Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 18
IV. A Metastasising conflict
Neither narrative addresses the conflict in all its complexity; in particular, both ignore non-ideological factors that explain its onset and persistence: the accumulation of mutual grievances, including among civilians; growing tribalisation, shifting internal power balances and the emergence of a war economy.
A. Accumulating Grievances and Growing Tribal Involvement
The destruction of villages and infrastructure by army shelling, air bombardment and indiscriminate military and police violence84 has amplified grievances among not only Hashemites generally and Zaydi revivalists in particular but, more broadly, civilians in all northern governorates (Saada, al-Jawf, Amran and Hajja). Even many who originally did not sympathise with Husein al-Huthi sided with the rebels, in some instances taking up arms in solidarity with fellow villagers, relatives or tribesmen harmed in the fighting. A parliamentarian said, “the Huthis are getting stronger and stronger with each round. Renewed fighting will only increase the rebels’ influence and broaden the combat zone”.85 A General People’s Congress member of the Consultative Council echoed this: “The Huthis seem to have a lot of followers, not for religious reasons but because the population feels discriminated against and excluded from development policies. Unfortunately, the destruction of villages has not helped fight that impression”.86
Likewise, the rebels have helped fuel anger, engaging in brutal acts, looting and kidnapping, including of
84 The scale of the destruction is gradually being documented by the state-controlled Saada reconstruction fund, but the data remains subject to manipulation.
85 Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 5 January 2009.
86 Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 12 January 2009.
soldiers and allied tribesmen,87 even as they adamantly deny resorting to arbitrary violence.88 The presence of thousands of displaced persons long after the conclusion of the fifth round89 suggests persisting problems, including damage to homes and fear of retaliation by either rebels, groups sympathising with them or pro-government tribes.90
Driven by group solidarity, growing involvement of tribal militias alongside government or rebel forces has further inflamed the conflict and contributed to its endurance. By some accounts, the war has turned into a tribal conflict between the pro-government Hashid and pro-rebel Bakil confederations, the north Yemeni highlands’ two largest.91 In December 2008, skirmishes between tribes belonging to the two confederations threatened a new round of
87 Husein al-Huthi’s death in September 2004 reportedly led to the ascent of a less compromising generation of rebel leaders and militants. Crisis Group interview, civil society activist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009. Rebel violence was highlighted by foreigners living in Saada: “We trusted Husein al-Huthi and knew that he would not attack foreigners, but we now feel less confident with the new, more ideological, militants”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 18 January 2009. A humanitarian worker said, “Lack of access to the field is not solely due to government policies. We have been experiencing problems in some of the areas controlled by the rebels as well. The Huthis are seen by the population as very brutal. They intimidate people they consider neutral, including through kidnapping”. Crisis Group interview, country representative of international humanitarian NGO, Sanaa, 5 January 2009.
88 “The Huthis have never exercised violence against neutral people; they have only attacked people who were supporting the government and collaborating with the army”. Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
89 In January 2009, the World Food Programme claimed to have provided aid to 7,500 people in camps in al-Dhahir and Sahar districts. Saada Update bi-weekly newsletter, January 2009. This is only a partial view of the affected area. The total number of displaced people at the time almost certainly was higher.
90 Crisis Group interview, international humanitarian NGO official, Paris, 28 January 2009.
91 Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009. The notion that the Saada conflict has become a war between the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations was rejected by a Bakil leader, who indicated his tribe sided with the government. Crisis Group interview, parliament member from Saada, Sanaa, 14 January 2009. While the Hashid confederation appears centralised, particularly under the authority of Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar (until his death in December 2007), the Bakil confederation is larger and more loosely structured. As a result, Bakil-associated tribes have tended to take different positions in the conflict.