As clashes in Dammaj, in the northern province of Saada, intensify, officials in the Yemeni capital are growing more and more worried about the impact that sectarian tensions will have on Yemen’s fragile political transition. This is all the more worrying because the fighting coincides with a time when representatives at the National Dialogue Conference are set to announce their final findings, in the hope of bringing Yemen’s turbulent transitional period to a close.
The fighting in Dammaj epitomizes Yemen’s increasingly fraught sectarian situation. On one side are the Houthis—a Zaidi Shi’ite tribal faction that turned to mainstream politics in 2012, when it agreed to participate in the national dialogue under its new political wing, Ansar Allah. On the other side are Salafist militants.
The Houthi insurgent movement first emerged in 1994 under the leadership of late Sheikh Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi. It was only in 2004 that they took up arms against the central government, asserting their belligerent stance was but an act of self-defense against the onslaughts of the increasingly powerful Al-Islah faction. That faction acts as an umbrella group for three religious and tribal entities: the Hasheed tribe, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. (The link between Yemen’s Salafists and Al-Islah has been the matter of heated debate since 2011, and has once again resurfaced, casting Al-Islah and its tribal militias in a very different light.)
On opposite ends of the religious spectrum, the Houthis and the Salafists have been bent on destroying one other since the Saada war in 2004. But beyond religious affiliation it is the Houthis’ connection to Iran, which has troubled Al-Islah and the central government the most. In 2012, Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi slammed Iran for militarily and financially assisting the Houthis, alleging Tehran was provoking the Houthi insurgency to advance its political agenda in the region. Iran continues to deny any involvement with the Shi’ite group.
Tensions flared up in late October, when the Houthis accused their Salafist arch-enemies of using their Dammaj religious center, Dar Al-Hadith, to train and recruit wannabe jihadists. On the other side, Houthi officials allege that the Salafists aim to build an army to challenge the authorities in Dammaj and neighboring provinces in order to impose their religious dogma onto Yemen’s highlands and annihilate the Houthis’ millennium-old Zaidi heritage. In addition, Houthi scholars have often challenged the legitimacy of the Salafist movement, which sprung forth in the 1970s under the influence of Yemeni cleric Muqbil Bin Hadi Al-Wadi’i, by alleging its followers sit outside both Sunni and Shi’a Islam.
As skirmishes turned more violent and more deadly, the central government and representatives at the national dialogue frantically called for a truce, urging both factions to refrain from further violence because it threatened to undermine Yemen’s protracted political negotiations. President Hadi barely had time to catch his breath after the impoverished nation finally managed to strike an accord with the southern secessionist movement Al-Hirak over the introduction of federalism. He immediately found himself facing yet another cataclysmic crisis, this time involving Yemen’s highlands.
Aside from being remote, Dammaj has been completely closed off from the rest of the country by Al-Ahmar tribal militias loyal to the powerful family led by Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ahmar. Both have strong ties to Al-Islah, and recent reports say that yet more tribes loyal to Al-Ahmar have pledged more men to combat the Houthis in the north. Security experts warn that tensions could soon move to the capital, where both factions have strongholds.
But while the conflict has a sectarian dimension, there is also another important factor at work: one faction’s quest for both political and territorial control.
The Al-Ahmar family opposed Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, during his time in office, beginning with his rise to power in the 1970s. Since 2011, members of Al-Ahmar have attempted to use Yemen’s revolutionary turmoil to their advantage, hoping to emerge as the uncontested winner in Yemen’s new political scene. It certainly did not plan for the Houthis, a Shi’ite faction in Yemen’s far north, to burst onto the scene and use the post-2011 power vacuum to dramatically expand their influence over Yemen’s northern provinces. In less than two years, the Houthis went from being a local power to a national powerhouse, with the provinces of Hajjah, Al-Jawf, Saada and part of Amran under the group’s control.
In 2012 alone, the Houthis managed to secure a strong alliance with Al-Hirak and establish political cells as far south as Taiz, Aden and Ibb, former fiefs of Al-Islah. It is essentially the Houthis’ political gains that the Salafists, with Al-Islah behind them, want to destroy. Religion has only been used to fuel the bloodshed and generate lasting tensions.
Just over a week ago, the national dialogue issued a statement in which it called on the government to intervene. It said: “The National Dialogue Conference wants to end the clashes and enforce the ceasefire in order to start the implementation of the presidential mechanism [for peace], and to exert efforts to restore confidence between the two parties and find solutions to restore peace to Dammaj.”
After three failed attempts at a truce, over 100 deaths and countless casualties—including many women and children killed by mortar shells—Houthi militants have accused President Hadi of playing the Al-Ahmars’ game out of fear of the clan’s political influence. They claim the president has refrained from sending the army to restore peace after Sheikh Hussein Al-Ahmar warned he would not tolerate such an affront to his authority.
Sheikh Al-Ahmar, who has been leading the Salafist militias since late October, has declared that Dammaj will be remembered as the final burial ground of the Houthis.
In another rather dramatic turn of events, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) pledged its support for the Salafists in mid-November, offering its fighters to the cause. That move sent security analysts and Yemeni officials into a frenzy. Reuters reported that AQAP's warning was issued by Harith Bin Ghazi Al-Nadhari, a religious official in the militant group, and it was posted by Yemeni journalist Abdul Razzaq Al-Jamal on his Facebook page. It read: "We declare our total solidarity with our Sunni brothers . . . in Dammaj, and in other Sunni areas that the Houthi group had attacked. Your crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action.”
As the national dialogue comes to a close, conflicts such as this will bring the fault lines in Yemen’s fractured society back into focus, and raise doubts that the conference will be enough to keep the country from sliding into chaos.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.