Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict
Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Quick Thoughts: April Longley Alley on the Yemen Conflict

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.

A car travelling from Yemen’s Taiz city to Aden via the Hajjat al-Abd road. This route is prone to car and truck accidents which can be deadly. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Taiz, a city in central Yemen, is besieged by Huthi rebels and practically cut off from the rest of the country. Restored road access would save lives and build trust that could help bring peace to Yemen, but time is short.

More than a month has passed since the UN announced a truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Huthi rebels it has been battling for the past seven years with backing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the truce itself has held, if somewhat shakily. But the UN has been able to secure partial implementation of only two of the three confidence-building measures it attached to the deal that has halted the fighting: passage of fuel shipments into the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopening of the Huthi-held Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights for the first time since 2016. There has been little if any progress on the third measure – reinvigoration of efforts to restore road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that the Huthis have besieged since 2016. UN officials are now in a race against time to ensure that the Sanaa airport remains open in the hope of prolonging the truce and starting political talks. Important as that task is, they must not forget Taiz. What happens there could either accelerate a shift away from violent confrontation to political negotiations, or become an impediment that derails UN-led efforts to finally end Yemen’s destructive war.

A Fragile Opportunity

Recent developments present a moment of opportunity in Yemen. The two-month truce came into effect on 2 April. It is an informal, self-policed agreement by the parties to stop fighting. In theory, it is renewable. The UN’s hope is that an extended truce can be a springboard for political talks about a formal ceasefire and a negotiated way out of the conflict.

Less than a week after the UN announced the truce, Yemen’s president of ten years, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, announced that he was ceding power to a new eight-member presidential council led by the former interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi reportedly stepped down under pressure from Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to reorganise the anti-Huthi bloc. Anti-Huthi Yemenis had heavily criticised Hadi for exercising too little leadership in the disparate anti-Huthi alliance. The Huthis publicly dismissed the new council as a mere “reshuffling of mercenaries” that underscores what they see as the government’s lack of legitimacy. Yet the council is broadly representative of the range of military and political factions opposing the Huthis. It has since been inaugurated in Aden, along with a prime minister and cabinet.

The truce and the council’s formation ... present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process.

The truce and the council’s formation – and the latter’s public declarations that it will pursue peace with the Huthis – present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process, particularly given the decline in the Huthis’ battlefield dominance as a result of renewed Emirati support for anti-Huthi forces. It is probably an exaggeration to say peace is an immediate possibility, and many Yemenis see the truce as an opportunity for the rival parties to regroup rather than to cease hostilities. Still, prospects for a move from violent combat to meaningful political negotiations are better now than they have been in years.

In order to capitalise on the opportunity for a truce extension, the parties need to make sustained progress on all three of the related confidence-building measures. The UN appears already to be pushing hard on fuel shipments and reopening Sanaa airport. The Taiz issue, however, requires closer attention.

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Taiz and the Truce

That the truce has held up so far, if a bit tenuously, is an achievement in and of itself given the depth of distrust between the Huthis and their rivals, who have exchanged recriminations over delays in taking the agreed-upon steps. Yet nowhere does distrust of the Huthis’ intentions run higher than in Taiz, where residents greeted the truce announcement with protest instead of celebration. Many residents saw the agreement’s provisions for their city as unrealistic. For many in the anti-Huthi camp, Taiz has become a symbol of what they see as a lopsided international approach that gives short shrift to their grievances while seeking to appease the Huthis. 

Taiz governorate has been isolated from the rest of Yemen since battles in 2015 left the Huthis holding its economically and strategically important northern regions and encircling Taiz city, whose centre remained under the control of government-aligned forces. Fighting has cut off all the main overland routes linking Taiz with Huthi- and government-controlled areas. No matter where they travel, Yemenis who live in the city are forced to navigate single-track mountain roads with perilous hairpin bends and checkpoints manned by armed groups. 

The consequences have been debilitating for civic life and commerce. Travel time to and from Taiz has increased dramatically. A trip from Huthi-controlled Hawban, Taiz governorate’s industrial hub where many residents work, to government-controlled Taiz city centre once took between 5 and 15 minutes by car and now takes 5 to 6 hours along a poorly maintained one-lane road. Travelling from Taiz to the southern port city of Aden takes from 6 to 8 hours by car; it took 2 to 3 hours before 2015. Moving basic goods like food and fuel by truck between the two nominally allied cities can take anywhere from 14 hours to several days. Higher transport costs and checkpoint fees, combined with other costs of operating in a war economy, have driven up food and fuel prices inside the city, making it one of the most expensive places to live in Yemen. It is not uncommon for sick Taizis to die on their way to Aden or Sanaa for urgent medical care. Thus far, the Huthis have had little incentive to improve road access to the city: they control the governorate’s economic heart and are keeping their main local rivals boxed in. Further complicating matters, parts of Taiz governorate not controlled by the Huthis are heavily contested by rival groups within the anti-Huthi bloc, sometimes violently.

Hawban to Taiz
Aden to Taiz

Failed Precedents

A series of local and international initiatives has failed to improve access to Taiz city – a failure that many residents see as the product of a UN and international bias in favour of the Huthis. In explaining their frustration, they point to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which staved off a battle for Hodeida, and was intended to set the stage for broader peace talks. That agreement contained a vague sub-agreement on Taiz: it called on both sides to select representatives to a joint committee, which would work toward the goal of reopening humanitarian corridors into the city centre. The committee was also to submit a single report on movement toward improving road access into the city in the run-up to future consultations.

But the sub-agreement yielded no meaningful progress on restoring Taiz residents’ access to the rest of the country. Although the UN held individual meetings with each of the parties’ representatives, the delegations never met jointly as a committee, much less reached agreement on how to achieve the goals articulated in Sweden. Anti-Huthi Yemenis criticised the UN for failing to expend the same energy on reopening Taiz – which residents see as a humanitarian issue – that it did on ending the siege of Hodeida. Many of the Yemenis who have worked on the Taiz road issue since the start of the war believe the UN should not have made it part of the Stockholm deal and instead should have negotiated access on a separate track. In their view, placing Taiz in the Stockholm framework made it too easy for the Huthis to make progress on this issue contingent on implementation of other aspects of the agreement. There is also a widespread perception that the UN gave up too quickly when negotiations over the roads faltered and other pressing issues took precedence.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components, which Riyadh has been trying to unify under a single umbrella. Many Taizis believe that the Saudi-led coalition – and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has an expressly anti-Islamist domestic and regional agenda – wishes for Taiz to remain isolated in order to keep Islah, an Islamist group dominant in Taiz, weak. Yemenis in this camp point to the ability of UAE-backed forces to mobilise troops and retake territory in other parts of the country, as they did in three districts in southern Shebwa and Marib earlier in 2022. They believe that the Saudi-led coalition could, if it wished, provide more military assistance to anti-Huthi forces in Taiz to push the Huthis back from the roads around the city at the very least. Some anti-Huthi Yemenis also perceive the truce as a signal that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the war. They believe that the Saudis agreed to include progress on Taiz issues as one of the three confidence-building measures only to mollify the Hadi government, which reportedly had resisted the deal.

But this anti-Saudi sentiment, and a sense that Riyadh acted imperiously in pushing for formation of the new presidential council, could wind up working in Taiz’s favour. The council, whose head, al-Alimi, is himself from Taiz, is under pressure to demonstrate that it is working at least as much with ordinary Yemenis in mind as with Riyadh’s desire to be done with Yemen. Thus, it is possible that the council will seek to underscore its bona fides by making road access a central pillar of its negotiating strategy in much the same way that the Huthis have done with Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, namely by refusing to allow talks on other issues to progress without movement on the roads in Taiz.

Thus far, however, there has been very little progress of any kind. As part of the truce agreement, the Huthis and the government committed to form a joint negotiating committee to tackle the Taiz roads issue, as they did previously under the Stockholm Agreement. Yemeni government officials say they have named their candidates for the committee and provided proposals on reopening the Taiz-Hodeida, Taiz-Sanaa and Taiz-Aden roads. They claim that the Huthis have yet to nominate their own negotiators, casting the rebels as the main barrier to progress. In fact, the Huthis have laid out new demands to reopen roads in Taiz, the first of which are to halt fighting in the governorate and remove military equipment from its main arteries.

The currently closed Hawban road which used to connect government-controlled Taiz city and Huthi-held Hawban. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Building Confidence Goes Both Ways

Whatever happens next, the Taiz road access issue is likely to become increasingly contentious, particularly as the UN ramps up efforts to sustain progress on the other two confidence-building measures in an effort to extend and expand the truce. To date, according to a Yemeni government official who spoke with Crisis Group, at least eleven fuel ships have arrived at Hodeida port. Moreover, the first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years departed for Amman shortly after the government announced it would allow people carrying Huthi-issued passports to travel. Despite such progress, rumours are spreading of a military build-up as the parties prepare for the possibility of the truce either buckling or expiring.

The risk is that the truce may not survive beyond its current two-month timeframe if there is no meaningful progress on all three of the confidence-building measures. Pushing Taiz to the side would jeopardise prospects for renewal. As noted, some in the government camp may advocate making negotiations over fully reopening Sanaa airport dependent on progress on Taiz, thus undermining the possibility of the truce being extended if the Huthis continue to delay on the latter. The Huthis, for their part, continue to be dismissive of the Taiz roads issue and show signs of slow-walking negotiations, giving the government a perfect excuse to stall efforts to move toward talks.

Resolving the Taiz roads question is thus closely linked to the fate of the truce overall, as well as of any future talks between the belligerents. Outside powers should employ a two-pronged approach to reaching a resolution. First, as part of a broader diplomatic push with the Huthis in Sanaa, they should focus the rebels on the need to make progress on Taiz, signalling that the issue is high on their agenda. The absence of sustained, serious diplomacy around the Taiz question can only have contributed to the lack of action to date. Secondly, mindful of the risk of mixing the road access file with other political and military issues, diplomats should raise Taiz in their discussions with Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom has its own channels with the Huthis. Involving Saudi Arabia in advocacy to reopen Taiz can enhance the kingdom’s credibility, since many Yemenis believe (and resent) that it wishes to keep Islah on the back foot in one of the country’s most economically important areas. It would also serve Riyadh’s aim of helping bring the war to a close.

The parties should not miss this opportunity for progress. The partial reopening of Sanaa airport has rekindled hope among Yemenis that they will once again be able to travel outside the country. Likewise, the reopening of Taiz roads would bring great benefits for the city’s residents whose freedom of movement has been curtailed for too long. If there is no movement on Taiz, the chances of a truce extension beyond the two-month timeline, and peace in Yemen, will only grow slimmer. Despite widespread scepticism, the truce, the first countrywide halt in fighting since 2016, has held thus far. Yemenis should not be made to wait six more years for another opportunity for peace.

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