Right before Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, Adam Baron wrote: While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.
The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.
The roots of Yemen’s current conflict date back more than a decade, to a little-covered series of six brutal wars fought by the government of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the aim of defeating an insurgent group—widely referred to as the Houthis—based in the country’s far north. The Houthis’ founder, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi, hailed from a prominent Zaidi Shi’a family and was a leader of the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shi’a sect found nearly exclusively in Yemen’s mountainous north. Notably the group’s foundation was, itself, rooted in a reaction to foreign intervention: a key aspect of the Houthis ideology was shoring up Zaidism against the perceived threat of the influence of Saudi-influenced ideologies and a general condemnation of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding . the government’s corruption and the marginalization of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada constituted the group’s key grievances. [Continue reading…]