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Sanaa scenarios: War, secession or tribal revolt?

Fears of an all-out war loom over Yemen’s capital amid conflicting reports of how the anti-Houthi coalition will press home present gains
Yemeni supporters of the Houthi movement raise their weapons during a Sanaa rally to protest against Saudi-led coalition strikes on 24 August (AFP)

SANAA - Fears of an all-out war are looming over Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, with the Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi resuming heavy air attacks and stepping up its targeting of Houthi military positions over the past week.

The escalation comes on the back of recent coalition gains in the south, which have seen the Houthis pushed back and the tide turn after more than six months of heavy fighting.

“The capital is like a ticking bomb,” said analyst Mohammed al-Samei in Sanaa. “It is packed with army barracks, weapon depots in the mountains and it is heavily populated.”

The two sides are now locked in fierce fighting in central west Yemen, especially the city of Taiz, which is seen as the doorway to the capital. Once Taiz falls, most commentators believe, Sanaa will become the next major battleground.

Witnesses say that Houthis are on high alert, pulling out fighters from the streets and digging trenches to the entrances to the capital, especially on the northern front, where they expect a big battle. Ali al-Emad, a senior Houthi politician, and Hamoud Sharaf, the group’s media coordinator and founder of Sam FM, a radio station affiliated to the Houthis, told Middle East Eye that the Houthis have been moving in secret and have moved families out of Sanaa.

However, officials affiliated to the government of President Hadi seem torn about how exactly they will try to retake the capital, with three main scenarios emerging about Sanaa’s future.

Winning over the tribes

According to a high-ranking official working with Hadi’s government in exile in Saudi Arabia, the anti-Houthi coalition has been trying to win over local tribes who control the surrounding areas before launching a three-pronged offensive from the southwest, east and north.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that his government wanted to unravel the Houthis’ alliances with the tribesmen around Sanaa.

"We can avoid the war,” the official said. “There are ongoing talks with leaders of the tribes … to speed up [the] Houthis’ expulsion from the capital without resistance,” she said.

If this happened, she said, the “Houthis would find themselves alone” and would be easily pushed out without heavy fighting.

A spokesman for the coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, stressed in a phone interview with MEE that “the tribes in Yemen play a big and effective role”.

“It is essential that they support the legitimacy [of anti-Houthi forces], or at the very least not play a negative role,” he said.  

Last year, the tribes were widely believed to have helped tilt the balance in favour of the Houthis and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh that have been fighting alongside them.

In eastern Sanaa province, the powerful Khawlan tribe is known to be a longtime supporter of Saleh’s long-ruling General People’s Congress Party, while in western Sanaa province, tribes such as the al-Hamyteen and Bani Matar are also believed to be pro-Saleh and have helped the Houthis to control access to the important Houdaida port.

The Bani Hashish tribe, based around north and central Sanaa, has been another firm supporter of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and recently vowed to support the Houthis.

Saleh, who hails from the Sanhan tribe, also enjoys support south of the capital, where his native tribe wields great influence.

But Saleh and the Houthis have made many enemies along the way.

The main tribes north of Sanaa, known as the Arhab, are largely supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party and have seen their animosity toward the Houthis grow over the last year, after the Houthis blew up their Islamic schools on their march to take Sanaa.

The neighboring tribe of Ayal Sareh, which is largely based in the northeastern front of Sanaa and controls one of the main roads to Marib, some 80 kilometers east of the capital, is also known for its anti-Houthi views, although pro-Houthi media outlets have claimed that the tribe has declared its opposition to the Saudi-led offensive and has now called upon its sons to “join jihad”.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s largest tribal confederation of Hashid appears divided. Last year an internal revolt against the tribal leadership overthrew the dominant al-Ahmar family, seen as the tribal arm of Islah. The family has fled Yemen and is battling to restore the Hadi government while the new leader, business tycoon Hamid al-Ahmar, has been filling his ranks with pro-Houthi supporters.

Southern secession

Should the tribal approach fail to yield immediate results, other senior pro-Hadi officials currently based in Saudi Arabia told MEE that the anti-Houthi camp, which now controls almost all of southern Yemen, might be in favour of pursuing a plan for secession.

According to the source, the international community has been pushing for this because it feels partition could prevent a protracted conflict raging in the north, where Houthis enjoy strong support.

North and South Yemen unified in 1990, but civil war broke out four years later, with resentments continuing to run high in the south, which has felt left behind by the north.

“There is a real international tendency in favour of the splitting of Yemen,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “This could put on hold the liberation of Sanaa.”

The official claimed that Hadi’s Vice President Khaled Bahah is looking over partition plans and could take them forward if there is “a slow-down” in the anti-Houthi advance.  

“The more we speed up toward liberation of the north, the more we stay away from [the] ghost of secession,” the official said.  

Prominent researcher Ali Seif Hassan told MEE that Taiz and Marib will be the most “decisive battles” of the war and will be the final signal whether the Saudis’ plan is working.  

The longer the battle, the higher the chance that Aden will emerge as a new capital, he said.

Saudi 'sub-state' plan

April Longley Alley, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, wrote in a recent column for the Atlantic Council that, instead of fighting all the way to Sanaa, Riyadh “may have a different, more achievable mission in mind: carving out a satellite Sunni-dominated area that excludes the northern Zaydi highlands,” referring to the Houthi homeland.

“Saudi Arabia could plausibly secure the control of strategically important areas, while keeping the Houthis encircled in the far north - even if that terrain initially included the capital Sanaa,” she added.

But facts on the ground could be working against such a plan.

The Houthi takeover of Sanaa in January and their rapid advance south helped to form a firm opposition inside and outside Yemen, with Saudi now leading a 10-member coalition aimed at restoring Hadi and securing Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

With the Houthis in retreat, however, divisions in the anti-Houthi camp are becoming clearer. On the one hand, there are loyalists who wish to see Hadi, or a possible replacement, installed back in Sanaa.

On the other, there are those who would like to see south Yemen seek full independence. Even the Southern Movement - which is known as the Hirak and has been a key fighting force on the ground - seems to have no coherent agenda.

Alley in the Atlantic Council commentary warned that setting up a “sub-state” in the south under Saudi control would likely open a “Pandora box of instability”.  

“The regions that might be included are also neither tribally or politically homogenous,” she wrote, while stressing that the Houthis would continue to pose a danger in the north.

Diplomatic deal?

Amidst the uncertainty, and in an apparent attempt to embarrass the Houthis, Hadi tried to roll out fresh diplomatic efforts over the weekend by issuing a four-point peace plan.

The draft, obtained by MEE, stipulated that the Houthis pull out without conditions from all the cities they have seized, disband their forces, and hand over state institutions while holding a 15-day ceasefire. In return, Hadi said his government would resume political talks, which could keep the Houthi movement as a political player.

If accepted, the deal would in effect signal a defeat of the Houthis, something that could backfire internally and cause deep rifts within the group.

The coalition’s spokesman, General Asiri, stressed to MEE that the “ideal solution to Yemeni people is for Houthis to withdraw from the cities,” although the Houthis have so far have struck a defiant tone in public.

“You want the Yemenis to withdraw from Yemen,” a leading Houthi official known by the nom de guerre Abou Mahfouz told MEE in a Sanaa hotel.

Since his last speech, Houthi leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi has also floated the idea that the movement will resort to “strategic alternatives,” a vaguely worded phrase that left many wondering whether the Houthis were preparing for an escalation of the conflict.

Houthis plan for escalation

Anti-Houthi local media reports, meanwhile, have said that the Houthis are going to disrupt traffic along the Red Sea by attacking the Bab al-Mandab strait between Yemen and Djibouti. Other outlets suggested that the Houthis are planning to push north into Saudi Arabia and occupy the disputed areas of Najran, Jizan and Asir, which were the cause of the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and ended with the Saudis taking over the regions.

Over the past few days, al-Masseria Houthi TV network has broadcast pictures and video it said showed a ballistic missile being fired at Saudi’s largest naval base in Jizan, on the Red Sea north of the border with Yemen, while on Friday Saudi Press Agency reported that two pilots had been “martyred” when an Apache helicopter came down south of Jizan while attacking “rebels”.

With battle lines drawn, Sanaa residents say they fear the worst.

“It is going to be a genocide,” said Sanaa-based activist Hisham al-Omeisy. “In Sanaa, you will [see] fighting house to house. Are you going annihilate the city just like Saada’s scorched earth policy?” he said in reference to a bloody 2009 offensive launched by the then government against the Houthis in their north-western stronghold in Saada province.

With Yemen home to a mix of sects, regions and tribes, many are concerned that any escalation in violence could spark a spate of revenge attacks and drive the country into a protracted conflict, akin to the situation in Iraq and Syria.

A leading Zaydi scholar, Mohammed Azzan, told MEE that “unless a political deal is reached, the war would reach the capital and it will have very bad repercussions.

“Those who were hurt [from the Houthi takeover] will seek revenge,” he said. 

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