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Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State
Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

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Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
     
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
     
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

As Yemen's unremitting conflict continues to drive a nation-wide humanitarian crisis, there is an ever-increasing need to quell hostilities. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rebuild the credibility of the UN-sponsored talks in order to find a durable ceasefire and work toward a political settlement within Yemen.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Yemen’s war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters; between 70 and 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and over half of its 26 million people face food insecurity. Localised fighting escalated into full blown war in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of Huthi militias and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has fragmented a weak state, destroyed the country’s meagre infrastructure and opened vast opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) to grow and seize territory.

Continued fighting, especially the Saudi-led coalition’s attempt to capture the Red Sea port of Hodeida (northern Yemen’s economic lifeline), stifling blockades and unilateral moves such as the relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden will deepen intra-Yemeni divisions and increase the risk of famine. The conflict is likely to continue to expand into the region with growing refugee flows, violence by AQAP and IS outside Yemen and more attacks by Huthi/Saleh forces inside Saudi Arabia. Continued fighting will further fuel tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, also a contributory factor in other conflicts in the region. International efforts to press the two sides to a ceasefire have been woefully inadequate. Insufficient media attention hasn’t helped either.

Incoherent International Approaches

The approach that the U.S. and UK, in particular, have taken in Yemen has been muddled. They have supported UN efforts to end the conflict, but at the same time continued to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia despite evidence that it has repeatedly violated the laws of war. In April 2015, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216, a one-sided document that essentially called for the Huthi/Saleh alliance to surrender and which the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition have used repeatedly to obstruct efforts to achieve peace.

In August 2016, a fresh initiative by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process proved too little too late. Nonetheless, while it exposed the Obama administration’s inability to bring along Saudi Arabia, it did present a more balanced solution. Current UN-led diplomatic efforts are complicated by uncertainties surrounding the position of the new Trump administration. It appears to favour more aggressive military action against AQAP and possibly against the Huthis, whom it seems to view as an Iranian proxy, to the detriment of prioritising a negotiated settlement. Further, after three rounds of peace talks and multiple failed ceasefires, the UN has lost credibility with all sides, especially the Huthi/Saleh bloc, which sees UN mediation efforts as biased toward Saudi Arabia.

The EU’s Peace-making Potential

Enter the European Union (EU). The EU – through its delegation to Yemen and in coordination with Brussels – is well qualified to help rebuild the credibility of UN-sponsored talks and prod the sides toward a ceasefire and settlement. Throughout the conflict, it has been a consistent advocate of a ceasefire and political solution under UN auspices, a position that has not been compromised by active participation or partisan support in the war. The EU’s neutrality, despite the UK’s and France’s bilateral positions in support of the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign, has allowed it to maintain credibility and contacts with the principal belligerents, including the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen has done much to encourage the Huthis to engage with the UN peace process. The delegation and Ms Mogherini, among other EU actors, have consistently called attention to parties’ dangerous unilateral moves, condemned war crimes and supplied technical support to UN ceasefire monitoring committees.

In 2017, the EU with its member states should build on these efforts by focusing on two priorities: 1) securing a durable ceasefire and political settlement to end the war; 2) mitigating the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

Ending the war will require a two-pronged approach: first, securing a UN-backed ceasefire and agreement that will end Saudi Arabia’s military intervention by addressing its security concerns and allowing it to make a face-saving exit; and second, launching inclusive UN-sponsored intra-Yemeni negotiations to chart the country’s political future. To achieve a ceasefire, the EU, leveraging its credibility with the Huthis and Saleh’s party, and in coordination with the UK and France, both of which may have Saudi Arabia’s ear because they support it militarily, should encourage backchannel talks between the antagonists to lay the foundations for a UN-backed deal.

In addition, the UK, as penholder, and France should push for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, both inside Yemen and along the Yemeni-Saudi border, and outlining parameters of a compromise solution consistent with the UN roadmap and requiring concessions from both sides. They should also limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia expressly and only for defence (including defence of Saudi territory from cross-border attacks by Huthi-Saleh forces) and condition sales of arms for offensive purposes on Riyadh’s express support for an immediate ceasefire.

To promote a durable settlement, the EU and its member states should champion broadly inclusive intra-Yemeni negotiations that address unresolved issues, especially decentralisation and the status of the south. They could work toward these talks through track II initiatives and sustained diplomatic engagement with actors beyond the Hadi government and the Huthi/Saleh bloc, including the Sunni Islamist party Islah, southern separatists, tribal groupings, Salafi groups and civil society organisations including women’s groups.

Increasing Humanitarian Relief and Upholding International Law

The EU and its member states should continue efforts to mitigate the war’s humanitarian toll and prevent further deterioration. Specifically, they should urgently discourage, both privately and publicly, the Saudi-led coalition’s attempts to capture Hodeida, a move that would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis and set back prospects for a negotiated settlement. More generally, they should call on the Saudi-led coalition to relax the air and sea blockade on Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas (including by allowing civilian flights in and out of Sanaa, the capital), and call on the Huthis to ease the blockade of Taiz. In each case, they should encourage the blockading side to facilitate the free movement of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians. They should also encourage the Yemeni antagonists to reach a compromise that allows basic Central Bank functioning throughout the country, including especially the payment of public-sector salaries and enabling importers to secure letters of credit for essential foodstuffs.

The EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides.

Finally, the EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides. They should bring to bear concerted diplomatic pressure and, where relevant, threaten to suspend all weapons sales. The EU could go further by advocating for an independent inquiry into alleged violations on the grounds that not holding perpetrators accountable breeds impunity, a recipe for further conflict. Yet given internal rifts within the UN Human Rights Council on this issue, including among EU member states, the EU will have more impact at this stage by focusing on promoting a ceasefire. Ultimately, however, a lasting settlement will need to include a mechanism for addressing transitional justice and accountability.