Unknown to many, the Houthi uprising in Yemen actually began back in 2004. However, it took 10 years before Houthis were definitely able to put their name on the map; seemingly out of nowhere, they managed to surprise world audience by capturing the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. In early 2015, Houthi tribesmen sent the former Yemeni government in to exile in Saudi Arabia. While Houthis set up a government of their own in Sana’a, they also advanced deep south towards Aden where remaining government loyalists suddenly saw themselves inches from losing their last stronghold in the country.
As to combat the growing supremacy of Ansar Allah (Houthis), the predominately Sunni supporters of the former President Saleh teamed up with Ansar al-Shariah (al-Qaeda in Yemen) to stop the Shia-Houthi tribesmen capturing all of Yemen. When reports of the imminent capture of Aden reached Riyadh, the Saudi Royal Family embarked on a massive air bombardment campaign to defeat the Houthis and convinced many neighbouring countries to intervene militarily to defeat Houthi militants.
Mapping up the country: When reviewing a map of Yemen, looks can be decieving as the densily populated western part of the country holds far more strategic signifiance than the deserts in the east. In essence, the Aden-based government controls more square kilometers while Houthis control a larger part of the population. Nevertheless, the country is divided between four factions:
Red: Houthis/Ansar Allah/Sana’a-based government
The Houthi tribesmen are fierce fighters of the Zaidi (Shia) branch of Islam. These very same Houthis are also descendants of the Zaydis who ruled Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962. During this time they ferociously defended their independence and fought off foreign powers (Egypt, the Ottomans) who controlled lower Yemen and tried to extend their rule to the north. They lost power of the country due to a coup d’état carried out by the republican leader Abdullah as-Sallal in 1962 which dethroned the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr. Now, after decades of repression, they yearn to regain independence and power of Yemen. At this point in time, they are the strongest force in Yemen. Their forces have even captured more than a dozen towns inside Saudi Arabia itself; as seen on the map above. However, Houthis lack international support as only Iran backs the movement.
Green: Southern Movement/Republicans/Aden-based government
After Houthis seized power in 2014–15 and the national government collapsed, protestors loyal to the Southern Movement seized control of government buildings in Aden, as well as Aden International Airport, where they hoisted the flag of South Yemen which they claimed to have reinstalled. Subsequently, the Southern Movement and loyalists of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi deployed armed fighters in and around Aden while also gaining some support in the eastern countryside of Yemen. Gradually, they have managed to push Houthis back from Aden – heavily aided by Saudi-coalition airstrikes. Nevertheless, they still have a long way to go before they are able to recapture the capital of Sana’a and the rest of Yemen.
Yellow: Ansar al-Shariah/Al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda in Yemen has long lurked in the shadows. However, in 2011 it captured its first major city after successfully defeating the former Yemeni government at the Battle of Zinjibar during the initial era of the Arab Spring. Later, they captured key districts in Aden city and several major cities along the coast, including Al-Mukalla and Tarim. Fighters loyal to Ansar al-Sharia have sued for a peace agreement in Aden while focusing on the struggle against the Shia Houthis whom they deem as ‘infidels’.
Black: Islamic State
The Islamic State emerged in Yemen earlier this year amidst the chaos and confusion which continually plagues the country. Currently, ISIS has set up its headquarters in the town of Lawdar while also establishing several secret training camps across the countryside of Yemen. Contrary to the policies of Ansar al-Sharia, ISIS has taken a characteristic all-out war approach to its rivaling factions. For instance, last month ISIS militants killed the guvenor of Aden whilst they have also clashed with Houthi militants.