Itineraries of expansion: The Sa‘dah Wars revisited

By Marieke Brandt
Submitted to Session P4302 (Yemen: From Zaydi Revivalism to Huthi Expansionism, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Over the past decade we could observe the expansion of Yemen’s Huthi conflict. The Huthi conflict began in 2004 as a police operation against the Zaydi scholar and activist Husayn al-Huthi in a small village in Yemen’s northernmost Sa‘dah province and gradually evolved into a full-blown rebellion. Between 2004 and 2010, the Yemeni government led six intermittent military campaigns against the Huthis, the so-called Sa‘dah Wars, which – rather than ceasing the rebellion – led to a steady expansion of the war zone. Since 2011 the period of turmoil and failed political transition following the “Arab Spring” finally enabled the Huthis to conquer large parts of northern Yemen including the capital Sana’a, which they seized in 2014. The Operation Decisive Storm against the Huthis carried out by a Saudi-led international alliance of Sunni states, which commenced in 2015, has eventually internationalized the Huthi conflict and placed it in the limelight of global security concerns.

This paper traces the continuous expansion of the Huthi conflict during the Sa‘dah Wars (2004-2010). As conventional approaches such as the Saudi-Iranian proxy war narrative fail to explain the conflict’s dynamics on the ground, the reasons for the expansion of the conflict rather must be sought in its very local and domestic dynamics. The Sa‘dah Wars are a particularly good case study for highlighting the shaping power of local dynamics which have plunged vast areas of Yemen’s north into the depths of war and dragged it into vicious circles of retaliation actions and tribal feuding. The dynamics which led to a steady deterioration and expansion of the conflict, however, bore little resemblance to the causes of the initial outbreak of fighting in 2004. During the Sa‘dah Wars the Huthi conflict rather became a kind of “hybrid” war; an ever changing amalgam of political, ideological, military, tribal, sectarian, and personal motivations and calculations which had the potential to drag Yemen into endless struggles.

Based on years of fieldwork expertise and social anthropological bottom-up approach, this paper offers a detailed account of the local dynamics of the Sa‘dah Wars 2004-2010 and the reasons for their territorial expansion, underscoring the absolute imperative of understanding the highly local, personal, and non-ideological nature of internal conflict in Yemen.