Is Yemen in the Middle of Another Undeclared War?

  • Share
  • Read Later
AFP / Getty Images

Houthi rebels gather in Harf Sufyan, in northern Yemen on July 25.

Whispers of civil war are flooding through souk stores and coffee shops in Yemen's capital. Sana'a is nervous. In February, the government agreed to a cease-fire with the Houthi rebels in the north of the country. But the government says its army was forced to intervene after government-aligned tribes and rebel groups clashed in the northern province of Amran last week, killing more than 70 people. On Monday, the Sana'a government dispatched warplanes northward, further threatening the fragile truce it insists it remains committed to: the Houthis had just overrun a military base in Amran, capturing more than 100 soldiers. "We broke the truce and besieged the camp because the army continues to support pro-government tribes who are attacking us," Dhayef al Shami, a spokesperson for the rebel group, told TIME. The base is considered one of the most important strategic locations in the rebel region.

Officials say the fighting began after the Houthi rebels, a Shi'ite minority who accuse Sana'a of marginalizing them, besieged the home of Sagheer Hamoud bin Eziz, a tribal sheikh and member of Yemen's parliament who sided with the state during the six-year on-again, off-again civil war. Bloodshed ensued when the sheikh's tribe fought back. The Yemeni army came to their aid after 66 members of parliament staged a sit-in to protest the siege of their colleague, demanding the government intervene. Locals say the army launched artillery offensives during the hostilities, threatening to reignite a war that has killed thousands and displaced more than 300,000 people.

Hassan Zaid, a politician with close ties to the Houthis, told TIME that the rebels attacked Sheikh bin Eziz because members of his tribe had ambushed 12 high-level Houthi commanders early last week in an attempt to drag the state into a seventh round of war. "This was a setup by Sheikh bin Eziz to ignite war so he can equip and pay his 300 tribal soldiers with military aid he gets during wartime from Sana'a," Zaid told TIME.

The Yemeni government has banned journalists from visiting the region, hampering an independent assessment of the extent of the Yemeni military's involvement. But there is little doubt that the fighting presents a further challenge for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, longtime leader of the Arab world's poorest country. He is already battling a resurgent al-Qaeda presence and an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south. "I say no to another war," the Yemeni leader said at a military ceremony on Sunday. "Stop disturbing the nation," he added, addressing the rebels.

Zaid is unconvinced and believes President Saleh wants war to squeeze more military aid out of neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has backed the Yemeni President in the past and itself conducted a series of airstrikes after rebels crossed Yemen's northern border in November and killed a Saudi border guard. "President Saleh is like the weather in Sana'a, hot in the day and cold at night; he changes his mind easily. He says he will not fight, but he'll fight if it gets him Saudi money," says Zaid. A dissident poem that is circulating via Bluetooth suggests the president could start and stop the war "as easily as picking up and putting down the phone."

Between conspiracies and rumors of war, "We [Yemenis] are scared," says an elementary school teacher, muttering quietly, as if speaking too loud would cause an all-out conflict. "The government and the Houthis have no confidence in each other and so the truce will not hold." "If the Houthis continue to suspect the pro-government tribes are supported by Sana'a, there will be another war," says a security guard sipping pineapple juice at one of Sana'a's many fruit stalls where Yemenis gather and discuss politics.

Others disagree. "These are just a few skirmishes, but they won't lead to war," says a journalist from a leading daily newspaper, pausing as a MiG fighter jet roars overhead. "They are just tribal revenge killings."

The northern civil war began in 2004 and has been fought sporadically, coming to a climax last August when Sana'a launched a major offensive dubbed "Operation Scorched Earth," in an attempt to overwhelm the rebels with air strikes and artillery attacks. In early February, the sixth round of fighting ended with a truce, but since then the government has accused the rebels of more than 600 cease-fire violations.

The recent violence came only a week after the Emir of Qatar visited Sana'a in an attempt to consolidate the most recent truce. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani managed to broker a peace agreement in 2007 and, this time around, both sides welcomed a Qatari role in averting a return to war. Two temporary cease-fires negotiated by tribal sheikhs during the ongoing bouts of fighting collapsed after only a few hours.

The deputy governor of Amran province, Saleh abu Awga'a, told TIME the Houthis have failed to commit to the terms of the February truce, including dismantling road checkpoints and halting attacks on security personnel. "The Houthis are starting a seventh war by their inability to implement any of the conditions of the truce," he said. In turn, the Houthis accuse the government of supporting belligerent tribes with money and weapons.

Security analysts see the recent fighting as a continuation of the status quo. "Over the years, the war in Sa'ada has been characterized by ongoing violence, punctuated with brief respites," says Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Institute. "It's been clear since the cease-fire that large-scale fighting would resume, as the central government has been doing little to address the conflict's core grievances."

But as the clashes threaten to intensify, it is still unclear whether a seventh war will be declared. The recent violence has exceeded levels of some previous rounds, yet the government insists it will not abandon the February truce. For Hassan Zaid, the opposition politician, the truce is irrelevant, anyway. "The seventh war has already started."