The Saudi-led coalition pummeling Yemen has announced that its campaign is in the final stages - preparing to declare "victory," some sources report - with the country in shambles and none of the issues driving the war resolved. The devastating civil war is playing out in one of the most internally complex nations in the Middle East, Yemen's intricate mix of tribes, religious sects and decades-deep power struggles driving a conflict intensified by the outside intervention of regional rivals. The Saudi-led air military coalition, "Operation Decisive Storm," has introduced some 100 warplanes and 100 thousand troops into the already volatile mix, with Egypt, Morroco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and now even Colombia making war in one of the poorest, yet most culturally rich, countries in the region as they combat the Houthi movement, which has received some degree of support from Iran. Airstrikes have killed more than 1,100 people, the majority civlians, and devastated Yemen's already tenuous infrastucture, while at least one in four Yemenis was in need of humanitarian assistance even before Cyclone Chapala slammed Yemen's southern coast on November 4, adding thousands of fleeing coastal residents to the already nearly 1.5 million Yemenis internally displaced by the war.
Yet, for all the outside intervention, this is not a proxy war, according to leading Yemeni scholar and conflict specialist Nadwa Al-Dawsari. The founder of Partners Yemen, the local affiliate center of Partners for Democratic Change International, Al-Dawsari's work has taken her deep into Yemen's tribal areas. Warscapes turns to her to better understand the deeper forces driving the seemingly hopeless conflict.
Michael Bronner: Thanks again for doing this. Can you tell me a little bit about your area of expertise as we get started?
Nadwa Dawsari: My main expertise is in the area of conflict and local security, mainly in tribal areas in Yemen. I have worked extensively with civil society and created a civil society organization in 2009. I have done research and field assessments on areas related to local security and justice, both formal and informal, and the relationships between the formal and informal justice and security mechanisms. I’ve written articles and reports on tribes, tribal conflicts, security and justice, al-Qaeda, tribes and al-Qaeda, tribes and the Houthis, political issues in Yemen. My work on the ground involves spending a lot of time building relationships with locals.
MB: And, of course, you’re Yemeni. Which part of the country are you from?
ND: I’m from Taiz.
MB: One of the most important cities in Yemen…
ND: Yes, it is. Taiz is important for different reasons. First, it’s the highest-populated area in the country. Taiz is in the middle between former North Yemen and former South Yemen, so geographically, it has a very strategic location. But also, Taiz is very important in the political transition context, because Taizis are the ones who spearheaded the 2011 uprising that led to removing former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. It’s also the area where people are the most educated in the country.
MB: Things are pretty bad there now.
ND: Yeah, it’s terrible. It’s just beyond brutal for Taizis – what they have to go through: the tight siege and the fact that medicine, and even water and food supplies, are not allowed into the city. Civilians are being bombed almost constantly on a daily basis and many children and women have been killed. There is a severe shortage of health and other key services. The situation deteriorates every day.
Taiz, Yemen's third largest city and cultural capital, stunningly situated in Yemen's Highlands, is in ruins.
MB: You’ve come to the US only recently?
ND: I grew up in the suburbs of Taiz, in the countryside. I did my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature in Sanaa, and lived and worked in Sanaa until mid-2012, when I moved to the States.
MB: Your expertise is Yemen’s tribes – the country’s tribal structure. You always hear, in the most basic descriptions of Yemen, that it’s a “tribal society.” What does that really mean in the Yemeni context?
ND: Some 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and most of these are tribal areas. The state and the government have very little presence, if any. So, in the Yemeni context, strong tribes mean that a mechanism exists that has, in the absence of the state, provided local people with key services, particularly related to justice and security. People tend to cherish their tribal identity and be proud of it, especially in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. That’s because the tribes provide them with protection, with the sense of community and support. That doesn’t mean that local people in tribal areas don’t have aspirations to see functioning state institutions. It is actually the opposite, according to my research. The tribal system has grown weaker over the past decades, and it’s become much less effective than it used to be in terms of its ability to address conflicts, which led to more conflicts and more security problems. That is why tribal people have a strong desire to see courts and a security presence established in their areas.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari doing field research in Yemen before the current war.
MB: Just to step back, when were the prospects best for Yemen? When did things really work smoothly? You can go back as far as you want.
ND: Well, let me talk about modern Yemen. (In the old times, of course, you’re talking about the Queen of Sheba, and then Queen Arwa – but that’s a long time ago!) In the modern history, I think Yemen was relatively stable and better off during the ‘80s, when oil was just discovered and there was a large Yemeni diaspora in the Gulf countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia – Yemenis who were sending money back home. So the economy was blooming back in the ‘80s, and I think those were, relatively speaking, the happiest days of modern Yemen.
MB: The US became heavily involved with Yemen after 9/11, but through a very narrow focus on counterterrorism. What effect did that have on the fabric of government and the fabric of the tribal society?
ND: Yes, the US has focused mainly on security and counterterrorism. That’s why the US was supportive of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who abused his power and who was extremely corrupt. He was manipulating al-Qaeda all along and was using the militant group for political gain, which has been confirmed in recent reports. US assistance to Saleh helped him solidify his regime and strengthen his and his family’s grip over power and resources. A lot of the military aid that US provided went to army and security units that were led by his son and nephews. This undermined governance and contributed to corruption, both were and have been strong causes of conflict in the country, including tribal areas, and a factor in the cause of the current war.
MB: I spent time in Yemen in early 2002, shortly after 9/11, when the US was exerting tremendous pressure on Saleh to conform to US counterterrorism policies. The American Ambassador, who was a counterterrorism figure at the State Department before he became ambassador, told me at the time that there were basically maybe six people in the whole country – six people tied to al-Qaeda – that they were very worried about. Just six! But since that time, during the period of cooperation with Saleh, there have been literally hundreds of drone strikes and al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has become a force. How do you account for this sense now that Yemen is full of al-Qaeda?
ND: The assumption has always been that a strong central government is crucial to counterterrorism, which is quite misleading in the context of Yemen, where the central government is pretty corrupt. In other words, the problem was not in the fact that the central government was weak. The problem was in the fact that the government was too centralized and too corrupt. What Yemen needed was strong local security. Yemen needed local police. Yemen needed local institutions that are accountable and transparent, that can provide services to the people. Because local institutions were underdeveloped and often hijacked by the central government, corruption prevailed and grievances increased. It’s because of corruption that unemployment and poverty increased, and people grew very frustrated with the government. A lot of these young people who have no jobs have fought: Some of them joined al-Qaeda and other armed groups, not because they believe in the ideology, but because they’re too frustrated with the government. The same thing was true, for example, in the South, when the government fought al-Qaeda in early 2014. Some members of the Southern Movement [who support a dissolution of the single state into the pre-1990 South and North Yemen] fought with al-Qaeda. These are secular people. But they fought with al-Qaeda because they’re fighting a common enemy, which is a Yemeni government that they see as illegitimate.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh bonding with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office.
MB: If you’re thinking about the war right now, we’re seeing horrible images not only from Taiz, but also from Sanaa, the capital. Are these representations emblematic of the situation across the country – is it all in turmoil – or does it vary?
ND: The country is in turmoil, but certain areas are definitely worse than others. They’re all bad, but Taiz definitely the most affected. You also have areas like Sa’ada which has been severely bombed by airstrikes. The South is a time bomb. The security situation in the South is very alarming and continues to deteriorate everyday. You hear reports about the spread of al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. There are different southern factions that are deeply divided and now armed. The governor of Shebwa [governorate], in an interview last week, said al-Qaeda is planning to take over Shebwa and Abyan. If that happens, two major governorates will be under the control of al-Qaeda. The government is absent in the South, and at the same time there is an unprecedented influx of arms that are falling into the hands of al-Qaeda, tribes and local groups. This is a recipe for prolonged and widespread conflict.
MB: If you were to trace the deeper roots of the war that’s raging now, how far back would you go?
ND: The root cause of this war is the fact that the Northern elite have always had a monopoly over resources and power while the rest of the country is marginalized. This was the case for the thousand years during which the Zaydi Imams ruled the country, and continued after they were toppled in 1962. When Saleh came to power, the Northern elite continued to control power and resources. It was Saleh’s family; Saleh’s extended tribe, Sanhan; his allies from the powerful tribal Ahmar family; and his patronage network of tribal and religious leaders and other influential figures across the country. What we have seen over the past two decades, and in particular since 2011, is the manifestation of a power struggle among these Northern elite alliance players who have since become enemies because of competition over who controls reseources in Yemen. Now, add the Houthis, who are an extension of the Zaydi Hashimites that have morphed into a rebel group. So the root cause is essentially the chronic power struggle among the Northern political elites coupled with the systematic marginalization of the rest of the country.
MB: But there are a lot of outside forces at play as well, obviously.
ND: Yes, that’s true. The Saudis are involved, and now the Iranians are involved too. The Qataris are involved. The Emiratis are involved. All these outside forces have backed up different parties of the conflict, but the conflict is Yemeni. The Houthis are not fighting with Hadi [Yemen’s president] because Iran asked them to fight Hadi. The same holds true with forces fighting the Houthis and Saleh: They’re not fighting because the Saudis gave them money to fight. The struggle is Yemeni versus Yemeni. The conflict is Yemeni versus Yemeni. Outside forces are only contributing to the conflict, and are making it worse.
MB: Can we just go through some of the players? In the most basic terms, tell me what they want in this war, starting with the Houthis.
ND: The Houthis emerged back in the early ‘90s, and they weren’t named Houthis back then. They were a newly-formed cultural movement called the Believing Youth. The purpose of the movement was to revive the Zaydi tradition in Sa’ada, which was made in response to the strong presence of an extreme Salafi institute in Sa’ada, the Dar al-Hadith Center, which was preaching anti-Zaidism [Zaidism is an early sect of Shi’a Islam – comprising some 35-40 percent of Yemen’s Muslim population – that emerged in the 8th century]. But then the movement grew and it changed in nature. Hussein Bader Al-Deen Al-Houthi, who was one of sons of the founders of the Believing Youth, turned it into a rebel movement in the early 2000s. They fought six wars with the government between 2004 and 2010. The Houthis took part in the 2011 uprising and they took part in the National Dialogue Conference. But then they allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and they staged a coup in September 2014.
Houthi fighters carry posters of their long-time enemy turned brother-in-arms, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
MB: Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was Saleh’s vice president, was essentially Saleh’s hand-picked successor. What happened, and how did it help precipitate the war?
ND: I think Saleh was okay with Hadi taking his place because Hadi was Saleh’s man for sixteen years. And so, Saleh thought that he could still rule Yemen through Hadi. But then, Hadi broke away from Saleh’s control.
MB: In terms of Hadi’s anti-corruption measures – things like that?
ND: When Hadi started removing Saleh’s relatives from key positions – including Saleh’s son, nephew and brother – it became clear to Saleh that Hadi is no longer “under the influence” of Saleh’s control. Saleh then started mobilizing against Hadi and the government, allying with Houthis and supporting them militarily and financially, which helped them sweep through Amran and eventually take the capital city, Sanaa, by force.
MB: Another key player is Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the former general and business tycoon…
ND: Ali Mohsen was Saleh’s confidant and companion for 30-something years. They were partners. Saleh could not have done what he did – meaning establishing himself in power – without Ali Mohsen’s support. He was his right hand man. The two were on good terms until the early 2000s, when Saleh established the Republican Guard and made his son the commander. And so, it became clear to Ali Mohsen, and to the al-Ahmar family, Saleh’s key allies since he came to power – that Saleh was preparing his son to become the next president. An official or a written agreement between the three – Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Mohsen and the al-Ahmar family – was that they would rule together and agree on arrangements on how to do that. But then, when Saleh started preparing his son to become the next president, that’s where the relationship went sour between Ali Mohsen, Ali Saleh and the al-Ahmars and that is when power struggle started.
MB: How, from this internal power struggle, did the Saudis come to begin the current bombing campaign in Yemen?
ND: The Saudis have had heavy influence in Yemen since the ‘70s. Saleh was a Saudi puppet, as was his regime. That includes Ali Mohsen and al-Ahmars. The Saudis have always feared Yemen. In particular, they’ve always feared that any development or progress in Yemen towards democracy would incite calls for political reforms in their country. Through supporting Saleh and his regime, the Saudis helped maintain corruption and limit the chances for a genuine democracy to take place. When the Houthis suddenly emerged as a political and military force, the Saudis felt threatened because the Houthis were close to their regional rival, Iran. When Hadi’s government failed to stop the Houthis and eventually collapsed, the Saudis decided to intervene to prevent an any potential Iranian control in its backyard, Yemen.
US Secretary of State John Kerry with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in better days for Hadi's government.
MB: Would you say that, in the past, the Saudis’ control had been fairly agile? They understand Yemen and the powers at play, and in the past, they’ve controlled them fairly adeptly?
ND: They did, but it was short-sighted because they thought that they could control Yemen forever despite the growing turmoil. Again, the Saudis – and it’s the same thing with the US, and the international community more broadly – always look at national actors. The Saudis thought that they could perpetually control Yemen through the Saleh regime, and they did for a while. But that didn’t last because the regime itself started losing control. Widespread corruption and systematic marginalization fueled local grievances over the years leading to the 2011 uprising that pushed Saleh out of power. Then comes the GCC sponsored UN-US-backed transition deal, which had major flaws. It sort of recycled Saleh’s regime while granting him immunity, and no substantial political reforms happened because of that. Tension continues to build up, and if you look at Yemen today, you will see that many local forces have taken up arms and fought as they’ve grown tired of national actors and the Northern elite’s hegemony. Those cannot be “tamed” with another deal that maintains national actors, be it the Houthis or Saleh’s allies, or even Hadi and his government. No one can control all of Yemen anymore.
MB: Would you say the same is true for the US and its short involvement in Yemen – that the US misunderstood the flows of power?
ND: Yes, definitely. The US government and the international community have always looked at Yemen through the lens of Sanaa and the lens of national actors. First it was the Saleh government, then Hadi. The US and the international community continued to overlook the local dynamics and local conflicts that are increasingly shaping the conflict and are the key to the solution.
MB: If you consider the current bombing – the Saudi air strikes, which have wrought such havoc, and also US drone strikes, which are ongoing – it’s hard to figure out what the purpose is. It doesn’t seem like there's very much to bomb that might resolve anything in Yemen.
ND: That is true. The country’s infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, bridges, you name it, has been destroyed. Thousands of civilians have been killed. It didn’t change much except that the situation worsened and continues to deteriorate.
MB: Insofar as the US is currently supporting the Saudis and the coalition, how is the US role perceived right now?
ND: Among the Houthis and their supporters, and those who are most affected by the air strikes, there is resentment. Last month, the US signed a $ 1 billion dollar arms agreement with the Saudi government. A proposal by the Netherlands to set up a committee to investigate into war crimes in Yemen was dropped because it didn’t have sufficient backing from key countries including the US. It gives the impression that the US is complicit in supporting war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. On the other hand, the US government was reluctant at the beginning to condemn the Houthi/Saleh take-over of the capital by force. In October last year, US drone strikes in Radaa targeted AlQaeda but also tribesmen who were fighting Houthis. This actually helped the Houthis control the town and surrounding areas. It created resentment towards t he US among local tribes that resisted the Houthis advance into their areas. As a result, there is a strong perception that the US is also in bed with Iran and hence Houthis.
MB: To what extent would you credit, among the myriad of dynamics at play, the Saudi-Iranian animosity and a sense of proxy war?
ND: I don’t think Iran is dictating what the Houthis are doing, but Iran has certainly supported the Houthis a lot. Many Houthis – hundreds, if not thousands – were trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and trained in Iran as well. You can trace the influence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard training in the way Houthis conduct their operations and how they go after their opponents, as well as in the way their security apparatus is functioning. When the Houthis took over before the Saudi’s intervened, a Houthi delegation visited Iran and signed a deal with the Iranian government that includes operating fourteen flights per week between Sanaa and Tehran. They’ve reinforced the Saudis’ fears, valid or not, that Iran is utilizing the Houthis to disrupt Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also supported local actors to fight Houthis. The Houthis are not fighting on behalf of Iran, and local actors are not fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Anti-Houthi local actors are using Saudi money and support to push the Houthis out of their regions. Same thing with the Houthis; they’re using Iran’s support to extend their power to as large an area as possible in the country.
MB: Is it possible for anyone to win the war at this point?
ND: I don’t think so. The political process seems to be hitting a dead end. There are no signs of good will to enter into political negotiations whatsoever from wither side. The Houthis have increased their offensive in Taiz and Mareb. In Taiz, they’ve been enforcing a tight siege, preventing medicine, food and even water from entering the city. They’ve been bombing the city every day, killing dozens of civilians. At the same time, the airstrikes intensified especially in the areas under Houthi control in the North, and many civilians were killed because of that. It seems that the Houthis, and the Saudis, are more interested in resolving this militarily. But when you look at the military operations, you see that for the past months, it’s been more or less a stalemate. The Houthis advance, and then pro-Hadi government and local forces push them out, and then the Houthis advance again and so on and so forth. It’s been pretty much stagnant. I think it’s going to be a long war, unless somehow, miraculously, conflict sides agree to negotiations in good faith.
MB: Just to go back to the protests in 2011, which is the most immediate spark to the current conflict, there’s tendency to lump all of the different Arab countries’ uprisings under the vague category of Arab Spring. In Yemen, what were the particular dynamics at play, and how do these fit in the path towards war?
ND: In 2011, yes, the protesters were inspired by what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. But then, Yemenis have been protesting since the early 2000s against the government. Yemeni activists were protesting in front of the cabinet and in front of the Presidential Palace against corruption, injustice and human rights abuses. Yemen’s uprising was driven by 20 years of political marginalization and unaddressed local grievances. But, like other Arab Spring countries, the uprising in Yemen was about ending the control by a small political elite over power and wealth; it was about revolting against marginalization, corruption, injustice and human rights abuses. It was about the desire to end tyranny.
MB: The period that you just described – the early 2000s into 2011 – is the exact same period that the US has partnered with Saleh and counter terrorism…
ND: Yes. The US government has turned a blind eye to Saleh’s human rights abuses and his corruption, simply because he was an ally in the war on terror.
MB: Is it fair to say that the resources his government received from the US enabled him to enrich his family?
ND: I think it is fair to say that. Saleh used the counter terrorism assistance to strengthen his and his family’s grip over power. His son was the head of the Special Forces and nephew was the head of Central Security Forces, the two armed units that received extensive training and support from the US as part of the CT partnership. After a decade of support, Saleh’s family’s grip on power became stronger, and in reaction, Yemen’s al-Qaeda faction did too.
MB: The Houthis, who have fought six wars with Saleh’s government, are now allied with Saleh (now that he’s out of power). What is the timetable for this about-face?
ND: It’s hard to track in definite terms, but we could see patterns beginning in 2011 when the Houthis started fighting with the tribes in Al Jawf and Marib. It was clear that the Houthis had access to arms – heavy arms – that they wouldn’t have access to unless somebody gave it to them, and that was Saleh. Their dramatic expansion across Yemen in 2014 was also facilitated by tribal leaders who are loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh.
MB: To what do you describe the growth of ISIS? Similar to what Al-Qaeda experienced in the early 2000s?
ND: In my opinion, it is hard to confirm the presence of ISIS in Yemen. Are there individuals who are sympathetic with ISIS? Probably yes. But does ISIS exist as a group? I don’t think that there is enough evidence to confirm that yet. ISIS does not have any documented presence in Yemen. With Al-Qaeda, we know who they are. We know the names of their leaders .We know which tribes they come from and which ones they interact with. We know which areas they control. With ISIS, there’s none of that. They clearly don’t control any areas. Tweets, videos and photos of masked men with pick-up trucks, guns and black flags cannot be assumed to be evidence of an ISIS existence. ISIS could be part of the propaganda, or it could comprise an attempt by some local armed groups, extremist or otherwise, to brand themselves. Having said that, it is a problem by itself and debating whether it is ISIS or not is not as relevant as is the need to bring functioning government institutions to the entire country and establish security to prevent further deterioration.
MB: But al-Qaeda has grown as a result of the conflict. What’s the main reason for that?
ND: Let’s take the South, for example. During the fighting since March, police stations have closed down. Security forces withdrew from most governorates. The courts closed. Most of the South remained with no functioning police and security forces, no functioning courts, no functioning government. Al-Qaeda can come into any city when there is no government in place that can stop them. There has also been an influx of weapons and heavy arms everywhere because of the looting of army bases over the past few years. Local governments don’t have the capacity to stand up to al-Qaeda. Same thing with the tribes. Let’s take Al Bayda, where the tribes in the past have successfully limited al-Qaeda’s presence and activities. In 2014, when these tribes were pushed to fight the Houthis, they joined hands with al-Qaeda. They’re not trying to limit al-Qaeda’s presence anymore, because they want help in pushing the Houthis out of their areas. The government collapsed and violent conflicts spread in many parts of the country. This chaos offers the perfect environment for al-Qaeda to recruit and operate. But, the failure of the transition government to bring in most needed governance and security reforms also was also a major contributor to the conflict and, as a result, the spread of AlQaeda.
MB: Thanks very much for doing this.
ND: Thank you.
Michael Bronner is Editor-at-large for Warscapes magazine. He wrote last week on the growing nuclear threat in Pakistan: Nukes, Jets & Déjà vu. Twitter @michaelbronner