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The power of tribal politics in Yemen should not be ignored

December 26, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Last week, as Houthi, Saleh and Hadi representatives met in Geneva for UN-sponsored peace talks, there was a ceasefire on the ground. On the first day of the talks, the Houthi delegation admitted that it had not informed its fighters of the ceasefire, which led to the killing of seven civilians in a Taiz shelling. The anti-Houthi/Saleh forces, although informed, did not adhere to the ceasefire, because they did not believe that the Houthis would stick to it, due to their track record. The fact that the Houthis and Saleh forces cannot be trusted will continue to be a factor and will make future ceasefires harder to implement.

During the week, the resistance managed to make a lot of gains; at one point there was optimism that they would have been able to push further into Sana’a. Fighting in Marib escalated, and the resistance managed to push as far as the Nehm district in Sana’a province, which is 43.5 miles north of Sana’a city. There were hopes that resistance forces would have been able to extend further into Sana’a, but on 18 December, the military commander of Marib said that they will not go any further. One of the biggest obstacles to Sana’a city, Al-Salb Mountain, was captured by the anti-Houthi forces.

Yemeni-trained troops were deployed in Al-Jawf by the Saudis on 21 December and gains were also made in Harad, which sits in the Hajjah province and borders the Saudi region of Jizan. Because of this, there have been reports that Houthi and Saleh attacks in Taiz decreased marginally, which is probably because they did not want to provoke the resistance any further. The Saudis saw an increase in the number of missiles coming across their border. The Saudi province of Najran, which adjoins the heartland of the Houthi movement, Saada, has been targeted by rockets fired by the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh. On 20 December, two civilians were killed and one was injured because of a Houthi missile. Anti-missile systems have intercepted missiles fired at Jizan.

In addition to their attacks on the Saudi border, despite losing ground the Houthis and Saleh are not showing signs of giving up. There have been reports that ousted President Saleh has ordered a push by the Yemeni Republican Guards, who are under the command of his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, in defence of Sana’a. They tried to recapture Al-Salb Mountain, but failed. There were also rumours that Al-Jawf was recaptured by the Houthis and Saleh within 24 hours of the resistance taking hold of it, but when I spoke to Mahmoud Saeed, a reporter on the ground who keeps track of resistance gains, he told me that such claims are untrue.

One of the reasons behind the recent advancement of the resistance is that the local tribes are united against a common enemy. Tribal expert Nadwa Dawsari explained to me that the tribes in the anti-Houthi movement have a significant impact on the resistance, although it does differ from case to case. She said that tribesmen in Yemen tend to be more pragmatic than commonly perceived, and only take up arms if there is an imminent threat to their land. This is the case in Marib, where the tribes are leading the fight against the Houthis, who they see as foreign intruders. One of the biggest tribes from Marib, Jidan, for example, have been fighting the Houthis since 2011, whereas another tribe, Jaham, were more lenient towards the Houthis and Saleh before they felt a threat to their own territory, which forced them to take up arms. In Marib, the tribes are leading the fight, but they are backed up by the national army, which organises, coordinates and plans manoeuvres.

However, this is not a nationwide issue. Dawsari pointed out that Al-Bayda was liberated by the local resistance and the tribes stayed largely neutral from the anti-Houthi movement because they did not want to expose themselves to violence; in her view, Marib is unique. This means that there is a question mark over what may happen when the resistance eventually reaches the Sana’a heartland; this increases the complexity of the matter. In some ways, there is hope because tribes would not usually put political loyalties over their security. Dawsari believes, because when the resistance does end up crossing to Sana’a, the tribes will want to avoid confronting them and will either stay neutral, or pick the winning side.

Despite this, though, it is important to remember that Saleh’s home village is only 12 miles away from Sana’a and he is still relatively popular there. In addition, he is the first modern ruler of Yemen who does not claim to be a descendent of Prophet Muhammed and consolidated power through political and military means alone. He received much support as a member of the Sanhan tribe, which is a part of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation so, in Sana’a, he is better rooted in comparison to Marib, where the tribes are very keen to be rid of him.

What complicates the matter even more is that during the 2011 revolution to oust Saleh, there were many from the Hashid tribal confederation against his rule. Some members of Al-Ahmar tribe, who are associated with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party, are also a part of the Hashid tribal confederation from Sana’a and of Zayidi Shia heritage – like Ali Abdullah Saleh – and were pressing for him to step down. By becoming a Houthi ally, Saleh has burnt many bridges as it becomes clearer that he is only after recapturing and controlling land, no matter how much blood is shed in the process.

Tribal politics play a very prominent role in the anti-Houthi/Saleh movement, even when the tribes do not fight. When there were talks about engaging in a prison swap in the peace talks last week, the tribes themselves succeeded in mediating a deal independently instead of the UN delegations. In looking at Sana’a especially, the fate of the country is down to the way that the tribes will react when the resistance movement reaches them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.