Hani Mohammed / AP

Houthi march on Yemen’s capital a prelude to showdown with Al-Qaeda

Analysts say the Shia group’s power play will end in Mareb, which teems with oil and extremist fighters

The Houthi siege of the presidential palace on Tuesday drew widespread attention to unrest in Yemen, but analysts say the move foreshadows an even more significant showdown likely to play out 74 miles east of the capital Sanaa — in the Al-Qaeda stronghold of Mareb, where the bulk of the country’s gas reserves are concentrated.

The presence of Houthis militiamen at the residence of U.S.- backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi prompted talk of a coup. Whether that was the intention of fighters has been debated, but nonetheless it appears to have initiated change.

On Thursday, the country's government resigned, with Prime Minister Khaled Bahah stating that he did not want to be dragged into an "unconstructive political maze." Shortly after, the president followed suit and stepped down, according to sources.

The developmet came despite Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi delivering a televised address after Tuesday's power play in which he referred to Hadi as president, and urged him to implement a U.N brokered agreement between the rival groups.

Hadi — an important ally to Washington in the fight against Al-Qaeda — took over the presidency in 2012 after a popular revolt toppled his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Houthi rebels who oppose his government captured most of Sanaa in September, overrunning an army affiliated with al-Islah, Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood party.

The Houthis are supported by Iran, but Washington has also reportedly opened lines of communication with the rebel leaders, due in large part to the Houthis' simultaneous fight against Al-Qaeda. Speaking Wednesday at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, Michael Vickers, U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence, noted: "The Houthis are anti-Al-Qaeda, and we've been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the past several months." He also suggested that the aim of the group may not be complete control of Yemen; moreover the advances of this week should be viewed within the context of its leaders trying to exert greater influence.

Nonetheless, since seizing the capital, Houthi forces have overrun several other cities, leading many Yemenis — many of whom had initially welcomed the group's takeover in the hope that it would tackle rampant corruption — to question their motives.

The latest violence appears to have been sparked by Houthi rejection of a draft constitution that divides the country into six federal regions, a move they fear would dilute their power. Houthi leaders accused Hadi of reneging on the U.N.-brokered deal, which promised better representation on a commission to oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

Adding to the political intrigue, Al Jazeera on Wednesday published leaked telephone conversations between deposed leader Saleh and Houthi rebels.  

In the audio recording, recorded in October, Saleh can be heard coordinating military and political moves with Abdul Wahid Abu Ras, a Houthi leader.

Mareb is a focal point for the Houthis right now. If they control it, they have control of the state.

Atiaf Alwazir

Yemen-based researcher and writer

Mohamed Qubaty, a former government adviser in Yemen, said that if the audio recordings were proven, it would show Saleh as "a master of mischief" in the country.

The twist emerged as Houthi fighters pressed Hadi to appoint a vice president from within their group.

Baraa Shiban, a Yemen-based human rights researcher, believes the contents of the tape only confirm what many people already presumed. "It shows what was obvious. I don't think you need a phone call to prove he's involved," said Shiban, a researcher for Reprieve, a UK-based legal charity. 

Gradual climb to power

Sanaa-based lawyer Haykal Bafana described Tuesday’s events as part of a gradual consolidation of power on the part of Houthis, a broad political coalition that identifies with the Zaidi Shias.

“They have limited resources and they’ve been taking things step-by-step. In recent weeks, they’ve been going after the economic assets of their political opponents,” Bafana said.

Overtaking Mareb, analysts say, would be the final step toward the group’s complete consolidation of power. 

“Marib is a focal point for the Houthis right now.  If they control it, they have control of the state,” said Atiaf Alwazir, a researcher and writer based in Sanaa.

But Sunni tribesmen loyal to Hadi have vowed to defend Mareb in the event of a Houthi intrusion.

Should that happen, there is a real possibility that "tribesmen may join forces with Al-Qaeda," Shiban said.

For their part, the Houthis say that their interests in Mareb are limited to purging it of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — a group deemed by many to be the most active strain of the extremist network. Members of AQAP view the Houthis as a proxy for Shia powerhouse Iran.

“Essentially, the Houthis tie their adversaries to AQAP. There is some truth to that — they've certainly been repeatedly targeted by AQAP. That being said, there are a diverse array of groups anxious about the Houthi rise to power,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Sectarian politics

Others view Yemen’s political standoff in the context of a wider regional struggle for influence between a Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Tehran is widely seen as the main backer of the Houthis, who identify with the Zaidi offshoot of Shia Islam.

While Zaidis in Yemen comprise about 30 percent of the population, not all Zaidis are members of the Houthi movement, said Alwazir. In addition, she said supporters of the group include prominent Sunni leaders who have grown frustrated with Hadi's leadership.

Saudi Arabia suspended most of its financial aid to Yemen in December, in a clear indication of its dissatisfaction with the growing power of Houthi fighters.

But despite fears of a wider sectarian conflict spilling over into Yemen, the ideological differences between Zaidi Shias and the Sunni majority are not as pronounced as in the cases of Iraq and Iran. Both branches of Islam harmoniously lived together and prayed in the same mosques for hundreds of years.

Experts say any Iranian involvement is likely limited to providing resources and training to the Houthis.

“The reports so far seem to indicate a more 'hands off' approach than in Iraq or Syria,” said Ariane M. Tabatabai, an associate with Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Between the falling oil price and its implications for the Iranian economy, the ongoing negotiations with the world powers, and the Syrian and Iraqi situations, Iran has a lot on its hands.”

Framing the conflict in sectarian terms belies a more complicated political dynamic rooted in old tribal rivalries, said Shiban. 

For their part, Houthi leaders say they will back down once certain conditions are met, including restoring security in Mareb. In his speech Tuesday, the Houthi leader accused Hadi and the Islah party of empowering AQAP. 

“Everyone was watching [the speech], whether anti or pro Houthi, people waited for information on what was going on in the country and to read between the lines of what will happen in the future,“ Alwazir said, adding that al-Houthi has in essence become the de facto ruler.

The speech, she said, served as a strong warning to Hadi.

Regardless of what the Houthi leadership may claim as its motivation, ultimately everyone loses, said Baron.

“A winner takes all model for Yemen will only lead to the complete destruction of the country,” he said. “For better or for worse, no one can speak in the name of the 2011 revolution. The Houthis certainly used it as an opportunity, of course.”

With wire services

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