The intense clashes between Salafists and Houthis in the northern Yemen province of Saada, near the Saudi border, indicate a possible sectarian war. It seems that this scenario reached a point of no return when Yemen’s northern tribes, which are loyal to Riyadh, joined the Salafist militants as part of a "Coalition for Sunni Victory." Today, this coalition is spearheading the ongoing sectarian conflict in northern Yemen, where the majority of the population embraces the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam.
The seeds of a Sunni-Shiite conflict are being sown in the region in the absence of the Yemeni government. In fact, the government is instead concerned with the war against Al-Qaeda and the obstacles faced by the struggling Gulf Cooperation Council settlement agreement that led to the ouster of Ali Abdallah Saleh. The government also accuses Riyadh of managing the conflict through the use of loyal tribes — who are now in a coalition with the Salafists — against Houthi militants. The Houthis and their military wing Ansar Allah have themselves been accused of receiving support from Tehran and of implementing Tehran’s plans in the region.
The Risk of Sectarian Strife
It is difficult to speak of objective reasons for the outbreak of sectarian conflict in areas that have experienced centuries of religious and sectarian tolerance. However, the religious discourse devoted to recalling Islam’s historic conflicts and struggles led to small confrontations that quickly widened, revealing a broad project to sink the area into sectarian war.
There are few who can appreciate the danger of sectarian strife in a province that is still struggling to recover from the ruins of the six wars that were fought against the previous regime, which finally ended with a peace agreement between former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdel Malik al-Houthi. Many felt that the agreement was just the start of a new period in which the government’s participation would be replaced by the tribal and Salafist coalition.
After the Yemeni army’s withdrawal from Saada, the Salafists inherited the flag of war and clashed with the Houthis. These clashes were widespread and occurred under the pretext of preventing the Houthi expansion project. The Houthis had extended their influence considerably, going from Saada to Al-Jouf and all the way to Hijjah. The Revolution of February 2011 led to the stipulation of local control, almost completely ending government influence in Saada.
Politicians in Saada say that the peace in the province, after six wars that were instigated by the Saleh regime, was offset by the rise of the Houthis, a group that emerged from these wars with a military force. However, their rise also pushed Saudi Arabia to "face the Shiite danger.” Saudi Arabia assigned this task to the tribesmen, using the disturbances during the revolution in 2011 to form the largest military coalition in the region.
Houthis and Salafists throw accusations at one another, with Houthis claiming that the north’s disturbances are an external scheme that seeks to push the region into a sectarian war in order to make it easier for outside powers to abort the popular revolution. On the other hand, the Salafists believe that the Houthis are trying to expand, control and eradicate the Sunnis in the area.
Training camps and the budding arms race in the northern provinces are spreading fear. On one side, Ansar Allah has a weapon arsenal that is a byproduct of the six wars in Saada. The group is strengthened by political and cultural programs, and is trying to transform itself into an influential force on the political, cultural and economic scenes. On the other side, irregular tribal forces and their Salafist allies are preparing for a future war.
A visitor to these regions can see the terrible preparations for the next battle for influence between Tehran and Riyadh. Mirroring the Houthi’s weapon arsenal, the areas under the control of armed Salafist groups are full of training camps and caches of heavy, medium and light weapons.
The Houthis deny that they have an arsenal of heavy and medium weapons, but confirm that most of the Salafists’ weapons were brought last year from Saudi army arsenals on the border. The Saudis also supplied them with enough mobile field hospitals to last for several wars.
Some leaders in the tribal and Salafist coalition army boast of possessing training camps and weapon arsenals that are on par with regular armies: “We have large quantities of Grad rockets, artillery and mortar shells of different calibers, modern tanks and tank shells and vast quantities of other medium and light weapons and ammunition. We also have Hummer military vehicles ... All purchased by funds that were donated from internal and external channels.”