Discord in Yemen’s North Could Be a Chance for Peace


I.Overview

A public rift between Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Huthis (aka Ansar Allah) may change the course of Yemen’s two-and-a-half-year war. Despite significant ideological and political differences, the two have been allied against the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in support of the Yemeni government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Yet tensions between them rose to an all-time high following a GPC rally in Sanaa on 24 August to celebrate the party’s 35th anniversary and to demonstrate its political strength. This rift could expand and prolong Yemen’s regionalised civil war, further shattering the country and threatening regional security – or it could be seized upon as an opportunity to advance peace. This will require Saudi Arabia and its international backers, including the U.S. and the UK, to act quickly to capitalise on a division they have encouraged by supporting an immediate ceasefire and an inclusive political settlement.

After a period of rapid advances, the Huthi/Saleh alliance lost territory in the south in July and August 2015. They since fought the opposing side to a stalemate, maintaining control over the northern Zaydi (version of Shia Islam) highlands, which includes the country’s capital, Sanaa, and the majority of Yemen’s population. This has produced a tense status quo, from which several parties in the conflict benefit, but which has produced immense suffering among the Yemeni people as well as additional instability in a region that has no shortage. For Saudi Arabia in particular, the fighting has created a growing security threat, with Huthi/Saleh forces firing rockets deep into Saudi territory and threatening to target Riyadh’s closest regional ally, Abu Dhabi. It is a financially costly war and a diplomatic headache, as Riyadh has borne considerable criticism for the devastating humanitarian consequences, including near famine conditions and widespread cholera.

To take advantage of heightened Huthi/Saleh tensions, Riyadh should champion a political process, agree to suspend military operations, and forgo the temptation to simply wait for its adversaries to turn their guns on each other. Indeed, direct Huthi/Saleh confrontation is unlikely and, even if it were to occur, the result would be even less likely to redound to Riyadh’s benefit: the Huthis could defeat the GPC or the civil war could spread to the highlands, further facilitating both Iranian intervention and al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expansion. If by contrast the Saudis – in partnership with regional states like Oman and with support from the UN Security Council and the UN special envoy – sponsor a realistic peace initiative, the onus would shift to the Huthis and GPC to accept it, lest they provoke even greater suffering and possibly destabilise areas under their control. Saleh’s GPC almost certainly would entertain the offer, placing Huthi hardliners in an awkward position if they were to reject it, changing the political dynamic and possibly paving the way for a settlement. The stakes have never been higher. With Huthi forces threatening to target Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and the Trump Administration eager to push back against Iran in the region, there is a serious risk of wider escalation. This could include direct U.S. confrontation with Iran, which Washington and its allies blame for providing the Huthis with the requisite missile technology. Too many opportunities have come and gone to end the Yemen war. Neither Yemenis nor their neighbours can afford to lose this one.

II.GPC-Huthi Relations

A.Historical Context and Contemporary Challenges

Tension between the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, then-President Saleh fought six wars with the Huthis, killing their leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, in 2004 and laying waste to much of their home governorate, Saada. Common enemies brought the two sides together in 2014 as they sought to shift the balance of power in Yemen’s north against the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and Hadi, who had alienated both groups during the country’s transition period (in which Saleh transferred power to Hadi through a political agreement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative).

Their cooperation, initially tacit, may well have faded if not for the Saudi military intervention, which began in March 2015, to reinstate Hadi and reverse Huthi/Saleh military advances. The campaign bound them together against what in Yemen’s northern highlands is commonly perceived as a national, existential struggle against Saudi Arabia – rather than as a Yemeni civil war, which is how the national conflict is viewed elsewhere in the country.

Beneath the surface, however, differences festered. The GPC views itself as a party of the political centre, an umbrella organisation encompassing a range of political perspectives and confessional groups, with appeal throughout the country. It sees the Huthis in much the same way it views Islah, an intolerant religion-based political organisation with ties to foreign actors – in the Huthis’ case, Iran, in Islah’s case, Qatar and chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere in the region. Like many Yemenis, they suspect the Huthis of plotting to bring back the rule of Zaydi Imams, who ruled northern Yemen for a millennium before the 1962 republican revolution ousted them. In this view, the Huthis are a throwback to Yemen’s oppressive, discriminatory past, an anathema to a modern state and institutions, let alone an inclusive democracy.

Similarly, the Huthis have fundamental problems with Saleh and the GPC. They view him and his close supporters as dangerous and unreliable allies. From their perspective, Saleh’s GPC is responsible for a corrupt past in which the government failed to develop the country, marginalised them politically, facilitated the spread of Salafi/Wahhabi doctrine (their ideological adversary) and destroyed their territory. Huthis are hostile to the U.S., viewing its Middle East policy as part of an improbable Israel/Saudi/Wahhabi plot to sow discord among Muslims, and as such are deeply suspicious of Saleh’s past support for and cooperation with the U.S. and its counter-terrorism activities. Some Huthis want eventually to hold Saleh and other GPC leaders accountable for past crimes, including killing Hussein al-Huthi. As the GPC doubts Huthi commitment to democracy, the Huthis doubt the GPC’s commitment to real power sharing.

These mutual suspicions have left both groups ill at ease. Ever since October 2016, when they formed a “national salvation government” with the Huthis, GPC leaders have complained that the Huthis have not honoured their commitment to disband the “revolutionary committee”, which the Huthis had established in February 2015 after they toppled the Hadi government. Still active, the committee oversees government functioning and forms a kind of shadow government with final say in decision-making, in effect undermining weak state institutions. Their frustration with Huthi interference has been exacerbated by the Huthis’ relative inexperience in the governance realm – not only do they as a movement lack know-how, but in many cases have appointed young loyalists who interfere in the decision-making of long-serving bureaucrats.

In an ironic reversal of their traditional roles, GPC members today accuse the Huthis of corruption, disregard for the country’s laws, for example regarding detentions, and failure to treat them as an equal partner in government. In particular, the GPC resents Huthi control of the limited resources flowing into the north in the form of customs, taxes and telecommunications fees. After dividing ministerial portfolios, the two sides fought over the appointment of ministerial deputies. Arguably most importantly, they disagree on the leadership and future of the Republican Guards, the most qualified military unit in the army before the 2011 Arab Spring, which was led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh and was largely loyal to him. Today it is a shadow of its former self, disbanded under Hadi in 2012 and later partially reconstituted during the current war. The GPC would like to strengthen and lead it; the Huthis are blocking them.

The Huthis accuse the GPC of stoking public resentment against them instead of focusing on the fight against the Saudi-led coalition. Bearing the brunt of casualties, they view GPC politicking as an affront to their sacrifices. Regarding the civil service, they say, Saleh’s party continues to dominate decisions on retirement and recruitment, encumbering their ability to implement the law, which requires, for example, pensioning off individuals above a certain age. The Huthis also are quick to point out that integrating their members into all parts of the state is one of the agreements reached by the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, the centrepiece of the country’s UN-sponsored transition. Arguably most importantly, the Huthis suspect the GPC of trying to strike deals with their mutual enemies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, to end the war to its advantage. Some Huthi supporters, for example, were convinced that the massive GPC rally in Sanaa on 24 August was a plot by Saleh to oust the Huthis from power and push them from Sanaa, with the help of the UAE.

Until August 2017, the leadership of both groups successfully contained their many differences. Under attack by the Saudi-led military campaign, both political leaderships continue to argue that what unites them – especially defence of the parts of Yemen they each control – is more significant than what drives them apart. But the groups’ respective rank-and-file, and certainly their hardliners, do not uniformly agree.

Many GPC cadres, in Yemen and elsewhere, do not see value in the relationship.They are blunt in their hostility to its continuance and even support going on the offensive against the Huthis, should an opportunity arise to shift the balance of power. A GPC supporter expressed a perspective common among the rank-and-file in Sanaa:

Now the Huthis control the army and the resources of the north. Everything is going to them because of the war. The GPC would be ready to f