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Yemen’s Bloody Weekend Leaves Hundreds Dead And Rebels On The Rise

The Houthi rebel movement is a growing power in troubled Yemen. Its rise is part of a feud that stretches back a decade, and the bloodshed is unlikely to end here.

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Days of heavy fighting, which left at least 140 people dead in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, came to an end on Sunday with the resignation of the prime minister and a tentative new peace deal. But the deal, which was signed by representatives of the Houthi movement and Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, is unlikely to be the sort of long-term agreement the country has been searching for since former President Ali Abdullah Salih stepped down in early 2012.

In carrying out its four-day blitz through Sanaa, which included taking over state television headquarters and several government buildings, the Houthis — a sophisticated rebel movement — were both flexing their political muscle and continuing a bitter blood feud that stretches back a decade.

Over the past two years the Houthis have moved far beyond their narrow sectarian origins. They have broadened their appeal beyond their traditional power base of Zaydi Muslims — a branch of Shiite Islam that is relatively close to Sunni Islam — and in the process become Yemen's primary opposition group. They are also, as the latest agreement makes clear, the closest thing Yemen has to a kingmaker. The Houthis may not have enough power to impose their will upon the rest of the country, but they now have enough supporters and weapons to act as an effective veto on Yemen's central government.

This is a remarkable turnaround for a group that once believed itself to be on the verge of political and religious extinction in Yemen. From 2004 to 2010 the Houthis fought six separate wars against a wide coalition of forces led by the central government in Sanaa, but which also included Salafi and tribal fighters.

The first of the so-called "Houthi wars" ended a decade ago this month, when the group's initial leader, Husayn al-Houthi, was killed in the mountains near the Saudi border. Husayn's younger brother, Abd al-Malik, now leads the group and it appears as though he is looking to settle old scores.

This weekend, Houthi fighters clashed with soldiers loyal to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, one of the country's most powerful generals and the former head of the First Armored Division. Ahmar, who led most of the wars against the Houthis over the past decade, is a holdover from the old regime. In late 2012, the First Armored Division was officially disbanded and its headquarters declared a public park. Ahmar and his men largely ignored the order.

This weekend the Houthis took the law into their own hands, overrunning the military camp. The general, however, seems to have escaped. His current whereabouts are unknown, and Huthi fighters are in control of at least one of his houses in a suburb of Sanaa. The Houthis also took over the homes of several tribal shaykhs, who fought alongside Ali Muhsin over the past decade. This weekend's advance comes on the heels of a string of victories earlier this year over Salafi opponents in Yemen's northern highlands. The Houthis have also clashed with al-Qaeda.

The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern over the growth of the Houthi movement in Yemen, publicly worrying that the group is sponsored by Iran. And while there is some evidence of cooperation and support from Iran, it is unclear what exactly that money buys in Yemen, where many groups accept outside funding without ever acting as proxies. Although tempting to see the Houthis as part of larger Sunni-Shiite war, this is a local war with a regional dimension. This means that in Yemen, just as in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. now finds itself opposing multiple sides of an increasingly violent conflict.

The Houthis emerged from the weekend much stronger than many had believed they were. But they are far from dominant. Other groups still have enough men and weapons to fight back. And in Yemen, alliances shift frequently.

Greg Johnsen is a writer-at-large for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul. In 2014, he won the National Press Foundation’s Dirksen Award.

Contact Gregory D. Johnsen at gregory.johnsen@buzzfeed.com.

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