The sixth war

Five years of fighting in northwestern Yemen, Gregory D Johnsen writes, has only brought more belligerents into an intractable conflict.

Last week, the sporadic five-year long war between the Yemeni government and Houthi fighters in the country’s north finally spilled over the border into Saudi Arabia. The conflict has been steadily escalating since the Yemeni government resumed fighting in August after more than a year of fragile calm. Leaving no doubt as to its intentions, the government calls the present campaign “Operation Scorched Earth”: the fighting has already produced thousands of internal refugees and spread outward from the northern governorate of Sadaa, where the Houthi rebels are based.

Like much of the conflict, the clashes that began on November 4 are clouded by conflicting and contradictory reports. The Houthis claim that they were responding to repeated strikes by the Yemeni military, which was using Saudi territory as a rear base to launch flanking manoeuvres into Sadaa. Saudi Arabia contends that it was responding to incursions by the Yemeni rebels, and both sides insist that the other fired the first shots.

But whatever the sequence of events, the skirmishes mark a major escalation in the messy and murky guerrilla war that has only become more intense – and drawn in an increasing number of players – since its start in 2004. The Saudis deployed troops to their southern border, where they launched air and ground assaults on pockets of Houthi fighters, purportedly to drive them back into Yemen. The intervention was meant to be a limited one – and the Saudis claim they only attacked positions on their side of the border – but it is doubtful, having joined the fray, that they will be able to extricate themselves easily.

The tangled roots of the conflict extend deep into Yemen’s contemporary history. The rebel group is known as the Houthis after their first military commander, Husayn Badr al Din al Houthi, who was killed by the government in September 2004 during the first round of fighting. Al Houthi, a former member of parliament, was from a prominent scholarly family from the market city of al Houth, on the main road between Sanaa and Sadaa.

The Houthi family, like much of northern Yemen, is Zaidi – a sect of Shiism, but one far removed from the twelver Shiism practised in Iran. Many scholars of Yemen, in fact, refer to Zaidism as the “fifth school” of Sunni Islam, and in Yemen there has traditionally been little conflict between Zaidis and other Sunnis.

The Zaidis have a long and robust political tradition in Yemen, dating back to 893 when Yahya bin Husayn first arrived in northern Yemen. The political and religious office that he instituted there would survive, in various forms, until the 1962 revolution and the subsequent eight-year civil war, which brought an end to more than 1,000 years of the imamate. Saada was the last region to capitulate to republican forces and many claim that it is still paying a price for its loyalty.

President Ali Abdullah Salih and numerous other leading figures of contemporary Yemen are of Zaidi origin. But this identity is one of culture and tradition rather than political allegiance. The distinction that has emerged is between Hashimis – descendants of the Prophet – and non-Hashimis. In post-revolutionary Yemen, the Hashimis, who made up Yemen’s ruling class, have largely been kept from power, and many claim to have been the victims of active discrimination.

As a non-Hashimi Zaidi, Salih would be ineligible to rule if the country still adhered to Zaidi law. In a country where recent economic and political difficulties have helped to spark an almost ahistorical nostalgia for the imamate, this helps to explain his sensitivity to a rebellion cloaked in religious rhetoric.

To describe the conflict, the Houthis have used some of these religious idioms, particularly the loaded term khuruj, which in the Zaidi context refers to an uprising against an unjust ruler. But the roots of the rebellion are not exclusively religious: this is more a case of theology put in the service of politics.

Salih has long favoured a divide-and-rule approach to governing, playing different factions off one another. In Saada, the government has long supported Wahhabi-like Salafi groups – and encouraged the Saudis to fund them – as a counter to the more entrenched Zaidi power base in the region. Throughout the 1990s the two sides clashed repeatedly, as Salafis destroyed Zaidi tombs and attempted to convert Zaidi youth. The Zaidis responded by publishing a series of theological texts designed to shore up local support; at the same time they formed a youth organisation that combined religious teaching with military training.

The Houthis see themselves as defenders of a community under attack and in danger of cultural eradication, facing a two-pronged threat from the alliance between the government and local Salafis. But despite the religious rhetoric on all sides, the Houthis are primarily a group driven by the local politics of Saada. Among their complaints is what they characterise as a deliberate neglect from the government: they allege the regime in Sanaa has studiously ignored the needs of Sadaa, thumbing its nose at the traditional seat of Zaidi power as a way of letting the Hashimis know that they no longer rule Yemen.

In 2004, after more than 20 years of periodic clashes between paramilitary forces, the conflict lurched into open warfare, sparked by the government’s attempt to arrest Husayn al Houthi in June of that year. The first round of fighting lasted until his death that September.

Since then there have been five more rounds of fighting, and the protracted nature of the war has produced multiplying justifications for its continuation. The conflict has now spread well beyond the core group of Zaidi and Hashimi purists who initially supported Husayn al Houthi in 2004, and it now includes many tribesmen in Saada and neighboring governorates who have been rallied to the Houthi cause in response to the harsh reprisals of government forces and the destruction of homes and crops in the area.

Much of this destruction was presumably unintentional, but government shelling throughout the war has often been indiscriminate. This means that what was once a three-party conflict – between the government, its Salafi allies and the Houthis – has become much more complex. Now, tribesmen and other groups have been brought into the fighting on both sides. Many of those backing the Houthis are doing so not out of any adherence to Zaidi theology or doctrine: after six rounds of fighting, the government’s various military campaigns have only created more enemies.

In July 2008, President Salih announced a unilateral cease-fire. This held until August, when the government launched “Operation Scorched Earth” in an attempt to finally defeat the rebels, who are now under the leadership of Husayn’s younger brother, Abd al Malik al Houthi. The latest fighting was sparked, at least in part, by the government’s concern that its previous failures to put down the Sadaa rebellion were emboldening secessionist elements in the country’s south. This desire to strike a decisive knockout blow has led to some of the fiercest combat to date, with the government launching daily bombing raids on suspected Houthi targets.

Outside commentators have begun to describe the conflict as a proxy war that pits Iran against Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni government has alleged that the Houthis are supported by Shiites throughout the region, including Iran and Hezbollah. But at the same time, the government has attempted to link the Houthis to both al Qa’eda and to the southern secessionists in Yemen, as if all the threats to the state were in league with one another.

Part of the problem is that the Yemeni government has learned that in order to attract the attention (and aid) of the international community, it must link its domestic problems to larger regional or American security concerns. To this end, Yemen has deliberately confused Houthi supporters with al Qa’eda, blurring the lines between the two groups by including members of both on a single list of wanted terrorists. This tactic, it believes, will allow it to pursue the war against the Houthis under the guise of striking at al-Qa’eda.

It has also attempted to tap into Saudi fears of a rising Shiite threat on its southern border, playing up the Houthis’ alleged international connections as well as obfuscating the traditional differences between Zaidism and twelver Shi‘ism. But it has yet to provide any firm evidence of direct Iranian support. Instead, the war in Sadaa – a local rather than regional struggle – is rapidly becoming just one more rhetorical stick for Iran and Saudi Arabia to beat each other with.

After five years of fighting, it is clear that there is no military solution; even the involvement of Saudi Arabia will prolong, rather than end, the war. Already its influence has significantly altered the complexion of the conflict: the spectre of foreign intervention will only draw more and more local actors into the fighting. A final and decisive settlement to the war now seems further away than ever.

Gregory D Johnsen is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton and one of the authors of Waq al-Waq, a blog on Yemeni affairs.

Posted November 12, 2009, The National