The false narrative surrounding the war in Yemen

The Houthis opened a Pandora’s box, provoking both Sunnis and Shias to fight back, which partially explains the vast proliferation of armed groups and militias on the ground.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Ideological indoctrination. A Houthi rebel films with his cell phone as his comrades and their supporters watch on a big screen a speech given by leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi during a rally in Sana’a. (AFP)
Ideological indoctrination. A Houthi rebel films with his cell phone as his comrades and their supporters watch on a big screen a speech given by leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi during a rally in Sana’a. (AFP)

Since the conflict in Yemen broke out in 2014, it has been largely depicted in Western and some Arab media as part of a larger regional power struggle between Sunnis and Shias.

This narrative has done a great disservice to the Yemeni people and given a distorted picture of the conflict. In reality, the conflict in Yemen is a local one, pitting the Iran-backed Houthis against dozens of factions with diverse agendas and a range of ideologies.

Consider the period preceding the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in the conflict in March 2015. Events during that time showed that the Houthi takeover was not as sudden as it has been made to be. Rather, it was a gradual armed manoeuvre, in which the Houthis and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought to push the legitimately elected government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi from power.

These two diverse parties joined forces, staging what many Yemenis from across the political spectrum viewed as a counter-revolution. Their takeover began in August 2014 when the Houthis led protests against the government’s removal of fuel subsidies.

In doing so, the Houthis tapped into powerful social grievances and gained more of a following. In January 2015, things took a dramatic turn with the seizure of the presidential palace, the president’s residence and key military installations in Sana’a and elsewhere

It was only then that the Houthis’ true motives became clear and that many Yemenis realised that the project of their so-called “saviours” was nothing more than an effort to exploit the weakness of the state and gain absolute control over it.

Today, little attention is paid to the period when the Houthis sought to draft a new constitution to serve their agenda, demolished houses of their political rivals and carried out assassinations in areas under their control.

Little is also said about their attempted religious takeover. Sunni imams were systematically replaced with Houthi-allied Zaidi religious leaders, a move that antagonised the local population and sowed the seeds of the current sectarian divide.

The Houthis have attempted to reshape the country’s social fabric from within, with top officials, including Yemeni Information Minister Muammar al-Iryani, accusing the Iran-backed militia of manipulating school curriculums to serve their ideology.

If true, this would provide further evidence that the Houthis are less interested in peace than in propping up a new generation of extremists to prolong the conflict.

Long before the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which, contrary to popular belief, includes both Sunni and Shia

elements, Houthis sought to foster both political and religious division. They aimed to spread their Zaidi beliefs on the one hand and carry forward Iran’s expansionist project on the other.

In doing so, the Houthis opened a Pandora’s box, provoking both Sunnis and Shias to fight back, which partially explains the vast proliferation of armed groups and militias on the ground.

In this environment, it is no wonder we hear so much about weapons changing hands and armed groups changing sides.

Despite the nuances of the conflict, many analysts and experts have taken the easy route, explaining it as reflective of a larger geopolitical rift.

This analysis is incomplete at best. Indeed, even within the Houthis’ ranks, fighting, attacks and assassinations have become increasingly common. News reports say Houthi militias are likely behind some of those who split from the group, including Abbas Mohammed Zaid, the Houthis’ former minister of sport.

Internal divisions in the Houthi camp also became more apparent following the defection of numerous ministers, namely former Houthi Information Minister Abdul-Salam Ali Gaber and former Minister of Technical Education and Vocational Training Mohsen Ali al-Nakib.

These internal dynamics confirm the fact that the conflict in Yemen is and always has been a local one, involving a milieu of competing factions and parties from across the spectrum.

The false narrative surrounding the Yemeni conflict has taken the focus away from people’s legitimate grievances, bolstering the Houthis’ sectarian game.

And, while the international focus on the violence afflicting Yemen is understandable, it is important to remember how it started: with the Houthis’ ruthless imposition of their ideology and rule on all Yemenis, regardless of their background. It is for this reason that the Saudi-led coalition felt the need to act to help stabilise the country.

Fortunately for some Yemenis, the coalition has contained the Houthis’ influence in some provinces of the country, delivering much-needed support and assistance to the local population.

However, in areas under Houthi control or that of other factions, the situation remains dire, with millions of civilians in the crossfire and suffering from food shortages and disease.

It is time for the world to consider their plight and address the crux of the problem. Yet, this will not be possible if we continue to close our eyes to the crimes committed by the Houthis and the role they played in jump-starting the conflict in the first place.

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