While fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has stopped along the western coast of Yemen around the port of Hodeidah since the Stockholm Agreement was signed on December 13, 2018, several other secondary conflicts have flared up, revealing how complicated the internal conflict in Yemen is even aside from its regional dimension. The most prominent battles have been between the Houthis and the tribes of Hajour in the governorate of Hajjah, where fighting broke out in January and continued for two months until the Houthis took control of the region on March 8. Even though the Houthis won the battle, the emergence of a serious threat in their northern heartland raises questions about their ability to assert control.
The battle of Hajour took place near the Houthi stronghold of Saada, and despite Houthi’s superior military might, the Hajour tribes were able to hold their own for two months nonetheless, spurred on by various political, sectarian, and foreign incentives. The Hajour tribe’s home region is of vital strategic importance in light of the war between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. Hajjah borders Saada governorate (the Houthis’ home base), Amran (the northern gateway to Sanaa), and the Harad district along the border with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are seeking to create a buffer zone along the border, especially since the army loyal to the recognized government took control of the Ahem triangle in the border district of Harad in November 2018, a significant military breakthrough. This spurred them to assert control over the Hajour tribal region, especially Mount Kushar and al-Abissa, through which runs the only paved road linking Saada (the Houthis’ supply base) and the border area of Harad. The Hajour area also links Saada with the Tahama plains (along the west coast) and with Amran governorate.
Tension between the Houthis and the tribes has been on the rise since Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on December 3, 2017. The former Yemeni president represented the most powerful tribal wing of the alliance between the Houthis and the tribes. This alliance had been based on short-term overlapping political objectives, such as fighting common enemies and a desire to derail the political process in its interim phase. Regional solidarity also helped unite the two groups, since the Houthis identified as Hashemites (claiming direct descent from the line of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima), giving them a religious leadership role and social prestige. Meanwhile, Saleh possessed a broad, trans-sectarian network of tribal alliances, particularly among historically Sunni areas along the coast or highland areas that converted to Sunnism, especially as Salafi ideology expanded in recent decades.
During Saleh’s presidency, the area fell under the military influence of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the First Armored Division and an ally of the Islah Party, itself associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Houthis and the tribes had previously fought each other when the Houthis first expanded into neighboring northern governorates after they took control of Saada during the 2011 popular uprising. In January 2012, successful tribal mediation resulted in a deal wherein the Houthis would not intervene in the area in exchange for the tribes remaining within their home regions. This agreement held up until January 2018—both sides accuse the other of violating the agreement, and there are varying accounts of how the latest round of fighting broke out.
The Houthis accuse some tribal elders, especially Sheikh Fahd al-Dahshoush from Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) Party, of having received payments from Saudi Arabia to abrogate their agreement with the Houthis, claiming that this is why they could afford several new, well-equipped security checkpoints. Meanwhile, the Hajour tribes argue that Houthi fighters crossed over onto their land, and that the Jahaf family (a Hashemite, non-tribal family of Houthi supporters) had begun bringing in heavy weaponry to their village, antagonizing the Hajour tribes.
The initial reasons for this fighting were likely local in nature, such as a dispute between Houthi supporters and their opponents. However, several other factors contributed to the clashes’ duration and expansion, as well as the failure of traditional tribal mediation attempts. These include a built-up desire for vengeance left over from previous fighting, the need to resolve the strategically significant area’s status, and foreign intervention. On February 19, Saudi Arabia made a somewhat belated attempt at intervention, making five airdrops of medical supplies, food, weapons, and money to tribal elders besieged by the Houthis. Although the airdrop, particularly the arms and ammunition, was key in allowing the tribes to hold out longer, it also set off internal squabbling over the distribution of supplies.
Sectarian divisions have also partly fueled the conflict. The most prominent leader in the fight against the Houthis was Salafi leader Ahmed “Abu Muslim” al-Zaakri, who was killed by Houthi forces on March 10, 2019. Al-Zaakri was from the mountainous Kushar region of Hajjah governorate, from a Zaydi tribe, but studied at the Salafi Dar al-Hadith Institute in Dammaj within Saada governorate. The Houthis believe the 1979 establishment of Dar al-Hadith by Sheikh Muqbel bin Hadi al-Wadie within Saada to be an inflammatory and sectarian move given the Zaydi Shia character of Saada, particularly since the Salafis in Dammaj regularly labeled the Zaydis as infidels, and as having contributed to the rise in sectarianism in Zaydi areas. Al-Zaakri had fought the Houthis in several prior battles while they were laying siege to the town of Dammaj to expel the Salafis from 2011 until the Salafis finally evacuated and moved to Sanaa in January 2014.
Abu Muslim al-Zaakri mended relations with the Houthis after the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on Yemen in March 2015 and stayed on good terms with them until Saleh’s death in December 2017. However, while the sectarian aspect cannot be overstated, just as significant are tribal motivations. The Hajour tribes were defending the autonomy of their territory. Even so, the Houthis were able to exploit the multitude of local leaders, as infighting between tribal elders weakened the Hajour defenses.
Although the Houthis have no shortage of enemies and currently lack any political ally, they have consistently emerged victorious due to their enemies’ divisions and internal squabbling. The battle of Hajour illustrates this point clearly, where the Houthis took advantage of divisions within their enemies’ ranks to vanquish the tribes, Salafi fighters, and militias loyal to the GPC and Islah despite aid the Saudi-led coalition provided these forces. This is reflected within the Saudi-led coalition itself—Saudi Arabia throws its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islah Party, whereas the UAE is hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood but backs both the GPC (which was loyal to the late President Saleh) and the Salafis.
These disagreements became evident after the Houthis won control of Hajjah on March 8 and the different sides began to blame one another in the media. Islah Party official and former minister of electricity Saleh Samea called for the UAE to quit the coalition because it did not support the return of the recognized government. One explanation for this is that the Hajour region is a stronghold of Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an ally of Islah’s, and the UAE’s reluctance to support the Muslim Brotherhood, even indirectly, has left Ali Mohsen unable to pull of any military victories in his zones of influence.
Meanwhile, the UAE-backed Salafis and Saleh supporters accused the Islah Party of letting down the Hajour tribes, pointing out that even though they are effectively in control of the internationally recognized government, the troops closest to the battle, led by Yahya Saleh, never joined the fight. Furthermore, some nearby Salafi factions stayed on the sidelines because they never received any marching orders, blaming Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar for leaving them out deliberately and arguing that Islah was afraid that the Salafis would take control of the area.
The Houthis’ victory in the battle of Hajour proved that they can still exert control on the ground in northern Yemen as long as they stay united and their enemies in the tribes, Salafi militias, and political parties remain fragmented. Yet this battle will not be the last for the Houthis, as popular resentment continues to simmer at the Houthis’ poor governance and their unrestrained use of force to stay in power.
This article was translated from Arabic.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen is a Yemeni journalist and an MA student at the American University in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter @maysaashujaa.