After years of intermittent violence in the northern provinces of Yemen, political machinations are outpacing the state countermeasures that are mired in indifference and complacency. While the capital, Sanaa, claims to make headway through the National Dialogue, brutal attacks in Sadaa governorate between the Salafis and Houthis have left a significant death toll. The Yemeni government has chosen its usual modus operandi response to the protracted conflict through actively playing a part in the acrimonious disputes over territory and sphere of influence.
Sadaa has been an arena for political gamesmanship and power control since the Houthi rebellion started in 2004. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent the military to fight the Houthis while equipping them with artillery in order to prolong the conflict and weaken the forces of General Ali Mohsen in the Yemeni army. After the Arab Spring, the Houthi movement evolved from a rebellion against the former regime, into a conflict with political parties that are increasingly marred by sectarian divisions, regional meddling, and a complex tribal dimension. The intentions of all factions are clearer now than they have ever been. Political alliances are forming in a way that is increasing the onslaught on the Houthis in order to curb their expanding political influence in Yemen.
While it is not entirely clear who the protagonist was in the recent violent events in the town of Dammaj, Yemeni officials have expediently assigned responsibility for the conflict to the Houthis, prior to launching any investigation. Such conspicuous political bias from the government is escalating the situation, leading to further disastrous reactions in Sadaa. This government-sponsored scenario of the conflict is purposefully constructed to stir national consciousness in favor of one side, the Salafis. The Dammaj students who were caught in the battle are exalted to martyrdom status, pictures of their dead are published in newspapers and websites, while there is almost nothing reported on the Houthis besides their violent role and support from Iran.
Although the Houthis have been demonized in this process, they are not the benevolent altruistic group either. Houthis claim that the Sadaa-based Dar al-Hadith institute in the city of Dammaj, which hosts unarmed Salafi scholars from all around the world, is heavily militarized. Furthermore, the institute recently benefitted from the protection of tribes and Islah party affiliates in the area, which have opted to respond belligerently to limit the Houthi’s influence in Sadaa. In fact, these were not the first skirmishes around Dammaj. Salafis fighting alongside the government in the former six wars of Sadaa caught the attention of the Houthis and prompted retaliation. The Houthis sought to trammel the Salafis’ influence in Dammaj in 2011 by laying siege to the entire area from October to December 2011 and cutting off food and medical access. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported more than 100 people killed in the conflict, including four children who died of starvation and three elderly men of lack of medication.
Sanaa, however, is intimidated by the rising Houthi influence and organized military ability. The Houthis’ power in Sadaa and their independent governance structure have allowed them to negotiate border security agreements with their main adversary, Saudi Arabia. This is all causing further discomfort to the policymakers in Yemen, as they grow aware of the unexpected groundswell that the Houthis generated. The Houthis are now emerging with their own political party, which is becoming increasingly popular among the Yemeni youth.
The Houthis influence need not be underestimated. While ostensibly regressive, Houthis believe that ruling is a privilege for Zaidi sects of Hashemite origin. Zaidism was the order of the day in Yemen for more than a millennia, and the Zaidi imamate rule was removed in the 1962 revolution and is likely to see a resurgence amid the prevailing corrupt political culture in Yemen.
At the heart of the Houthis’ allure to the Yemeni youth is the realization that the Arab Spring revolution did not reach its full potential. While the head of the regime is gone, elements of a remaining dysfunctional system threaten a relapse. As such, there are more youth than before who are supporting the Houthis for their unrelenting opposition to the former regime and its allies. Furthermore, the Houthi notion of state sovereignty appears to many to be far better than what is currently offered by the Yemeni state where infringement on Yemen’s territory has taken place with the connivance of Yemeni officials.
Meanwhile, the Houthis do not invite international sympathy with their narrow vision, nor do they seek it. Their "death to America" slogan has been a recruiting factor for the radically inclined. But if the relationship between the United States and Iran changes positively, this will have implications on the Houthi movement, which could find itself reinventing its messages to suit the political winds of Iran. It is more likely, however, that the Houthis will remain one of Iran’s cards to play in the region. As the Obama administration is tinkering with its Iranian counterparts, Yemeni politicians feel the urgency to stop the Houthi movement before it transforms into a political power that the current ruling alliances cannot face.
Undoubtedly, Dammaj has tested the sincerity and commitment of the Yemeni government in its ability to protect all Yemeni citizens and contain a crisis. As the government falters, the political parties grow more confrontational. All sides of this conflict appear to be deliberately drawing more attention to themselves in a conspicuous effort to garner additional financing and recruits while the Yemeni government assumes the role of a victim, rather than an interceptor of the violence which has further inflamed the situation in the north.
Furthermore, communities in the south are watching this tragedy with fear that it could repeat itself in their neighborhoods. Southern political parties and media have tilted toward the Houthis in their reporting. The Houthis-Southern alliance, which intensified after the Arab revolution and southerners’ call for session, is starting to become a nuisance for the policymakers in the capital who were used to conducting their business the "Saleh" way.
Events in Dammaj have also prompted the Group of Ten Ambassadors of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, the GCC, and the European Union to issue a statement that called upon all sides to stop fighting and defuse the tensions. But most importantly, they called on the Yemeni government to resume its mediation attempts and to take whatever measures are necessary to restore security and the state’s presence. The government sent a presidential committee to investigate the situation on November 6 but this came after the death toll surpassed 200 people. The question for international partners is if they are willing to be creative enough to find complementary ways to support Yemen’s near-ending transitional process while helping the government address urgent needs of the community.
The current security threats in the north and the antipathetic responses by the state challenge assurances that the Yemeni government is on the right track. The effort to sustain peace should be long term, as Yemen cannot afford to have the same military conflicts experienced during the Saleh regime. Recognizing that Sadaa has some degree of autonomy and a unique culture that needs to be preserved peacefully is the first step toward real integration. But most importantly, bearing the responsibility to protect the people in Sadaa, just as much as the people in Dammaj, is crucial if the state wants to gain respect and influence.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is an independent Middle East policy analyst from Yemen and a former OSI International Policy Fellow.
She blogs at www.yementality.com.