Yemen’s full-blown war was the consequence of a series of events that succeeded one after the other. Violence escalated during the second half of 2014, when citizens grew massively discontent with the political instability of Yemen’s transitional government. Once violence became the norm, parties to the dispute quickly polarized, and as violence ramped up, polarization accelerated.
This violence more intensified because Yemen has fragile transitional government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and was further debilitated when Houthi rebels captured Sanaa in September 2014. The president’s Peace and National Partnership Agreement had emerged as a kernel of hope for an early resolution to the violence, but it did not fulfil and produce its promised. Therefore, faced severe outcome and Boasted by their early success in capturing Sanaa, the Houthis had their militias take control over key institutions in the city. They installed their own people within major institutions and media outlets, and in other cases ‘puppeteer’ members of the government whose members were ultimately put under house arrest. All hopes for the Peace and National Partnership Agreement were lost in January 2015, when Hadi resigned shortly after his escape from house arrest in Sanaa. Following a brief residence in the city of Aden, he took refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Out of immediate danger, Hadi decided to revoke his resignation and continue his presidency from abroad. At the same time the Houthis decided to promote their own version of a national constitution and create their own government bodies. In the meantime, the Houthi insurgency continued, pushing all of Yemen into a civil war. Yemen’s current multipolar political landscape is nothing new. The country’s population has never—after its 1944 civil war, or since unification in 1990—taken on a single national identity. During the 2011 Arab Spring, group differences were exacerbated, but at the outset of the revolutions relative balance of power in the country was able to bring parties together, making possible negotiations at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).
This is no longer the case, and three important developments explain the changes post NDC. First, Yemen’s political scene became radicalized and at the same time was polarized. This made any links between the groups, whether based on historical ties or cultural similarities, impossible. Second, the changing balance of power and enduring resilience of the conflicted sides has inspired optimism within each group that and would prevail and achieve dominance over others. This reduces prospects for negotiating a settlement. For example, as the Houthis consolidated their power on the eve of their complete capture of Sanaa, rejecting calls for negotiations seemed easy, and group officials seemed unfazed by the UN resolution urging them to withdraw and reverse their course. Third, the people in Yemen have no faith in a central government, and even less faith in any political process as a solution to their problems; largely due to disappointment over a long negotiating process and an ineffective transitional government. In addition, there is no leader who inspires hope, or can rally Yemenis under one flag, or for a common purpose. While President Hadi enjoys international support, at home he is unable to ensure unity amongst even his allies, let alone the whole country.
While Yemen faces an internal quagmire, regional actors, in particular the GCC states, have been increasingly engaged in the conflict. A Saudi-led military campaign, Operation Decisive Storm’ began in March 2015, based on a coalition of forces originally supported—according to Saudis officials and public statements from countries in the wider MENA region—by more than ten countries. The UAE has been a strong supporter of the military action, contributing air support that has removed any ballistic threat for the region within the first 25 days of the operation. Other GCC states and MENA countries have also positively responded to Saudi Arabia’s move for military solutions.
Civil War in Yemen
Nations of the region have pledged military support and have become engaged in the second phase of the operation, titled ‘Restoring Hope.’ One of the strategic objectives of this operation is the disabling of the Houthi insurgency and the reinstatement of Hadi as the President of Yemen. For that purpose, large groups of pro-Hadi Yemeni fighters have been provided with weapons, equipment, and necessary military training. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more recently delivered large quantities of heavy weapons (tanks), armored vehicles, and ammunition to the pro-Hadi fighters through the newly liberated areas in Aden. Troops from the Arab countries have been involved in training. Hadi’s army, which lacks expertise in operating for much of the weaponry and equipment being supplied. Some of the foreign troops, however, are reported to be involved in military operations themselves, and not simply working in a training capacity. Operation Restoring Hope also has a humanitarian component, and its first aid planes and ships have already arrived in Aden. The United States is also providing some assistance through intelligence, aerial refueling for fighter jets, and has indicated that it would provide possible assistance in rescuing of downed pilots. The thus empowered pro-Hadi army will be the much needed ‘boots on the ground’ to complement the Saudi air campaign. If the Southern Resistance answers Hadi’s call for a united anti-Houthi front positively, and thus integrates with Hadi’s army, a quicker advancement towards Sanaa may follow. Meanwhile, the UN is still at the forefront of the negotiations in Yemen. Negotiations are not a number one priority, however, since the UN’s reputation was significantly damaged following months of less than effective diplomacy engagement in Yemen. That is not to say that UN’s efforts are futile. Anyways, UN special envoys encourage Saudi government and Yemeni government to collaborate of sign a pact, aiming to end fight between government and separatist allies in the south. UN wants to political solution of Yemeni crisis.
Except Oman, which is not part of the campaign and it is offering a venue for negotiation and are in the strong support for President Hadi. Time may prove that the UN’s ongoing shuttle diplomacy is the best way to a ceasefire, followed by peace agreement. When taking stock of the current Civil war in Yemen, it is imperative to have a holistic view of the complex conflict, and especially when seeking to find a way out of the turmoil. As things stand, a clear path towards quick conflict resolution seems impossible. The murkiness of the actual support by the Yemeni people for current leaders, ongoing shifting political dynamics, and the mixed results of militarily operations makes any conflict resolution strategy difficult to argue. This, in turn, renders many of the policy recommendations focusing on just one or another approach risky to follow.
Understanding the Conflict’s Dynamics
Yemen’s conflict is saturated with different groups, and each have unique interests. Antagonism amongst the various Yemeni groups and the process of ‘othering’ between the Zaydis from the north and the Shaga is from the central and southern parts of Yemen has been obliterating memories of coexistence and making any reconciliation unforeseeable. The current conflict has even blurred the actual differences between theZaydis branch of Shia (Fivers) and those in Iran (Twelvers). This blurring is exacerbated when the Houthis’ religion is equated with the one of the Persian belief structures and used as an argument to link the two. A March Briefing report by the International Crisis Group observed this in action, noting that the “previously absent Shiite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight,” primarily through the labels used by the Houthis and the Sunni Islamist party Islah.
In a way, increased use of sectarian rhetoric by the group has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While domestically the Houthis managed to maintain control over a large part of Yemen, including the capital, this has not translated into commensurate international recognition. The group is aware that UN resolutions are clear that Hadi’s government is the only authority in Yemen. Attempts to make inroads in the international community have thus been carried out through economic ties, those aimed at Russia (which remains unresponsive) and China, which has an interest in the Yemeni oil industry. While these efforts indicate some determination to reach out to whole the international community, the Houthis have shown no state-building acumen and political alliances are made from convenience.
With little regard for other political parties, the Zaydi Shia militias have forged an unholy alliance with former president Aki Abdullah Saleh. The deal was made without regard to the two groups’ hostile history, which includes fighting in multiple wars against each other. For now, they seem to have been able to put most of their differences aside and unite against Hadi and his supporters. This alliance means the Houthis benefit from Saleh’s powerful friends in the Yemeni army, something that has contributed greatly to the Houthis’ early rise to power. The group may yet be aided by Saleh’s diplomatic skills. For his part, Saleh is on a quest to regain his lost authority.
The politically savvy former president of Yemen hopes to extend his influence through his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), this can be read as a move against current President Hadi, who had been a member of GPC until November 2014, when he was kicked out. His ouster was the result of a travel.
International Crisis Group, “Yemen at War’
It is important to note that Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress has rejected the Houthi constitutional announcement from January 2015. This is just one example of their uneasy relationship. Ban and asset freeze imposed by the UN Security Council on Saleh and a few other leaders from the Houthi side. Hadi’s rivalry with Saleh and his break with the party only further speak to his inability to become a gravitational center in Yemeni politics.
At best, Hadi was able to become a rival of Saleh, use decrees to make new appointments and reassignments to reduce Saleh’s influence in the governing structures and military. Overtime, these moves have been able to attract defectors from Saleh’s faction, but without building a real base of his own. While having defectors on side is extremely useful when defections and declarations of support of Hadi from key GPC members provide a much-needed boost to the legitimacy of the current President, his overall legitimacy remains low. This is not least because of his moves to divide forces to steer against the Houthis.
His allies, the Southern (Popular) Resistance, are a secessionist movement with strong support in the South and do not share Hadi’s vision of a post-conflict Yemen. Influence also comes from Yemen’s immediate neighbors, who are generally strongly pro-Hadi. The political positions of regional actors and their interests in the different sides would indicate that regionalization of the Yemen conflict was inevitable. Saudi Arabia’s actions, however, are also in response to wider regional trends. Intervention in Yemen has a great deal to do with curbing Iranian foreign policy on at least two big issues – the Iranian nuclear deal and their role in Iraq. With the nuclear deal recently concluded without any direct input from the Saudis, and Iraq set to be an even bigger challenge in near future, Saudi involvement in the Yemen sphere seemed inevitable. Where Teheran’s involvement in Iraq is welcomed by the Western powers, and with there-engagement of Iran in the international community their role could be strengthen, Saudi Arabia does not share the West’s enthusiasm. But the situation in Yemen is different. The level of support from Iran, as secretive as it may be, is not the same as Iran’s support for the Shia militias in Iraq, the government of Syria’s Assad, or Hezbollah in Lebanon. While hesitation to become further embroiled may be very much connected to a fear of possible overstretching in the region and the fact that the Houthis are not under Iran’s direct control, It may also be the cane that Teheran has calculated the likelihood of a strong and determined response by Saudi Arabia if it were to step up involvement. Iran’s public declarations call for ceasefire, though they know the balance of power on the ground in Yemen matters a lot since it will transfer to the make-up of any negotiations table. Iran leaves little up to luck. Iranian Revolutionary guards are on the ground in Yemen, Iranian money and aid has been shipped to the Houthis. It should not be a surprise if more money were to be poured in, especially given the funds that will be made available in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal and an unfreezing of assets. Even though weapons may be much more needed than cash, the Houthis will still be more effective in maintaining control and popularity if they have no huge financial challenges.
Saudi Arabia Role
For the leadership in Riyadh, Yemen continues to be a foreign policy priority. The Kingdom acted as patron to Yemen’s government from the 1980s onwards, and it never accepted foreign influence in the country. In the 1960s Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to expand his Pan-Arab revolution to Yemen, only to see his efforts neutralized by the Saudis. This time around, as Iran employs their ‘revolution export ‘strategy, similar determination exists in the House of Saud and its key allies to thwart it. No accounting of the current conflict in Yemen would be complete, however, without accounting for terrorist groups. The best way to look at this issue is to understand the historical role of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its relatively recent branch of Daesh (The Arabic acronym for the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIL). AQAP is considered the most powerful of al-Qaeda’s branches after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Moreover, a terrorist group with a long legacy in Yemen. Many men who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan at the end of the last century came back to Yemen and to found AQAP. Indeed, since 1990, leaders of the largest Islamic military groups in this country have claimed ties to Bin Laden.6 With the creation of AQAP, allegiance to Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri was declared, and has been reasserted repeatedly since. The newly appointed leader of the AQAP Qasm al-Rimi, who assumed his position after the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June2015, made the same oath of allegiance when he took power. With such strong roots in Yemen, it would be difficult for ISIL to take over as a leader in the jihadist movement in the country. Further dividing ISIL and the AQAP is the firm policy of the latter for the gradual establishment of a caliphate when the ‘right conditions’ are met. This is already underway in Yemen and is not an ideology that is shared by the now rival terror group. As far back as 2009, the AQAP issued a recruitment call to aid in establishing an Islamic caliphate in Yemen.
The call anticipated the departure of Saleh from power, and the opportunity was taken at his departure to create new institutions in Yemen toward the goal of the caliphate. Further distinguishing the two groups, AQAP maintains that consultation with respectable scholars and influential leaders in the Ummah are a sine qua non for the establishment of a supranational entity. For AQAP, this serves as a source of unity and legitimacy. It is also cited in the attempts to challenge the authority.
Iran is seeking of wider legitimacy speaks to the priority of alliances for AQAP, which has indeed demonstrated success in gathering more allies amongst tribal leaders in Yemen than ISIL. These alliances are largely based on a common interest to deter any advancement of the Houthis, rather than any shared ideals for the future political reorganization of Yemen. Therefore, it is difficult to assess how long these alliances may endure, but, without a better alternative, it is likely the tribes’ current cooperation with AQAP will remain in place as long as Houthi movement provides a need for it. This means AQAP is well positioned to expand its governing territory, at least for the duration of the Yemeni crisis. ISIL may also expand their influence in Yemen, but they are unlikely to be a major player in the crisis.
While the group loyal to al-Baghdadi is increasingly popular in the media, it has had limited success in Yemen. The group will need to be accounted for, however, in the aftermath of the war and during a possible peacemaking process. Both AQAP and ISIL have declared that the Houthis deserve to be killed, however, ISIL has far more extreme methods and are prone to terrorist acts, which deepen the sectarian rift.Each of these parties is operating, moreover, in a country with limited economic prospects. In addition to high unemployment, water and food shortages, oil exports are failing to produce enough revenue for the government, due to the fall in oil prices and declining oil production because of the conflict. This means that the nation is not and will not be economically self-sufficient in the near future. The crisis in Yemen has all of the necessary conditions of a conflict that will continue for many years to come. Pro-Hadi forces have had a few recent successes securing territory in the south, which has further boosted their capabilities, allowing an increase of weapons shipments, as well as military and humanitarian aid in the south.
Conflict’s Unclear Future
The mercurial dynamics of the Yemini conflict and the multiple possible pathways upon which it might develop make planning unclear. Various scenarios explore multiple probable trajectories, and the many stakeholders – both domestic and regional – prefer diverse and conflicting outcomes. What does seem unlikely is that an outcome will be left to the will and capabilities of any one party to determine the outcome alone.
The four scenarios below represent the four poles of possible outcomes that current stakeholders may have to accommodate in any possible solution. The scenarios are fluid and represent a spectrum of possible outcomes. The X-axis represents the stability of Yemen, with outcomes ranging between its two extremes: war and peace. The war extreme examines the possibility of protracted conflict, where the war in Yemen continues at its current level, or even worse, at a heightened level of violence. At the other end of the spectrum is a peaceful solution, which assumes a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While obviously the peaceful solution is desirable, it is important to note that a resolution does not assume positive peace or an imminent reconciliation.
On the contrary, considering that this is a near-term analysis, certain ungoverned territories or sporadic violence should be expected even in the most optimistic future. The Y-axis tackles the issue of integrity. It assumes a possible return to the process of solidifying a unified Yemen, on the one hand, or dividing the territory into two separates entities on the other. ‘Integration’ marks the preservation of the country’s existing borders, regardless of its level(s) of decentralization (e.g. federation), where the opposite extreme reflects the endemic lack of national cohesion and thus represents the possibility of dividing the country in two separate states/territories. Such a scenario includes the possibility of reverting back to the pre-1990 borders, or even an alternative re-drawing of the map.
Stability and integration are key factors for the future of the country. Stability as a criterion is an overarching theme, vital for enabling further discussion on political, economic, and social issues. In other words, depending on the stability of the country and whether there is war or peace in Yemen, different policies should be applied. Integration on the other hand, provides a lens through which to examine key political developments that are equally unpredictable. Ultimately, having one or two countries on Yemen’s current territory would completely change the political landscape, and consequently, the strategies employed to reach a peaceful resolution. Understanding how these two factors combine helps complete the possible pictures of Yemen over the next few years.
Fluid Control and Power
A first scenario, based on Yemen’s current dynamics, plots a possible future for the country along the ‘development’ of the status quo. In this scenario, the country remains undivided as a political unit, but the war is unceasing and offensive operations are continuously being launched. Consequently, different parties gain or lose control of territory based on successful military/insurgent advances. This makes a map of territorial control one that constantly morphs, even within short time intervals. Such a future remains very much like today’s Yemen, where ongoing lashes between the Houthis and pro-Hadi insurgents in large cities like Aden and Taiz have given mixed results for each side. Earlier in the year the Houthis had managed to quickly gain a large territory in their quest to capture Aden, and it was then that they also overtook the al-Anad Air Base in Lahij. With the recent success of the popular resistance troops and Hadi’s supporters in retaking much of that same area, it is also possible that a further Houthi retreat may follow. A similar situation is seen in the battle for Taiz, the battle over which could go on for any length of time.
Warring Territories of Yemen
A second scenario posits that a certain level of war fatigue on the ground will result in a divided Yemeni territory, to be controlled by different groups. War-weariness may not be enough for the warring parties to conclude a peace process and may instead only serve to limit the conflict to the frontlines. A war-weary end to hostilities would simply entrench parties in their positions and focus each on defending areas under their control. The Houthis would then likely control the northern part of current-day Yemen, while the forces loyal to the regime in exile (which would likely return to Yemen under these conditions) could successfully defend the southern and central areas of the country.
Although still divided on how the future political map of Yemen should look, Hadi loyalists and the Southern Resistance (Hirak) are likely to keep a fragile and to a degree united front in the fight against their common enemy. Small areas of ungoverned territory may also exist in the current al-Qaeda controlled areas, with neither party willing or able to conquer the other territories. Under this outcome, the conflict would be expected to manifest through clashes alongthe frontlines, but sporadic terrorist attacks beyond these areas could not be ruled out. Military operations from regional state actors would also likely continue. However, without the ground support of Hadi’s loyalists, the air campaign would likely produce limited results.So far, success in regaining control of territory from the Houthis has been in areas in the south where the Houthi movement does not have massive support. It will be increasingly difficult to repeat these territorial gains in the north, which are areas of Houthi strongholds. This is, why the battle may be limited to the frontlines and over time a de facto disintegrated country could be created, as no institution has authority over the full territory.
If violence is halted, the future of Yemen will be decided by the largest and most relevant parties in the country, in conjunction with help from the international community. One possible outcome in this direction would be for the negotiators to acknowledge that a Westphalian nation-state is impossible on this territory, and instead conclude an agreement to divide Yemen. This will not be a quick or easy process, but it has significant support in the county, especially in the south. The Popular Committees in the south and Hadi’s army fighting against the Zaidi Shia Islamist group there neither belong to a single tribe nor share a common strategic objective – just a common enemy. Clashes in mid-July – when control over Aden was claimed back from the Houthis – represented for some fighters the liberation of the nation’s second largest city. For the members of the region’s separatist movement, it was a liberation of their old (and possibly future) capital. For Saudi Arabia, this means having in what would become Northern Yemen, a neighbor that is no friend of theirs, and another, Southern Yemen, which will inherit the AQAP problem.
Reconciliation and Coexistence
While currently ineffective, peace negotiations may eventually lead toward a permanent cease-fire and a deal that will preserve the unity of Yemen. This could come to pass in one of two ways. First, as the result of an effective and creative diplomacy, or second, because of the success of Operation Restoring Hope, which seeks to put President Hadiin charge of Yemen and the surrender of the Houthi movement and Saleh’s forces. Whatever means peace talks may emerge, however, the years to follow are sure to be difficult.
One way the road to stability could be eased, is through a possible rebirth of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, or PNPA 2.0. This agreement, or a new form following similar lines, could revive internal political dialogue in the country. A successful agreement would mean that post conflict institutions would have to be agreed upon, and integration of different demographic groups would be expected to take place at various levels in the government. While a clear step forward, a PNPA 2.0 would merely begin the process of reconciliation and give hope for a prolonged stability. An international peacekeeping mission might also be necessary to keep the terms of any agreement in its in initial phases, as a united and relatively stable Yemen could slowly rebuild as a federal system.
However, since the terrorist organizations operating in the country will certainly not be part of the negotiations process, and not seen as a possible actor that could be integrated into the reconstructed national institutions, they will likely remain a problem for the next government of Yemen as well as the international sponsors of the peace process.