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A boy with a hunting rifle runs through the British Cemetery in central Baghdad during a sandstorm, March 2003. MAGNUM/Moises Saman

Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”

Iraqi youth who came of age during the post-2003 turmoil share a sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Across the political spectrum, they feel trapped: join a protest movement or militia, or emigrate. Even amid the severe challenges the government and its partners face, this generation must be prioritised, lest Iraq’s most important resource become a major security threat.

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Executive Summary

Beset by political dysfunction, endemic corruption and a jihadist threat, Iraq is squandering its greatest asset: its youth. By failing to provide a vision and concrete prospects for the future, it is pressing young men into the straitjacket of jobs-through-patronage, pushing them into combat with either the Islamic State (IS) or Shiite militias or inducing them to emigrate. Arguably, the government faces more pressing challenges: pushing IS out, ensuring that subsequent governance does not further alienate the local population, instituting overdue reforms and tackling corruption. Yet, it will not succeed if it does not at the same time develop a strategy for creating a meaningful place in politics and society for the young. They are the country’s most important resource; abandoning them could turn them into the most important threat to national and regional security.

The leadership’s inability to forge a future for “Generation 2000”, which grew up after Saddam Hussein’s fall, has turned it into easy quarry for predators, be they IS, Shiite militias or populists preaching Iraqi nationalism. The potential for mobilising large numbers of young men at loose ends as pawns in violent conflicts has enabled both IS and Shiite militias to gain recruits. In the process, it has compounded sectarian polarisation and widened the divide between street and elites. Fed by fresh pools of fighting-age men, local tensions and conflicts proliferate and escalate, destabilising the country and the surrounding region. The most powerful Shiite militias receive training and advice from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed as proxies outside Iraq as well.

The familiar expression “youth radicalisation” distorts the reality that an entire generation is adrift, in need of a dramatically new state-led approach. Young Iraqis whose formative years were in the post-2003 turmoil have much more in common than they suspect, whatever side of local conflicts they are on, but they have been increasingly socialised within communal confines and left to the mercy of radical groups that promote dehumanised, even demonised perceptions of one another.

Before violence engulfed Iraq again, with the rise of IS, youth had attempted to peacefully hold the political class accountable for years of dismal governance. Sunni Arabs staged sit-ins in several towns in 2013, questioning national leaders, including senior Sunnis. They met with repression, leaving scores dead, many more in prison. These events paved the way for IS, which seized Falluja, the Sunni town nearest Baghdad, Mosul and other majority-Sunni towns in June 2014.

The collapse of the Iraqi army triggered a Shiite call to arms. Militia commanders quickly tapped into youthful disappointment with the Shiite political establishment, turning it into sectarian mobilisation against IS. By summer 2015, IS’s battlefield fortunes had turned, even as it continued to control territory and population. The absence of services, especially electricity shortages in the searing summer, stimulated a popular movement in Baghdad and other majority-Shiite areas reflecting a general sense of frustration with the political establishment.

Youths flocking to either side of the sectarian divide faulted ruling elites on the same grounds but ended up fighting each other. The political class’ response has been to protect its interests by divide and rule, redirecting anger into fratricidal tensions. Iraq’s external supporters compound the problem by boxing a rudderless generation into distinct categories – fighters, protesters or emigrants – and taking a different approach with each: a military campaign to defeat IS, pressure on the government to institute reforms to undercut demands and an effort to strengthen border controls to keep out migrants. Putting the emphasis on fighting IS, in particular, translates into tolerance of the Shiite militias, whose rise has contributed to sectarian polarisation and empowered a militia culture that compels young professionals to emigrate while boosting commanders’ political ambitions.

The government’s reform capacity may be limited, yet it must address its youth crisis as its top priority if it is to hold Iraq together. It will need the help of its sponsors, Iran included, which appear more concerned with the fight against IS. It should start by devising a youth policy, presented as a multiyear plan premised on the notion that young people need avenues for participation and advancement outside the political parties’ discredited co-option via patronage.

A first step would be to acknowledge that, isolated within the Green Zone, it has limited tools to harness youths’ energies, but also to recognise that it has advantages over non-state actors, including ability to legislate. Rather than create new structures and methods, it should embrace those used by the militias and IS and absorb youths into the state’s legal framework, security forces or civilian agencies, including as volunteers in public works. It should convert the volunteer combat groups set up in 2014 (hashd al-shaabi) into a civilian mobilisation directed to rebuilding communities within the framework of local administrations. It should likewise recruit Sunni youths in areas IS vacates and engage them in local reconstruction projects. Paying a new cohort of state employees salaries and benefits is a challenge, when reduced oil income forces significant belt-tightening, but the government should build a fund for this purpose and at least give written guarantees of a steady income, a pension and other benefits. It should also organise any further military recruitment strictly under the army.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and UN agencies must ask if their policies actually help the government in such an approach. External aid that reaches youths solely through local intermediaries risks further isolating the government in the Green Zone and reinforcing young people’s isolation in their communities, while driving them toward more dependence on local patrons and militia commanders. Unless such support gives the government a central role, it will contribute to the state’s erosion and encourage local struggles over power and resources without an effective national arbiter. Just as a country’s progress can be measured by the extent to which it engages its youth, so its demise as a viable entity can be predicted by the absence of a forward-looking youth policy and the drift of a generation into self-destructive combat or desperate flight. Iraq’s youth and the country deserve better.


Two years after the Islamic State (IS) captured major Sunni population centres, Iraqi government forces struggle to regain them in a multi-front war, supported by a U.S.-led coalition and Iranian military advice. As they make halting progress, a largely youth-led protest, which erupted in August 2015, forced Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce an ambitious reform program to replace his party-dominated government with a technocratic cabinet and tackle corruption.[fn]See, International Crisis Group, “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, 24 August 2015.Hide Footnote In February 2016, the protests surged again, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist cleric able to claim distance from the establishment and with unique appeal to Baghdad’s Shiite slums. The crisis climaxed on 30 April. Sadr’s followers scaled the walls of the Green Zone, the Baghdad area where government institutions are located, and stormed parliament to press Abadi on his promises. Tensions abated only as Abadi announced an offensive in Falluja, under IS control since 2014. Young men recruited into Shiite militias fought an enemy there drawn from the same pool of Iraq’s young, but Sunni. Others fled domestic turmoil for Europe.

These seemingly separate events are different faces of the same phenomenon. A pervasive aimlessness and lack of prospects among youths has fuelled recruitment to IS and Shiite militias, brought protesters into the streets and convinced others to emigrate. Iraqis between fifteen and 24 are nearly 20 per cent of the population.[fn]See “Demographic Indicators”, Central Statistics Organisation. A 2014 Index Mundi database reports that the fifteen to 24 age group has been steadily increasing in the last 30 years and is now some 6.5 million out of 32 million.Hide Footnote They grew up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion in a deeply dysfunctional state, dependent on local patrons or Baghdad politicians who offered access to jobs, resources and careers. Economically and communally diverse, what unites these youths is a profound sense of hopelessness, disempowerment and lack of direction. A local NGO leader in Baghdad stated bitterly:[fn]Crisis Group interview, director, Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Baghdad, 23 July 2015.Hide Footnote

I call them the “wearied” generation (al-jil al-taabaan) or the generation of chaos (jil al-fawda). The state has unravelled, the family structure is crumbling, and these young people cannot find work. They have come into a world that offers them no points of reference.

This report, which is based on research, including extensive interviews, conducted in Baghdad and the provinces, retraces the phases of this young generation’s emergence over the past fifteen years (outside the Kurdish region, where different forms of these dynamics are at play). While it refers at times to the situation of women, its primary focus is on young men, who are the ones to join fighting groups and the first in their families to go abroad in search of better opportunities. Women are active in some street protests and join settled husbands abroad; while they do not become fighters, they may give important succour to their male relatives who do. It should be clear, however, that the same failing youth policies that have produced a lost generation of young men are also reducing opportunities for young women, whose potential for Iraq’s development – and their own – is thus tragically forfeited.

I. The Degeneration of Iraq’s Youth

A. Pre-2003

The millennial generation’s plight flows from the cumulative impact of decades of state decline and decay. Despite much political turmoil during the first two decades after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the military leaders enabled considerable social mobility via land reforms that broke up a semi-feudal system, prompting rapid demographic expansion and urbanisation. Oil money helped address a growing urban population’s needs, including by giving students scholarships, social benefits and prospects for public-sector careers.[fn]Between 1958 and 1977 state employees rose from 20,000 to nearly a million, including soldiers and pensioners. After 1991, nearly 40 per cent of households lived on government salaries. Isam al-Khafaji, “War as a Vehicle for the Rise and Demise of a State-Controlled Society: the Case of Ba’athist Iraq”, in Steven Heydemann (ed.), War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley, 2000). The regime benefited from the formula its predecessor negotiated with international oil companies in 1952, which gave it a 50-per-cent profit share of operations, and other agreements that yielded larger sales revenues. Abbas Alnasrawi, The Economy of Iraq: Oil, Wars, Destruction of Development and Prospects, 1950-2010 (London, 2010), pp. 2-3. On modernisation, Isam al-Khafaji, “The Myth of Iraqi Exceptionalism”, Middle East Policy (2000).Hide Footnote The Baath party regime that seized power in 1968 implemented socio-economic policies that aimed to enable careers to which youths could aspire. It also provided housing and access to consumer goods, essential ingredients for starting a family, while keeping prospects for social advancement and political association under tight control.[fn]In Saddam Hussein’s words, “if you catch the youth, you catch the future”. Quoted in Eric Davis, Memories of the State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley, 2005), p. 1. During the 1970s, the youth ministry promoted youth associations and sports clubs. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Baath party launched a literary journal, al-Talia al-Adabia, (The Literary Vanguard), dedicated to young writers praising the war effort. See ibid.Hide Footnote

Since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, however, youths have had neither normalcy nor a sense of progress. That war compelled the regime to shift from redistributive policies to military mobilisation and massive arms expenditures. Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of its young men while being saddled with a large financial debt and the burdens of a million-strong army. Cutting benefits and services, the regime fell back on paternalistic measures favouring only loyalists.[fn]In an example of the economic breakdown the war precipitated, university libraries stopped buying new books in 1986, beginning a twenty-year hiatus in education. Meanwhile, soldiers who had killed more than twenty Iranian soldiers were rewarded with 5,000 Iraqi dinars (ID) (nearly $15,ooo) or more. See Zaid al-Zaidi, Al-Bina’a al-ma’nawi li al-quwwat al musallaha al ‘Iraqiyya (Beirut, 1995), pp. 324-325. (Before the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1990, a dinar was worth about $3. After sanctions, the dinar plummeted and at times fluctuated significantly. Today, the U.S. dollar is worth about ID 1,200. Dinar-dollar equivalents cited in the report attempt to reflect the rate at the time of the event or period discussed.)Hide Footnote Within two years, it invaded Kuwait, an attempted takeover of a wartime creditor that ended in defeat and was followed by brutally suppressed uprisings.

In the next decade, as state institutions crumbled and living conditions deteriorated under UN sanctions, young people, regardless of education or qualifications, had to get by on meagre government salaries or devise other means to survive in a ruined country that offered few prospects of return to the prosperity of the 1970s. Saddam Hussein’s regime stayed afloat by naked repression and recruiting young men from destitute areas into its security apparatus, including new militias such as Saddam’s Fighters (Fedayeen Saddam), and giving them status, uniforms, guns and a basic salary in return for blind loyalty.[fn]See Pierre Darle, Saddam Hussein, maître des mots: du langage de la tyrannie à la tyrannie du langage (Paris, 2003). Created in 1994, Fedayeen Saddam was a militia that recruited uneducated men in their twenties. Paramilitary youth organisations subsequently expanded, drawing ever-younger recruits. Founded in 1998, Saddam’s Lion Cubs (Ashbal Saddam) prepared teenagers to become good Fedayeen. Saddam’s Jihaz al-Himaya al-Khaas security guard recruited youths in their mid-twenties from poor areas, most of whom had not finished studies, and trained them in techniques like assassination and recruiting informants. Isam al-Khafaji, “State Terror and the Degradation of Politics in Iraq”, Middle East Report, no. 176 (1994), p. 18.Hide Footnote By 2003, society had been degraded materially, psychologically and organisationally.

B. The U.S. Occupation

Post-invasion blunders, combined with the UN embargo’s devastating legacy, burdened the U.S. struggle to control, rule and rebuild. The invasion and subsequent attempt to remake Iraq reshuffled the ruling elite, empowering regime opponents back from exile with little connection to the population, governing skills or experience.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°52, The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict, 27 February 2006.Hide Footnote The cadres trained (typically on scholarships abroad) and empowered in the earlier state-building process had reached retirement age, creating a gap filled by the returnees and those who benefited from the massive U.S. cash influx and resulting social mobility that disrupted hierarchies.

The new leaders inherited an oil-dependent country whose largest employer remained the state. Rather than diversifying the economy, they sought to control ministries to appropriate resources and build a popular base by offering supporters jobs in return for loyalty. The political system the U.S. created with the elected 2005 Transitional Government encouraged political-party appropriation of state institutions. Ostensibly designed to ensure equitable representation of ethnic and religious communities (the muhasasa, “allotment” principle), it encouraged the spread of party-based patronage networks throughout the public sector. Majeeda al-Timimi, a parliamentary finance committee member, explained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015. After 2005, applicants needed a recommendation letter (tazkiya) from a party to be hired, especially in the bureaucracy’s upper ranks – directors-general (mudir aam) and their deputies (naaib). Crisis Group Middle East Report N°55, Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?, 11 July 2006, p. 15.Hide Footnote

Before 2003, the planning ministry was tasked with posting vacancies for each ministry and following up recruitment. After 2005, in order to respect the principle of muhasasa, we decided that each minister should be in charge of employment in his ministry. But each minister represented a political party and would recruit only from within his party.

The public sector remained almost the sole source of jobs, but Iraqis could access and rise in it only through affiliation with the newly empowered parties. This increased the gulf between politicians, ensconced within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, and ordinary citizens. Unable or disinclined to play the party-patronage game, some joined either a budding insurgency organised by ex-regime elements and Islamist radicals – initially mixed but ultimately mostly Sunni – or the Mahdi army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), a militia led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who recruited youths from impoverished urban areas and turned them into vigilantes. Beyond the prospect of earning an income, what mobilised these youths was a sense of empowerment and ability to confront a foreign occupation.[fn]Ex-Fedayeen Saddam were the most effective fighters against the U.S. in Basra in 2003 and Najaf in 2004 but soon split up into the Mahdi army and various insurgent groups. Sadr, youngest son of a prominent Shiite cleric murdered by the regime, portrayed himself as personifying poor, jobless youths unable to find a place in the new system. Peter Harling, “Iraq’s Lost Generation”, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 11 December 2007.Hide Footnote

Over time, these movements grew larger, more sectarian and more violent, engaging young members in a contest over ownership of the capital in particular. The Mahdi army expanded its reach over Baghdad, evolving into a gang-style militia even Sadr could not control.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°72, Iraq’s Civil War: the Sadrists and the Surge, 7 February 2008, Section II.Hide Footnote Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups proliferated and grew in Baghdad’s outskirts and neighbouring Anbar governorate, where they found a deep pool of young recruits. Those who faced off in the growing sectarian war were each other’s peers.

Starting in 2007, the U.S. “surge” pushed back these groups and suppressed their appeal, but by largely relying on patronage to co-opt their upper echelons, a resurgent government further strained links between the youths and their nominal leaders. The U.S. military gave large sums of money to Sunni tribal chiefs who organised their youths in tribally-based militias (Majalis al-Sahwa, Awakening Councils) to push al-Qaeda out of their areas. The government replicated this in the south with the Majalis al-Isnaad (Support Councils), heaping money on tribal leaders to undermine the Mahdi army’s appeal among Shiite youth.[fn]On the tribes’ counter-insurgency role, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°74, Iraq after the Surge I, The New Sunni Landscape, 30 April 2008; and Iraq’s Civil War, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This policy gave Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen salaries and prospects of jobs as police or soldiers, but it also funnelled enormous resources to tribal figures who often pocketed them. Access to public-sector jobs remained limited to those with connections to political party figures, thus keeping some militia commanders and ex-insurgents off the government payroll. It was a quick fix, perhaps needed at the time to roll back al-Qaeda, but one that reinforced patron-client relationships and failed to reintegrate fighters into civilian life.

C. The Maliki Years

From 2009, the steady growth of oil production (based on new contracts with companies such as BP and Shell) gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) and his party sufficient money to buy social peace and project an illusion of stability.[fn]From 2009, oil exports rose to above two million barrels per day at a time when the barrel price exceeded $100. Some 90 per cent of Iraq’s budget derives from oil exports, a sector that, in 2014, employed less than 2 per cent of the population. After 2009, state revenues doubled. “Iraq Budget 2013”, Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, January 2014; and “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure Review”, World Bank, August 2014, Chapters I-II.Hide Footnote However, Maliki’s bold style concealed a fragile, dysfunctional state.

Maliki’s Islamic Daawa party, an elitist group of middle-class professionals formerly in exile or underground, cleverly managed Green Zone politics but did little more than dispense public-sector jobs and funds to its constituents. Oil-income redistribution was limited to the public sector, including substantial allocations for recruiting youths to the security forces.[fn]Since 2009, defence expenditures have steadily risen, reaching 20 per cent of the state budget in 2013. Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, op. cit. The interior and defence ministries had nearly 700,000 and 300,000 employees in 2012, respectively, matched only by the education ministry, with nearly 650,000. See “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure”, op. cit., p. 115.Hide Footnote Government youth initiatives merely perpet­uated party dominance over local and national institutions. In 2006, Jasem Moham­med Jaafar, youth and sports minister and a member of the Turkmen Islamic Union, a Shiite Islamist party with close Daawa ties, established and funded youth local committees (lijan shababiya) and a Youth Parliament (Barlaman al-Shababi). Both were dominated by members handpicked by Daawa and allied parties. Recruitment favoured persons who shared family ties or a social profile with party leaders. Funds were thus redistributed to committees that essentially were a junior adaptation of the country’s leadership.[fn]A former Youth Parliament member explained the selection process: “The [youth and sports] ministry selected local youth committee members through an online selection process based on applicants’ course work, educational degree and experience. A high-school diploma was a minimum requirement. In turn, youth committees elected representatives to the Youth Parliament from among their members. Political parties fully controlled the selection process. Most … candidates … had political parties supporting their application, while those competing for the parliament even had parties funding their campaigns”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 12 March 2016. Following the change in government in 2014, the youth ministry had a minister from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), who removed Youth Parliament funding. Separately, in 2013, the Sadr-controlled planning ministry signed a four-year National Development Plan in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which identified youth among its targets. The plan had achieved little when a year later, a new minister from the Mouttahidoun bloc changed priorities and redirected funds to reconstruction in areas recovered from IS. Read text of National Development Plan.Hide Footnote

The revenue bonanza accelerated trends that had surfaced during the sanctions decade. Party leaders were the tip of the patronage pyramid, redistributing resources across state institutions and so perpetuating and exacerbating the favouritism and corruption long rife in public administration.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°113, Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government, 26 September 2011. Politicians would sell managerial positions to the highest bidders among their supporters to extract kickbacks. A 30-year-old engineer said, “The position of engineering college dean is highly profitable. To get it, you need to pay some 150 million ID [nearly $135,000]. Any companies that need their projects approved by the dean before submitting them to the government would have to pay him at least 25 million ID [nearly $20,000] for each project; in this way you can earn back quite quickly what you spent for the position”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 July 2015. Also, Zaid al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, 2014).Hide Footnote Parties’ grip on state institutions and administrative corruption were mutually reinforcing. Lower-ranking members gave bribes for senior appointments, enabling them to take kickbacks from subordinates or clients in turn. This disproportionately benefited senior managers with party connections at the expense of mid-rank civil servants, whose salaries stagnated as costs rose, directly affecting the quality of services. Through party connections teachers tried to obtain posts that would give them the chance to demand bribes from students; party-connected officers received senior appointments that allowed them to take a portion of their subordinates’ pay.[fn]A teacher explained: “The education ministry decides where to post high-school teachers: in Baghdad or the provinces. Political parties influence the … choice by appointing their supporters in the capital where students tend to be wealthier and can pay bribes to pass exams or see questions in advance. Parliament will never approve a law to regulate teachers’ postings, because parties would lose their power over the process”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Education exemplified the vicious circle that directly affected youths. Many teachers supplemented incomes by giving private instruction, thus assuming a workload that conflicted with their day jobs. Students whose families could not afford to pay for private instruction in some form were less equipped to pass exams required for the public-sector jobs they coveted.[fn]A sixteen-year-old girl from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood said, “I have continued attending public school, because my family cannot afford a private teacher, who charges 50,000 ID (nearly $45) per class. The boys in our family quit their studies after primary school in order to look for a job”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote A private-school director said:[fn][1] Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. The public health system suffers from similar dysfunctions. Only freshly graduated, inexperienced doctors are in public hospitals, working more than ten hours a day, six days a week. Older, more experienced doctors only work for money they earn by establishing private clinics. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Private-school students have a greater chance to do well in exams. Their teachers know which topics to prep …. If something goes wrong, their families come to me and say, “but we are paying you!”, expecting their children to pass …. So teachers sell exam questions to students to make sure they succeed.

As services deteriorated, many Iraqis felt entitled to loot the state.[fn]In one example, some hospitals are known to sell drugs to people with privileged access, who resell them at a personal profit. Crisis Group observations, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote Many also turned to state jobs, less from a public duty sense than to ensure a basic livelihood. The survival culture fashioned in the sanctions era became further entrenched, reaching the point of putting a price on inter-personal relationships, as tribal leaders who benefited from state patronage monetised ties with members, losing youths’ respect and loyalty in the process. A tribal leader in Kirkuk complained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

After 2003, we had to connect with the stronger parties to get money and weapons to protect our land and satisfy our members. Then insurgent groups came and supplied our young with more money and more powerful weapons than we could. The [“surge”] temporarily resolved the problem, but as soon as it ended, I had nothing to offer my tribe. Before 2003, the tribal leader was the intermediary between tribe and state. If any problem arose, it was up to him to negotiate and settle it. He was a symbol (ramz). But today the young just want weapons and money. If they can’t get them from us, they get them elsewhere. This has broken the line of allegiance between a tribe’s leader and members.

Even the nuclear family was weakened, to the point that, in some extreme cases, relatives began to abuse each other. Some fathers encouraged or even forced their daughters to marry and divorce repeatedly to collect a bride’s price multiple times; in other cases, parents turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of under-age children to extract compensation from the abuser’s tribe.[fn]The OWFI reported a rise in divorces as a result of parents pressing daughters to marry young or girls’ and boys’ haste to marry to escape their household: “In 2015 [w]e have registered at least 4,150 divorces in Baghdad, a record number. A family sees a man with a new car who proposes to their daughter, and they agree to marriage without even checking how he was able to buy the car. Then they discover he is jobless, and problems begin”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Crisis Group spoke with a sixteen-year-old boy from Sadr City who said he had been a victim of sexual abuse. His father threw him out of the house while obtaining financial compensation from the culprits, which he pocketed. Other interviews suggested a wider trend.Hide Footnote

II. Generation 2000

The patronage system that ensured Maliki’s and the political establishment’s survival froze politics around a small network of persons, undermined possibilities for leadership renewal within parties, further eroded governance and, while appearing to have achieved social peace, laid the ground for new turmoil.

The millennial generation has grown up with vanishing reference points in both public and private spheres and few prospects. Each task is an encounter with a Green Zone-controlled patronage network whose tentacles spread throughout the corrupt bureaucracy, seeming to envelop the country’s life.[fn]What should be simple bureaucratic procedures become interminable processes as a way of generating income throughout the bureaucracy. A 26-year-old man recounted his experience renewing a driver’s licence: “I wanted to do it without bribing anyone. I first did an eye exam at a health ministry branch, which I took to the traffic police … in charge of renewing driver’s licenses, and the process became endless. They asked me for an official paper from my neighbourhood administrator proving my residence in Baghdad …. Then they asked me for the signatures of the head of the provincial council and the mayor …. the owner of a nearby barbershop told me the only way to speed things up would be to pay an extra 50,000 ID (nearly $45) to the directorate’s cashier”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote In destitute areas, young men needing to contribute to family income abandon studies before finishing primary (ibtidaaiya) or middle-school (mutawasita) to take precarious day-labourer (kasaba) jobs.[fn]Baghdad day labourers earn on average 35,000 ID (less than $30) per week. They tend to live in neighbourhoods where they pay 200,000 ID (nearly $180) per month for a two-room flat, possible only through the family’s collective income and living under one roof with other relatives. A Sadr City teenager was typical: “I was born here in 2000. We grew up with thirteen children in the same flat of 36 sq. metres. When I finished primary school, I began working in the central market for 5,000 ID [less than $5] per day”. Crisis Group observations, interview, July 2015.Hide Footnote Entering the job market young, men may rush to marry, but those able to earn enough to pay the bride’s price often lack funds to rent a small apartment. Contin­uing to live with family can create tensions between spouses and in-laws and other problems. A twenty-year-old woman recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. A sixteen-year-old girl in Sadr City explained that, to save money, four families lived in her house, and “sometimes married couples share a room, using a blanket suspended from the ceiling to separate themselves from the others before going to bed”. Ibid. See also Rania Abouzeid, “Out of Sight”, The New Yorker, 5 October 2015.Hide Footnote

My father was murdered in the 2007 sectarian war. Three years ago I agreed to marry a man I had met only twice. I moved in with him and his mother. My mother-in-law continually asked me for money, and when I did not comply, she incited my husband to beat me. When I gave birth to a boy, my husband divorced me, and I never saw the child again. My family refused to take me back, so I found myself in the street. I had no other choice but to work in a night club in Karrada [Baghdad central district], where I got pregnant again. The police raided the club, and I went to prison where I gave birth to my second child.

Lack of prospects also affects the educated middle class. Professionals are no longer at the top of the social pyramid, as salaries have not kept up with costs. New doctors and engineers can hardly afford to rent in their own neighbourhoods, so are reluctant to marry on starting income. A university degree, unlike party ties, no longer guarantees that graduates can practice their professions.[fn]A schoolteacher’s average monthly salary does not exceed $400; a doctor’s average start is $600/$650. Neither is enough to rent an apartment and live in a Baghdad middle-class area like Mansour, Harethiya or Karrada, with $500-$1,000 rents. Crisis Group observation, July 2015.Hide Footnote Regardless of sect or economic background, youths are confronted with a choice: complicity with the patronage system, find a way to circumvent it, join a military group or leave. Many fight with or against IS or try a dangerous journey to Europe because it offers better prospects than trying to navigate a suffocating reality.

A. Isolation, Ghettoisation and an Evolving Sectarianism

Generation 2000’s early experience was the 2005-2007 sectarian war, which drew invisible, insurmountable boundaries between cities and provinces and between communities that demarcated themselves by ethnic and confessional identities. The “surge” reinforced isolation of groups in Baghdad, separating them by concrete walls. After the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, the Maliki government retained these and imposed restrictions on mobility, in some cases limiting neighbourhood entry to residents. With the heritage of sectarian divide, these steps further restricted young people’s social connections. For many, relationships were limited to their localities, which often overlapped with their ethnic or confessional group.[fn]See on the civil war, Crisis Group Report, The Next Iraqi War?, op. cit., on security measures under Maliki, Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., and Amin Sade, “Obstructing Reforms”, Sada, 8 August 2013. The divide affects practices, habits and relations. A Baghdad twenty-year-old said, “if you want to go out, you feel you cannot. Even friendship is complicated; you never know who you can trust”. Crisis Group interview, 29 July 2015. Most southern youths have visited only Karbala and Najaf for pilgrimages, never a Sunni area or Baghdad. Those born in Ramadi, have rarely visited Baghdad, not 90 minutes away. Crisis Group observations, 2013-2015.Hide Footnote

Those now in their late twenties participated in or saw the street fighting known as al-ahdath al-taefiya (the sectarian events). Relatives or friends were killed or forced to leave neighbourhoods depending on their sect. The millennials experienced displacements as children; by teen years, the barriers had solidified.

While the former generation knew sectarian divisions and participated in the fighting, the present one has grown up with sectarianism as an a priori condition that constrains friendships, mobility, marriage choices and daily practices.[fn]An OWFI member said, “the practice of intra-family marriage is on the rise even among middleclass professionals. Parents prefer to marry their daughters to family members or people of the same neighbourhood”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote Elders with civil war memories avoid certain areas, but young Iraqis barely know such localities. A twenty-year-old born and raised in Mahmoudiya, a Shiite town south of Baghdad, said of a neighbouring Sunni town he has never seen, “in Latifiya, they have services because they are Sunnis. Here, because we are Shiite, we don’t have anything, except the marjaeeya. If Daesh [IS] enters Mahmoudiya, the Latifiya Sunnis will transfer allegiance and side with them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 23 July 2015. A Shiite from Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood called Latifiya an “al-Qaeda cradle”. Crisis Group interview, July 2015. The marjaeeya is the source of emulation in Shiite religious tradition, in Iraq embodied by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In a near-mirror image, a 30-year-old Sunni from Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood, echoing perceptions rooted in the civil war, said he considered Mahmoudiya dangerous: “you can hardly drive [there] and expect to get out in one piece”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Geographical isolation has nurtured sectarianism by locking youths within the boundaries of their community.[fn]Isolation cemented local identities even within the same sect. Thus, the large majority of Mah­mou­diya youth have never visited Baghdad’s Sadr City (its largest Shiite neighbourhood) despite it also being Shiite-populated and a mere twenty kilometres away. A Mahmoudiya resident said he considered this “a dangerous trip”. Sadr City residents, in turn, would be surprised to hear of anyone having visited Mahmoudiya. Crisis Group observations, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote While Sunnis and Shiites confronted each other in the streets during the sectarian war, young people from different sects now have competing representations of reality that depend on the narratives to which they are exposed within their localities rather than direct experience. The gulf between those competing representations has become sharper since the rise of IS. A Shiite student from Baghdad comparing 2006 with today said, “there is no longer a difference between Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad. No one will ask you what you are at a checkpoint”, but this contrasted with the view of a Sunni youth in Baghdad, who perceived sectarian discrimination on the rise: “Now they know immediately who is Sunni or Shiite without even checking your ID or your name as before. They look at the type of car you drive, the way you dress, the way you greet them”.

B. Growing Anti-establishment Sentiment

The degradation of state institutions nurtured feelings among youths of disdain toward political leaders. Asked for an opinion, the answer frequently is “bas yaboog”, a dialect expression meaning “they just steal”. Youths regularly accuse them of pocketing public resources and constraining individual aspirations. In the words of a young man who frequents the park on Mutanabbi Street (a rare Baghdad place where youths still gather Friday mornings):[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

In Iraq, nowadays, all you need to be a successful politician are weapons and fighters. The only thing politicians know well is how to steal, steal, steal [bug, bug, bug]. They are anti-people: they invade and occupy each corner and aspect of our life. They are the main reason for this [IS] conflict. The state is a failure. When I see a soldier, I do not respect him .… The army is a cowardly bunch.

Though these feelings are widely shared across sectarian lines, young people are divided in expressing them. The sentiments have surfaced within civil society initiatives that sought to broaden their local dimension, but isolation within localities and sects has made youth mobilisation on a national scale difficult. The protests that began in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in 2011 had a unique character in Iraq. Protesters expressed a common theme of fighting corruption and bad governance, but the movements that erupted against local politicians in Baghdad, Basra and even Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan remained largely disconnected.[fn]See Marina Ottaway and Daniel Kaysi, “Iraq: Protests, Democracy, Autocracy”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 March 2011. Civil society initiatives remain largely local. Ahmad Thamer Jihad, “Don’t leave Iraq to thieves and murderers”, Niqash, 5 November 2015.Hide Footnote Youths shared an emotive impulse against the status quo but seemed disinclined to establish a political movement against the country’s leadership.

The millennial generation has an amorphous identity: depending on the context and who seeks to mobilise them, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, locally geographic or other sub-national identity will emerge as the avenue through which members see and challenge the establishment. Iraqi youth were the most vulnerable to deepening sectarian polarisation after the Syrian uprising, and this pitted young against young along sectarian lines even as they all shared an anti-establishment animus.

III. Mobilisation for Combat

A. A Dying Insurgency’s Revival

In 2012, Syria’s uprising became a full-scale war involving neighbouring powers (Iran, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey) that polarised the region partly along sectarian lines. Iraq, the geographic epicentre, was quickly affected, prompting re-mobilisation of ex-insurgents and militia members. A protest movement allegedly funded by Gulf sources emerged in Sunni areas. Anti-establishment feelings boiled over in protests whose civil-society character mixed with symbols of a sect or geographic area. Clerics, tribal leaders and branches of the old Islamist and nationalist insurgency organised tent sit-ins and “protest squares” in the main majority-Sunni cities, Ramadi, Samarra, Hawija and Mosul. Twenty-year-old clerics and tribal leaders enlivened Friday prayers, and teenagers joined in, making the protest squares a social gathering as well as expression of political engagement.

Compounded by government failure to offer prospects to especially the masses of idle entrants into adult life, the protests acquired a stronger political overtone. In May 2013, special forces cracked down on a tent sit-in Hawija, killing at least 50 and rekindling revenge sentiments among those in their late twenties who retained vivid memory of the sectarian-driven repression they had experienced the previous decade and whose insurgency had failed to defeat the Shiite-dominated government.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°50, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, 28 April 2014, p. 9.Hide Footnote While elders tried to contain the situation, young and ambitious clerics and tribal leaders incited Friday audiences.[fn]Two clerics in their twenties, Sheikh Saeed al-Lafi from Ramadi and Qusay al-Zein from Falluja, emerged as prominent Friday prayer protest leaders in the squares. For an overview of Sunni youth protests and government response, see Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit.Hide Footnote Their aggressive rhetoric caught on among teenagers who had hardly been outside their own cities and whose experience of the government and Shiites was often limited to unpleasant interactions with security forces.[fn]A former insurgency member taking part in a sit-in said, “we think that the armed opposition did not achieve its goals in Iraq and that America handed Iraq to Iran and the Shiites. Factions of the former resistance have been scattered across the country, but we are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons. Maliki’s government fully realises this. We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 14 February 2013; Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote An elder tribal leader participating in the protests worried: “We have a hard time controlling our young boys in the protest squares. We organise football matches to keep them busy, but tension is growing by the day. They ache to take on weapons”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Majeed, Ramadi, 9 March 2013.Hide Footnote

The government’s attempt to end the protests by co-opting Sunni tribal and political figures disrespected by young people consolidated a partnership between ex-insurgents in their late twenties and Sunni teenagers. The former viewed the jihadist cells scattered across the Iraq-Syria desert since the time of the U.S. occupation as a temporary ally. Both groups welcomed the jihadists’ arrival euphorically, if for different reasons. To ex-insurgents, jihadists were a strong military partner in their desire to revenge the lost battle against the government. Teenagers, with no memory of the jihadists’ al-Qaeda in Iraq incarnation, welcomed them as champions of a new order.[fn]In 2005, under Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s leadership, al-Qaeda in Iraq proclaimed an Islamic State. Its authoritarian practices challenged local and tribal values, unleashing an indigenous, U.S.-supported revolt that pushed it out of urban centres into the desert; in 2011, it took advantage of Syria’s chaos to move there and grow. Crisis Group, Iraq after the Surge I, op. cit.Hide Footnote A resident of al-Qaim, who witnessed the fall of his border city to IS militants in June 2014, recounted:[fn]Crisis Group email communication, al-Qaim resident living under IS, October 2014.Hide Footnote

Fifteen fighters entered the city. During Friday prayers they announced they had come to end government injustices and terminate the amnesty police and soldiers enjoyed in the city. Young boys took to the street cheering victory. The jihadists recruited a number of these who had no connection to the insurgency and no affiliation with political parties but were supporters of the protests. They tasked them with ensuring protection of public and private property, without asking them to swear allegiance. Only after weeks of testing their potential were the youths asked to pledge absolute allegiance to Daesh.

Jihadist fighters advanced in city after city, village after village, declaring creation of an Islamic State in June 2014.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Alert, “Iraq after Hawija: Recovery or Relapse?”, 26 April 2013; Reports, Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, and Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, both op. cit.; and Middle East Briefing N°38, Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-Box, 20 June 2014.Hide Footnote Key to their success was ability to direct youths’ anti-establishment sentiments against the entire political class and redefine a confrontation that began between Sunni street and Sunni elites as a sectarian one opposing Sunni provinces and the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government.

B. Militia Commanders Return

Something similar swept across the Shiite provinces. As security in Syria deteriorated, the threat against the Shiite sanctuary of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus revived memories of the traumatic 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, apparently by al-Qaeda. From late 2012, Iranian Revolutionary Guards began recruiting Iraqis who had been militia commanders during the U.S. occupation and failed to integrate into the political process afterward. These men reorganised militias or built new ones and sent fighters to Syria under the tolerant eye of the Maliki government and the main Shiite political forces.[fn]Already in mid-2013, nearly 50 fighters weekly were flying from Iraq to Syria to join splinter factions of former Iran-backed militias (the Mahdi army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Badr Brigade and the Hizbollah Brigades) under command of ex-militia cadres who had not re-integrated in the political process. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Shiite clerics, often militia commanders’ peers who had climbed to authority in Shiite religious seminaries (hawza) and been confined to the shadows after the militia fight ended, also found an opportunity to regain popularity by supporting such recruitment.[fn]For instance, a man known as Abu Zeinab (nom de guerre), an ex-Mahdi army fighter, was reportedly in charge of organising recruitment, equipment, bookings and security permits for those flying to Syria. Among others with similar roles in Syria were Sheikh Auws al-Khafaji, another Mahdi army splinter figure, and Sheikh Abu Kamil al-Lami, a member of the Mahdi army offshoot, the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq). In February 2013, Wathiq al-Battat, ex-Hizbollah Brigades (Kataeb Hizbollah), founded a new corps, the Mukhtar Army, with the purpose of defending Shiites against attack and sending fighters to Syria. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The 10 June 2014 collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul exposed the dysfunction and corruption of the government and Shiite political leadership.[fn]The government tolerated the smuggling; fighters flew from Najaf, reportedly directed by a Daawa party member. Yet, before 2014 none of the main Shiite political forces sent fighters to Syria, neither the Badr Brigade, formerly the armed branch of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), an Iran-backed former opposition group fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime, nor the Mahdi army, the armed branch of the Sadr movement, which received some Iranian backing during the U.S. occupation. Crisis Group interview, Basra, September 2015.Hide Footnote Scenes of IS massacring Shiite army cadets at the Speicher military base went viral on social media, further demonstrating Baghdad’s impotence.[fn]See “Iraq: Islamic State Executions in Tikrit”, Human Rights Watch, 2 September 2014; and Tim Arango, “Escaping death in northern Iraq”, The New York Times, 3 September 2014.Hide Footnote A 26-year-old Hizbollah Brigade fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 April 2015.Hide Footnote

We can no longer count on the army to defend this country. They are not motivated to fight, while we are sleeping in the dust on the front lines, risking our lives every moment. Army officers are corrupt; they spend their time in luxurious hotels with women and leave the jihadists on the loose in return for money. This country is in ruins.

The fear that IS could advance to Samarra, Karbala and Najaf validated for Shiites, teenagers in particular, the argument of militia commanders and clerics that they should rally to defend their shrines, because Shiite politicians had failed to create a functioning army.[fn]A 24-year-old who fought in Syria said, “the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards are our brothers; we are part of the same axis, which rejects state borders. I consider [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad a criminal, but we fought for the protection of Sayyida Zeinab”. Crisis Group interview, 4 April 2015. Another, interviewed on his way to fight in Syria, said, “it is my duty to go there and fight to defend Sayyida Zeinab. Should we see Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s grand-daughter, captured again?” Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Clerics opened Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya) for recruitment, as tribal leaders did with their guesthouses (mudhif). Acknowledging the imperative of fighting IS but also seeing the dangers in attempting to resist a mass call-up of Iran-backed militia fighters, the Shiite political and religious establishment tried to ride the wave rather than stem the tide. Iraq’s highest religious Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a binding religious edict (fatwa) on 13 June, calling on youths to volunteer in defence of the country. The call to sign up spread by word of mouth across the south and resulted in a massive mobilisation of young volunteers (mutatawaeen) in what was later called “popular mobilisation” (al-hashd al-shaabi). A hashd officer in Karbala recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, officer of the hashd Liwa Ali al-Akbar, Karbala, 29 July 2015. Though there is no accurate count of hashd recruits, in early 2015 it was estimated to be between 90,000 and 120,000. See Mustafa Habib, “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful than the Iraqi army?”, Niqash, 29 January 2015.Hide Footnote

We were already active before Sistani’s fatwa. Now our militia members with previous military experience and [Shiite army] officers are organising recruitment and training. We have recruited more than 3,000 fighters from the tribes to defend the holy shrines in Samarra. Now we are focused on safeguarding the Imam Hussein shrine [in Karbala].

The Sistani fatwa was a deft but desperate attempt to save the legitimacy of the Shiite clerics and the political establishment by giving a nationalist sheen to anti-IS operations under the aegis of the Shiite world’s most respected religious leader.[fn]The son and representative of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim in Najaf said, “the state failed to protect the people from Daesh and also could not accommodate the volunteers, and so [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani had little choice but to call for popular mobilisation”. Crisis Group interview, Izzeddine Mohammed al-Hakim, Najaf, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote It succeeded to an extent but had the unintended result of giving the Shiite community a leadership role in defence of the country, with Shiite teenagers eagerly compensating for the political class’ failings by fighting IS in a war against their Sunni peers – in other words, precisely the sectarian conflict IS wanted.

C. Volunteering to Fight

Joining the hashd was the only way for many youths to earn a salary and benefits for their families if they died. Most who enrolled had been working as day labourers or in the lower public sector ranks, with no possibility of a decent living.[fn]The large majority of hashd volunteers have not finished primary or middle-school studies and worked in precarious conditions as day labourers, making a maximum of 25,000 ID per week (barely $20), too little to pay monthly rents in the area of some 200,000 ID (nearly $180). Hashd pay differs from group to group. A member in Baghdad said he received 750,000 ID (around $630) monthly, one in Karbala 875,000 ID (some $735): 500,000 ID as salary, 250,000 as danger indemnity and 125,000 for food. Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Still, while income was an incentive, their motives cannot be reduced to material interest. The hashd attracted many destitute youths in part because recruitment targeted the most densely populated, poorest areas (like Sadr City in Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya and Amara) or was done near the frontline (for example, Shula and Hurriya neighbourhoods in Baghdad and Karbala). Young men continued to volunteer even when the government or militia defaulted on pay. In 2015, volunteers joined training sessions for reservists that offered no remuneration.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Baghdad and the southern provinces, July 2015.Hide Footnote

It is likely that youths were driven by enthusiasm and the prospect of heroism, which circulated in their communities, more than by rational motives or religious belief.[fn]The largest proportion of recruits appear to come from the Baghdad and Basra peripheries, while Shiite religious centres, such as Najaf and Khadamiya (in Baghdad), home to religious holy sites, send only a small number. Many come from Karbala, a city with two holy shrines close to the front line with IS in Anbar.Hide Footnote After Sistani’s fatwa, hashd symbols spread throughout Shiite towns and neighbourhoods. Teachers and parents lauded volunteers and encouraged students and sons to join them. A father who lost his son in battle showed a picture of his body in the hospital and said, “we could not stop him from going. He slipped out to the recruitment centre during the night. He was only seventeen. We are very proud of him. After he joined the hashd, he married and brought us his salary”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015. A twenty-year-old said: “My uncle is part of the hashd. I decided to join the training to help him. My dream is to become an army officer! My father also encouraged me to join to help the country. I’m not afraid to die; everyone has to die sooner or later”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

Young people were also attracted by the instant fulfilment, even martyrdom, the hashd offered, when no other prospects existed.[fn]A recruitment officer said, “we receive an increasing number of recruits. The problem is with the youngest. Some behave without thinking on the battlefield. The largest problem is with those who join because they want to die”. Crisis Group interview, Karbala, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote IS’s sudden arrival produced a sense of unpredictability and collective precariousness that persuaded youths to live for the moment rather than plan. Adnan, a 21-year-old from Mahmoudiya, was an exception in his neighbourhood for finishing high school and entering an engineering college in Baghdad, but the fatwa dramatically changed his direction:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Once [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani issued his fatwa, I left university and signed up. University is useless at this moment. We must fight and defend the country that the politicians left to Daesh. Politicians are all robbers. Religious figures are not.

The hashd also gave youths unprecedented symbolic and material power to play a dominant role in their direct environment and a social ladder that bypassed the patriarchal family, tribal groups and patronage networks of Iraqi society. Many Shiite youths perceive themselves as having the role of saving an Iraq that is theirs to own and reshape within an exclusively Shiite identity ever since Shiite parties won the 2005 elections. Unlike the 2005-2007 war, however, when youths killed one another in their neighbourhoods, the fight against IS leaves room to demonise a less direct and personal enemy whom many have never seen or met.[fn]A sixteen-year-old volunteer, depicting the enemy he believed the hashd was fighting, said, “this is not a war against Sunnis. What we are fighting is similar to the Mongol invasion”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

D. Genie Unleashed

Neglected for a decade, youths unwittingly became the drivers of a political transformation that the political leadership was ill-equipped to ride or contain. The sharp fall of oil prices, which coincided with IS’s ascendancy, reduced funds and further weakened the political class’ ability to use patronage to broker social peace.[fn]A Badr cadre and provincial council member said of political class unpreparedness, “the problem is that there is no politics. When the situation changes we adjust policy, not the other way around. We are never prepared for the next step”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 17 September 2015. The government calculated the 2014 budget and expenditures on the 2013 average oil price of $80-$90 per barrel, setting an ambitious export level of 3.4m barrels per day. In June 2014, the price was $70 per barrel, and exports were 2.2m barrels. By September, the country had a $75bn deficit. Al-Arabiya website, 26 September 2014. The 2015 price fell further.Hide Footnote The ruling elites began to look to mobilisation as the best way to secure political and economic assets.[fn]Parts of the security apparatus, such as the Badr Brigade, which dominates the police command structure, took off their uniforms and joined the militias. A Badr member said that after the Sistani fatwa, “Badr members left the police force and sped to the hashd recruitment centres”. Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Ahmad Sleaybi, Basra, 18 September 2015. See also, “Iraq crisis: Rebranded insurgents gain whip hand on streets of Baghdad”, The Guardian, 22 June 2014.Hide Footnote Maliki used his position to move money to the hashd, in order to align it within the framework of the state and gain leverage over it. The government ended financial aid for tribal leaders, transferred much of the defence and interior ministry budgets to finance the hashd through Maliki’s office and the national security organisation (jihaz al-amn al-watani), and compelled each hashd unit to register with the defence ministry.[fn]Faleh al-Fayyadh, the national security organisation’s head and national security adviser, has minister rank and is close to the Daawa party. The organisation pays each hashd brigade commander (Abu al-Hashd) according to the registered fighters under his command and distributes their salaries. In November 2014, Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, proposed to give families of those killed in action the same benefits as those killed while fighting in the army: a pension and plot of land. “شمول شهداء الحشد الشعبي بكامل الامتيازات العسكرية” [“Full military benefits for the martyrs of the popular hashd”], Council of Ministers,
Hide Footnote

Despite government and Daawa efforts to control the hashd within the state, the fatwa’s aftermath saw chaotic attempts by Shiite political and religious figures to protect their support by registering the largest possible number of recruits, each to his own faction. Fatah al-Sheikh, a former parliament member, said, “the government has demanded a list of volunteers to fight Daesh. The politicians today are galvanised to collect lists of names to sell to the hashd”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 March 2015.Hide Footnote

They engaged in fundraising and redirected money from religious endowments and religious taxes (khums) to secure salaries for their fighters and benefits for the families of those killed in battle, who were deemed martyrs.[fn]Beside the national security organisation, religious personalities close to the Sistani marjaeeya relied on the religious endowments (awqaf) of the Karbala and Najaf shrines and religious taxes (khums), 20 per cent of a follower’s income. Politicians have also organised fund-raising campaigns by placing collection boxes (sunduq) in shops and mosques. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad and southern provinces, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote Thus, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) of Ammar al-Hakim funded its brigades from its affiliated civilian ministries and family benefits through the Hakim family’s charitable association.[fn]A Sadrist militant critically observed: “The youth ministry [held by an ISCI member] has re-directed the youth and its resources toward the war. The minister spends his time inspecting the hashd brigades”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 4 April 2015. The Hakim charitable foundation in Najaf organises collection of money to compensate families of those killed in battle. Crisis Group observations, Najaf, September 2015.Hide Footnote Charitable entities connected to party figures have proliferated in the south. Ostensibly set up to address the large influx of Sunni displaced (IDPs) or conduct other civil-society activity, they have direct access to international aid, mostly from UN agencies.[fn]The strategy of UN agencies and the World Bank has been to partner with local NGOs to implement stabilisation programs and civil society initiatives in the provinces, where organisations receive funding without governmental oversight. A UN official said, “we chose to partner with local organisations to prevent losing reconstruction and stabilisation funds to government corruption”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 10 June 2016. However, this procedure has inadvertently invited party figures to establish NGOs to attract funding, which they use to maintain constituents’ support and subsidise families of those fighting in their affiliated militias.Hide Footnote They redirect part of this to sustain party patronage networks of individuals, families and tribes the state budget had financed and families of militia volunteers linked to the party they support.[fn]A 30-year-old former Daawa-sponsored Youth Parliament member from Karbala began investing in civil society initiatives in 2015, after the new youth and sports minister cut the parliament’s funding. His experience shows the Daawa party’s flexibility in sustaining its network and dexterity in exploiting international organisations’ poor auditing. He said, “political parties have become boring to people. Now is the time of civil society organisations. In 2016 alone, 70 new ones have been established in Karbala. We receive direct funding from UNICEF to help displaced people in Karbala and sustain families in need, with no distinction between Sunnis and Shiites”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 29 May 2016. Another civil society activist said, “I have been part of a youth organisation in Diwaniya. We have received one million ID [nearly $861] so far. Poor demographic data complicate the auditing and evaluation of these projects. Unintentionally, the UN and other donors have replaced oil income in the parties’ efforts to dispense patronage”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet, overall, parties lack flexibility to reach large numbers of youths. The familiar channels, party offices, co-option of tribal leaders and leverage over local and central state institutions, are no longer effective.[fn]As the pro-government “support councils” (majalis isnaad) faded, tribal leaders lost along with their finances much of their power over younger members, who were now recruited and paid by the hashd. Police and other public-sector employees joined different hashd factions while continuing to receive government salaries. Crisis Group observations, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Fundraising campaigns can only temporarily cover arms, salaries and benefits. Efforts to attract recruits have exhausted resources and fragmented each main Shiite political party by making their leaders more dependent on external supplies of arms and funding raised through donors.[fn]For instance, militias are dependent on Iran for weapons, vehicles and intelligence. See “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote This has largely resulted in the crumbling of traditional parties and empowerment of those party figures who secured local control through their affiliated militias and accumulated economic assets via their affiliated charities.

Militias began to splinter as well. For example, a struggle unfolded within the Daawa party, with Maliki, ousted as prime minister after IS captured Mosul and other cities, attempting a comeback by backing one of the militias. Even the Sadrist movement, which has mobilised thousands of youths since 2003, has failed to keep full support in its Sadr City stronghold now that it is part of the political establishment.[fn]A former Mahdi army fighter said, “many of those who would have joined us in the past no longer do so; they are now recruited by other groups. Our former fighters are 30; they have families and children and are no longer inclined to heroism and adventure. Even if we still keep strong in the south, we witness a decreasing capacity for mobilisation in Sadr City”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 7 April 2015.Hide Footnote It experienced a sharp fall in supporters for its militia, the Brigade of Peace (Sara­yat al-Salam), while former Mahdi army fighters established a myriad of splinter groups, in addition to the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq), which broke from the Sadrists’ Mahdi army in 2008 over leadership and funding. Hosham al-Thahabi, an ex-Sadrist militant, commented:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 5 April 2015.Hide Footnote

The Sadrist forces are poorly managed; defections are accelerating, and new militias acting independently from Sadr are appearing. Akram al-Kaabi, a former Sadrist “defector”, joined the League of the Righteous and later established his own militia with Iranian funds. This is bad news, because Sadrist constituents make up the largest recruitment pool for all militias.

Shiite parties’ attempts to recruit members through their offices were overtaken by militias, which reached youths especially by recruiting at the local level via prayer houses. The militias promise swift promotions and responsibilities, allowing recruits to express their identity in ways unimaginable in the army, police or Shiite parties and so boost their social standing in their home areas. In contrast to middle-age Green Zone politicians in suits and ties, the militias promote a new generation of military and religious leaders with whom young Iraqis can identify.[fn]In Karbala, the police leadership forbade the militias to recruit in police stations, forcing them to use Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya). Crisis Group observation, Karbala, July 2015. A young man from Sadr City observed: “Each militia has its own way of cutting their eyebrows, or keeping their hair long or short. The most successful recruiters in Sadr City have adapted to the district’s style. Sadr City boys like to peel off their eyebrows, apply tattoos and wear tight trousers. In 2004, Mahdi army fighters would not allow such styles; now each militia in Sadr City accepts it and adopts its own distinct symbol”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. Abu Azrael (“the angel of death”), a former Mahdi army fighter, now a member of the Kataeb Imam Ali militia, is an iconic figure with more than 150,000 followers on social media. See “Iraqi fighter gains social media following in fight against ISIS”, Al-Arabiya (online), 12 March 2015.Hide Footnote

Most hashd elements have close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose military advisers train their affiliated militias into reliable fighting forces that have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed even outside Iraq. An ISCI member said there are two types of Shiite hashd:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Alaa Mousawi, Baghdad, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

There are the marjawi and the walayi, the first under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the second under [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Kha-menei. For us, supporters of the marjawi, the hashd is only a temporary project; it should reintegrate into the state, obtain funding only from the defence ministry and operate under the prime minister as a future National Guard, a force with power and training similar to the federal police. For the supporters of the walayi, the hashd should be a force that can be deployed in Syria or anywhere else where it is needed.

As the hashd evolved into a forum for intra-Shiite political competition, each faction developed its own icons, symbols and names, complicating any government effort to merge them under a single command within the state. With the government unable to produce an alternative plan for youth, the struggle against IS dragging on and provincial elections anticipated in April 2017, militias leaders and politicians supporting them may leverage external financial and military support to consolidate their power and undermine the Abadi government.[fn]An Asaeb Ahl al-Haq member explained the group’s aspirations: “We are not only a military organisation. We have a project of building a state. We want to reform state institutions and transform the hashd into a civilian hashd (hashd al-shaabi al-madani). Political parties’ governance has failed in Basra, and in Iraq generally. We have achieved military victories; we have participated in demonstrations calling for change, and we are now ready to become part of the governorate’s and country’s leadership”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote Rather than producing a managed decentralisation, this development is handing extensive powers to local bosses without any central government oversight.

E. Disaffected Sunni Youth

Mobilising youth became equally vital for Sunni provincial and tribal leaders intent on countering IS. Without direct access to weapons, they had to give lists of fighters to the national security organisation in Baghdad or Kurdish parties in Erbil so as to claim funds and arms. Unlike at the time of the U.S. “surge”, they could not recruit in insurgent-controlled territories and trigger an indigenous reaction against the movement. Though they tried to blame youths’ turn to IS on the Shiite-dominated government’s failure to provide jobs, they themselves had prepared the way for the jihadists’ advance by their embrace of the credibility-destroying patronage system. IS military successes exposed them as persons with no anchor in their own societies and no authority over Sunni areas.

They never led but rather fled the Sunni uprising. Once protests began in 2013 and IS advanced, Sunni leaders moved to safer ground (Baghdad, Erbil, Amman), providing additional evidence to constituents of their self-serving policy. Their cooperation with Kurdish or Shiite militias, which they had condemned for years, undermined their legitimacy even more.[fn]A Mosul resident, expressing disenchantment about Atheel al-Nujayfi, the Ninewa governor, having called on the population to resist, then leaving before IS entered, asked: “Why did Nujayfi not defend us? Why he did not warn us? He accused the army so as to blame all on Maliki. He just used us!” Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 3 April 2015. A Falluja resident living under IS expressed similar feelings: “Young people see their tribal leaders as merchants (tujjar). They went to various countries, including Iran, to increase their fortunes and sell them out. As IS advanced, [young people] are on the ground dealing with the situation, while their elders sit in Baghdad hotels”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote Away from IS-controlled territory, provincial officials and tribal leaders could rely only on a limited number of individuals who benefited from their patronage (eg, senior police) or close family (ayyan al-ashira). Sheikh Ahmad al-Jibouri, a former sahwa member, noted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad (al-Doura), 28 March, 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2006, I recruited more than 6,000 fighters and cleaned al-Doura [a Baghdad neighbourhood] of al-Qaeda. Sunni recruitment to the hashd is a masquerade! Some tribal leaders, who promise to deliver a certain number of fighters, submit names to the government only to obtain funds, then flee to Amman.

Once safe, Sunni leaders made little effort to assist those living under IS. Instead, like Shiite politicians, they have tried to rebuild patronage networks via externally-funded charities for IDPs, who need guarantors to access safer areas, obtain documents enabling them to resettle and obtain services in the areas of their displacement. These leaders hope outside powers will restore them to their old positions when IS is driven out – as a reward for not joining – and allow them to lead internationally-funded reconstruction.[fn]In Tikrit, a city taken back from IS in April 2015, members of the Jibouri tribe have set up NGOs to work in reconstruction. Crisis Group Skype interview, NGO worker, June 2016.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the front line, IS took advantage of the generational divide. As soon as it controlled a territory, it assigned responsibilities to local youths, recruiting them as fighters or giving those with low-ranking jobs a path to reach positions previously reserved for party members.[fn]In Rawa, Anbar governorate, top public jobs (hospitals, public administration, electricity) were in Islamic Party hands. When IS arrived, senior party figures fled, and IS promoted young, low-ranking employees. Crisis Group, telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote One of its most effective policies was to give leadership posts to the youngest members of a tribe aligned with the government. Ramadi, which IS captured in June 2015, is an example. Its central districts resisted until elders of the Abu Alwan tribe fled to Baghdad, leaving younger members in charge. The latter struck a deal with IS, which included a general amnesty and their elevation to tribal chiefs.[fn]A Ramadi resident said, “each tribal leader has a younger cousin (ibn ammi) who can claim noble blood and become sheikh of the tribe. There is a new generation of sheikhs in Anbar. Often those appointed to high-profile positions are younger members of tribes whose elder sheikh sided with the government”. Crisis Group telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 29 July 2015.Hide Footnote

The post-IS phase in Sunni areas will be especially challenging, because social hierarchies are developing under IS rule that are parallel with and disconnected from those in areas under government control. The two will be difficult to reconcile. Tribal leaders empowered by IS may be unwilling to step down and could challenge both Sunni political officials and the legitimacy of tribal elders. This, and because they may be vulnerable to retributive violence, might provoke new generational power struggles within tribes. National leaders will need to devise a non-discriminatory policy that targets youths in areas recovered from IS and prevents a Sunni leadership struggle that would exacerbate the generational divide. Otherwise, people will face a stark choice between collaborators with IS and a discredited political clique that out-sourced recovery of Sunni areas to the hashd or the Kurds and intends to use reconstruction funds to rebuild its local support.

IV. The Desperate Alternative: Emigration

Rather than devise a policy that might spare a new generation another conflict, the Shiite political class has attempted to use the hashd movement to contain discontent among Shiite youths and redirect it toward the confrontation with IS. Throughout 2015, hashd factions sought to absorb the growing numbers of volunteers without affecting military operations by creating reserve forces (qwwat ihtiyatiya) that gave students and day workers basic training but often made no other use of them. Under severe financial pressure, the government focused spending on youth mobilisation against IS, diverting it from jobs creation and other purposes. In June 2014, for the first time in a decade, ministries did not post new openings and have posted few since.[fn]Majeeda al-Timimi, a member of parliament’s finance committee, said, “in June [2014], more than 16,000 new jobs were unassigned for lack of funds, while 30,000 new positions were issued by the national security organisation and nearly $3 million was allocated to [Maliki’s] office to pay the hashd”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Party disinvestment from state institutions was apparent. An employee of the higher education ministry observed: “Since Mosul fell, the ministry has not had resources to complete projects and resume recruitment. The minister asked employees to donate blood for injured hashd fighters, and pictures of the hashd are on show in the ministry building”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Educated young people, the future professional middle class, are at the margin of political leaders’ attention, hard hit by the budget crisis and society’s militarisation and facing a choice of adjusting to rule by armed groups or emigrating. IS successes have deepened the divide between them and destitute youths empowered by militias. A 23-year-old female student at Baghdad’s College of Medicine expressed a common sentiment:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 June 2015.Hide Footnote

We tolerated many things after 2003, but we reached saturation point. After [the IS conflict], I decided to leave in order to complete my studies abroad. Here I have only a 20 per cent possibility to succeed in what I am doing compared to the previous generation, and we are no longer respected in this society.

Government policy coupled with the economic crisis have helped further marginalise the middle class. In areas the government controls, its fading ability to enforce the law in a militia-dominated environment compels young professionals to ask militias for protection. Armed groups (militias and IS alike) in need of their skills, in particular those of doctors, increasingly try to recruit them, either forcibly or by creating professional associations parallel to the state’s.[fn]Militia factions have established associations of doctors who volunteer to treat injured hashd fighters on the front lines. See Footnote

Other strains result from the higher education ministry’s decision not to recognise diplomas from universities in IS-controlled areas. It has attempted to relocate those institutions to areas controlled by Baghdad or the Kurds, but professors and students have difficulty accessing the new sites due to movement restrictions and fear of retaliation.[fn]The higher education ministry has attempted to transfer Mosul College of Medicine to Kirkuk, currently under Kurdish control. Students displaced in Baghdad cannot easily access Kirkuk due to restrictions imposed by the Kurdish regional government. The ministry’s alternative proposal to move the college to Baghdad has also failed, since most Mosul professors have relocated to the Kurdish region and avoid the capital due to the Shiite militias’ control. A practicing doctor said, “whatever will be decided, we risk having a university either without professors or without students”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 20 July 2015.Hide Footnote In government-controlled areas, corruption that preceded the IS conflict has become even more rampant. Students who join the hashd are often allowed to move up a grade in school despite having failed their exams or stayed away from school, while the most prestigious colleges now have admission quotas reserved for private-school students regardless of their marks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OWFI member, Baghdad, 23 July 2015. A young doctor said admission to the College of Medicine required a high school grade of 97-100 and that the higher education ministry has smoothed admission criteria by allocating a 10 per cent quota for students who did not reach that level, enabling a number of them to use personal connections to gain entry. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

As a result, a perception has grown among medical and engineering students that they can escape the destructive cycle only by leaving. Syria’s conflict pulled the trigger. Starting in 2015, as Turkey’s smuggling roads to Greece opened, Iraqis followed Syrians to Europe. The pattern of flight resembled that of militia mobilisation: contagious, spreading by word of mouth and social media, often within small circles of friends in a neighbourhood. But these professionals (particularly doctors) face special challenges. Those trying to leave IS-controlled areas often must pay smugglers heavily. Faced with a massive brain drain, the government has tried to make it difficult for young graduates to obtain the original copy of their diploma, which they need to prove their degree and practice abroad.[fn]Doctors can still obtain a copy of their diploma by paying as much as 70 million ID, nearly $60,000. Crisis Group interviews, Adhamiya hospital, Baghdad, 25 July 2015.Hide Footnote


V. Taking it to the Street

A. Protesters

In July 2015, Iraq’s youth found a third way to express discontent: rather than taking to arms or voting with their feet, they staged mass demonstrations to protest poor governance. It started in Basra in July, where resentment against the political establishment intersected with local anger at the provincial governor’s repeated failure to improve services.[fn]Waheed Ghanim, “Basra’s beleaguered governor under fire”, Niqash, 30 July 2015.Hide Footnote The protests were quickly replicated across the south and in Baghdad under the slogan of fighting corruption (fasaad) and demanding political reform (islah).

Though the protests were in majority-Shiite areas, they assumed a kaleidoscopic rather than sectarian character, reflecting the rich diversity of society. Protesters hailed from different class backgrounds, raising community symbols alongside nationalist ones. The latter revealed Shiites’ appropriation of a nationalist discourse that urban Sunni elites had defined prior to 2003. What started as an anti-corruption campaign soon evolved into an array of demands focused on the end of the post-2003 political system based on ethnic and sectarian quotas (muhasasa) and the establishment of a “civil state” (dawla madaniya). The insistent appeal for reform reflect young people’s rejection of the status quo and their search for a new status and role not currently available. A protester said:[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016. Another 30-year-old, who did not join the protests, said, “people don’t know what they want or where the country is headed. The demonstrations are merely a channel to express a sense of loss”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.
[1] See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote

We are for reform: general, total reform! It has been fifteen years now with these same people. We should have popular committees instead of parliament, or a prime minister without a parliament, or a technocratic cabinet. I am not sure what the right formula is. I only know that we should start from scratch.

Like Sunni protests two years earlier, the inchoate nature of demands for radical change created room for radical politicians to capitalise and take charge.

B. Riding the Wave

Youths found in the new movement a platform for expression more than an avenue for political participation and change. Its hybrid identity made it easy to manipulate. The first to step into the vacuum in August 2015 were some Shiite militias that had led the fight against IS; with battlefield experience, they presented themselves as potent challengers to the faltering Abadi government. The country might have slid into chaos or a militia-led coup except for a second intervention by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who expressed support for Abadi if he carried out important reforms, including replacing his cabinet with unaffiliated technocrats.[fn]See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote This was but a stop-gap, however, and quieted things only temporarily. Weak within his Daawa party and unable to gain support from other blocs, Abadi failed to join the energies unleashed in the streets to his broader reform agenda. Purging top officials accentuated intra-Daawa rivalries without bringing sensible change to everyday lives or answering youth’s thirst for direction. Embodying the ruling system, the political class was incapable of effecting genuine reform.[fn]On 11 August, parliament backed the first stage of Abadi’s reform program, cancelling the positions of deputy prime minister and the three vice presidencies, one of which was held by his predecessor, Maliki. The parties dominating the parliament could not agree on replacing ministers with technocrats, however. A Baghdad resident said, “Abadi changed some top-level figures, but our lives have not changed at all in the past months. So people found in Moqtada al-Sadr a new hope for change”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

As the opportunity slipped from the prime minister’s hands, Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist with a clerical pedigree and history of resistance to the U.S. occupation, stepped into the breach. In February 2016, his political bloc, al-Ahrar (Liberals), took charge of the protest movement. Through a meticulously planned youth mobilisation strategy, it attracted segments of youth beyond Sadr’s close supporters. For three months, he commanded the street. On 27 February, he organised a mass demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir central square; a month later, he began a sit-in inside the Green Zone, while his supporters stayed outside, primed to follow him. On 30 April, they scaled the walls and broke into parliament and the council of ministers. According to a participant, “the al-Ahrar bloc set up demonstration committees (Lijna Tandhim al-Tadahur) in all Baghdad districts and the provinces, registering protesters’ names and giving them a special budget allowing them to participate in the demonstrations”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Sadr turned the street into a dynamic variable in politics, even a risky one vulnerable to misuse. Appeals for reform quickly became a populist call for the end of the entire political establishment and framework. Yet, his actions seemed mainly to benefit his own bloc in its bargaining with other Shiite parties.[fn]On 26 April, Abadi struck a deal with al-Ahrar, replacing five ministers with technocrats. Three of the five, who had been affiliated with Ahrar, were replaced with new figures who, though technocrats, are close to Ahrar and could work to increase the group’s influence. On the political crisis, see Maria Fantappie, “Iraq on the Edge of Chaos”, Crisis Group blog post, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote They consolidated polarisation between mobilised youth and elites rather than building a bridge to overcome deep social rifts. Abadi’s announcement of the offensive against IS in Fallu­ja at the end of May defused the protest by rallying the nation, but the monster only slumbers, ready to be awakened by a crisis in services and politicians seeing an opportunity for advancement.

VI. Fixing Iraq’s Youth Challenge

Non-state actors have been the most successful in mobilising and framing young people’s lives. While the agendas may differ, they have recruited directly within localities (neighbourhood or village); provided a sense of belonging to a collective inspired by ideals (IS: establishing a caliphate; Sadr: fighting corruption); and given opportunities for advancement within informal structures (IS, Shiite militias, the Sadr bloc’s demonstration-organising committees), allowing youths to gain prestige in their home environments (family, tribe, neighbourhood).

The government and political parties have been unable to reproduce successful mobilisation and social mobility in their structures. Bewildered and in disarray, the political establishment appears to have opted for a default strategy, counting on the cost of prolonged conflict becoming so high that it may yet recoup some of its legitimacy. Shiite parties that oppose the militias’ de facto rule hope growing casualties will exhaust their support.[fn]Asked about future policy, an ex-lawmaker close to Abadi said: “Sooner or later people will tire of seeing their children die as martyrs”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 October 2015.Hide Footnote Sunni leaders waiting for IS defeat, hope to regain power and standing in their communities for lack of a better alternative. The risk inherent in such passive approaches is that the conflict’s heritage will be prolonged and difficult to overcome both in areas from which IS is dislodged and elsewhere in the country. And what will happen with the many young fighters once their combat role ends? Speaking from experience, an ex-Mahdi army fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 10 April 2015.Hide Footnote

Once the [IS] fight is over, what will we do with those who have become used to fighting? They will blackmail society and claim this is their victory, that they have defended our houses, our families. They will keep their weapons and feel they are above the law. The government may have no choice but to fight them.

The conflict against IS has reshuffled social hierarchies and empowered and legitimised new leaders, creating a fresh reality with which the political class will have to contend sooner or later. In Sunni-populated areas, establishment politicians could try to regain legitimacy by distributing foreign aid and engaging local youths in reconstruction, but this is likely to resurrect the very patron-client relationships that proved unsustainable after the U.S.-led “surge”. And if they fail to engage young people beyond the patronage networks, they will be strongly resisted by commanders who fought for IS and could thus recoup a measure of local support. Shiite militia commanders and political figures supporting them, such as Maliki or Hadi al-Ameri, the foremost militia commander, could try to capitalise on the popularity they gained in fighting IS to bid for political power and turn their young fighters into supporters in future elections.

Lack of agility in adjusting to rapid change has enabled a cycle of escalating conflict that could precipitate political class demise. It might also destroy the state’s capacity to govern and foreign powers’ ability to safeguard their strategic interests through an Iraqi government they need to confront the transnational IS threat. A society increasingly drained of its middle class and populated by armed actors who are eclipsing law-enforcement agencies may cause a growth in micro-conflicts – intra-tribal disputes and gang fighting – that will increase young people’s dependence for protection and economic resources on local patrons or militia commanders, or both. Even when these actors are not fighting, their mobilisation efforts may undermine the state’s legitimacy and coherence. By calling youths to join street protests while blocking parliament from convening and legislating reforms in May, Sadr already exacerbated the divide between the street and political elites without providing a workable alternative.

Young people whose anti-establishment sentiments are being directed toward opposite poles of a sectarian agenda might become even more susceptible to crass political manipulation by actors intent on fuelling domestic and regional conflicts. Shiite youths have proved a critical resource for Iran, which has recruited them to fight its war in Syria, where one of its principal enemies is IS, which has a significant Iraqi component in both leadership and rank and file. As fighters or emigrants, Generation 2000 could become a transnational challenge.

The generation’s grievances and loss of hope can no longer be disregarded. The Abadi government and the international community must, at the eleventh hour, pre-emptively devise a youth policy grounded in the notion that young people need avenues for political participation and social advancement outside the parties’ discredited co-option by patronage. Any post-IS reconstruction and stabilisation campaign, even if implemented locally, requires a national vision for addressing the youth problem and a multiyear plan that targets this age group. Offering youth a clear direction is a greater priority than merely providing funds and jobs.

Until now, the government has used state legitimacy and institutional benefits to boost a mobilisation into militias it did not call for and could neither prevent nor control, and which is undermining state institutions. It should do the opposite: use the same legitimacy and benefits to “civilianise” the hashd al-shaabi into a hashd al-madani (civilian mobilisation) under its direct control, recruit youths in their communities and organise them within the administrative framework of provincial administrations. This would involve refocusing hashd neighbourhood-based recruitment centres from defence to local governance, thus filling a gap left by local authorities who have failed to provide adequate services or security.

Such an effort could resonate with fighters who profess political aspirations. It might allow Iran to preserve its interests in southern provinces, while giving the central government a measure of leverage against it. Most importantly, it could be replicated in areas freed of IS control, where a stability plan involving Sunni leaders should avoid repeating mistakes, including use of state resources to “purchase” local legitimacy. Local leaders should engage youths directly in reconstruction, regardless of tribal affiliation or who fought with or against IS.

More immediately, the government should tackle the militia problem and prospects for the young by organising any further military recruitment under the army, supervised by the defence ministry; developing a plan to provide these new state employees with the usual benefits, or at least guarantee a right to them once funds are available; compelling non-governmental entities to register with the planning ministry, while urging donors to fund only those that are registered and to assist in monitoring use of such funds; and developing a jobs plan for high-school and university graduates and/or a professional-training, apprenticeship scheme, with guaranteed income and pension rights as funds become available.

International institutions that manage financial and development support for Iraq, such as the IMF, the World Bank and UN agencies, should consider whether to revise their approach. By giving financial help to charitable organisations and initiatives linked to party figures and affiliated militias that operate outside the law, or demanding to reduce state benefits and allowances, they contribute inadvertently to these groups’ active undermining of the state. This is something neither they nor the prime minister’s other external supporters who profess a desire for a stable, functioning Iraq have an interest in doing.

VII. Conclusion

The plight of Iraq’s young people is perhaps the gravest result of the turmoil of the past few decades; unless it creates viable prospects for them, the country is unlikely to escape further cycles of instability. The current vacuum sucks youths into one of three directions: protests (with aspiration to dramatically transform a non-functioning system seemingly immune to reform); fighting groups on either side of a sectarian divide; or migration toward Europe.

The issue is not one of youth radicalisation, as conventional wisdom suggests.[fn]UN Security Council Resolution 2,250, 9 December 2015.Hide Footnote Young Iraqis are not radicalised so much as recruited into organisations that provide community and direction, regardless of ideology. The solution lies not in de-rad­i­ca­lisation programs, with heavy emphasis on counter-narratives, as if the problem was addiction, requiring detox, but in giving them viable alternatives that can reduce fighting groups’ ability to attract them in the first place.

A fresh, state-based, internationally-backed approach by the Abadi government aimed at reconnecting young people to the society in which they live and breathe is the best formula to prevent destructive exploitation. The past has shown that fighting youths deemed “radicals” and co-opting the others through the usual patronage channels is not a sustainable solution and indeed worsens the problem, if only by pushing fresh waves of desperate emigrants toward distant shores.

Baghdad/Brussels, 8 August 2016[fn]Crisis Group receives financial support from a wide range of governments, foundations, and private sources, for more information please see Our Supporters. For a full print version of this report with a list of supporters please apply to Footnote

Aid workers inspect warehouses of the World Food Programme a day after fire engulfed them in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Yemen 1 April 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad
Report 193 / Middle East & North Africa

How to Halt Yemen’s Slide into Famine

A Saudi-led coalition attack on the city of Hodeida risks plunging millions of Yemenis into famine and will meet fierce resistance from Huthi rebels. The U.S. should stop enabling coalition offensives and international stakeholders must quickly place Hodeida under UN control.

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What’s new? At the end of October, fighting reached the outer edges of the city of Hodeida, a gateway on Yemen’s Red Sea coast for trade that is a lifeline for some two thirds of the country’s population. It has subsided for now but could resume at any moment.

Why does it matter? A final battle for Hodeida city and port would likely plunge millions of Yemenis into famine. It would also undermine talks between Huthi rebels and the Yemeni and Gulf Arab forces arrayed against them, thereby prolonging the population’s suffering.

What should be done? International stakeholders should strive to spare Hodeida and facilitate the port’s transfer to the UN. The U.S. and others should stop enabling the Saudi-led coalition’s offensives. The Security Council should pass a resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire and for all parties to protect vital transport infrastructure.

Executive Summary

The stop-start battle for control of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, currently the most active theatre in the country’s multifaceted civil war, has reached the outskirts of the city of Hodeida. Unless the fighting is brought to a sustained halt, it could soon enter the port and city, which Huthi rebels have held since 2015. Such expanded fighting would block the country’s primary gateway for importation of goods, including humanitarian aid, and thus tip a desperate population into what UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has called “a great big famine”. International stakeholders thus face a stark yet simple choice: prevent a destructive battle for Hodeida or assume complicity, through inaction, in mass starvation. They should not only choose the former but also move quickly to end the siege of Hodeida so that the present emergency does not recur.

A belated U.S. call at the close of October for a resumption of Yemen peace talks prompted a “pause” in the Saudi-led coalition’s advance on Hodeida. But every similar past such announcement was soon followed by a new military push, and coalition forces converging on Hodeida appear impatient to proceed with the final onslaught, persuaded that it would mark a turning point in the war. Yet they underestimate the Huthis’ resilience and ignore the humanitarian consequences. The UN Security Council should urgently pass the resolution now under consideration calling, inter alia, for a cessation of hostilities in and around Hodeida, an end to Huthi attacks against Yemen’s neighbours and coalition attacks on populated areas, and provisions for the unhindered flow of essential goods. It should add a demand for a nationwide ceasefire and the establishment of a UN-led arrangement for Hodeida port.

U.S., British and French military advisers and contractors play a crucial role in sustaining the coalition’s military forces and by extension the Yemen war.

More is needed. The Security Council’s five permanent members – the U.S., UK and France, and to a lesser extent China and Russia – all supply arms to the Saudi-led coalition, from high-tech bombs and missiles to lowly AK-47 rifles and ammunition that play a critical role in fighting on the ground. The U.S., UK and France are Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s largest vendors of advanced offensive weapons systems. U.S., British and French military advisers and contractors play a crucial role in sustaining the coalition’s military forces and by extension the Yemen war. They should end military support to the coalition’s offensive operations, including intelligence sharing and the transfer of relevant weapons and materiel, as it is the coalition’s advance that is increasing the likelihood of a final Hodeida battle and humanitarian disaster. The recent U.S. announcement that it will stop in-air refuelling of coalition aircraft is welcome, but only as a first step.

President Donald Trump has made clear that he plans to stand by the Saudis and Emiratis, and prevent any further punitive action against Riyadh. So Congress may need to act in his stead.

The Huthis, too, would have to be bound by a UN-decreed ceasefire. In Hodeida, they have a clear choice between agreeing to a negotiated exit from the port and joining a battle that would prove devastating to millions of people in territories currently under their control. They have little contact with the outside world and trust virtually no one; few have any leverage over them, with the possible exception of Iran and Oman. Iran has played a damaging role, assisting the Huthis in order to bleed Saudi Arabia; while Tehran has told European countries it is prepared to cooperate in ending the war, evidence is sparse and its incentive to do so at a time of heightening tensions with Washington and Riyadh is low. Muscat has avoided expending significant political capital on pressuring the rebels since the collapse of a U.S.-sponsored plan in late 2016. The time has come, however, for both Iran and Oman to use their influence to persuade the Huthis to accept the UN proposal to hand over Hodeida port to international stewardship, to abide by a cessation of hostilities and to participate in peace talks.

UN Envoy Martin Griffiths faces the sternest test of his young tenure. If his mediation efforts succeed in preventing a destructive battle for Hodeida, he could build momentum toward reviving a peace process that has been stalled for the past two years. But if he fails, peace in Yemen will look increasingly remote and the prospects for its embattled population increasingly dire.

Abu Dhabi/Washington/New York/Brussels, 21 November 2018

I. Introduction

It has been almost two years since Yemeni fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began their campaign to win control of the coastal plains along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, including the critical port of Hodeida. In May 2018, after more than a year of stalemate, they broke through Huthi lines and raced northward, taking most of the road that links Mokha with Hodeida. In June, they reached the outskirts of Hodeida city, stopping at the airport to its south and the eastward highway linking the city with Sanaa, Yemen’s highland capital.

An on-again, off-again fight for the port and city has ensued. As Crisis Group has argued on three previous occasions this year, this fight threatens to dramatically deepen what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – most ominously, by turning the country’s mass hunger into famine.[fn]See Peter Salisbury, “Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent”, Crisis Group Commentary, 20 September 2018; Crisis Group, “Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Avoid a Destructive Battle for Hodeida”, 22 June 2018; Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°59, Yemen: Averting a Destructive Battle for Hodeida, 11 June 2018.Hide Footnote It is imperative that the battle for Hodeida be stopped.

This report assesses the status of this battle amid sharpening international scrutiny of how Saudi Arabia and the UAE (and, to a degree, the Huthis as well) have conducted the Yemen war and mounting pressure on the coalition from Washington and other Western capitals to wind down the conflict. It explains in detail why an all-out assault on Hodeida would imperil millions of Yemeni lives. It then argues for concrete steps the UN and Western powers can take to banish the spectre of a lethal battle for Hodeida and hasten the war’s end. It is based on intensive fieldwork in the port city’s environs along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, as well as interviews with UAE and Yemeni government officials, Huthi representatives, independent analysts, and U.S., UK and UN officials handling the Yemen file. 

II. A Push for Peace?

The fall’s events around Hodeida have unfolded alongside fitful efforts to revive Yemen peace talks, stalled since the collapse of negotiations in Kuwait in 2016. The UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, had hoped to bring the peace process back to life by getting the Huthis and the internationally recognised government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to sign up to a new framework plan. But the Huthis failed to turn up to pre-peace talk consultations in Geneva this September. Mutual recriminations ensued: the Saudi-led coalition accused the Huthis of intransigence, while the Huthis blamed Riyadh for preventing an Omani plane from flying injured Huthi fighters along with Huthi delegates from Sanaa to Muscat.[fn]In interviews conducted by messaging app in September, October and November, the Huthis said they rejected an alternative to the Omani flight proposed by the UN, namely that the delegates and fighters could depart on a UN-chartered flight screened, not by the coalition, but by the UN itself. They did not explain their reticence on this issue. The Huthis additionally demanded assurances that their delegation would be allowed to return to Sanaa directly after the talks, citing past meetings following which senior members of the group had been stranded outside Yemen for months. Although the Huthis bear primary responsibility, the UN cannot escape all blame insofar as it failed to finalise details of the Omani flight, or a viable alternative, well ahead of time, despite a well-known history of such issues coming up.Hide Footnote A fresh military push by UAE-backed forces along the Red Sea coast also did little to bring the Huthis to the table, and perhaps much to discourage them.

Griffiths then redoubled efforts to bring the sides to the table by engaging vigorously with the Huthis, the coalition, the Hadi government and Western powers. In the third week of October, in meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, senior State Department officials and members of Congress in Washington, he requested express U.S. support for the peace process and pressure on the coalition to support consultative talks and a new framework peace plan.[fn]In London, too, Griffiths sought stronger public backing from his hosts. Crisis Group interviews, UN, U.S. and UK officials, New York, Washington and by phone, October-November 2018. See also Joyce Karam, “UN envoy to Yemen holds talks in Washington seeking to jump-start political process”, The National, 24 October 2018.Hide Footnote He arrived in Washington amid uproar over the 2 October murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which led to fresh scrutiny of Riyadh’s foreign policy, particularly in Yemen. Even before the murder, the U.S. Congress had shown bipartisan interest in cutting off day-to-day support to the coalition, including arms sales and in-air refuelling of its aircraft, in an effort to dissociate the U.S. from a brutal war and help end it.[fn]“Menendez demands more answers from Trump admin before letting arms sales to United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia move forward”, press statement, office of Senator Bob Menendez, 28 June 2018.Hide Footnote Amid the furore over the Khashoggi affair, the UK government began drafting a new UN Security Council resolution aimed at halting the deterioration of conditions in Yemen.

As U.S. lawmakers mulled legislation ranging from ending refuelling and intelligence assistance to restricting the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration stepped up pressure on its Gulf allies, possibly in part to pre-empt more robust congressional action.[fn]The House of Representatives and Senate are considering parallel draft legislation tied to the War Powers Resolution that would remove U.S. forces from hostilities in Yemen except to the extent required for certain counterterrorism operations. House Republicans have used procedural manoeuvres to stall further consideration of the House bill; the Senate is expected to vote on its version shortly. Separately, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018, which would among other things restrict the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia (with a carve-out for “ground-based missile defense systems”), limit refuelling support to the coalition, and require the imposition of sanctions on certain categories of actors. A vote on this legislation is unlikely before the new Congress is seated in January 2019. See the discussion in Section IV.Hide Footnote Senior officials, including Mattis, told Saudi and Emirati counterparts in Bahrain on 27-28 October that they would have to support peace negotiations and announce a ceasefire or at least a pause in fighting to enable a new round of talks. On 30 October, back in Washington, Mattis announced plans for the UN to convene talks in Sweden:

The longer-term solution, and by longer-term, I mean 30 days from now, we want to see everybody around the table, based on a ceasefire, based on a pullback from the border, and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs, that will permit the [UN] special envoy – Martin Griffiths, who’s very good, he knows what he’s doing – to get them together in Sweden and end this war.[fn]“A conversation with Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 30 October 2018,; and see official transcript of Mattis’s statements: Footnote

Pompeo followed up with his own, slightly different statement, on the same day. He used language unprecedented for the Trump administration, by calling on Washington’s Gulf allies to cease hostilities under certain conditions and setting a deadline for the start of talks within a month:

The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen. Substantive consultations under the UN Special Envoy must commence this November in a third country to implement confidence-building measures to address the underlying issues of the conflict, the demilitarization of borders, and the concentration of all large weapons under international observation. A cessation of hostilities and vigorous resumption of a political track will help ease the humanitarian crisis as well.[fn]“Ending the conflict in Yemen”, press statement, U.S. Department of State, 30 October 2018, Footnote

It is not clear how well the administration had coordinated these messages internally or with its allies, who appeared to be caught by surprise. Earlier on 30 October, a senior UK minister had rejected the notion of a formal ceasefire, apparently contradicting Mattis, and Yemeni government officials claim they received no prior warning.[fn]Alistair Burt, the UK Middle East minister, told Parliament on 30 October, “Passing a ceasefire resolution risks undercutting the UN envoy’s efforts to reach a political deal and undermining the credibility of the [UN Security] Council”, See also The Guardian, 1 November 2018. Crisis Group phone interview, Yemeni government official, 1 November 2018.Hide Footnote For their part, the Huthis expressed surprise that talks would be held in Sweden within 30 days.[fn]Crisis Group messaging app interview, Huthi official, 31 October 2018.Hide Footnote

The U.S. expects the Huthis to take the first step, a demand the rebels could only view as evidence of U.S. bias.

The two statements created a good deal of confusion over what precisely Washington wanted. While Mattis touted the possibility of an undefined ceasefire, Pompeo used the term “cessation of hostilities”, focused on cross-border Huthi attacks and Saudi airstrikes and, by leaving the term “populated areas” undefined, appeared to give licence to continued coalition airstrikes elsewhere in Yemen. Nor did the statements clarify when the parties were to take the required steps – immediately, or any time prior to the resumption of talks – or whether the coalition’s steps were conditioned on the Huthis’ or not. Under Pompeo’s (but not Mattis’s) formulation, the U.S. expects the Huthis to take the first step, a demand the rebels could only view as evidence of U.S. bias. Indeed, Huthi officials simply described the U.S. calls as “lies”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote All the same, the Huthis announced on 19 November that they would cease all drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the coalition’s Yemeni partners, and signalled readiness for a broader ceasefire should the coalition reciprocate.[fn]“Yemeni Houthis halt missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, raising peace prospects”, Reuters, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote This announcement put the ball in the coalition’s court.

Adding to the initial confusion, the U.S. subsequently began quietly discouraging the UK from drafting a Security Council resolution, arguing that its timing would undermine Griffiths’ efforts. (The UK distributed a draft resolution to Security Council members for review on 19 November.)[fn]Julian Borger and Bethan McKernan, “UK tables UN security council resolution calling for Yemen truce”, The Guardian, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote Then, on 10 November, the administration announced that the U.S. would no longer refuel coalition aircraft, a decision it said it had taken “at the Saudis’ request”, which could be read as an attempt to add pressure on the coalition or, conversely, as an effort to steal a march on members of Congress pondering larger-scale measures.[fn]According to Reuters, “Saudi Arabia … said it had decided to request an end to U.S. aerial refueling for its operations in Yemen because it could now handle it by itself. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis backed the decision and said the U.S. government was consulted”. “U.S. halting refueling of Saudi-led coalition in Yemen war”, Reuters, 10 November 2018.Hide Footnote

In calling for a ceasefire, Mattis arguably was at odds with Griffiths, who had made clear in earlier statements that he saw conditioning the start of peace talks on a prior ceasefire as counterproductive, potentially setting up the process for failure. His plan was to use preliminary consultations to get the parties on board with his framework peace plan and start building trust.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN officials, in person and via messaging app, November 2018.Hide Footnote Consistent with this approach, the UK foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, announced on 13 November that he was close to brokering a deal for the airlift of injured Huthis from Sanaa to Muscat – the issue that had helped scupper the earlier attempt at talks.[fn]A UK press release stated: “Following the visit of Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Saudi-led Coalition have agreed to the evacuation of wounded Houthis from Yemen, one of the key stumbling blocks to the UN Geneva talks in September. Subject to final reassurances, Coalition forces will now permit the UN to oversee a Houthi medical evacuation, including up to 50 wounded fighters, to Oman, ahead of another proposed round of peace talks in Sweden later this month”. UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Foreign Secretary Says Building Blocks for Yemen Solution Are in View”, press release, 13 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Both the Huthis and the Hadi government have said that they will attend the talks. This is welcome news. In the meantime, however, ambiguous and contradictory messaging risks being exploited by the parties in ways that could both further aggravate the humanitarian situation and compromise chances for successful peace talks. UN officials concede that the likelihood of the talks taking place and being moderately successful are “fifty-fifty”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, 18 November 2018.Hide Footnote The coalition thinks that a Huthi no-show or a collapse of talks are the most likely outcomes. UAE officials are clear in saying that, while it has paused its operations on the Red Sea coast for the time being, the Yemeni forces it commands are positioned to move into the Hodeida campaign’s final phase: an assault on the port. In interviews with Crisis Group, UAE-backed Yemeni forces were clear in their determination to move on Hodeida.

The UAE sees Hodeida as the only way to break Huthi resistance. It presents its decision to push its campaign to the city’s outer edges on 31 October, only a day after the twin announcements in Washington, as part of a necessary strategy of placing pressure on the rebels. The positions the Yemeni fighters assumed around the city allow them to strike the entrance to the port, and thus prime them for a final assault.

III. The Battle for Hodeida

A. Hodeida in the Crosshairs

The UAE has periodically taken strategic “pauses” in its Red Sea campaign, responding to pressure from the U.S. and others to spare the city and claiming it wants to give the UN envoy a new opportunity to bring the Huthis to the negotiating table. A first such pause occurred in June, when the Huthis expressed readiness to discuss a deal that would see them quit Hodeida port and perhaps the city as well. Negotiations collapsed, however, after the coalition apparently shifted the goalposts, making a new demand that the Huthis withdraw from the city and then the entire governorate on the grounds that defending the port would be unrealistic if rebels were in the immediate vicinity. UAE-backed forces then pressed forward, leaving the Huthis to accuse them of bad faith as they came under duress on the ground.[fn]In public statements and private conversations, coalition officials said they would consider a deal for the port and city before increasing their demands. Crisis Group interviews, June 2018.Hide Footnote The second pause came in the run-up to consultative talks planned in Geneva in September. This time, the Huthis appeared to be the spoilers, when they cancelled their participation after wrangling over the airlift out of Sanaa. But they may also have reacted to a sudden push from UAE-backed fighters in Hodeida.[fn]Subsequent Crisis Group interviews suggest that all sides bear blame for the Huthi withdrawal: the rebels for bringing new demands to the table at the last minute, the UN for not having locked down travel arrangements sooner, and the coalition for its refusal to demonstrate flexibility.Hide Footnote

There are several contradictory versions of why the UAE has periodically ordered pauses. Publicly, Emirati officials have claimed they were aimed at giving Griffiths a chance to make progress on the diplomatic front.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UAE foreign ministry officials, Abu Dhabi, July and September 2018.Hide Footnote Privately, they also complain that U.S. officials – from the Obama and then the Trump administrations – urged them to stop for various reasons, thereby stalling their efforts.[fn]Emirati officials say they postponed their attack on Hodeida in late 2016 at the urging of the Obama administration. When the Trump administration assumed office, they say, they again were told to hold off, this time because the U.S. military was prepared to help but needed some time. They believe that circumstances have become more complicated since then and regret their decision to pause, believing that proceeding with an assault would have shortened the war. Crisis Group interviews, Emirati officials, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote Some senior Western and UN officials express a different view, suggesting the UAE-ordered pauses mainly were dictated by a desire to allow its allied Yemeni fighters to consolidate their positions and plan for the next phase.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior UN, U.S. and other Western officials, September-November 2018.Hide Footnote

UAE officials involved in military planning suggested in November 2018, shortly after they had called for a third pause, that they still held the view that taking Hodeida was a crucial step in the war. They presented the current halt in fighting as the Huthis’ “last chance” before UAE-backed forces move on the port.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, November 2018.Hide Footnote But they firmly believed – along with civilian leaders – that the Huthis would ignore the pause, giving UAE-backed forces a reason to resume operations.[fn]A senior official said: “We know from experience that the Huthis will attack our allied forces. I give it a week at most. It has happened every time. Then we will resume our operations”. Crisis Group interview, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote In fact, local commanders have manoeuvred these forces into such a vulnerable position – occupying a low-lying and relatively flat corridor between the city to the west and Huthi positions in agricultural land to the east – that it is hard to see how a halt in fighting could be anything more than temporary.

UAE officials have repeatedly suggested that taking Hodeida – or at least convincing the Huthis to abandon it – would be the surest and fastest way to end the war overall, given Hodeida’s importance as the main entry point for goods sold in Huthi-held territory, and therefore a primary source of Huthi revenues through customs duties and control of local markets. An Emirati official explained:

We think it’s crucial that the Huthis see that there is no way out of this for them, so that they will moderate their demands. This was the initial impetus for Hodeida. It really is now their only main source of income funding the war. We have to get it out of their hands. We want this war to end as quickly as possible. If taking Hodeida is the way to do that, then we will go forward. People say that we want to stay forever in Yemen. It’s the opposite. At the end of the day, this is very costly in many ways – in manpower and in resources.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Emirati official, Abu Dhabi, September 2018.Hide Footnote

There is reason to question whether taking Hodeida will have the desired effect. The Huthis tend to read the UAE-backed forces’ stop-and-start push for the city and accompanying statements as signals that the coalition has no genuine interest in peace talks. The sudden toughening in coalition demands regarding the handover of the city to the UN in June after the Huthis had signalled willingness to make concessions only reinforced this perception.

More importantly, past Huthi behaviour and Crisis Group interviews with Huthi officials suggest that a drive for Hodeida will make them only more suspicious and induce them to dig in rather than sue for a way out. They have been preparing for a Hodeida battle since late 2016 and have spent much of this year constructing defences, including barricades, trenches and, reportedly, a network of tunnels under the city.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian officials, local contacts, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote Some well-informed sources in Yemen say the rebels have fine-tuned their internal security in response to UAE claims that the city would “self-liberate” – that cells planted inside Hodeida would attack Huthi positions when given the go-ahead. In preparing for a battle with external and internal forces, the Huthis have moved some of their most battle-hardened front-line fighters, the Death Battalions (Kataeb al-Mawt), into the city, along with a large number of newly mobilised forces.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sanaa-based sources with close ties to the Huthi movement, 5 November 2018.Hide Footnote Huthi snipers have taken positions on rooftops while security forces on motorcycles patrol the streets.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, well-placed contacts, Hodeida environs, Abu Dhabi, New York, Washington, September-November 2018.Hide Footnote

Calculating the exact number of Huthi fighters in Hodeida is near impossible; coalition officials say the Huthis have 2,000 hard-core fighters there, as well as a higher number of less well-trained auxiliary forces, while the Huthis say the real figure (perhaps including the auxiliary forces) is ten times that. Regardless, there is consensus among coalition military officials, Western officials and analysts that the Huthis are resourceful, committed, experienced and ruthless, and that the core fighters are likely to fight until the last man if called upon to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S., UN, UAE and other Western officials, along with analysts, New York, Washington, Abu Dhabi, October-November 2018.Hide Footnote

UAE officials understand that a fight for Hodeida will be messy and painful but contend that it will prevent the overall war from dragging on for another three years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote Implicit in this analysis is the belief that, if they are made to feel enough pain, the Huthis will accept the coalition’s conditions for an end to the war: a handover of the territory they control and of their heavy weapons to the Hadi government, and a clear split from Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote

For the Huthis, losing the port would be a serious setback but one they could survive, for the time being at least.

This thinking does not track with Huthi behaviour since the movement resorted to militancy fourteen years ago. Before 2011, the group endured six rounds of war with the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which at times had the assistance of Saudi air support. It has faced periods of privation much more challenging than its current situation. Today it is in control of much of the northern highlands, key state institutions in Sanaa and elsewhere, and a lucrative, if increasingly constrained, war economy. The loss of Hodeida would be a severe psychological and financial blow to the group, but one it would likely be able to absorb militarily and economically. The Huthis would still control the main arteries leading from Hodeida into the highlands, even if they lost the port itself, and thus could still raise revenue from trade should the port continue to function and the UAE-backed forces allow goods to travel into Huthi-held areas.

For the Huthis, in other words, losing the port would be a serious setback but one they could survive, for the time being at least. For a population already on the brink of starvation, it would mean something far worse, as further disruptions in the supply of basic commodities could prove calamitous.

B. UAE-backed Groups on the Red Sea Coast

Crisis Group fieldwork in Hodeida in September and October 2018, including trips to the three main front lines at the time, and interviews with senior UAE officials, have provided insight into the nature of the UAE-backed forces currently moving on Hodeida. The core force is largely composed of religiously motivated Salafi fighters whose military training comes predominantly from battles in southern Yemen and along the Red Sea coast since 2015. UAE officials concede that these forces have not had the time to become professionalised and that they quickly lose morale when unable to move forward.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote

Emirati officials say it is ultimately up to local commanders to decide whether to advance. But this claim seems to be an attempt to build plausible deniability should the offensive go forward too rapidly or farther than publicly announced.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, New York and Abu Dhabi, 2 and 5 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Indeed, observations on the ground suggest that no military movement is likely to occur without a bright Emirati green light.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote In the telling of several Yemeni fighters allied with the coalition, the UAE tightly controls the movement of forces in the Red Sea theatre, pays fighters’ wages, arms them, feeds them and supplies them with qat, the leaf Yemenis chew as a stimulant, as well as vehicles and other materiel.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote During major operations, armoured vehicles – given to select Yemeni units commanded by Tareq Saleh, the former president’s nephew, but not to regular fighting forces – lead the first wave of attack, in coordination with air support from UAE fighter jets and helicopters.[fn]Until December 2017, the Republican Guard was – nominally at least – allied with the Huthis and fighting against coalition-backed forces. Following ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death at Huthi hands in Sanaa that month, his nephew Tareq fled to the south and assumed control of what remained of the Republican Guard. The Guard has suffered severe losses of both men and materiel since joining the Red Sea coast campaign.Hide Footnote A group of fighters from the Giants Brigade, a force of Salafi-leaning fighters hailing mainly from Lahj governorate in the south, then enters in pickup trucks and on foot to fully clear the areas of enemy fighters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UAE-backed Yemeni fighters, Hodeida environs, October 2018. The brigade is divided into two factions. One is affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council in Aden, which supports southern secession from the republic. The other favours continued union; its members are mainly recruited from interwoven Salafi and tribal networks in the Yafa area of Lahj governorate. The latter group does most of the front-line fighting and is the first to occupy new territory during offensive manoeuvres. These fighters’ rhetoric is often sharply sectarian: many describe a desire to eradicate the “Shiites and Iran” in Yemen. The secessionist faction of the Giants Brigade is clustered to the south of Mokha and guards the road linking that town with Aden; it has shown no desire to fight in the north. Crisis Group observations, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote Other factions, like the Tihama Resistance and Presidential Forces, secure the newly won territory when front-line fighters move on to open new fronts.[fn]Drawn from the population of the plains along the Red Sea coast, the Tihama Resistance is commanded by Zanareq tribal leaders. These fighters usually act in a support role, securing territory taken by the Giants Brigade and allowing the frontline force to move forward. The Presidential Forces are loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and are largely drawn from his native Abyan province.Hide Footnote

In early October, many fighters professed readiness to advance on Hodeida and expressed confidence that they could take it, regardless of international pressure or the likely humanitarian impact, which, many fighters said, was a price worth paying for the Huthis’ defeat.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UAE-backed Yemeni fighters, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote They also made clear, however, that they could not move forward without the explicit say-so of their direct commanders, who in turn answered to the UAE and the Yemeni senior commander affiliated with the Giants Brigade, Abu Zaraa al-Mahrami.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UAE-backed Yemeni fighters, Hodeida environs, October 2018. One battlefield commander described participating in an attempt to take the junction linking Hodeida and Sanaa in July, but his unit was forced to fall back when he failed to obtain reinforcements with UAE support. Crisis Group interview, Yemeni field commander, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Should these forces seize all of Hodeida, a different set of challenges will set in – above and beyond anticipated continued Huthi insurgency tactics. Because these forces come from different parts of the country – the south, particularly Lahj; the Red Sea plains of the Tihama; and, in the case of Tareq Saleh’s forces, the northern highlands they have widely varying goals and ideologies. The Tihama Resistance is motivated primarily by a desire to control the Red Sea coast, its home territory. Some of the southerners seek secession, while others are driven by religious fervour. Tareq Saleh’s forces hope to build a new power base in Hodeida before pushing their way up to Sanaa. These forces constantly squabble and frequently engage in gun battles.[fn]In early October 2018, Crisis Group witnessed a running gun battle between nominally allied forces that shut down the town of Khawka for about an hour. There was little evidence of on-the-ground supervision or monitoring of the various forces’ conduct. Crisis Group observations, Hodeida environs, October 2018. In late October, Salafi fighters of the Giants Brigade destroyed a Sufi mausoleum on the Red Sea coast road. “UNESCO condemns the intentional destruction of a historical mosque in the Hodeida Governorate of Yemen”, press statement, UNESCO, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote Thus the only way the UAE can coordinate their advance has been via a central command post at a military installation just outside of Mokha overseen by Emirati officers alongside al-Mahrami.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hodeida environs, October 2018.Hide Footnote

These forces’ ability to peacefully coexist in a post-Huthi Hodeida is far from guaranteed. The experience of Aden – the southern port city retaken from the Huthis in mid-2015 and currently under ostensible Yemeni government and coalition control – hardly inspires confidence. After three years of weak governance and intermittent violence, Aden is a blighted city.[fn]Crisis Group observations, September-October 2018; April Alley, “Eight Days in Aden – a Forgotten City in Yemen’s Forgotten War”, Crisis Group Commentary, 23 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Yemeni Forces Backed by the United Arab Emirates

C. A Final Chance

In the wake of U.S. calls for a resumption of peace talks in late October, UAE-backed forces launched a major new assault. On 31 October, they advanced from their positions to the south of Hodeida, crossing the main highway linking it with Sanaa and moving north, where they seized an industrial district in eastern Hodeida. They then tracked the city’s eastern edge before occupying strategic positions only 2-4km from the coast and the entrance to the port, thus almost completely encircling the city. The main front line now cuts across the road connecting the port to Red Sea Mills, an important wheat storage and milling facility used by the World Food Programme. Fighting has arrived at, and at times penetrated, both the southern and eastern entrances to the city.

After a week of fierce battles, UAE senior commanders engineered another pause and fighting died down, though at the time of publication reports emerged that the battle had resumed. The main outcome of the most recent round of fighting is that there is now only one uncontested, operational land route in and out of Hodeida, the northbound Hodeida-Hajja road via Salif, which links the port with the rest of the country. UAE-backed forces are some 4km from the port entrance, and closer still to the intersection connecting the northbound highway with the city. Some UN officials argue that military operations in Hodeida contravene verbal commitments reportedly made by UAE officials to the UN and U.S. between July and October that their forces would not cut off the Hodeida-Sanaa road or attack the city in the run-up to talks.[fn]Crisis Group messaging app interview, senior UN official, 31 October 2018; Western official, New York, November 2018.Hide Footnote

Emirati officials indicate that they ordered the pause to give talks a “last chance”, though they acknowledge they issued the command at Washington’s request.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, November 2018. UAE officials said that they were responding to U.S. requests, most clearly expressed by Secretary Mattis in light of growing disquiet among members of Congress. Crisis Group interviews, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote If the Huthis attack UAE-backed forces, they say, or fail to come to the table, the UAE will launch a final offensive to take the port, if not the city. It is likely that Abu Dhabi fully expects the Huthis to play into the coalition’s hands by targeting its forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, November 2018.Hide Footnote

A decisive move on Hodeida port would have devastating consequences not just for the local population but for millions of Yemenis.

Assuming that UAE-backed forces resume their advance, indications are that they will seek to seize the port and strangle, rather than take, the city proper due to concerns about intense street-to-street combat, which would cause high casualties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, well-placed contacts, Hodeida environs, November 2018.
 Hide Footnote
They expect allied groups inside the city to rise against the Huthis once the latter find themselves pressed on the defensive. Several Western military and political officials express scepticism that this train of events is the most probable. They warn that a fight for the port instead is likely to be prolonged and destructive, and that UAE-backed forces will not be able to guarantee the security of the port or maintain road access without fighting their way into the city. In the meantime, no goods would flow inland.

D. Humanitarian Impact

A decisive move on Hodeida port would have devastating consequences not just for the local population but for millions of Yemenis. Such an assault would likely block all roads leading from the port to the central highlands, leaving an estimated 18 million highland Yemenis without supplies of staples like wheat and rice, or fuel, all of which Yemen imports by sea, the bulk through Hodeida.[fn]Before the war, Yemen imported some 90 per cent of its grain and 100 per cent of its rice; the figure for grain is likely to have risen. Hodeida has accounted for around 70 per cent of all food and fuel imports by sea since the beginning of the war. See Oxfam, “Missiles and Food”, December 2017, at Footnote

The UAE and other coalition members have suggested that humanitarian agencies are engaging in fear-mongering and that the battle for Hodeida has not appreciably affected the flow of food, fuel and humanitarian aid until now. They add that current inflows to Hodeida could be replaced by transit through other ports.[fn]At a briefing, Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said: “Despite the fight, the port is working. Six ships are loading and others coming. All humanitarian ships. We are preparing to send 100 trucks loaded with aid and we have plans for airdrops if necessary”. Crisis Group observations, Abu Dhabi, 18 June 2018.Hide Footnote This assessment is highly questionable. Aid officials note that the severing of the Sanaa-Hodeida road in November has had a discernible humanitarian impact already. Trucks must now pass through a bottleneck to the north of Hodeida and follow an alternative route to Sanaa that adds some two hours of travel time, increasing fuel consumption and cargo costs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, via email, messaging app, and in person.Hide Footnote If UAE-backed forces seize Salif port as well, the front line would move inland, but the humanitarian challenge will merely be displaced, not improved.

The UN believes that twelve of Yemen’s most populous governorates rely almost entirely on Hodeida and Salif ports for food and fuel supplies, and that four governorates – Hajja, Hodeida, Saada and Taiz, with a combined estimated population of more than 10 million – are unlikely to be able to effectively shift to imports from Aden or other, smaller, ports.[fn]Famine Early Warning Systems, Yemen Central Statistical Organisation projections, 2018.Hide Footnote Hodeida is also the site of the country’s main wheat storage and milling facilities, and the main logistical hub for fuel distribution and transportation in the north. Put simply, an aid official said, “there is no alternative to Hodeida”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UN humanitarian official, November 2018.Hide Footnote

The looming final battle for Hodeida comes at a critical time. On 23 October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) readjusted its estimates of the number of severely food-insecure people – the last increment on the scale the UN uses to measure hunger before a determination of famine – from eight to fourteen million, or half the country’s population.[fn]“‘A clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine is engulfing Yemen’ – UN humanitarian chief”, press statement, OCHA, 23 October 2018.Hide Footnote It made this readjustment based on an ongoing currency crisis amid a broader economic collapse caused by the war. Most of those going hungry are in this condition not because food is unavailable but because they cannot afford to buy it.[fn]OCHA, “Yemen: Exchange rates and inflation trends”, 5 September 2018, at Footnote The UN believes that famine is already present in parts of Yemen. It is still deliberating as to whether the country has crossed the technical threshold for nationwide famine.[fn]Samuel Oakford, “Deaths before data”, IRIN News, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote

When, in November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition briefly halted all imports into Hodeida following a Huthi missile attack on Riyadh, the price of a 50kg bag of flour rose by 21 per cent.[fn]“Exclusive: Saudi-led blockade cuts fuel lifeline to Yemen”, Reuters, 6 December 2017.Hide Footnote A prolonged battle for Hodeida – the most likely scenario if the UAE-backed forces launch a final assault – would cause an even steeper rise in prices, exacerbating the hunger crisis. Indeed, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, even without a battle for Hodeida:

There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.[fn]OCHA, “‘A clear and present danger’”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, it is far from clear whether the current humanitarian program can be scaled up any further. Aid agencies have been able only to slow down the collapse in living standards despite a huge relief program, including a nearly $3 billion UN humanitarian plan for 2018, almost one third of it funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[fn]See UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service, Yemen Appeal Summary, at Footnote On 20 November, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced an additional pledge of $500 million to humanitarian agencies, including the UN. They said the aid would help meet the needs of an additional 12 million Yemenis – welcome news, but still unlikely to prevent famine.[fn]“UAE and Saudi pledge $500m to stem famine in Yemen”, The National, 20 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Even prior to and without an all-out assault on Hodeida, accounts from residents caught between the combatants paint a disturbing picture of how the war is being waged.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hodeida governorate, September-October 2018.Hide Footnote The UN says that more than 570,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Hodeida governorate since fighting began.[fn]Daily press briefing, Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, United Nations, 12 October 2018.Hide Footnote Civilians are frequently exposed to coalition airstrikes, the rebels’ use of landmines and shelling by both the Huthis and anti-Huthi forces. Both sides are destroying, damaging or endangering civilian infrastructure. The Huthis have prevented people living in front-line areas from leaving their homes, and neither side has opened protected corridors to allow civilians to leave combat zones. Both sides have impeded the flow of humanitarian aid. The current pause in fighting is bringing little solace. “A freeze is very difficult to manage”, said a senior UN official involved in the mediation process. Yet, he said: “[It is] imperative that the coalition leave an exit and access route open from city and port to the north. Absent that, the city will die, and the supplies will not reach the rest of Yemen”.[fn]Crisis Group messaging app interview, senior UN official, November 2018.Hide Footnote

IV. A Way Forward

The Yemen war is complex, and ending it sustainably will therefore be long, hard work. For now, there is an urgent priority. The international community, the coalition and the Huthis face a stark choice: allow the momentum to continue toward a final battle for Hodeida and become complicit in a man-made famine the UN says would be the worst in a generation, or act to prevent it.

While continuing to push for broader talks, Martin Griffiths should make stopping an assault on Hodeida a principal task. True, this effort failed in the past, and he may therefore be tempted to shift his attention entirely to reaching a broader deal. Yet despite the long odds of success, preventing worse in Hodeida is worth another try, given the risk that all-out attack would precipitate an even greater humanitarian catastrophe and undermine prospects for successful peace talks.

The coalition’s allies – notably the U.S., UK and France – should mount more sustained pressure.

Griffiths came close to a deal in June, and arguably failed mainly because the Saudi-led coalition moved the goal posts. He should now revive his original proposal, which would see Yemeni staff continue to run Hodeida port independently of the Huthis under UN supervision, while negotiating wider security arrangements. The Huthis say that they are still open to a deal for the port.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Huthi officials, including via messaging app, November 2018.Hide Footnote If the UAE is as confident in its ability to take Hodeida as it claims it is, then waiting a little while longer should not make a difference. The Saudi-led coalition partners should understand they have been warned, time and again, that the human cost of a push for Hodeida will be intolerably high to their Western allies. If they proceed regardless, they will signal a clear decision to ignore these warnings, and thus will bear primary responsibility for an offensive’s humanitarian impact.

For their part, the coalition’s allies – notably the U.S., UK and France – should mount more sustained pressure. Thus far, they have done little more than chide the Saudis and Emiratis in public while privately nudging them toward periodic pauses and talks. U.S. and U.K. officials have defended the coalition against a growing public outcry, laying the blame for the war’s worst fallout chiefly on the Huthis and their Iranian backers, while conceding serious problems in the way the coalition wages war is not always ideal.[fn]See Jonathan Swan and Haley Britzky, “Trump: The Saudis ‘don’t know how to use’ U.S. bombs”, Axios, 4 November 2018; and Frank Gardner, “Yemen conflict: The view from the Saudi side”, BBC, 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote

A sharper message is now needed. The Security Council is now considering a new resolution, drafted by the UK, prescribing “a cessation of hostilities in Hodeidah governorate” and a halt to “all attacks on densely populated civilian areas across Yemen”, as well as “missile and UAV attacks against regional countries and maritime areas”. The draft resolution also “calls on all parties to the conflict to facilitate the unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian” goods into Yemen, including by “ensuring the full and sustained opening of all Yemen’s supply routes and ports, including Hodeidah and Saleef ports, and by the reopening and safe and secure operation of Sana’a airport”.[fn]Draft UN Security Council resolution, undated, obtained by Crisis Group on 19 November 2018. See also “UN draft resolution calls for Yemen truce, two weeks to unblock aid”, Agence France Presse, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote These clauses are commendable and similar in substance to what Griffiths and UN humanitarian chief Lowcock have requested. That said, the draft omits a call for a nationwide ceasefire – necessary to consolidate the gains of the above measures. It also lacks explicit provisions for accountability for parties that may flout the resolution’s terms, saying only that the Council would “consider further measures, as necessary, to support a political solution to end the conflict”.

Debate on the draft resolution commenced on 20 November. The Saudi-led coalition has indicated its displeasure at the text. The UN ambassador from Kuwait, a Council member in 2018-2019, told a reporter that “some Council members don’t see this is the right time to table a draft resolution”.[fn]Tweet by Nabil Abi Saab, @NabilAbiSaab, Al Hurra UN correspondent, 12:40 pm, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote Kuwait may try to water down the resolution’s terms further.

The Security Council should resist such entreaties and urgently pass the resolution. Optimally, it would even strengthen it by calling for a nationwide ceasefire and establishing a UN-led arrangement for Hodeida port, as Griffiths proposed in June 2018. Finally, it should specify what steps the Council would take to enforce the resolution’s terms in the event of non-compliance.

Given the close ties between the U.S. and UK on the one hand, and the coalition on the other, as well as a history of failed attempts at ending the war or curbing its worst features through gentle prodding, they should move to stronger means of pressure. U.S. and UK officials know they are under mounting scrutiny. They have expended major political capital to defend arms sales and other support to the coalition. The UK government has gone to the High Court to argue that licensing arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen campaign did not violate international law.[fn]“British court allows appeal against UK arms sales to Saudis”, Reuters, 4 May 2018.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, Pompeo went against the advice of key bureaus in his own department to provide the certification needed to continue refuelling coalition aircraft.[fn]Dion Nissenbaum, “Top U.S. diplomat backed continuing support for Saudi war in Yemen over objections of staff”, Wall Street Journal, 20 September 2018.Hide Footnote Both UK and U.S. officials could incur growing political consequences from a famine declared on their watch and attributed in part to a Hodeida campaign in which they indirectly participated.

It was in this context that the U.S. announced on 10 November that it had decided to end in-air refuelling of coalition aircraft, purportedly “at the Saudis’ request”, ostensibly because the coalition said it had gained the capability to do so on its own. The timing may suggest that the Trump administration was prepared to start using more serious leverage with the coalition.[fn]“U.S. halting refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft in Yemen’s war”, Reuters, 9 November 2018.Hide Footnote It might equally suggest that in the face of increasing Congressional impatience (especially in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder by Saudi Arabia and the administration’s apparent manoeuvres to shelter senior Saudi leadership from blame) the administration was eager to demonstrate a measure of toughness that might pre-empt further-reaching and flexibility-inhibiting Congressional action.

On 20 November, President Trump issued a statement making clear that he planned on standing by Saudi Arabia, and that punitive action against the kingdom would be limited to the sanctions the White House has already imposed against seventeen low-ranking men said to have been involved in the Khashoggi murder.[fn]“Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia”, White House, 20 November 2018.Hide Footnote That means it is up to Congress to act.

The prospects for such action continue to increase. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have considered draft legislation linked to the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This draft legislation would require the withdrawal of U.S. personnel from hostilities in Yemen (other than for specified counter-terrorism operations), effectively ending refuelling and in-theatre intelligence support to the coalition.[fn]See “Joint resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress,” at and “Congressional resolution directing the President pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress”, at Footnote

While such efforts have been floated (and shot down) previously in recent years, they continue to have some momentum, even if primarily as a vehicle for signalling frustration with U.S. Yemen policy. The House Republican leadership bottled up one iteration of pending war powers legislation shortly after the mid-term elections.[fn]Rebecca Brocato, Jeff Prescott and Ned Price, “House extends U.S. support for Saudis as concerns mount”, Axios, 15 November 2018.Hide Footnote Now the Senate has taken up the baton and is expected to vote on its version during the current “lame duck” session (ie, the work period between the election and the January date when the newly elected members of Congress take their seats). The Senate already sent a message of concern when it voted down the same resolution by a relatively narrow margin of 55-44 during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the U.S. in March 2018.[fn]Nicholas Fandos, “Senators reject limits on U.S. support for Saudi-led fight in Yemen”, The New York Times, 20 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Though there are no expectations that the war powers legislation will become law, January will bring a new Congress, which will be poised to increase pressure yet further. A bipartisan group of senators recently proposed new draft legislation cutting off offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, barring refuelling support to coalition aircraft, and requiring sanctions on persons hindering humanitarian access to Yemen or threatening its peace and stability.[fn]See The Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018, at Under the draft legislation, the secretary of state can waive the arms sales restriction in coordination with the defense secretary upon a written certification that such waiver is in the national security interest subject to the satisfaction of detailed factual requirements (including that the coalition has continuously honoured a cessation of hostilities for 180 days) and an accuracy assessment by the U.S. comptroller general.Hide Footnote This legislation – which co-sponsor Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, describes as “an important way to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for various acts in Yemen as well as the death of Jamal Khashoggi” – is a ready-made vehicle for the new Congress to take up. It will likely be reintroduced early in the new congressional term.[fn]“U.S. senators seek clampdown on Saudis over Yemen, journalist's murder”, Reuters, 15 November 2018.Hide Footnote Moreover, the new Congress will bring a Democratic majority into the House that is almost certain both to use its oversight powers and to press for legislation that curtails U.S. support for the war.

 Emirati and Saudi officials, as well as some from the U.S., say cutting off military assistance would be counterproductive. It would, they argue, embolden the Huthis and Iran who, sensing international impatience, might simply wait things out, hoping that pressure on the Saudi-led coalition will compel it to curb or even end its military activities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UAE officials, Abu Dhabi, November 2018.Hide Footnote It would also allow them to evade blame for the current situation, even though the Huthis bear responsibility for commencing the war and have repeatedly obstructed negotiations. Finally, U.S. officials argue that, with military support suspended, they would be sacrificing a source of critical leverage with Saudi Arabia or the UAE.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congressional and government officials, Washington, 7-8 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Only dramatic U.S. action, replicated by other Security Council members, will be sufficient to give the coalition the short, sharp shock required.

But the countervailing case is the more powerful: leverage supposedly produced by providing military support has not meaningfully altered the way in which coalition forces have prosecuted the war – including targeting civilian areas and using the economy as a weapon of war, nor has it delivered discernible progress on the diplomatic front. Moreover, it is coalition-backed forces that are advancing on Hodeida, and it is that advance that today presents the greatest danger; leverage needs to be applied where it can have an effect. Despite mounting public criticism, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem confident in continued U.S. support. At this stage, therefore, only dramatic U.S. action, replicated by other Security Council members, all of whom supply the Saudis and Emiratis with arms being used in Yemen, will be sufficient to give the coalition the short, sharp shock required.

True, UAE officials argue with some credibility that they can continue their part of the campaign without outside help.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, 11 November 2018.Hide Footnote A halt in military assistance therefore might not prevent the attack on Hodeida. Yet a cut-off in military support would send a powerful political message all the same, especially if combined with a new UN Security Council resolution.

There are alternative options. The U.S. could adopt a phased approach conditioned on coalition behaviour: first cutting off intelligence sharing that can be used in offensive operations, and any air-traffic control support for the coalition; then, should that not suffice to produce changes in coalition behaviour (eg, a nationwide cessation of hostilities; a halt to any advance on Hodeida; and agreement on the UN plan for the port), halting transfers of precision-guided munitions; and, again in the event this proved insufficient, halting the transfer of other weapons systems used in operations in Yemen. But such a conditions-based approach would be problematic, susceptible to wrangling over who was responsible for breaching the pause or cessation of hostilities, and perpetuating U.S. complicity in a brutal conflict that is decimating Yemen’s civilian population.

Of course, the Huthis also need to be pressed to stop fighting and sit down in good faith at the negotiating table. Moreover, if there is a battle for Hodeida, they have a responsibility to refrain from deliberately destroying the port and other vital infrastructure, something their adversaries claim the Huthis intend to do.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Washington, London, Abu Dhabi and via telephone, 2018.Hide Footnote

The U.S. and its Western allies have little to no ability to produce these outcomes. Only Iran and Oman appear to have the necessary leverage. Iran (with Hizbollah) has been the Huthis’ principal supplier of electronic missile parts, training and other forms of support. The Huthis derive escalation potential from firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and at ships in the Red Sea whenever they find themselves squeezed militarily. If, as it has long maintained, including most recently to European countries, it is ready and able to help de-escalate and end the Yemen war, Tehran should prove it now.[fn]The E4 – France, Germany, Italy and the UK – most recently met with Iranian officials in Brussels in September 2018. See “EU/E4 political consultations on regional issues with Iran”, press statement, European External Action Service, 12 September 2018.
Hide Footnote
 For its part, Oman has built a solid relationship with the Huthis, and has been able to convince them to do things they have found unpalatable in the past, including agreeing in principle to hand over Hodeida port.

Both countries should press the Huthis to agree to a cessation of hostilities; agree to hand over the port to the UN and allow for a humanitarian corridor out of the city; and engage in good-faith talks in Stockholm. Tehran should cease its transfer of missile parts. And, barring a good-faith response by the Huthis, Muscat in particular should warn them they risk losing a trustworthy ally that is in a position to help them negotiate an end to the war. The European Union (EU) should press the Iranians, while the U.S. and UK should coordinate with the Omanis.

The fighting parties and their respective backers face a clear choice. With pressure applied in the right way on both sides, it is possible to prevent a fight for Hodeida, achieve a cessation of hostilities and move to talks.

V. Conclusion

Yemen is now four years into a war that has brought none of the principal players involved any closer to achieving its core goals, while producing further misery for civilians. While there are countless indicators of such misery, one tells the story: today, half the population of 28 million stands on the verge of famine.

Even as the country appears headed for the very depth of its humanitarian crisis, an opportunity has arisen. International stakeholders are signalling that enough is enough. Initial action by the Trump administration, while insufficient, is welcome. The U.S. and other states, including and especially those who have been arming the Huthis and the coalition, should take the next critical steps by pressing the parties to agree to a cessation of hostilities, to a deal that would turn management of the port of Hodeida to the UN while securing a humanitarian corridor out of the city, and to attend peace talks in good faith. The Security Council should back this dispensation with a new resolution of the kind drafted by the UK. Optimally, this resolution would be strengthened with a call for a nationwide ceasefire. The U.S. and its allies should bolster these efforts by ending assistance to coalition offensive operations.

Even if implemented, these steps will not prevent a significant portion of the Yemeni population from dipping into famine; famines often are officially declared well after they have already started. But they would allow goods to flow to the major population centres and humanitarian agencies to do their life-saving work. Thus, they would allow Yemen’s catastrophic slide to stop and create conditions conducive to UN-sponsored peace talks. Time is of the essence, however. And at this stage only concerted external pressure can be expected to produce the desired effect.

Abu Dhabi/Washington/New York/Brussels, 21 November 2018

Appendix A: Map of Yemen

International Crisis Group