The popular revolution in Yemen that started in 2011 evolved along the default lines often repeated in the Middle East: that of blunt sectarian war. It is now the Shia Huthis confronted by the Sunni Al Qaeda. Third parties like that of the state machine or civil society organizations will gradually be absorbed into this gradual Syrianization of Yemen.
Last week began with a series of bombings by Al Qaeda against the Huthi in Rada’ (90 miles to the North East of Sana’a). The fight erupted after the Huthis controlled the Capital Sana’a and amassed their forces to control the strategic valley of Thah, north of Rada’a, where they can threaten Al Qaeda’s stronghold in the Al Manaseh region. Fighting also erupted in the Baida province and around Sana’a. Tribes in Ebb province are in the process of deciding to join the fight. Al Qaeda responded to the Huthi control of the town of Ebb by attacking Al Adeen province and controlling several of its towns. On the 9th of October, following the Huthi control over Sana’a, a bomb killed 47 people during a rally of the Huthis in the Tahrir Square in the center of the capital.
The Huthis who call their militia “Ansar Allah” (the Clan of God) are incurring some considerable losses. Al Qaeda is mainly using Ansar Al Sharia’a (Supporters of Sharia’) and an emerging tribal alliance in Rada’. In a sweeping campaign, the Huthis controlled the capital, the Al Hodeida port on the Red Sea and the Omran province. Al Qaeda also targets Yemen security forces conceived to be in a forced alliance with the Huthis.
Al Qaeda in Yemen looks at this current cascade as a challenge and an opportunity. The organization now claims to be the sole defender of “Ahl Al Sunna” (the Sunnis) and shows that the political line of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen (Al Islah Party) is bankrupt. The organization claims, as well, that the current and former presidents Mansour Hady and Ali Abdullah Saleh have both collaborated or tolerated the Shia control over Sana’a.
The conflicting agendas between local politicians and political forces are adding complexity to a situation that is changing by the day. For example, Saleh opened channels with the Huthis and offered a plan for coordination in a future and different Yemen. The Huthis encouraged the Southern Herak that calls for cessation to gather its forces and defend the South in an alliance with the Shia group. Hady worked out a deal with the Huthis to dress them in uniforms in order to keep the appearance of government control over Sana’a.
Many similar developments are in motion on the ground. Yet, the general logic of the whole episode is obvious: Yemen has just taken a dramatic step towards sectarianization. One explanation of the general trend in Yemen was presented by its current president when he said the Tehran wants to exchange Damascus for Sana’a. This sounds like a farfetched explanation. Still, what we see over and over again in this whole troubled region is that players often focus on tactical gains and objective while being almost complete blinded to the strategic destination of the events they helped create.