The war in Yemen, which escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Huthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe: hunger and fighting could provoke mass famine and waves of refugees; the conflict could destabilise Saudi Arabia; and both sides appear locked in a cycle of escalating violence, derailing UN peace talks. Crisis Group’s focus is on the negotiations: introducing ourselves at key points, shaping the debate, proposing solutions and encouraging stakeholders to modify positions based on our analysis. Concerted effort is required to convince the parties to accept the UN’s roadmap as the basis for a compromise that would end foreign intervention and allow Yemenis to make peace.
The dramatic collapse of the Huthi-Saleh alliance is likely to prolong Yemen’s war and the suffering of its people. After killing former President Saleh, the Huthis, viewed by their enemies in Riyadh as Iranian proxies, are firmly in control of the capital. Neither they, nor the Saudis, are in a mood for compromise.
Following Huthi missile strike on Riyadh, Saudi-led coalition escalated bombing in Yemen and tightened blockade and fighting between Huthis and pro-Saleh forces threatened to continue in Dec. Huthi rebels 4 Nov fired ballistic missile at Saudi capital, Riyadh which Saudi military intercepted and destroyed over city; launch followed Saudi airstrikes in Huthis’ home governorate of Saada that reportedly killed 38 people early Nov. In response, Saudi Arabia increased airstrikes in areas controlled by Huthis and supporters of former President Saleh, including capital Sanaa, and 6 Nov announced temporary closure of all entry ports to Yemen in bid to stop alleged Iranian weapons shipments to Huthis. Saudi Arabia 13 Nov started lifting restrictions on airports and ports nominally controlled by President Hadi’s govt, but tightened blockade on Huthi/Saleh-controlled territories, with grave humanitarian consequences. International Committee of the Red Cross 17 Nov said that three cities had run out of clean water due to blockade, as fuel needed for pumping and sanitation insufficient. Huthis 30 Nov vowed to retaliate for blockade and same day launched missile targeting Saudi city of Khamis Mushait in south west, which Saudi military intercepted and destroyed without casualties. International criticism of war and its humanitarian toll rose, with U.S. House of Representatives 13 Nov passing non-binding resolution stating that Congress never authorised U.S. assistance to Saudi’s intervention in Yemen. UN 16 Nov called on Saudi-led coalition to lift blockade, accusing it of threatening lives of “millions of vulnerable children and families”. Saudi-led coalition 25 Nov began easing restrictions on rebel-held areas, allowing plane carrying vaccines and aid workers to land in Sanaa. Flour shipment arrived to Hodeida port 25 Nov, next day vessel carrying wheat docked at Saleef port. UN 27 Nov called on coalition to fully open ports to commercial and humanitarian goods. Fighting broke out 29 Nov between fighters loyal to former President Saleh and Huthis around Saleh mosque in Sanaa, killing at least four, and continued 30 Nov. Tensions remain high within uncomfortable Huthi-Saleh alliance. Hadi-appointed governor in southern city of Aden 17 Nov resigned citing his inability to perform role due to govt corruption. Islamic State (ISIS) intensified attacks on pro-govt security forces in Aden 5-14 Nov, killing at least 56. ISIS-claimed attack on finance ministry building in Aden 29 Nov killed five. U.S. drone attack on suspected al-Qaeda members 26 Nov on road between Shabwa and Bayda provinces killed seven. Unidentified gunmen 28 Nov ambushed Hadi forces patrol near Ataq in central Shabwa province, killing five.
Since August, a public rift has surfaced between the two main partners on the northern front of Yemen’s war – the forces loyal to the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Rather than fostering its rivals’ discord, key powerbroker Saudi Arabia should seize this rare chance to resolve the two-and-a-half year war by championing a new regional initiative.
War is denying Yemenis food to eat. This special briefing, the first of four examining the famine threats there and in South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, urges the Saudi-led coalition not to assault Yemen’s most important port, Hodeida, and both sides to immediately resolve deadlock over the Central Bank.
Thriving on conflict, sectarianism, and local opportunism, al-Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger than ever in Yemen. To shrink their growing base will require better governance in vulnerable areas, not treating all Sunni Islamists as one enemy, and above all ending Yemen’s civil war.
Yemen's outlook is bleak. It is crucial that the opposing blocs and their regional allies commit to a political process to resolve the conflict, but there is no end in sight. The immediate priority should be an agreement on humanitarian aid and commercial goods for areas where civilians are under siege.
Yemen is now at war. Fuelled by Saudi-Iranian rivalry and a violent jihadi upsurge, fighting is fragmenting the country and could spread beyond if parties do not immediately de-escalate and – with the support of Gulf neighbours – return to negotiations on a compromised, power-sharing leadership.
Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.
Nobody doubts that Iran has been helping the [Yemeni] Houthis. [But], nobody doubts that Saudi Arabia has been conducting activities that are violations of the rules of war either.
Most people agree at this point that the Saudis are facing a legitimate security threat and that Iran is part of the problem. By continuing down this road, things will just get worse.
[Yemen's coalition] policy of trying to split the Houthi-Saleh alliance has backfired dramatically.
The [Yemeni Houthis'] reach in the population is limited, and over time that will play into their opponents’ hands. But that won’t happen anytime soon, so it looks like the conflict will worsen.
If the Saudis and the Emirates want to have any chance of defeating the [Yemeni] Houthis, they will have to bring the anti-Houthi forces together under one umbrella.
[Yemen's Houthis] know they are fighters, not administrators. They are strong militarily, but otherwise they have no real means of governing. This is going to be the new challenge for [them].
Our Arabian Peninsula Senior Analyst April Longley Alley finds pride, resilience and an eagerness to end the conflict during field research and many conversations in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. She concludes that isolating one side or making the famine and suffering worse will only prolong the war.
Despite suffering significant blows in Syria and Iraq, jihadist movements across the Middle East, North Africa and Lake Chad regions continue to pose significant challenges. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to prioritise conflict prevention at the heart of their counter-terrorism policy and continue investment in vulnerable states.
With the world's largest hunger crisis, Yemen sits precariously on the brink of famine. Avoiding it will require all warring parties to desist from weaponising Yemen's increasingly fragile economy and return to the negotiating table.
Originally published in World Politics Review
For the first time in three decades, four countries, driven by war, verge on famine. Over coming weeks, Crisis Group will publish special briefings on Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Each conflict requires tailored response; all need increased aid and efforts to end the violence.