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Case Analysis 19 November, 2013

The Dammaj War: The Obstruction of National Dialogue and the Threat of Failure for Yemen’s Transitional Phase


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

With the outbreak of a new round of conflict between the Houthis and Salafis in Yemen’s Saada province, a number of factors come together to threaten the course of the transitional process, and pose greater obstacles to Yemen’s ongoing National Dialogue Conference. In spite of its ability to overcome some contentious issues, the conference has so far failed to reach consensus on fundamental matters such as the government’s structure, the number of regions to be established, and transitional justice issues. If solved, the political process would be able to reach its goals of realizing political stability under a pluralistic regime, allowing composite conflicts in society to be addressed—whether sectarian-, regional-, tribal-, or class-based conflicts—and placing the country on the path of growth and democratic development.

The War in Saada

The Saada province—a stronghold of the Houthis—lies in the northern region of Yemen, on the Saudi Arabian border. It houses the Scientific Center for Traditional Salafism, founded by Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadii in the area known as Dammaj. For years, Salafi seminaries were directed by Sheikh Majd al-Deen al-Mouayyidi, and coexisted with the Zaidi centers, where the Houthis are indoctrinated. However, after the death of the two Sheikhs, and Houthi armed groups took control of Saada, the area has seen several armed clashes aimed at pushing the Salafis out of Dammaj, and accusing them of attracting infidels from foreign countries.

Dammaj has a population of around 15,000 people; about 4,000 of these people, primarily foreigners, live in the Scientific Center. According to their doctrine, Scientific Salafism, they do not interfere in politics, and they refuse to flout the governing regime. However, the military conflicts in the region led many of them to train to take up arms and participate in the fighting. The war of the Houthis in Dammaj caused new armed Salafi jihadist organizations, as well as al-Qaeda, to emerge, further polarizing the conflict.

After seizing Saada, the Houthis entered confrontations with various sectors of the community in order to assert their dominion and weaken the role of the tribes. The Houthis also entered into feuds with the clerics, and were accused of liquidating powerful tribal icons, such as Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Thabet. These violations prompted the Hajjah, al-Jawf, Amran, and Sanaa tribes to form alliances in order to prevent the Houthis from expanding militarily. In addition, the Houthis’ attempts to neutralize powerful tribes like Hashid and Bakeel, and target the Salafis in Dammaj, have led to the emergence of a tribal-Salafi alliance against them, which has become increasingly important in recent clashes.

The Balance of Military Power in the Dammaj War

Despite the eight Yemeni Army camps in Saada, the state’s presence in the province is generally considered to be symbolic because most of these military camps are either under siege, empty of manpower, or governed by disputes between its leaders—some being loyal to President Hadi and others to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh. Thus, the actual military presence in the province is limited to the Houthis and their tribal and Salafi opponents.

The Houthis

The Houthi forces are distributed among a different set of movements, some of which are political. The most important movement is Ansar Allah (the Victors of God), an armed movement founded by Badreddine al-Houthi and his son Hussein in 2004. Hussein’s brother Abd al-Malik al-Houthi has run it since the last conflict. Some reports estimate the number of armed persons in Ansar Allah is around 10,000, at least a third of whom are highly trained, and most are recruited from areas with high levels of illiteracy. The Hashemite class is depended on to provide and train leaders for these fighters. Despite the presence of Zaidi competition, the Ansar Allah movement controls the Saada province and directly manages matters of governance within it. It wields great influence in the civil and military sectors through the Hashemites, who are more educated and present in leadership roles in both civil and military institutions. Additionally, the group gained the support of a significant portion of the leadership in the last General People’s Congress (GPC) as a result of disputes between the group and its partners in the government after the departure of President Ali Abdallah Saleh from power, in accordance with the 2011 Gulf Initiative. It has become clear that since President Saleh left the helm of government, his strategy has been to support all who attempt to prevent stability and ensure the failure of the transitional phase.

The Ansar Allah group is similar to a small, trained, organized army; it possesses various types of heavy, medium, and light weaponry, and owns both military production plants in Saada and warehouses in major cities, including the capital Sanaa. Abd al-Malik al-Houthi was able to restore the province airport in Saada in order to complete the construction of an impressive military force and secure their autonomy. According to most sources, al-Houthi receives great support from Iran, which strives to recreate the Hezbollah experience in Lebanon by creating a political-military entity within the Yemeni state that will be akin to an arm of influence for Iran in the south of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Salafis and the Tribes

The Houthis control most of the mountains surrounding Dammaj. The Salafis, however, have control of Barraqa Mountain, the highest peak in the region. From this mountain, they are able to target the area of Rahban, which contains most Houthi battlefield leaders and is inhabited by the majority of Hashemite households. In the past few years, the battle fronts have expanded, between the Salafis and tribes, on one side, and the Houthis, on the other. The tribes also established “alliances of necessity” in areas the Houthis targeted, and formed a military belt restricting Saada. However, the tribes’ military weakness in comparison to the Houthis made it difficult for them to impose an effective military and economic siege on the Houthi stronghold. The most important battle fronts and alliances formed by the Salafi and tribal forces to oppose the Houthis in Saada are:

  • The Dammaj front in Saada: an active front that consists of Salafis and some tribes, such as those that reside in areas adjacent to the Salafi center;
  • The Kataf front in Saada: a front to the north and the east that unites tribes from the sons of Saada, along with some Salafi and jihadi organizations. This front was formed during the Houthi’s first war on Dammaj, though it had calmed down, there has been renewed fighting recently;
  • The Houthi front in Imran: this front lies in the south on the Sanaa line, and was formed after the Houthis targeted the leader headquarters belonging to the Sheikh of sheikhs, Hashid al-Ahmar;
  • The Kashr front in Hajjah: this front lies in the west along Midi port, and has been somewhat calm since the end of the conflicts between the tribes and the Houthis in 2011; it has begun stirring after the Scientific Institute of Dammaj, which is run by Sheikh Yahya al-Hajooree of the local area tribes, was targeted;
  • The al-Jouf front: lying to the east and south of Saada, this front has been relatively calm since the end of the rounds of war in 2011. It represents a line of protection for al-Jouf and petrol targets;
  • The Bani Hashish and Harf Sufyan fronts: this forms the security belt for the capital Sanaa, and sees no clashes between the tribes and the Houthis, despite the growth of Houthi armed forces within it since 2010.

The Political Landscape Surrounding the Dammaj War

The Houthis, who chose the timing for the outbreak of this battle with the Salafis in Saada’s Dammaj area, strive to achieve a number of political and military goals that, at most, evade their commitments to the National Dialogue Conference. The foremost of these commitments are: surrendering heavy and medium weaponry to the state, renouncing violence, integrating themselves into political work, and accepting the sovereignty of the state in all of its territories. At a minimum, the Houthis’ strive to empty their capital, Saada, from adversaries. At the same time, in order to accept the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, they are attempting to raise the ceiling of demands, the most important of which is the participation in governance via a kind of privatization that would enable them to gain civil and military positions, including that of vice president, after the formation of the presidential council and the integration of their armed militias into the army and police forces.

In order to achieve the goals of their military campaign on Dammaj, the Houthis have attempted to benefit from a number of favorable local and regional conditions, most importantly the imminent end of President Hadi’s reign, as well as the reconciliation government, and the spread of political differences between the elite of the ruling parties, which highlights the state of revulsion between the present and former leaders of state and its effects on the overall political and security situation in the country. In addition, they will take advantage of the vulnerability and attrition that the state suffers from; in this way, the Houthis will be able to increase their patch of control and weaken the strongest tribes in Hajjah, al-Jouf, and Amran. As for favorable regional support, the Houthis are hoping to benefit from the Iranian-American reconciliation, Washington’s silence about the interference of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the ongoing struggle in Syria, and the differences between Saudi Arabia and America and between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni state. They are also taking advantage of the effort some regional and international forces are putting into weakening political Islamic movements, including the Salafi current, which benefitted from the conditions of the Arab Spring. They are even, to a certain extent, portraying their war against the Salafis in Dammaj as if it is part of the war that Washington is waging on terror in Yemen, the region, and the world.

Outcomes of the War in Dammaj

The war between the Houthis and the Salafis in Dammaj could develop in a variety of ways. One scenario recognizes the Houthis potential to completely control Dammaj and get rid of the last of their political and intellectual adversaries in the Saada province. However, this constitutes a weak possibility considering the current balance of power and the extensive alliance that has developed between the Salafis and the tribes in order to contain and prevent the Houthis from expanding and becoming victorious. A second scenario entails a long war of attrition through which Saada turns into a new front for the rallying of armed jihadists to face the Iranian-backed Houthis, which would threaten to expand the focus of the conflict, and allow the country to slip towards more violence and chaos, weakening of the state’s grasp, thereby leading to the failure of the democratic development operation.

A third scenario would entail a settlement in which the Houthis withdraw from Dammaj and return to the national dialogue without conditions for fear of the growth of sectarian polarization in Yemen and the region, thus tipping the balance of power against them. Finally, a settlement could be reached that would stipulate the Houthis withdrawal from Dammaj and return to the national dialogue table in return for certain gains, such as achieving autonomy and high positions in the state and its various divisions. This entails the Houthi acceptance of the national dialogue’s requirements and its outcomes, the most important of which are the surrender of weapons, the extension of state authority to Saada, and the movement of the trajectory of democratic development towards its goals.

In a country that already suffers from binaries that are difficult to overcome, the recent conflicts in the Saada province between the Houthis and Salafis have awakened every fear regarding Yemen’s fate in case it resorts to the logic of force and departure from the area of national dialogue. Six previous rounds of clashes between the Houthis, on one side, and the state and the tribes on the other have not led to anything but bloodshed, propelling Yemen towards more chaos, and misery. Perhaps the time has come for all parties to accept a non-exclusionary, comprehensive national settlement that is built upon the principle of coexistence in a state of citizenship and law. This can only be achieved through the National Dialogue Conference that everybody must strive to make successful.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.