmaker Gamal Al-Moliky’s documentary Yemen: Pulling the Strings.

Moliky believes in the Saleh-Houthi nexus and he confidently strings together mounting evidence of the conspiracy. Troops under Saleh’s command turned a blind eye to the Houthis slaughter of tribal factions under the auspices of a cease fire that ultimately kept only the Yemeni army and the Houthis from engaging in battle. Others claim that a chief negotiator in the ceasefire mediation simultaneously sold weapons to the Houthis while Saleh publicly called for peace.

In 2011, the Youth Revolution forced Saleh to relinquish power to his Vice President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but he did so reluctantly. The power vacuum that followed divided the government between factions loyal to Hadi and those who clamored for Saleh’s return.

This creates the context for the loss of Sanaa to the Houthis in 2014, the penultimate moment on which the conspiracy hinged. The film depicts the ease with which Houthi rebels take control of the capital streets and set in motion a new dialogue, placing the Houthi agenda at its core. According to Abdullah Al-Hadhari, a Brigadier-General in the Yemeni Army featured in Moliky’s film, there was no attempt made to defend Sanaa or resist the Houthi insurgency. The Minister of Defense, he says, “handed over Sanaa to the Houthis instead of defending it as a national and constitutional duty.”

The Houthi march toward Sanaa in central Yemen was brutal. As the documentary illustrates graphically, the trials of rebellion for Sunni tribal factions throughout the country included land mines buried in streets and placed in toilets, destruction of buildings from homes to hospitals, and countless loss of life.

Today the capital city regularly operates without electricity. Once vibrant, yet unsettled, the people of Sanaa wait for calm as the remnants of the old guard hole up in the port city of Aden on the southern coast of Yemen. A Saudi Arabian led coalition comprised of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan lead airstrikes against the Houthis, the minority Shia who now ostensibly rule the country.

Complicating matters further is the presence of both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State, which simultaneously oppose each other as they battle the former President Hadi and the Houthis.

Moliky seeks to provide explanation, to inform the viewer. He does not invoke Aristotelian tropes or pander to the audience for the sake of drama. He simply documents and, in doing so, his argument is made stronger.

Drama, on the other hand, emerges organically from the mouths of the betrayed, the imagery of war, and the chronicle of Yemen’s modern crisis.

James Wertz is an associate professor of journalism and digital media in the Department of Journalism and Public Relations at Edinboro University. He is formerly a member of the board of directors for the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania and he was the founding director of the Greater Erie Film Office, northwest Pennsylvania’s AFCI accredited film office.