Reducing Yemen's Houthis to 'Iranian proxies' is a mistake

The conflict in Yemen is driven by local grievances and competition, not some Iranian plot.

Hani Mohammed/AP
A boy holds a weapon while Houthis protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday.

In coverage of the Yemeni civil war the word "Houthi" is hardly ever mentioned without being preceded by the words "Iran-backed" and "Shiite." 

And this is true. "The Shiite Houthi rebels are backed by Iran" is a true statement.

But the prevalence of this cheap bit of short-hand about a conflict decades in the making does far more to obscure and confuse than it does to enlighten. The Houthi movement are not remotely Iranian cat's paws – no more-so than President Abdu Mansour Hadi, currently residing in Riyadh, is a Saudi one. 

The Yemeni civil war is driven mostly by domestic competition for power and resources in a country that has one of the most heavily-armed citizenries in the world and whose entire post-colonial history has been marked by conflict. The civil war that broke out in 1962 – in which both Egypt and Saudi Arabia were major players – ended in 1967 with the country divided in two.

Reunification only came in 1990, and disputes over power and wealth-sharing and the nature of government itself were never really settled. The man handed power over the whole country at reunification, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was for many decades America's man in Sanaa, and the Saudis came around to his side too.

But when protests inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria broke out in Yemen in 2011, Mr. Saleh's Saudi and other foreign sponsors decided it was time for him to go. Yes, he'd been a reliable ally in intelligence sharing and assassinating Al Qaeda members operating in the country – he gave the US drone program a particularly free hand. But in the regional environment of the time, no one wanted to get behind the massacres of civilians that probably would have been required for him to hang on to power.

So, the Saudis with America's blessing concocted a transition plan that saw his vice president, Mr. Hadi, elevated to the big seat. The 2012 deal gave Saleh immunity from prosecution for corruption and abuses of state power and the idea was that a new modus vivendi would be worked out in the country. The Houthis, who draw from the Zaydi Shiite tribes of the country's northwest who had dominated much of the country under the monarchy that fell in the 1960s, were clearly anxious for that. And when it looked like Hadi wasn't going to deliver, they took up arms. 

Col. Pat Lang (ret.), who served as the US defense attaché in the embassy in Sanaa in the early 1980s, writes of the dangers of ignoring the real local context.

The Zaidi mountain tribesmen defeated the Egyptian Army fifty years ago.  There is a large Egyptian military cemetery in San'a. The road down from the mountains to the port of Hodeida is still littered with destroyed Egyptian Army vehicles that were "killed" in guerrilla ambushes.

... There does not exist a natural affinity between the Yemeni Zeidis and the 12er [i.e. follower of the 12th imam] Shia of southern Iraq and Iran. The zaidiya follows a system of religious law (sharia) that more closely resembles that of the Hanafi Sunni "school" of law than that of the Shia of Iran or Iraq. The Zaidi scholars profess no allegiance to the 12er Shia scholarship of the Iranian teachers... In short there is little religious connection with Iran. For a Zaydi to "convert" to 12er Shiism is as big and alienating a step as "conversion" to Sunnism. Such a change would normally lead to family, clan and tribal ostracism.

The cartoonish reduction of "Houthi = Iranian proxy" or "Shiites are fighting Sunnis for religious reasons" can nevertheless be found almost everywhere. Consider Thomas Friedman's column for The New York Times this week. Mr. Friedman is immensely popular and influential. But while his glib reductions make for palatable reading, they can also lead to enormous error. He wrote:

In fairness, Sisi is trying to dig Egypt out. Nevertheless, Egypt may send troops to defeat the rebels in Yemen. If so, it would be the first case of a country where 25 percent of the population can’t read sending troops to rescue a country where the water comes through the tap 36 hours a month to quell a war where the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.

The first time? As Lang points out above, Egypt sent troops to Yemen in 1962 to aid the republican side that ended up winning North Yemen and ultimately bringing Saleh – a Zaydi Shiite just like the Houthis – to power. An estimated 25,000 Egyptian troops died. It wasn't about a "7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir" to Muhammad then, just as that's not what it's about now.

Stacy Philbrick Yadav and Shelia Carapacio, both scholars of the region, took on the "age old religious enmity" trope in a piece for the Middle East Research and Information Project at the end of last year. They wrote:

In transposing an all-purpose Shi‘i vs. Sunni simplification from Iraq and Lebanon onto Yemen, this storyline deductively misidentifies all of the Houthis’ adversaries -- from the government to the tribes surrounding Sanaa -- as “Sunni.”

This notion is flat-out wrong. Zaydism is related to the dominant Twelver form of Shi‘i Islam institutionalized in Iran in the same way that, say, Greek Orthodoxy is an offshoot of Catholicism -- the statement makes sense, maybe, in schismatic terms, but in terms of doctrine, practice, politics and even religious holidays Zaydism and Twelver Shi‘ism are quite distinct. Moreover, historically, the city of Sanaa and all points north were the Zaydi heartland. Resistance to the Houthi advance did not come from “Sunni tribesmen,” as so many reporters suggest, but from sons of Zaydi tribesmen who, when they joined the neo-conservative Islah, adopted or converted to a “Sunni” identity inspired by Saudi Wahhabism and/or the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers. The al-Ahmar clan, paramount sheikhs of the historically Zaydi Hashid tribal confederation clustered between Sa‘ada and Sanaa, and who detest the Houthis, are Zaydi by parentage and Sunni by denominational conversion via partisan affiliation with Islah. On the other side, the majority denomination in the coastal and southern midlands provinces are the Shafi‘is, who are Sunni (in the same way that Lutherans or Methodists are Protestant), but rarely identify themselves as such -- even if historically they distinguished themselves from the Zaydi regimes in Sanaa. Instead, to the limited extent that this conflict is “sectarian,” it is also institutional: It began with a rivalry between Houthi summer camps and the Saudi-financed salafi institute in the small, historically Zaydi town of Dammaj, which is a story rather more precise and interlaced with contemporary state power than the implied frame of “age-old” dispute between the two main branches of Islam allows.

In more simple terms, the Houthis feel their identity under attack by well-funded Saudi preachers and what they view as well-funded Saudi proxies, symbolized by Mr. Hadi. They also have powerful allies – Saudi Arabia and America's old friend Mr. Saleh is, at least for now, fighting alongside the Houthis, as are many Yemeni army units that remained loyal to him.

Saudi and the US insist that only Hadi is the legitimate ruler of Yemen, that legitimacy drawn from a 2012 single-candidate referendum that gave him 99.6 percent support. That fig leaf no longer covers much. Yadav and Carapacio note that the position of the Houthis and others opposed to Hadi since 2012 is that the transition plan was designed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to prevent more democracy in Yemen – and their own peaceful routes to power and influence.

"The Houthis and other dissidents maintained that the GCC initiative sought to demobilize the mass 2011 revolutionary uprising by sanctifying an elite pact between members of the Salih regime and its formal, multi-party, cross-ideological “loyal” parliamentary opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties alliance, or Mushtarak," they write. "The Mushtarak, in turn, was dominated by a conservative northern alliance of Islah (a Sunni Islamist party), the Sanaa old guard and the Hashid confederation. Given the GCC monarchies’ interest in stability in the most restive quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, the agreement contained a number of provisions to undermine populist demands for a democratic transition."

Chaos and political rivalry has certainly opened a door to Iranian influence in Yemen. Anonymous US officials allege that Iran's involvement with the Houthis, while limited, has been extended to providing military training. Meanwhile, Saudi warplanes have been bombarding Houthi positions, and their regional coalition now includes the Sudanese Air Force, which Human Rights Watch has accused of participating in war crimes against civilians in Darfur.

Saudi and Iranian regional rivalry is certainly real, and Saudi Arabia has been horrified at the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq since 2003 and its involvement fighting on the side of both Baghdad and the Assad regime in Syria. But while various factions are projecting their own regional concerns onto Yemen, the people fighting and dying for power inside the country are far more concerned with local issues.

And when it comes to Saudi vs. Iranian influence in Yemen, the Sunni monarchy and the US have been far more involved in creating the current mess – and a potential opportunity for Iran – than Tehran could have dreamed of.

Some, like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today, say that what's happening in Yemen (and Iraq, and Iran) is all down to Iranian "aggression." 

But that's not what's shown by a review of the facts.

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