The Battle for Aden is a Tipping Point in Yemen’s War
The Battle for Aden is a Tipping Point in Yemen’s War
How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast
How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast

The Battle for Aden is a Tipping Point in Yemen’s War

The tide is turning against the Houthis and troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the south of Yemen. But they and their adversaries now face a tipping point in the four-month-old civil war. Both can recognize that neither side can win outright, and choose peace. Or they can condemn the country to another bout of even more devastating conflict.

Backed by new military hardware, airpower and an influx of Yemeni troops trained in Saudi Arabia, fighters captured the city’s international airport and surrounding areas on 14 July. They now appear to be on the brink of consolidating control over Aden for the first time since the Houthis (an armed group that follows the Zaydi a form of Shi’ite Islam largely unique to north Yemen) arrived on its outskirts in late March.

The first major win against the northern Houthi-Saleh alliance has shifted the psychology of Yemen’s war, providing new hope to the wide array of groups that have been resisting their attempts to consolidate control over the country since last September.  The total loss of Aden would be a significant blow to the Houthi-Saleh bloc, reminding them of their military and political vulnerabilities outside of their traditional base in Yemen’s northern highlands.

Yet the gains in Aden are fragile and incomplete and it is unclear how the push to recapture Aden by anti-Houthi fighters will ultimately shape the conflict. It could serve as a pivot to negotiations over the country’s future but could equally add fuel to the flames, deepening and prolonging the violence. At this point, the best outcome would be a clear victory for anti-Houthi fighters in Aden followed by a renewed diplomatic push for a general ceasefire and political negotiations.

A coalition win in the port city could provide new incentives for both sides to come to the bargaining table. Until now, Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government in exile in Riyadh have viewed UN-led negotiations with skepticism, in part because they do not trust that the Houthi-Saleh bloc will negotiate in good faith or accept compromise until they have suffered a military loss on the ground. Aden could be the victory needed to shift their calculation. Meanwhile, the loss of Aden could help convince the Houthi-Saleh alliance that its best option is to agree to a ceasefire and power-sharing deal that prevents the continuation of a needlessly destructive war of attrition that neither side can truly win.

A victory for the anti-Houthi front in Aden could also help to address a structural challenge of current negotiations. The UN strategy for ending Yemen’s war has been built around a plan to broker a deal between Yemen’s government-in-exile, led by ousted president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Sana’a-based Houthi-Saleh alliance. But the Hadi government’s main role in the conflict to date has been to publicly back an aerial campaign and naval blockade of Yemen by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. The real fighting on the ground has been done by local groups defending their home turf with few links and little, if any, fealty to the Hadi government.

A meaningful ceasefire, and more importantly political negotiations over a government and other unresolved issues, would require buy-in from these groups. The formation of a consolidated anti-Houthi front based in Aden would make it easier for the UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to broker a meaningful agreement between all of the warring parties.

While such a deal would be good news for Yemenis — the country has been devastated by the war and is on the verge of famine — there is little in Yemen’s recent history that gives cause for optimism. Instead of opening the door to compromise, a coalition victory in Aden would be just as likely to embolden maximalists within the anti-Houthi-Saleh camp who are bent on total victory, which in turn would likely harden Houthi resolve against them.

The Houthis have garnered a deserved reputation for breaking promises and derailing attempts at negotiating a political solution that is acceptable to all parties. As long as the Houthis’ alliance with Saleh and his loyalists lasts, they will remain in a position of dominant strength in the north, and are unlikely to agree to a compromise deal that costs them too dearly, even if it means months or years more of grinding war. A win in Aden would be a first step for anti-Houthi fighters, not a killing blow.

There is also every chance that the Houthis and Saleh loyalists could mount a fresh offensive to regain control of Aden, or cling on to portions of the city, limiting their rivals’ ability to use it as a staging post for the campaign in other parts of the country. Or they may strike elsewhere. The Houthi leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, recently promised to increase the intensity of attacks, possibly along the Saudi border. An emboldened and enriched Iran could also increase its support for the Houthis as the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional influence deepens.

Other factors are also worth considering. If the tide turns against the Houthi-Saleh alliance in southern and western regions where opposition is strongest, divisions among anti-Houthi fighters are likely to become more pronounced over time. The “resistance” is made up of a mishmash of strange bedfellows with little in common beyond their opposition to the Houthis. They include aggrieved tribesmen, violent Salafis, southern separatists and others. Each group has a radically different vision for Yemen’s future.

With no one side positioned to score an outright victory, or to carve out a stable subsection of the country, Yemen’s warring parties should take the battle for Aden as a sign to the off-ramp that Yemen so desperately needs. They should embrace an inclusive compromise negotiated in good faith with all parties that includes militia withdrawal from territory, a coalition government and, at a minimum, significant autonomy for the central and southern parts of the country.

Continuing along the current road will only lead to protracted, internationalized conflict along the lines of Syria or Libya. The default option of letting the war continue will guarantee this outcome, with more grave human suffering, growing radicalization and deepening instability for the whole Arabian peninsula.

The Smit Hunter heads a control operation of the FSO Safer at the Yemen Hunt Oil Terminal, Yemen, 1992. Flickr / Piet Sinke

How to Avert an Imminent Disaster off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast

A floating oil storage facility in Yemeni waters is on the verge of breaking or blowing up. Time is running out to raise the remaining $20 million needed for a salvage operation to prevent ecological and economic damage of historic proportions.

Crisis Group calls on governments, international institutions and affluent private individuals to reach into their pockets as a matter of extreme urgency to help stave off a disaster of dramatic magnitude in the Red Sea. The Safer (pronounced “saffer”), a large tanker-turned-floating storage and offloading vessel carrying over a million barrels of oil, could explode or break apart at any moment. Should it do so, it would almost certainly cause an environmental catastrophe that would far exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the current “record holder” for marine ecological damage from a single incident. It would also aggravate Yemen’s already dire humanitarian plight and could complicate efforts to end the country’s war. A concerted salvage operation may still be possible, but time is extremely short, and the UN, which has negotiated a workable plan, remains desperately short of the necessary cash – $20 million – despite a vigorous fundraising effort.

The facts of the case are well known. They have been brought to the world’s attention by the UN humanitarian mission in Yemen and covered in an exposé in The New Yorker magazine. In short summary, they are as follows:

  • The Safer is anchored in waters off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that are controlled by Huthi rebels, who hold most of the country’s north. Seven years of war and sanctions have made it impossible to move the oil or perform routine maintenance on the floating facility; during this time, the vessel has started to corrode, while its onboard system to prevent flammable gases from exploding has become defunct.
  • Following painstaking UN-led negotiations, the Huthis and other parties in Yemen’s war have agreed for the oil to be offloaded from the Safer and for the vessel to be dismantled and replaced, probably by a smaller ship tethered to an offshore buoy, a system that several other countries, including Iran, use.
  • The first stage of the operation – offloading the oil – carries a price tag of $80 million. The second stage – putting the new facility in place – could cost an additional $64 million (from which can be deducted the expected revenue from sale of the Safer’s scrap metal, estimated at $25-30 million). The funds for the second stage are not needed with the same urgency.
  • Time is of the essence to complete the first stage. While the ship could break up or turn into a fireball at any time, the risk will rise significantly once the season changes in October, when rough winds will buffet the Red Sea. The salvage operation – by a Dutch concern – is estimated to need four months. It cannot be delayed a moment longer.
  • The UN’s appeal for funds for the first stage has yielded $60 million so far. Contributions from the Dutch, German, Saudi, Swiss, UK and U.S. governments have arrived, but the last $20 million are proving to be the most difficult to raise.
  • Yet the calculation is simple: spend $80 million now or billions upon billions later, namely on the environmental clean-up and to deal with second-order consequences, such as growing famine in Yemen (as the port cities through which the bulk of food imports arrive are forced to close down) and destruction of fisheries and other sources of income affected by the oil spill – not just in Yemen but all along the Red Sea coast. Add the impact on shipping through this vital waterway, for example in the form of additional supply-chain challenges that would affect the world economy, and the cost of inaction is even clearer. The incident with the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021, should serve as a stark reminder of the interruptions even short-lived closure could cause.
  • Donors should therefore see the $80 million package not as a gift to the Huthi rebels, but as an essential act of protecting their strategic interests and economic wellbeing, as well as the fragile ecology of the Red Sea basin.

The UN has been at pains to keep the Safer crisis separate from the Yemen war from which it sprang, realising that the belligerents will try – as they already have, but in vain – to politicise the issue and in the process further delay the salvage operation. Yet the link is real, if only because the feared massive oil spill could easily hamper peacemaking efforts. Not only will the various parties almost certainly blame one another for the disaster, but the closure of ports and multiplying humanitarian challenges could reignite fighting just as Yemen is experiencing a moment of relative calm thanks to a UN-mediated truce, now in its third month. A spill could also heighten geopolitical tensions in the region.

This appeal may be the simplest Crisis Group has ever made. It is not about conflict parties putting aside deep differences and agreeing to painful compromises at the negotiating table. Rather, it is about governments and others digging into their budgets to allocate $20 million to this effort – an amount that is almost negligible for most Western stakeholders given the far greater outlays for other concerns as well as the scale of the looming disaster. There can be no doubt that tackling the Safer threat now would bring a huge return on what can only be seen as a minimal investment.

Of course, apart from the Safer issue, those with a stake in a negotiated end to the Yemeni war will need to do much more to accomplish that task and also to reduce the immense humanitarian suffering that the war has brought. Salvaging an ailing vessel would be a cheap, easy and utterly sensible first step toward this larger goal.

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