When the Houthis (a Shiite group based in the northern province of Sa’ada organized under the leadership of Abdel Malek al-Houthi) first attacked Salafis militants in Dammaj back in late October 2013, at the heart of their dominion, little did government officials or the public have ever imagined that such a campaign was the premise of a grander regional expansionist plan.
Keen to set a few score straight against Yemen’ Sunni radicals following decades lived in the shadow of Yemen’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, a sub-faction of al-Islah (one of Yemen’s most prominent political faction which acts an umbrella for several Sunni religious groups and tribal entities) the Houthis have exploited Yemen’s political vacuum to assert their own regional pull over the highlands while expanding its political traction by establishing itself as a legitimate faction through Ansar Allah, its new political denomination.
In between 2004 and 2009, the Houthis have fought six wars against the government, each they lost, overpowered by the military. Such defeats have weighted heavy on the Shiite group, so when 2011 uprising offered the group a mean to gain traction on the ground, its leadership grabbed such opportunity with both hands, intent on capitalizing on the fall of the former regime to see its movement rise.
And indeed, no longer a distant dissident group confined to the mountains of northern Yemen, the Houthis have managed to establish themselves as a potent political and para-military force, the new kingmakers of Yemen.
But while the group claimed its intentions and goals were in sync with revolutionaries’ goals: the creation of a modern civil state, strong democratic institutions, social justice and accountability, the Shiite group stood ready to take down all those which still opposed its rule over northern Yemen, essentially al-Islah.
Stronger in their positions since it annexed neighbouring al-Jawf and Hajja, the Houthis have worked to establish complete control over Yemen northern province, as if reclaiming Yemen’s old northern kingdom one region at a time.
The attack of Dammaj in October 2013 was to mark the beginning of a far-reaching r military campaign against al-Islah and its affiliates, namely the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Ahmar tribe. A powerful tribal faction, al-Ahmar heads al-Hashid confederation of tribes.
Following weeks of military gains, the Houthis have found themselves deep into al-Ahmar’s fief, having managed to seize control over the northern province of Amran, only 20 km away from the capital, Sana’a.
If many first refused to consider the possibility of a Houthi coup, arguing that the group had neither the military capacity, nor the ambition, most have now reassessed their initial analysis of the situation. With thousands of men in and around Sana’a, the Houthis are no longer a force the government can dismiss from the flick of a hand.
As President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi has called on the tribes of Bani Matar, an area which now stands in between the Houthis and Sana’a, to defend the capital at whatever cost, Dr. Faris Saqqaf, President Hadi’s advisor, insisted to Asharq al-Awsat that the Houthis sought not to invade the Yemeni capital. “This concern [about the Houthis] may seem exaggerated, but it also contains some truth because the events in Northern Yemen are moving closer to Sana’a following a media frenzy saying that the Houthis have plans to seize the capital … I know that the Houthis will not attack the capital, Sana’a, as this would be suicide,” he said.
And yet military officials have confirmed under cover of anonymity that the government has ordered the mobilization of its military within and without Sana’a immediate perimeters.
But Saqqaf insists the group only wants to make a political point. He noted, “The Houthis want to present themselves politically, tipping the scales in their favour and imposing a fait accompli on the ground in light of the outputs of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference. They are seeking to obtain political gains in the new state institutes.”
So if indeed the Houthis do want to be taken seriously, just how far will their march toward the capital take them?