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Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict
Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict
Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act
Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act

Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict

Originally published in Jadaliyya

This interview with Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula April Longley Alley first appeared in Jadaliyya.

In late March 2015, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia initiated a military campaign against Yemen consisting of intensive air raids, the arming of local allies and a de facto naval and air blockade of the country. Initially termed Operation Decisive Storm but since renamed Operation Restore Hope, it continues to this day. Riyadh identified the recent territorial gains of Yemen’s Houthi movement, and the ouster of President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government, as the reasons for its campaign and pledged that both would be swiftly rolled back. Four months later neither objective appears to be in reach, nor is a negotiated end to this conflict in sight.  As part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya asked April Longley Alley, Crisis Group Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula, to shed light on the causes and course of this war.

Jadaliyya: Who exactly are the Houthis, why have they apparently aligned with their former nemesis Ali Abdullah Saleh, and is their domination of Yemen in your view sustainable?

April Longley Alley: The Houthis are an armed group that has its roots in a movement for Zaydi cultural and religious revivalism in north Yemen. (Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam distinct from the Twelver Shiism prevalent in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon). They have a strong militia component, but view themselves as a political and social movement against corruption and Western imperialism. Their primarily base of support is in the northern Zaydi highlands and especially in the Saada governorate bordering Saudi Arabia.

During and after the 2011 uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the movement expanded rapidly, forming alliances with disgruntled tribesmen in the north, left-leaning activists and even some southern separatists. As the Yemeni transition collapsed, they took advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of reform and also, ironically, tacitly aligned with Saleh and parts of his General People’s Congress party to defeat common enemies, including the Sunni Islamist Islah Party (a coalition that includes the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood).

The Houthis expanded rapidly into a political and security void. As long as they were in opposition, they were able to garner widespread sympathy and support, far beyond their traditional base. When they captured the capital Sanaa in September 2014, with the help of parts of the security forces loyal to Saleh and frustrated with his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi, things began to change.

The tipping point against them politically happened in February of this year when they overthrew the government and attempted to install a revolutionary council. Shortly thereafter, foreign embassies pulled out of Sanaa and a wide array of Yemeni political and social groups began to speak out and mobilize politically against them. Since then the Houthis have continued to overstretch politically and militarily as they have pushed southwards. In short, the Houthis were in many ways victims of their own success. They overestimated their popular appeal, particularly in areas like Aden where many locals viewed them as northern invaders. Neither the Houthis nor any other single group can single-handedly dominate Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition began its air offensive against Yemen in late March, and four months later it still continues. What is this campaign hoping to achieve, what has it achieved so far, and are its objectives in your view realistic given realities within Yemen and the apparent hesitancy of many of Riyadh's allies to maintain their involvement?

The campaign’s stated objectives are to reinstate the government of President Hadi, who is in exile in Riyadh, and to roll back Houthi military gains. After four months of a punishing air raids, and a naval and air blockade, the campaign has achieved some success. It has slowed the advance of the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former president Saleh.

Had the coalition not intervened in March, the Houthi-Saleh alliance would have consolidated control over the entire country. (That said, their dominance would have been short-lived; their alliance is a tactical one, and many areas of the country, especially in the south, would have eventually organized military and political resistance against them).  The campaign has also destroyed the Yemeni air force and most of the heavy weaponry that was under Houthi/Saleh control. Most recently, in mid-July, the coalition had its first significant victory when Yemeni fighters, supported by new military hardware, coalition air cover, and trainers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) re-took the port city of Aden. Several ministers, although not President Hadi, have returned to Aden and the coalition is preparing to use it as base to launch attacks against the Houthis in other cities.

While some gains have been made, a maximalist interpretation of the campaign’s objectives – reinstating the Hadi government’s control over all of Yemen and defeating the Houthis militarily – is unrealistic. The Houthi/Saleh alliance can be pushed out of Aden, and possibly from other areas in the south where local opposition to them is strongest, but it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat them in the northern, Zaydi highlands. In these areas the Houthis, with or without support from Saleh, appear to be well placed to fight a protracted conflict.

The prospects for President Hadi and his government returning to rule over a unified Yemen are also scant. President Hadi has lost credibility across the political spectrum, including in the port city of Aden. There, anti-Houthi/Saleh fighters are a mix of strange bedfellows, ranging from separatists, disgruntled tribesmen, Islamists and violent jihadists, most with little allegiance to the Yemeni government in exile.

At present, neither the Houthi/Saleh bloc nor the Saudi-led coalition opposing it is capable of achieving military victory throughout Yemen, or of carving out a stable territorial base. If the coalition could split Saleh and his supporters from the Houthis, they would have a better chance militarily. But this would require a political compromise. Even then, a full surrender or defeat of the Houthis in the northern highlands is unlikely.

To what extent has the balance of forces within Yemen shifted since the beginning of this conflict? Do you believe that the prospects for a Southern secession from Yemen have increased as a result?

The power balance in Yemen has gone through a number of dizzying shifts in recent years. The Houthis were the biggest winners of the 2011 uprising, but they have quickly overextended, particularly in Yemen’s southern areas. Militarily, the Houthi/Saleh alliance remains the strongest Yemeni force on the ground. At the same time, it is unclear how long this alliance will remain united. On the other side, the Saudi coalition is gradually strengthening an anti-Houthi fighting force, although this group remains internally fractious, and is divided between Islamists, separatists and tribal groupings with very different visions for Yemen’s future.

One of the main outcomes of the war is that the southern separatist movement has shifted from a peaceful movement to an alliance of armed militias. Given the brutal fighting that took place in Aden between southern fighters and the Houthi/Saleh northern alliance, their commitment to separation is even stronger now. As fighting continues and the divisions between north and south are inflamed and militarized, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine a unified Yemen emerging from this conflict.

The efforts by the United Nations to broker an end to this conflict have produced only an agreement for a short ceasefire in May and one in July that collapsed almost immediately. Efforts by other states, notably Oman, have similarly come up short. Why does there seem to be no room for diplomacy to end this conflict and what would be required for a negotiated resolution to be successful?

The main problem is that the two parties best positioned to halt major combat, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, are not ready for a political compromise and both believe that they can achieve more militarily. The Saudis and their Yemeni allies appear to be preparing for a prolonged conflict lasting years, as are the Houthis. The Houthis certainly want a ceasefire and a lifting of the blockade, but it is not clear how much they are willing to concede in return. Until now, they have not indicated, either through specific proposals or actions on the ground, that they are prepared to withdraw from cities they have recently conquered and share political power. For their part, Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies do not trust that the Houthis will respect any compromise unless the latter suffer substantial military loses or are completely defeated first. While the coalition may be able to push the Houthis back further in some areas, it will come at tremendous cost to the civilian population. In the highlands, a complete capitulation of the Houthis is an unrealistic objective. The intransigence and hubris of both sides is dragging the country into a multi-year conflict.

Many view the current war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What are your views?

Like many conflicts in the region, this one has domestic as well as regional drivers. This conflict is a battle between Yemeni stakeholders over political power and the structure of the state. But this struggle has been overlaid by the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is reasserting its power in Yemen, which had waned in recent years, by buttressing the Hadi government and weakening the Houthis, who Riyadh views as Iranian proxies. Regionally, the Houthis fall within the Iranian political orbit. But they depend far less on Iran for military assistance than their adversaries do on Saudi Arabia. What is certain is that Riyadh’s perception of Tehran’s interference in Yemen, coupled with the Houthis’ unwillingness to constructively address these fears, has magnified the violence and is making resolution of this conflict infinitely more complex.

There seems to be an almost deliberate attempt to foment a humanitarian emergency in what is already the Arab world's poorest state. Is the situation as bad as reports indicate, and what are the implications of this?

The situation is catastrophic. In early July, the United Nations (UN) raised Yemen to a level three crisis, the same level as Iraq, Syria and South Sudan. Airstrikes, fighting on the ground and, most importantly, the blockade have created a perfect storm that is driving the country to the brink of famine. Health services have virtually collapsed. Water, which is extracted by diesel pumps, is quickly running out. In cities like Aden, which have borne some of the worst of the ground fighting, there have been reports of dengue fever outbreaks. The scale of the humanitarian crisis poses a stark ethical challenge to the Saudi-backed coalition and its supporters, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Houthis, and the army forces fighting with them, are far from blameless. Their actions are largely responsible for plunging the country into war, and they have at times seemingly violated international humanitarian law, by indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. But the main driver of the humanitarian challenge is the blockade that is meant to prevent the Houthis from acquiring weapons. The de facto blockade of regular civilian imports is tantamount to collective punishment of the Yemeni population on account of the actions of a small group of fighters. After four months, the coalition and the Yemeni government exiled in Riyadh have been either unwilling or unable to resolve the challenge of screening for arms while allowing a sufficient flow of commercial imports, especially of diesel and food.

Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act

The past decade has witnessed the gradual destruction of Yemen’s pre-war power structures and the rise of new political forces. Perhaps no faction, not even the Huthis who control much of the northern highlands, better exemplifies these new networks than the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC). Formed in April 2017, this self-styled southern government-in-waiting and its allies now hold most of Yemen’s four southern governorates, including the temporary capital, Aden, and almost a fifth of the cabinet seats in President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised government. As part of the Saudi-brokered deal that brought it into government, the STC should also have a seat at the table if and when the UN convenes talks over a political settlement to end the war.

The STC’s precipitous rise is not guaranteed to continue and could come to a sudden halt. The group’s leadership is engaged in a delicate balancing act, attempting to sustain local support amid economic turbulence, build its regional and international profile, and judge the trajectory of the wider war, in particular with respect to Marib governorate, the government’s last major stronghold in the north.

The STC has its roots in Yemen’s southern independence movement.

Hiding in Plain Sight

The STC has its roots in Yemen’s southern independence movement. Before 2015, the secessionist al-Hirak al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement) was a loose coalition of groups that sought to restore the southern Yemeni state, the pre-1990 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Many Hirakis argued that they had seceded during a 1994 north-south civil war in which southerners sought to undo a 1990 unification pact; everything that followed, they said, was northern occupation of the south. Hirak was beset by internal conflicts, however, particularly between leaders who had been PDRY officials, most of whom lived in exile. During Yemen’s UN-overseen 2012-2014 political transition, diplomats regularly complained of Hirak’s inability to form a coherent negotiating platform. The movement remained largely peaceful, focusing on regular protest marches in Aden and other big southern cities.

For a time, the exigencies of war helped Hirak and other southerners overcome their divisions. In the conflict’s early days, in 2015, an alliance of the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists sought to overrun southern cities and governorates. Local fighters from outside the security and military services, many of them pro-independence, mounted an unexpectedly stiff defence of their areas, pushing the Huthi-Saleh alliance out of much of the south within months with backing from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fault lines soon emerged, however. From mid-2015 onward, a powerful network of military/security leaders emerged, closely tied to the UAE. Factions led by two Hirak-aligned commanders from al-Dhale governorate, Aydrous al-Zubaidi and Shelal Shayea, the Salafist leader Hani bin Breik, and a group of pro-independence fighters from the Yafa tribe, which spans several southern governorates, rose to particular prominence. At first, President Hadi sought to co-opt these leaders by appointing them to important local security and government positions. But as they accumulated clout, the relationship became more complicated.

Foreseen Ruptures

Two issues drove conflict between the emergent STC leadership and its Emirati sponsors, on one hand, and Hadi and his allies, on the other. The first was ideology. UAE officials argue that during the war’s early days they focused on supporting local groups that demonstrated the greatest ability to coordinate the south’s defence and, later, provide security. But UAE officials see one constituent group of the anti-Huthi bloc, Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement they consider a major threat to their political system and national security, and a “gateway drug” to jihadism. As such, the UAE avoided contact where possible with Islah-affiliated groups, including important local Hadi allies. Hirakis in general, and the STC in particular, also revile Islah, which they blame for some of the worst excesses of the 1994 war civil war. UAE-backed forces turned out to be particularly hostile toward Islah, allegedly sponsoring covert campaigns to uproot the party in the south from 2015 onward.

The second faultline was an intra-south rivalry that predated the 1990 north-south unity agreement. Southerners often characterise a 1986 bloody intra-PDRY civil war as a fight between forces from Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa province, on one hand, and adversaries from al-Dhale and Lahj provinces to Aden’s north west, on the other. Hadi is from Abyan, and was part of the losing Abyan-Shebwa side in the 1986 war. He later played a leading role in the northern campaign in 1994. From the beginning of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, locals in the south predicted a split between “Bedouin” from Abyan and Shebwa, such as Hadi and his allies, and “tribesmen” from Lahj and al-Dhale, such as Zubaidi and Shayea. 

The rupture came in several phases.

The rupture came in several phases. First, in April 2017, Hadi fired most of the UAE-aligned officials he had appointed in 2015 and 2016, who had become vocally critical of his rule and in some cases openly espoused southern independence. A month later, Zubaidi announced the formation of the STC as a kind of southern government-in-waiting, of which he was to be president. In January 2018, STC-aligned forces clashed with Hadi loyalists in Aden. Then, in August 2018, they mounted a complete takeover of Aden, sparking an inconclusive power struggle for the south that left the STC in control of al-Dhale, Lahj, Aden and parts of western Abyan, while Hadi and his loyalists stayed in charge in eastern Abyan and much of Shebwa. (UAE-backed Hadrami forces based in Mukalla remained largely neutral). The fighting ended only when Saudi Arabia intervened, eventually brokering what became known as the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019.

After Riyadh: A Waiting Game

The Riyadh Agreement bears all the hallmarks, and limitations, of recent international efforts to broker deals between Yemen’s rival armed and political factions, which sign accords but use the aftermath to gain new advantages. The STC heralded the international legitimacy they believe the agreement bestowed on their group, and their inclusion in UN-led talks, as a major success and a step forward for their independence cause. They have focused on implementing the agreement’s political aspects – the formation of a new government and the STC’s inclusion in national-level UN-led peace talks. The government touted the agreement as a victory over the UAE, without whose support they argue the STC would have no power whatsoever, including in moving toward southern autonomy or more. The UAE has been downsizing its footprint in Yemen since 2018, and Emirati officials say they ended their direct participation in the war in October 2019. Seeking to strengthen its position, the Hadi government is now trying to integrate STC-aligned military and security forces into command-and-control structures overseen by the Hadi-aligned defence and interior ministries – something the government says the Riyadh Agreement calls for but STC officials say they will never allow to happen in practice.

Today, the STC and the Hadi government are both playing a waiting game, each gambling that they can outlast the other.

Today, the STC and the Hadi government are both playing a waiting game, each gambling that they can outlast the other. The Hadi government calculates that without UAE support, and without UAE salaries for its forces, the STC’s military networks will soon crumble, although it is not clear that the UAE has entirely abandoned its Yemeni ally. It also believes that, now that the STC is part of the government, it can be held to account for governance failures in the south. The STC, meanwhile, is eyeing battles between the Huthis and Hadi-aligned forces in Marib. A government collapse in Marib would mean that the Huthis have, in effect, won the war for the north, dealing a major blow to the government’s credibility. In particular, some STC officials believe a government defeat would make Riyadh, whose patronage the STC believes it will need to advance its independence aims, more dependent on their forces to prevent a Huthi takeover of all Yemen. The STC also appears to calculate that the government’s presence in the south – it returned to Aden in December 2020 – will make it the face of governance failures there, manifested by a plummeting Yemeni riyal, widespread electricity and fuel shortages, and skyrocketing food prices.

Future Scenarios

government capitulation in Marib would bring political benefits to the STC, but it could leave the group exposed as the next target of the Huthis’ military campaign to take full control of the country. If, on the other hand, the government can hold off the Huthis at Marib, stabilise the economy and improve service delivery in the south, the STC may lose popular support. For now, the delicate balancing act will continue, with the STC’s quest for independence undimmed.