Damaj War … The Black Hole
A strategic report recently released by Abaad Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) has warned that Yemen could slide into a civil war if the state authority wasn’t imposed all the over the country, and infighting not ceased.
The report, entitled “Damaj War … The Black Hole”, spelt out the idea that the Houthi’s continued policy of stockpiling weapons and creating new war fronts would ultimately block the peaceful transition of power, abort the democratic transformation, and give rise to new armed and radical tribal groups that would certainly seize control of parts of the country.
The report further cautioned that the same policy could result in undermining the state authority , with the Al-Qaida gaining more ground and further public support.
It stated that given the current state of affairs, Sa’ada may well become a breeding ground for sectarian and regional conflict, thus turning the whole nation into a regional and international conflict arena.
” The time is ripe for reframing a patriotic vision that enables the state to impose its authority over the whole Yemeni soil and to build up a new modern state holding together all Yemenis” the report said, adding that ” The ongoing absence of the state in Sa’ada would further promote regional, sectarian, and tribal projects”.
The study disclosed that the failure of the coup plot staged by the Houthis against President Hadi prompted the rebel group to wage an indiscriminate war in and outside Sa’ada.
“The Houthi movement has fallen into the snare of its own leaders just as it set the wrong time and place to conduct such a war against a Salafist minority in a province under their control. The scheme also came at a time when the national dialogue conference, sponsored by the international community in order to make the peaceful transfer of power a success as per the GCC-brokered deal, draws nearer to a close,” it noted.
” Like regular armies, the Houthis have carried out an organized military campaign against Damaj Salafists, thus opening on themselves a black hole that would gobble up their military power,” it highlighted.
Taking stock of power balance in Sa’ada, the report further noted that “The more powerful party that sets the war agenda is the one on the offensive, and not the weaker one on the defensive”.
It indicated that by targeting the Salafists in north Yemen, the Houthis were seeking to abort the national dialogue in order to shirk the responsibility of complying with its resolutions that would bind them to hand over Sa’ada as well as heavy , medium and small weapons to the government, to shun violence and to engage in political action.
“Worse still, the war has further minor objectives, such as lending a sectarian character to their wars, eradicating the Salafists at home so the Shia group can gear up for a fresh fighting against Hashid tribes surrounding the capital city of Sana’a in a bid to turn Sa’ada into a foe-free and Houthi-friendly province, in addition to raising their demands in case they accepted the outputs of the national debate,” it charged.
The report enumerated as set of political, military, logistical , tribal, logistical, and regional factors, among others, that help out the Houthis use military action to attain their objectives. It stated that the domestic political factors include making use of the conditions that would reign in the country as President Hadi’ mandate is coming closer to an end.
It pointed out that the military factors manifest themselves through the group’s attempts to get access to strategic weapons from the government’s weakened army.
It explained that the logistical factors involves the fact that the Shia-oriented Houthis are planning to rally financial support from arms dealers and smugglers currently active as the state is getting even weaker.
Tribally speaking, the study remarked that the group resorted to violence to neutralize the powerful tribes in order to gain more territories, maintaining that the Shiite movement wanted to earn the sympathy of both Zaidis and Hashemi populations by stirring up their anti-Salafist sentiments in such a way as to stem the Sunni expansion into the governorate.
On the regional front, the report said that “The Houthis do attempt to portray the warfare as part of the Saudi-Iranian conflict over influence in the region, to exploit the US-Iranian rapprochement as well as the US’ silence towards their Movement’s acts , and to gain Iran’s sympathy by effecting false impressions that their rivals are sectarian-minded.”
The Shiite militia also utilizes the odds between Saudi and the US on the one hand, and between the Kingdom and the Yemeni government , coupled with the group’s recent rapport with the Kingdom, on the other to attain its goals; given that some regional and international powers are fully engrossed in curbing the political Islam at the center of the Arab Spring uprisings,” it added.
Delineating the dimensions of the local, regional and global powers’ map on the equation of power related to Damaj violence, the report indicated that the group has around 10,000 fighters, and is in full control of Sa’ada province.
It asserted that the movement is at odds with some Houthi leaders with grassroots support, such as Mohammed Abdul Azim Al-Houthi , Abdullah Aidha Al-Ruzami, and Hussein Yahya Al-Houthi.
On the religious level, the report underscored that “Damaj fighting called for the emergence of new Jihadist ,Salafist armed groups amid rumors that some Al-Qaida-linked elements have been streaming into the area to create new war fronts”. It pointed out the formation of anti-Houthi alliance aimed at plunging the country into chaos in order to undermine and discredit the state as a prelude to gaining more ground militarily and then bringing down the government.
After they captured Sa’ada , the Houthis were able to stem the tribal influence , thereby impinging on all tribal norms and traditions, including by abusing women and attempting to assassinate prominent tribal chiefs inside and outside the province , it stated.
On the political front, the report further indicated that the Houthi group has thrived on the strength of the General People’s Congress (GPC) backed by tribal influentials, albeit without strong public base, which led to the GPC leaders either aligning with the Houthis or being hounded by the rebel group for opposing its ideology.
The Islah party has a snowballing popularity among Sa’ada youths thanks to its anti-violence policies that encouraged its youth to desist from taking up arms against the Houthis despite the latter adopting horrendous policies against them, including arrest campaigns, torture and displacement, it underlined.
The report contrasted the military strength of the Houthis, the Salafists and the government, pointing out that the Houthi militias are in possession of strategic weaponry not even available to the Yemeni army . It underscored that the group heavily depends for weapons on smuggling, seizure of army outposts, purchase of arms and ammunition from weapons black markets.
It affirmed that the group used to buy out the loyalty of army officers and to loot weapons depots run by those officers while covering up such acts by setting ablaze the plundered caches. The Houthis were still in the habit of striking discreet deals with civilian and army leaders affiliated with the former regime in order to supply them with weapons, the study noted.
The Houthis had acquired weapons from the disbanded Republican Guard, which has large amounts of its sophisticated weapons stealthily looted, as well as from the military manufacturing authority, according to the report.
It highlighted that the group also uses the proceeds from the trafficking of pesticides to buy weapons while utilizing chemical fertilizers in manufacturing explosives .
It revealed that Sa’ada tribes have small and medium-sized weapons that enable them to confront the Houthis , particularly as these maintain control over surrounding areas, including Ketaf, Damaj, Houth, Al-Jouf, Hajja and Haraf Sufian.
The study averred that some eight army brigades stationed in Sa’ada are incapable of fulfilling the military tasks assigned to them, because they are still being besieged by Houthi rebels, underlining that some of these army camps have become almost empty of manpower, with their leaders allying themselves with the Houthis.
It warned that in case the violence between the Houthis and Salafists further escalated, the brigades may well run the risk of being plundered on the part of the two warring parties.
Of the key reasons for the neutralization of these troops is their low morale , lack of training and military hardware, internal conflicts among their top brass, and demobilization of troopers while forcing others to go on indefinite leaves.
Geographically speaking, the report indicated that the Houthis have attempted to take up positions on Al-Baraqa mountain, the highest such peak surrounding Damaj, which is still under the control of Salafists, and from which point the strategically important area of Rahban- the stronghold of Houthi field commanders , and home to the majority of Hashemi families – can be attacked.
It stated that the Houthis are in full control of Sa’ada; however, they have strong following only in 50% of the province districts, including the old city of Sa’ada, Rahban, Sahar, Haydan, Dhihyan and large swathes of Saqeen, Majz and Al-Safra, where Damaj, the Salafist stronghold, is located. It explained that Houthi’s opponents are active in the districts of Hashwa, Razeh , Al-Dhahir, Shada, Munabeh, Ghimr, Qataber, and Qataf, which is home to tribal , Salafist populations.
The Shia militia controls Aulab crossing point on the border with Saudi Arabia, while the tribes and the Salafists are in control of Al-Buqa’a outlet, also on the Saudi-Yemeni border, in addition to three internal entry points on Sana’a-Amran road, Al-Jawf-Sana’a highway and the road linking the areas of Malaheedh and Maidi.
With regards to the regional and international involvement in the Houthi Sa’ada fighting, the report highlighted that Iran and its allies are offering logistical support to the Houthis in the form of weapons, expertise, funds and media. It pointed out that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is heavily involved in working out Houthi plans, let alone supervising the training and funding of the militia as well as the execution of the group’s schemes.
The Lebanese guerrilla group is currently backing the north-based Shia militia, led by Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, an armed group in Taiz, led by Sultan Al-Same’ai, and the South-based armed separatist movement under the stewardship of Ali Salem Al-Beedh, it confirmed.
Encouraged by official agencies in their respective countries, Iranian and Iraqi Shiite clerics are offering financial support to the Houthis, the report said, maintaining that the Iranian intelligence services are operating through those religious figures.
There are speculations that the Assad regime may supply the armed militia with some kinds of weapons, and chemicals which could be brought into the country in the form of fake Syrian-made perfumes, according to the report. It further charged that Hezbollah-linked individuals from Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Yemen have been bringing such materials into the country since 2011.
The study said that Saudi Arabia used to back the Yemeni government and the Salafists before the eruption of 2011 revolution to enable them fight the Houthis, pointing out that the rebel group have concluded an agreement with the Saudis to protect the Kingdom’s border with Yemen in return for SR 5 million , 187,000 liters of fuel per month , and 500 entry visas that has already been granted to Houthi elements.
” Shiite clerics from Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait are extending substantial support to the Houthis, and the ongoing contacts between the Yemeni Shiites and their counterparts in the south and east of the Kingdom resulted in weapons flowing into the Gulf countries” it noted.
It stated that Riyadh views its rapport with the Houthis as a means to achieve tactical interests , including dragging the carpet from under its arch-foe , Iran , and sending a message to the US which has recently been at loggerheads with the Kingdom after Washington had backed down on the issue of carrying out a military offensive on the Assad regime, coupled with the latter’s rapprochement with Tehran, its decision to cut military aid to Egypt over the military putsch, and its reluctance to allow the purchase by Saudi of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program.
Saudi believes that it can capitalize on its relationship with the Houthis to impose its agenda on president Hadi ,to weaken the Islah party, and even to penetrate the rebel group as a prelude to launching a crackdown on it through Salafist and Jihadist groups; the report indicated, maintaining that there are news reports of the Syria-based Nussrah front creating a new franchise in Sa’ada with an aim to exhaust Iran. This in turn may well prompt Hezbollah to follow suit , thus turning Sa’ada into a regional conflict zone as in Syria, it warned.
The report highlighted that” The US perceives the Houthis as a political movement that uses sectarianism to cover up its endeavors to grab power but not to disturb the US’s home security, which accounts for Washington’s lenience on the Houthis committing more crimes, stockpiling arms and gaining more ground. This is not the case with Al-Qaeda and any other armed Sunni group .”
“The US also opines that any understanding with the group would go a long way in achieving Washington’s interests, such as easing off tension with Tehran, counterbalancing the widely popular and Sunni-oriented Islah party, and using the group as a ruse to scare the GCC countries into allowing the flow of crude oil into the US territories in return for protection” the study explained.
It indicated that the Houthi sectarian activism would provoke Al-Qaeda to regroup and intensify its activities , thus enabling the US to strike the network or use it as a smokescreen to justify its military and intelligence intervention in Yemen with an aim to maintain military presence in the country ,given that it is one of the most important world countries owing to its strategic location at the economic , political and military levels.
In respect of Russia, the report said: “The Houthi movement is benefitting indirectly from Russia , Iran’s key ally, particularly in terms of getting Russian-made weapons through Tehran, which are used in wars like that currently raging on in Damaj,” .
On China, the study said: “China is doing business with Iran, purchasing its oil in the local currency, Yuan, not in the Dollar or Euro. This makes the oil money deposited in Chinese banks of no use to Iran, which then resorts to money laundering to spend the money. It also sends in commodities to the Houthi leaders in Yemen, who used to sell these products at cheap prices and then spend the yields on weapons purchases, execution of plans and strategies and bankrolling wars”.
On Germany, the report said :”Germany has good relations with, and political and economic interests in Iran. This helped the Houthis establish official relations with Germany in that they have a permanent office there , which propagates their cause and advocates their political and rights demands. Germany is the only open channel between Iran and the West, especially when tension between the two escalates. Berlin’s ties with Iran could go well beyond humanitarian and developmental projects as happened in Libya when the Germans supplied Qaddafi’s regime with equipment and softwares used for military and spying purposes”.
The report envisaged four scenarios relating to the Houthi war on Damaj: the first is that the rebel group would capture Damaj and then liquidate its political rivals. This is the worst-case scenario the implementation of which would take a heavy toll on the Houthis in terms of human and financial losses and even reputation. The achievement of this scheme , however , presupposes that the group would fail to use sectarianism as a pretense to make further inroads. The second such scenario envisions that the Houthis would be embroiled in long term war of attrition with the Salafists, who, backed militarily by the tribes, would resolutely put up tough resistance to the Shia militia. This is one of the best-case scenarios, though it presents the Houthis with two options: either to seize control of other areas and move the battle to Sana’a and other main cities ,or giver up fighting and go back to the national dialogue without any preconditions. The third spells out the idea that the group would cease the hostilities and then victoriously go back to dialogue, having achieved its key objectives, most important of which is the likely establishment of a self-rule. To this end, the movement must score a decisive and swift victory and rally the backing of the international community , including the US.
The last scenario indicates that the Shia group would continue the fighting and withdraw from the national dialogue , with the international community and the UN, represented by its envoy to Yemen JamlBinomar, pushing for strict resolutions binding the Houthis to either return to the national dialogue and accept its results , including political integration, and the handover of Sa’ada and arms stockpiles to the government, or risk being blacklisted as a terror group that would be dealt with through international mechanisms. Though it would increase foreign intervention , this scenario is a must to prevent Yemen from sliding into chaos and civil war , a key objective of the GCC-brokered deal.