Intense fighting erupted between Yemeni government forces and the Shiite Houthi fighters in the northern Yemeni Saada region. This came shortly after an unusually strong warning from the Yemeni government saying that the Yemeni government “ would take military action to liberate schools and government buildings” used as barracks by Houthi rebels.
The Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has also made unusually strong statements, confirming that the fighting in Saada is a full civil war.
Shortly before full-scale fighting erupted, Houthi rebels seized control of the strategic Sana’a-Saudi Arabia highway, effectively consolidating their control of most of the Yemeni province bordering Saudi Arabia.
After the fighting began, the Yemeni government issued demands for the fighting to stop, including the handing over of weapons, abandonment of buildings and strongholds taken over by the Houthi fighters and the release of foreigners thought by the government to be kidnapped by the Houthis. The fighters are expected to reject the demands.
The last civil war, known as the fifth Saada civil war, ended in July 2008 and was followed by a fragile ceasefire.
6, 8, 9 and 12 August 2009
Analysis and forecast: increasing risk
The past several months have seen a gradual increase of tension between the government and the Houthi rebels. Political Capital has previously warned of the possibility of full-scale war if the gradually rising tensions were not diffused. This point seems to have been crossed now and the government will have to put even more resources than it had to fight the Houthi rebels. With an escalating situation in the south and an increased threat from Al Qaeda, the Yemeni government finds itself in a rather precarious position, than it has been in the most conflict.
The conflict has now both direct and indirect causes. The direct causes are:
- Houthi weapons;
- Government positions and buildings taken up by Houthi rebels;
- Six foreigners kidnapped in the Saada region, which the government accuses the Houthis of being behind; and,
- Houthi / political prisoners in Yemeni jails and Yemeni soldiers held by Houthis.
It is also believed that there are indirect causes due to indirect intervention by the Iranian government, supporting the Shiite Houthi fighters. This makes it more difficult for the Yemeni government to combat the threat and will also pose a significant risk to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, who has a Shiite population near the border area with Yemen.
The eruption of fighting is an indication of the volatility of the situation in Saada and that a more thorough solution has to be found, rather than a truce. If this does not happen, the government’s dwindling resources will find themselves further stretched, weakening the overall position of the central government not only on the Saada front, but also on its front with the southern secessionists and Al Qaeda.
It appears that the government has at least for the time being, chosen to confront the southern secessionists and Houthis rather than accede to their demands and tackle the increasing threat from Al Qaeda.