By National Yemen
Observers believe that the Houthi movement has become a part of the Yemeni map as it is difficult to ignore this movement at the national level. This renewed focus on the Houthi movement comes while Houthi fighters have expanded the areas of their control and now includes Sana’a, Al-Jawf, Amran, and Hajah. Their expansion was fueled by the recent instability that has gripped Yemen in the past ten months.
As a result, the Houthi movement is no longer a Yemeni problem that the regime can solve any more. Coinciding with the Houthi’s territorial expansion is the fact that the movement, much to the concern of Saudi Arabia, is also expanding into a regional issue. The larger the problem grows, the less Yemen, much less Saudi Arabia will be able to shape the movements future events.
Saudi Arabia, has long realized the threat emanating from the Houthis in northern Yemen due to their anti-Wahhabi stance. When Saudi Arabia and Yemen solved their border issues in 1999, the Saudi government quick sent warning messages to Yemen about the growing threat of the Houthis. The threat, as Saudi Arabia perceives it, is due to a potential connection between the Houthi’s and Iran, Saudi Arabia claims that Iran will use the Houthis as a proxy to start a conflict on its southern border. Iran has rejected these facts.
This potential conflict grew until it went hot in 2004, when the first round of fighting broke out between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The fighting would go through a total of 6 rounds of fighting continuing even up til the revolution started in February of 2011. Notably, in the 6th round of fighting, Saudi Arabia become publicly involved in the fight in a rare show of aggression by the Kingdom.
However, despite years of war, the Houthis and Yemeni government both failed to gain total control over the areas in the north. However, starting with the Yemeni revolution, the Yemen government no longer had the capacity to mitigate, or even contain the Houthis. Accordingly, the Houthis have slowly expanded.
There are some reports that suggest the Houthi’s are aiming to grow their influence and control more areas at the expense of Yemen’s uncertain future. The same reports suggest that a principle aim of the Houthi movement is to control a passageway to the Red Sea so they can open up supply lines to fuel their insurgency. If the Houthi movement is successful in accomplishing this, it is expected that the conflict will gain a regional dimension that observers and relevant officials would like to avoid.
The Houthis have also been known to attack outside of Yemen. Previously, they attacked Saudi Arabia, killing and wounding a number of soldiers. They also caused the mass displacement of thousands of people from border areas before Saudi Arabia deterred them from doing so. Such attacks, worry Saudi Arabia that a direct threat could grow on its southern border.
Not too long ago, the situation between the government and Houthis was calm as a result of the recent cease-fire. However, the situation began to simmer again as units from the Yemeni army continued their defections.
Houthis initially expressed their desire to join the protests against Saleh, but they gradually retreated from this as they launched attacks against the opposition groups and tribes near their areas to gain more control. Their expansion recently culminated when they surrounded the Dama’aj in Sa’ada Governorate – a predominately Sunni village.
The attacks may mark the renewal of a sectarian conflict between Salafists (Sunni) and the Houthis. Traditionally, the Houthis have become resentful at the growing influence of the Salafists in northern areas of Yemen. The Houthis claim that their influential growth has largely been facilitated by Saudi Arabia through their efforts to build religious schools in the area. The Al-Hadieth Institute, with over 1,000 Salafi students, is located in Dama’aj.
Largely due to the Institute’s presence, Dama’aj is the area with the highest concentration of Salafi’s in northern Yemen. Many students from governorates all over Yemen come to the area to study as well. Such populations have a presence, albeit limited, in the Sada’a tribal regions including Jabal Bani Owair, Al Mahadiz, Ul Salam, Razah, Bani Jabarah Wadi.
The attacks on Dama’aj supposedly started as a result of a message, surfaced by Houthis, in which Sheikh Yahya Al-Hajawri, Director of Al-Hadieth Institute, issued a statement with a ‘clear’ message to fight Houthis on behalf of the Saleh led government. In October, Al-Hajawri rejected that such a statement was made and claimed the message was a fake, fabricated by the Houthis. Last month, Al-Hajawri called for the Houthis to end the blockade on Dama’aj.
However, Abdul Salam, a spokesperson for the Houthi Office, stated that there will be no more clashes as a result of the initiative of the Sa’ada Governor Faris Mana’a. Abdul Salam noted that road access to Dama’aj will be reopened.
This statement broke the second day after a Houthi press conference; thus, ending a month long siege in which 36 Salafies (including American, French, Russian, Indonesian, Malaysian and other nationalities) were killed.