Editor's Note: Despite agreeing to a cease-fire Jan. 19, Yemen's al-Houthi rebels stormed the presidential palace in Sanaa and surrounded Prime Minister Khaled Bahah's residence Jan. 20. The fighters also reportedly seized the weapons of the 1st and 3rd divisions of the Yemeni presidential guard, including tanks and other heavy weapons.
Although on the surface, the al-Houthi actions resemble a coup, the militants are actually pursuing a different strategy. Their recent moves are aimed at demonstrating their strength — they are not interested in directly ruling Yemen. Instead, they seek to increase their influence within Yemen's federal system. The al-Houthis are only interested in controlling the area within the boundaries of the old Kingdom of Yemen or the Yemen Arab Republic — areas the Zaidis have ruled on and off for centuries until 1962. The recent seizure of the presidential palace does not signal a change in this goal. Indications of a change in the al-Houthis' strategy would include the capture or killing of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, the killing of other important government leaders, or an official announcement by the group that it is now in control of the country.
While Yemen has always suffered from instability, it recent history has been especially violent. The Arab Spring brought protests to Sanaa that sparked an escalation of the feud between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Gen. Muhsin al Ahmar. The fighting eventually became open warfare within Sanaa, and Saleh was severely wounded in an assassination attempt in June 2011. In an attempt to ease tensions within the country, the Gulf Cooperation Council mediated an agreement that made former President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down in favor of current President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi in 2012. After launching a campaign to push back against rebels and secessionist forces throughout the country, it became clear that the military was not a unified organization capable of maintaining order within the country.
By 2014, Hadi was pursuing a federal system to better share power between Yemen's different political groups, but obstacles to the plan emerged. The al-Houthis wanted more power within the new system and stepped up their campaign against the government in Sanaa, advancing all the way to the capital and eventually forcing it into U.N.-brokered peace talks in August. Per the agreement, Yemen formed a new government to appease the al-Houthis. However, the group was unhappy with the terms of the new proposition for the country's constitution and on Jan. 19 moved to prevent it from being submitted. Stratfor has been tracking these events closely, and included below is a selection of analyses that chronicle the developments within Yemen.
March 21, 2011: A crisis in Yemen is rapidly escalating. A standoff centered on the presidential palace is taking place between security forces in the capital city of Sanaa while embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to resist stepping down, claiming that the "majority of Yemeni people" support him. While a Western-led military intervention in Libya is dominating the headlines, the crisis in Yemen and its implications for Persian Gulf stability is of greater strategic consequence. Saudi Arabia is already facing the threat of an Iranian destabilization campaign in eastern Arabia and has deployed forces to Bahrain in an effort to prevent Shiite unrest from spreading. With a second front now threatening the Saudi underbelly, the situation in Yemen is becoming one that the Saudis can no longer leave on the backburner.
June 8, 2011: Assassins severely wound President Ali Abdullah Saleh with an improvised explosive device attack. The bomb's placement indicates that the attacker was familiar with Saleh's routines, suggesting the attempt was an inside job.
March 30, 2012: A deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and signed by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in November 2011 removed Saleh from the presidency, but it did not remove him or his family from Yemen's political, military or economic domains. The country's new president, Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, has tried to fill his Cabinet with more of his allies, but Saleh continues to try to undermine the GCC deal.
The Yemeni government has been preoccupied with internal power struggles, Cabinet reshuffles and fighting in Sanaa between Mohsen's and Saleh's factions. In the meantime, groups on the periphery of Yemen, namely the al-Houthi Zaidi rebels in the north and the secessionist movement and al Qaeda in the south, will take advantage of Sanaa's distraction to intensify their own operations.
June 13, 2012: The Yemeni military announced June 12 that it had retaken control of two towns seized in early 2011 by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadist group's Yemeni franchise. Until now, the Yemeni government's internal divisions and distraction with rebel movements in the country's north and south had prevented Sanaa from launching a decisive offensive against the group.
The military's success in ousting AQAP demonstrates that it has been able to set aside its internal issues and refocus its attention on the jihadist threat, at least for now. However, holding the towns will be more difficult than taking them back. In order to prevent AQAP militants from recapturing the cities, Yemen must win the support of local tribes needed to defend the towns after the military withdraws. In the longer term, the Yemeni government must resolve its considerable internal tensions, which gave AQAP the opportunities to seize the towns in the first place. Even if the government is successful on both counts, AQAP will likely respond to the offensive by launching reprisal attacks throughout the country, especially in the capital.
April 11, 2013: A serious instance of insubordination among Yemeni Republican Guard soldiers April 7 is only the latest indicator that President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi has yet to unify Yemen's armed forces. Hadi's ongoing struggle to consolidate power comes as the central government is simultaneously attempting to manage the threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen's increasingly violent southern secessionist movement. Although Sanaa has some ability to mitigate these threats, they will become increasingly difficult to manage without a unified military.
Feb. 5, 2014: In Yemen, where tribal politics are king and the central government is struggling to consolidate power and exert control, the option of federalism is back on the table. Yemeni government sources reported Feb. 2 that President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi approved the formation of a federal republic organized into six regions.
However, there are a number of issues with the notion of provincial autonomy in Yemen, where each tribe, sect and region is vying for rights and revenue from the country's resources. Because of disagreements over the terms of federalism as well as structural problems associated with the system of government, it is unlikely to be implemented. If it is implemented, it probably will not function as intended.
July 29, 2014: The success of a rebel campaign in northern Yemen is threatening to destabilize the already weak and overwhelmed government in Sanaa. After capturing the city of Amran, a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital, in early July, the rebels from the al-Houthi tribe are in their strongest position yet. The Yemeni government is developing plans to divide the country into six federal regions, and the rebels believe this is their chance to claim territory for the future bargaining.
The central government is nearly powerless to fend off the rebels; its forces are already stretched thin. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has intervened in Yemen before and still supports Sunni tribes in the north, but the risk of inciting a Shiite backlash or creating space for jihadists to move in could deter another intervention.
Aug. 22, 2014: Yemen's al-Houthi rebels, affiliated with the Zaidi sect of Shi'ism found in northern Yemen, have capitalized on their recent territorial gains and are now effectively laying siege to the capital and threatening to topple the Sunni government. Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi's recent moves coincide with the demoralization of Yemen's military from continued losses and Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's inability to manage the country's competing interests.
The al-Houthis and their armed tribal allies do not seem likely to try to occupy the capital by force, aware of the potential domestic and foreign repercussions of such a move. Rather, al-Houthi will use the rebel threat to force Hadi's government to make concessions. Hadi will likely make political compromises, such as removing Cabinet and senior leadership officials, rework the boundaries of a proposed federalization plan, and offer the al-Houthis both a larger role within the government and greater local autonomy, making them more powerful within Yemen. This would also allow the al-Houthis' traditional supporters in Iran to threaten their Saudi rivals to the north. Perhaps more importantly, political unrest will force Hadi to shift more of his limited military forces toward the capital, giving actors such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and southern secessionist forces an opportunity to expand their areas of influence.
Oct. 2, 2014: For the first time since the fall of its imamate in 1962, northern Yemen's Zaidi community, which follows a branch of Shiite Islam, is poised to play a defining role in the country's political transition. Led by the charismatic Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and his tribesmen, the northern Zaidis have emerged as the best-organized and most effective fighting force in Yemen and have strong-armed the weak and divided regime in Sanaa into conceding to several key demands. With the regime's traditional backers in Riyadh lacking options and state security forces spread thin on multiple fronts, the al-Houthis will try to capitalize on recent victories to ensure a greater Zaidi political stake in Sanaa, as well as greater autonomy for their own mountainous region in the north. In due time, the re-emergence of the al-Houthis will provide Iran with a key point of leverage in negotiations with its Saudi adversary, but it could also lead to security and political vacuums that groups such as the Southern Secessionist Movement and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could exploit.
Nov. 17, 2014: The composition of Yemen's new technocratic reconciliation government reveals President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's strategy for ruling the country. In crafting the new government, Hadi is attempting to play his rivals off one another by ensuring two things: that no one power center emerges as the country's predominant political or military force, and that each actor maintains a stake in preserving a certain level of internal stability. This strategy, which formed the cornerstone of the former regime's survival, will increasingly limit the central government's ability to extend authority into the country's hinterlands and pass much-needed political reform. However, it will also likely ensure the regime's survival and prevent the country from slipping into all-out civil war, at least for the time being.
The Saudis, who are easily the most important foreign actors in Yemen, have a strong interest in preserving this complex balance of power to avoid seeing a complete loss of central authority in Sanaa lead to violence or sectarian tension that could spill across Riyadh's southwestern border. The new Yemeni government faces a number of serious challenges ahead as the country's regional actors try to push Sanaa into making political concessions, both in Cabinet selections and during the difficult process of creating a new constitution. Despite this pressure, Hadi's attempts to balance his country's competing interests will forestall the disintegration of the Yemeni state for the foreseeable future, though underlying regional competition will continue to simmer.
Jan. 19, 2015: On Jan. 17, militiamen associated with the al-Houthi rebel movement — affiliated with the Zaidi sect of Shi'ism found in northern Yemen — allegedly kidnapped Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, the chief of staff to Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. Mubarak, a technocrat who was reportedly rejected by the al-Houthis in 2014 as a candidate for prime minister because of his close links to Hadi, was due to present a draft of Yemen's new constitution to the president. The al-Houthis oppose the new charter, and it appears that the abduction took place to prevent it from moving forward.