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The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
Followers of Yemen's al-Houthi Shi'ite group ride in an open vehicle while carrying weapons to secure a road in the northwestern province of Saada, on 4 June 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Yemen Conflict Alert

In Yemen’s far North, a patchwork of ceasefires between the Huthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, and its various adversaries is in peril. The Yemeni government needs to take bold action, in coordination with the international community, to prevent a relapse of violence that would almost certainly be more difficult to contain than the last round.

The threat of renewed violence comes at a delicate moment in Yemen’s transition. Having completed the National Dialogue Conference in January, the country now has a blueprint for a new federal state and democratic reform. Yet, the vision is aspirational at best and events on the ground are moving in a different direction. If rekindled, fighting in the North could significantly derail implementation by further fracturing political consensus and undermining already weak state authority.

The latest bout of fighting escalated in October 2013, when Huthi fighters surrounded the Dar al-Hadith Institute in Dammaj, a city in the Saada governorate, accusing Salafis there of recruiting foreign fighters and preparing for battle. The Salafis accused Huthis (revivalists of the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam) of unprovoked aggression against peaceful religious students. Fighting soon spread throughout five northern governorates, from the Saudi border in Kitaf to the gates of the Yemeni capital in the Arhab region.

In the course of recent combat, two loosely aligned fronts crystallised. On one side, the Ahmars – the pre-eminent family of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation – recruited and materially supported Salafi fighters. Their coalition allegedly has been supported by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the family) through his loyalists in the Yemeni army in Amran governorate, and indirectly by the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, through its tribal affiliates. On the other side are seasoned Huthi fighters aligned with disgruntled northern tribesmen opposed to the Ahmars and Islah, many of whom have ties with the General People’s Congress (GPC) party and/or its founder, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Huthis have been winning. The January 2014 ceasefire signed in Dammaj, requiring Salafi fighters to evacuate and temporarily relocate to Sanaa, was a clear victory. The Huthis also won the battle for Kitaf, completing their conquest of the Saada governorate. More importantly, they pushed south into Amran, where they aligned with Hashid tribesmen long frustrated with the Ahmars. On 3 February, they destroyed an Ahmar family home, symbolically ending the family’s decades-long hegemony over the Hashid confederation. In Arhab, Islah-affiliated tribesmen managed to hold the line, nothing more.

After months of fighting, the state has little to no control over the far North. The Huthis administer their areas, providing security that the state has thus far been unable to deliver. While Huthis claim that they will relinquish heavy weapons and will support the political transition, opponents are deeply sceptical, claiming that the group seeks to establish a religious theocracy in Yemen or, at a minimum, to mimic the Lebanese Hizbollah model of a state within a state.

Huthi victory in Amran has stoked fears that the group, emboldened by its substantial advances, will attempt an invasion of Sanaa. These fears are overplayed. The Huthis already exert significant political influence in the capital, and an attack could well backfire by jeopardising their popular support, damaging their international standing and bringing the army, which thus far has remained neutral – officially at least – into the fight against them. Yet, all parties are armed in the capital, and they might not act fully rationally should clashes renew.

To date, President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi has chosen, shrewdly, to remain neutral and to avoid military action that almost certainly would complicate the situation and worsen the violence. He instead has supported presidential committees that belatedly have negotiated ceasefires, first in Dammaj and more recently in Arhab and Hashid (in Amran governorate). However, these are tenuous and by their nature limited. A comprehensive peace requires that each side realise some key demands: for the Huthis, the right to peacefully propagate their religious ideas, mobilise supporters and engage in political activity; for their opponents, that Huthis relinquish heavy weapons to the state and advance their agenda only through peaceful party politics.

Both sets of demands are desirable in and of themselves and conform to the results of the national dialogue. Yet, achieving them will be far from simple: it will require the design of and commitment to a plan of action and an oversight mechanism that are linked to political power sharing and security sector reform at the national level.

During this fragile lull, the Yemeni government and international community should act decisively to prevent a rekindling of violence as a first step toward a durable peace agreement. This requires several steps:

  • President Hadi should immediately convene and oversee negotiations to solidify a comprehensive ceasefire in the North and to lay the foundations for a durable peace agreement. Discussions should include high-level stakeholders, including Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi, the leader of his movement; Ahmar family members; Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and senior Islah, GPC and Salafi leaders.
  • A peace plan should be based on the existing ceasefire arrangements and guided by national dialogue outcomes, including principles of political inclusion, freedom of religious belief and gradual disarmament of all non-state actors.
  • The Ahmars, Islah and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities.
  • The Huthis should agree to a sequenced program for transferring heavy weapons to the state, as the government simultaneously undertakes steps to ensure the neutrality of its institutions, especially the security services. This process could be started immediately, by removing controversial military commanders, especially in Amran, as well as by appointing less partisan governors in Amran and Jawf to replace the current Islah affiliates. Subsequently, further changes of local government officials and police should be negotiated to ensure, as far as possible, political neutrality or, at a minimum, adequate participation of all local stakeholders.
  • All parties should agree to refrain from military activity in Sanaa and to pursue de-escalation and disarmament in the capital.
  • To demonstrate the international community’s support for Hadi’s negotiation efforts, members of the G-10 (a diplomatic group based in Sanaa consisting of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU) – and especially Saudi Arabia and the U.S. – should back negotiations publicly and, if the Yemeni president requests, participate in talks and assist with implementation.
  • Monitoring of the agreement must include a local component – possibly through inclusive, tribally based security initiatives.


Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman witness the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, at the Saudi Royal Diwan. SPA/Riyadh and Mohamed Bin Zayed Twitter account

The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?

For the first time in years, a viable pathway to peace in Yemen is in view. But obstacles remain, chiefly the gaps between the conflict parties’ positions. 

The Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November, has averted a war within Yemen’s civil war, at least for the time being. The deal prevents a collapse of the fragile alliance of Yemeni forces that Saudi Arabia has supported since intervening in Yemen in March 2015 to prevent Huthi rebels from taking over the country. The question now is whether the agreement can act as a bridge to a nationwide political settlement or if it simply marks a pause before another round of violence. 

By signing, the two parties to the agreement – the internationally recognised government of Yemen, led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) – have ended a three-month standoff that threatened to split the anti-Huthi bloc. In August, simmering tensions between STC-aligned forces and the Hadi government boiled over following the killing of a senior STC military commander. The Huthis claimed the attack, but the STC suspected a government hand in the event and soon took Aden by force. The STC then attempted to consolidate control over all the territory of the former south Yemen, an independent state prior to 1990, with the goal of declaring self-rule. The government charged the UAE, the STC’s main backer and at the time the leading player in the Saudi-led coalition in the south, with supporting a coup, and launched a counteroffensive. With the Saudis’ Yemen campaign in peril, the kingdom’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khaled bin Salman, intervened, calling the STC and Hadi government first to Jeddah and later to Riyadh in the hope of reaching a compromise. 

The agreement calls for formation of a new, Aden-based, 24-member government comprising equal numbers of northern and southern ministers and for integration of STC-affiliated forces into national military and security structures as part of an initiative that will see fighters and heavy weapons removed from towns and cities across the south. In addition, it stipulates that the STC be included in government delegations to future UN-led talks with the Huthis over a political settlement to end the war. 

Diplomats and UN officials say they are hopeful that the agreement will clear a path to a national-level political settlement. For the time being, the deal halts government-STC fighting that would have strengthened the Huthis and delayed the prospect of national peace talks. It also makes prospective talks more inclusive, helping address a shortcoming of previous UN-led talks, which were built around an April 2015 Security Council resolution that frames the conflict as a two-sided war between the Huthis and the government and effectively demands that the Huthis surrender. The Hadi government may have international legitimacy, but it does not represent the full assortment of political and military forces that make up the anti-Huthi bloc, particularly the separatists, whose agenda the Hadi government rejects but who have a strong presence on the ground. 

The Riyadh Agreement places Saudi Arabia at the epicentre of Yemeni deal making. Khaled bin Salman will oversee its implementation and thus help shape the new government and security structures. The Saudis have also assumed coalition command in the south from the Emiratis, who have been withdrawing their forces from Yemen. Beyond the STC-Hadi talks, Saudi officials have reportedly been convening senior politicians from Yemen’s major parties in the hope of uniting anti-Huthi groups under one political umbrella. 

Meanwhile, in the north, discussions between the Huthis and Saudis over a de-escalation of cross-border attacks and front-line fighting have been inching along since September. If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation. The Saudis thus have a chance to bring the various channels of negotiation together into a national political process under UN auspices.

If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation.

The Riyadh Agreement, however, bears hallmarks of past intra-Yemeni deals that have failed. It is loosely worded, likely because vagueness was required to induce the rivals to sign it, and it leaves a number of questions around implementation unanswered. For example, the deal calls for both formation of a new government and a series of security sector reforms in Aden within 30 days of signing. The reforms include the formation of new mixed security forces, the removal of military units from the city and the transfer of heavy weapons to sites that the Saudis will oversee. But the deal does not specify in which order the parties are to take these steps. The Hadi government would prefer that the security track proceed first, as a prerequisite for movement on the political side; the STC would prefer it the other way around. Other outstanding issues include who will get the posts of defence and interior minister in the new-look government, with both being potential deal-breakers for the STC. 

Most importantly, neither side seems to have fully bought into the compromise to which they agreed on paper. A signing ceremony for the deal had been scheduled for 31 October, but it was postponed after fighting between STC and government forces in Abyan governorate, to the east of Aden. In common with past deals, delays and mutual recriminations can be expected once implementation begins. A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible. 

A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible.

A pivot to national political talks is by no means guaranteed, either. The Huthis say that talks with Riyadh are going well but that the Saudis are moving too slowly doing their part in de-escalation. They also report Saudi troop buildups along key front lines and worry that the Riyadh Agreement may presage a concerted military push against them. From their side, Hadi government officials say they are unsure what Riyadh plans after the deal, but concede that a reinvigorated campaign against the Huthis is an attractive option. In fact, part of the STC’s sales pitch for Saudi patronage – which its leaders believe they have now secured – was willingness to play a stepped-up role in or even lead the fight against the Huthis. 

In any case, lasting peace will not come easily to Yemen. The main parties to the conflict have barely changed their positions since the beginning of the war: the Hadi government wants the Huthis to hand back Sanaa and other areas they control. The Huthis demand a power-sharing arrangement that gives them significant weight in a unity government. The STC and its allies want to break away from Yemen altogether. The Saudis want the Huthis to sever ties to Iran, give up heavy weapons to the state security forces and guarantee border security. The gaps between these positions are not minor. Nonetheless, for the first time in years, a viable, albeit bumpy, pathway to peace is in view.