Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 9
violations, including use of child soldiers.21 Unless corrective action is taken rapidly, a sixth and more deadly round is likely.
21 Crisis Group interviews, Uthman al-Majali, GPC parliament member from Saada governorate, Sanaa, 12 January 2009; representative of international humanitarian NGO, Paris, 28 January 2009. Underage recruitment by the government is standard practice, and the military allegedly has used child soldiers during the Saada war. It is unclear whether the rebels have also done so. See “Child Soldiers Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. While the government has tried to maintain an information blackout throughout the war, its efforts began to falter during the fourth and fifth rounds. News started to filter out owing to visits by local and international human rights and humanitarian organisations and the rebels’ improved communications (via an internet website in Cairo, Al-Minbar al-Akhbari al-Yamani, often inaccessible in Yemen due to censorship but which militants occasionally can overcome, and direct contacts with independent journalists in Sanaa). For example, Human Rights Watch published two reports in late 2008, “Disappearances and Arbitrary Arrests in the Armed Conflict with Huthi Rebels in Yemen” and “Invisible Civilians: The Challenge of Humanitarian Access in Yemen’s Forgotten War”. The full scale of the violence and its impact remain unclear, however. Total casualties (civilian, rebel and military) are subject to much conjecture by local journalists and civil society. The government has responded to charges of human rights violations by expressing willingness to cooperate with local and foreign organisations, releasing prisoners and claiming progress in addressing the issues – but not by providing access to areas of fighting.
II. Roots of War
The Saada war is a multilayered confrontation that has evolved significantly since 2004. It can be traced back to the decline of the social stratum led by Hashemites and legitimised by Zaydism (a branch of Shiism), failed management of religious pluralism, lack of investment in Zaydi strongholds like Saada after 1962, permeability to external influences and the emergence of new political and religious actors, in particular Salafis. As a result, it has variously and at times simultaneously taken the shape of a sectarian, political or tribal conflict, rooted in historical grievances and endemic under-development. It also has been shaped by a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
From a distance, the war looks like an internal armed conflict between a national army and an insurgent group, but battle lines are far more fluid. The army reportedly has been supported by tribal or Islamist militias, particularly during the fourth and fifth rounds. Moreover, some suggest that the war also reflects a power struggle within the ruling elite, with different components vying for Salih’s succession and using one side or the other to bolster their position.22
By the same token, the Huthi-led group’s goals are not easily grasped. When the war began, Husein al-Huthi repeatedly expressed allegiance to the state, denying he was in rebellion.23 Over time, however, the Huthi leadership’s position evolved toward unambiguous opposition.24 After the 2008 ceasefire, it openly sought the “demise of Ali Abdallah Salih’s regime”.25 More importantly, there is no evidence that the so-called rebels possess a centralised command-and-control structure, coherent ideology or political
22 Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, 5 January 2009. President Salih has been in power since 1978.
23 See François Burgat, “Le Yémen après le 11 septembre 2001: entre construction de l’Etat et rétrécissement du champ politique”, Critique internationale, no. 32 (2006). In an interview, Husein al-Huthi said, “I do not work against you [ie, the president]; I appreciate you and what you do tremendously, but what I do is my solemn national duty against the enemy of Islam and the community … America and Israel. I am by your side, so do not listen to hypocrites and provocateurs and trust that I am more sincere and honest to you than they are”. Yemen Times (Sanaa bi-weekly), 28 June 2004.
24 After Husein’s death, his father refused to say whether President Salih’s rule was legitimate. Al-Wasat, 9 March 2005; and Sarah Philips, “Cracks in the Yemeni System”, Middle East Report Online (2005).
25 Crisis Group telephone interview, Yahya al-Huthi, exiled parliament member and co-leader of the rebellion, Berlin, 3 February 2009.