x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yemini tribes take sides in uprising

Al Houthi rebels have made allies of some tribal leaders, while foes fight alongside government troops, generating feuds that threatens to further destabilise what is already a fragile state.

A government soldier takes aim at an al Houthi rebel target as the military continues its operation Scorched Earth offensive in Sa'ada province.
A government soldier takes aim at an al Houthi rebel target as the military continues its operation Scorched Earth offensive in Sa'ada province.

SANA'A // When the government rejected a rebel peace proposal on Monday, it became clear that as the battle against the al Houthis drags on, the potential for the war to destabilise Yemen is growing. Government troops have been pounding al Houthi bases in mountains overlooking the Saudi border in Sa'ada since August 11, but there has been no visible progress. Yesterday, Yemen said it had killed 11 rebels in fighting in the north of the country, while the rebels posted footage on the internet that appeared to show the army withdrawing from one area.

On Wednesday, the insurgents announced that they had only just begun what would be a "long war" after the rejection of their peace proposal. While this may be posturing, the rebels, who have fought an intermittent war against the army for more than five years, are now seasoned guerrillas. Their ability to withstand years of fighting, from which they emerged stronger, has enabled them to build coalitions with local tribesmen and nearby tribal regions where the government has little control.

Pushed by brutal acts, looting and kidnapping by al Houthis, some tribal militias allied with the army during the last wave of fighting. But, when a truce was announced, they were left without any of the support promised by the government. The result was that some were removed from their houses by the rebels while others had to take the side of their former foes. The involvement of tribal militants on both sides of the fight further inflames the conflict by generating tribal feuds. The tribesmen fighting alongside the army are mainly from the Hashid tribe, which was already engaged in a dispute with the Bakeel tribe in Harf Sufyan over land ownership.

The rebels, who belong to the Sufyan tribe, on Saturday launched an attack on Hashid fighters resulting in dozens of casualties. Tribal sheikhs from Sufyan have warned they make take the side of their al Houthi brethren. The war will have consequences that stretch beyond Sa'ada. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, said the army would employ counterinsurgency tactics that require new weapons and additional funding for the army and intelligence services as well as time.

The high cost of this new war will consume scarce resources, which are already perilously low, at the expense of much-needed development projects in the impoverished country. The war will also increase the ranks of displaced people, who now number about 150,000, according to the United Nations. But as it has taken the military route, the state will be compelled to demonstrate its strength by quickly taking out the al Houthi leadership and clearing and controlling land. If the army fails, it could embolden groups challenging the government in other parts of the country

The intermittent conflict has also allowed groups to flourish by profiting from the war. It is in the favour of these tribal sheikhs, radical anti-Shiite Salafists, weapons traders and drug traffickers that there is violence in Sa'ada. The turmoil in Sa'ada has also invited meddling by regional powers. Yemen has accused Iran and Libya of supporting the al Houthi rebels in the past and during the current fighting and the country accused the Iranian media of bias in favour of the rebels and warned it would take unspecified steps in response.

For their part, the al Houthis and Iran's media have also accused Saudi jets of shelling the rebels in Sa'ada and supporting anti-Shiite groups in the region. The Saudis are concerned that politicised Shiites directly across the border from their own Shiite-majority province may provoke unrest there. The European Union and US have voiced concerns about the growing instability in Yemen. They says the government's preoccupation with the war in the north and separatist unrest in the south is allowing al Qa'eda to operate freely, turning Yemen into a sanctuary for its militants.

The suicide bomber who attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, the Saudi assistant interior minister, last week came from Mareb province in Yemen, where al Qa'eda militants are believed to enjoy the sympathy and protection of some tribes. mqadhi@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters