IN THE EARLY morning hours of May 10, 2015, Sana’a was rocked by five consecutive explosions. As clouds of smoke billowed from the center of the Yemeni capital, dust shrouded former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s residential compound.
The Saudi-led military intervention, named “Operation Decisive Storm,” against the Houthi militias who had swept across Yemen over the past year with the help of military units loyal to Saleh, had begun March 26. But the strike that Sunday morning marked the first direct hit against the former president.
Many had expected Saleh to go into hiding at the start of the coalition’s bombing campaign. Yet Saleh, the man who survived multiple assassination attempts during his 33 years in power, surprised everyone by appearing on his privately owned TV channel in less than two hours after his home had been destroyed, ready to deliver a speech. Sporting a blazer and tie as he stood in front of the ruins of his house, Saleh condemned the airstrike as “unjustified and reprehensible.” “This is a genocide, a vengeful war on the Yemeni people,” he said.
Then Saleh made a startling statement: “I haven’t previously allied with Ansar Allah,” he said, using the official name of the Houthis. “But I declare today, from this place, that the Yemeni people as a whole would team up with all of those defending this nation.” This was significant; since he was forced to step down in 2012, Saleh had repeatedly denied having any ties with the Houthi uprising, which seized control of the capital in September 2014, but now he was publicly acknowledging for the first time his alliance with the rebels.
Given that Saleh had waged six wars against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 and was accused of killing the group’s founder in cold blood, his support for the rebels, both clandestine and avowed, naturally led to some questions about the consummate survivor’s motives and the strength of this new alliance.
In order to understand the complex alliances and hostilities in Yemen today, one needs to trace their roots. The intertwined history of Saleh and the Houthis, as well as other major players in Yemen goes back decades.
The ambitious Saleh rose to power in 1978 as president of an independent North Yemen. Many at the time thought he would not finish his first year in office. But the young president, who was in his mid-30s, succeeded by joining forces with certain elements in the military, tribal leaders and the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen to defeat a growing rebellion in the north’s central region, led by the secular National Front that was supported by the socialist government of South Yemen and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was fearful of the spread of communism in the Arabian Peninsula, supported Saleh as well.
Yet this alliance came at a price. Saudi Arabia had a greater agenda in mind, after the Iranian Revolution. The kingdom saw a postponed threat from the Yemeni members of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, who lived along its southern borders. The early 1980s marked the start of spread of the Saudi Wahhabism in parallel with the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to promote Sunni ideology across Yemen. Clerics supported by Saudi Arabia took the bordering Saada province, which was predominantly Zaydi, as their center.
The Zaydis, who had ruled North Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962, felt the threat, and several youth activists started a Zaydi revival movement in the late 1980s. In an interview with Newsweek Middle East in Sanaa, Mohammed Azzan, one of the five founders of that movement and now a leading Zaydi scholar, recalled the early days of the group in Saada. “The movement had no official name in the beginning, but after the 1990 unification of Yemen we called it the Believing Youth Forum,” he said. “We had a moderate approach and aimed at opening dialogue with all sides. We were out in the open, establishing youth clubs and summer camps in government schools.”
But the son of Saada’s most prominent Zaydi scholar and a charismatic member of parliament, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who would later become the founder of the Houthi rebel militia, saw the rising power of the Believing Youth and aspired to new heights. Azzan remembers that towards the late 1990’s Al-Houthi told them: “We want a structured organization; we want followers who listen and obey, just like the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
“That is when our views with Brother Hussein started to differ,” Azzan said. “In 2001, we became distant. He started chanting his slogan.” That slogan was the Houthis’ motto, which is still in use now: “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!”
Although the Houthis and al-Qaida differ fundamentally in every way, including ideology and goals. Al-Houthi took advantage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the ensuing global war on terror to radicalize many followers of the Believing Youth, as well as many tribal members in and around Saada. As he gained influence, Al-Houthi gained control of several districts of Saada. In 2004, President Saleh ordered the army to move in and put an end to that expansion, ultimately resulting in the defeat of the rebellion and the death of the movement’s founder, who was ruthlessly gunned down by the army right after his surrender.
In late 2004, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, 23 at the time, succeeded his older brother Hussein and became the leader of Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), as the Houthis became to be officially known. From 2005 to 2010, Saleh waged five more wars against the group, which were abruptly started and more abruptly halted.
Then came the 2011 popular uprisings against Saleh. The Houthis were among the first groups to participate in the demonstrations in the capital’s Change Square, setting up camp under the name Shabab Al-Somoud (The Steadfast Youth). In the beginning, they thought it was their chance to overthrow Saleh’s regime as a whole. To their dismay, they found many of their political and military rivals joining the revolution, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s right-hand man for the past 30 years and commander of the wars against the Houthis. Moreover, the Houthis were completely left out of the political solution that ended the uprising, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which forced Saleh to step down and transfer power to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Hadi was sworn in as president of Yemen on Feb. 25, 2012, a year that sidelined both Saleh and the Houthis even more. But it wasn’t just Saleh who was being marginalized. Saleh’s sophisticated network of men in the military, his loyal tribal sheikhs and powerful businessmen saw their influence fade as Hadi started removing Saleh’s men from the government and the army. Even Saleh’s own son Ahmed was fired as the head of the powerful elite Republican Guard.
Hadi’s efforts to root out Saleh’s allies eventually led the military to turn against the president. In an exclusive interview, Newsweek Middle East spoke to a brigadier general in the Reserve Forces (formerly the Republican Guard), who asked to remain anonymous, about the reasons for the military’s change of heart, as he sat in a spacious and ornate diwan, a Yemeni sitting room. “After the GCC initiative, we were ready to start a new page and accept the change,” said the 61-year-old man, who still commands a strong brigade located on the outskirts of Sana’a. “But President Hadi was vague and indecisive— we never knew what he really wanted.”
He continued: “Saleh used to call us [the Republican Guard commanders] often and was firm and clear in his instructions.” By contrast, “when Hadi took over he never communicated with us,” he said. “He rarely met with our commander.”
Then Hadi restructured the Republican Guard, which was the last straw for the elite army unit. “That’s when we felt threatened,” the brigadier general said. “After all of this, we had no choice but to go back to Saleh,” he concluded.
Saleh also benefited from the disgruntled Houthis, who played no role in the GCC initiative, under which the opposition, led by the Islah Party (Yemeni Muslim Brothers), and Saleh’s party, General People’s Congress, were to equally share power during the interim period following 2011. “After the GCC deal, the Houthis felt they got stabbed from behind by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islah party,” said Ali al-Bukayti, a Yemeni politician and a former member of the Houthis Political Bureau until 2014. “How can Houthis and Islah be partners in the revolution and then the Islah goes to sign a deal to share power with Saleh?”
“Saleh was smart,” said Al-Bukayti. “He shared the government with the Islah but also opened up to the Houthis. Back then we did not have any media outlet. Saleh’s TV and radio stations were our only way to reach the public. Call it an alliance of interests: “We had a mutual enemy and we united against it.”
In face of this political rejection by their momentary partners in 2011, the Houthis, who had in the past gained power only through force, decided to do what they do best: to fight. Throughout 2013 and 2014, they gradually gained ground in Yemen’s North. The Houthis’ seizure of territory in Amran province, home to the powerful sheikhs of Hashid, the Al-Ahmars, was facilitated by Saleh’s network of loyalists within Hashid. Defeating the Islah-affiliated Al-Ahmars served to Saleh’s benefit as well, as they had played a critical role in pushing him out in 2011.
“It is not like Saleh is ordering the Houthis where to go or what to do,” Al-Bukayti said. “Many of Saleh’s powerful men both in the military or elsewhere joined the Houthis. This dual loyalty arrangement was accepted by Saleh because first it guaranteed he maintains his popularity, and second, he will be able to influence the group from within.”
So as the Houthis and Saleh continued to expand their power, they broadly overlapped. Saleh’s Republican Guard officers brought to the Houthis the military expertise they needed. By mid-2014, the Houthis were able to capture the strategic city of Amran, the “gate to the capital,” as Yemenis call it. After Amran, the fall of Sanaa was only a matter of time.
“Abdul-Malik al-Houthi found a weak state and a weak international response to his moves,” said Nabeel Khoury, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. diplomat to Yemen. “Saudi Arabia and the United States— both were very slow to react and an early show of force might have deterred the Houthis and avoided the ongoing war. They took advantage of the power vacuum in Sanaa to advance to Amran and to make their demand on Hadi.”
Since the start of the Saudi-led military operations in March and after recent advances of the pro-Hadi National Army supported by the coalition forces, the fragile alliance between Saleh and the Houthis has become more ambiguous, although they are still proceeding cautiously. They may coexist as long as there is a Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood-Hadi axis to rally against.
“The alliance between them was pragmatic, to help each achieve their goal, but in the end their goals are different and old grudges are too strong,” Khoury said. “The alliance between them is doomed to fail. It hasn’t collapsed completely yet, but it is weakening as Saleh has been trying to find a safe exist for himself and his son.”