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The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?
The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?

Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb

Away from media headlines, a war has been raging on and off in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada since 2004, flaring up in adjacent regions and, in 2008, reaching the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa.

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Executive Summary

Away from media headlines, a war has been raging on and off in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada since 2004, flaring up in adjacent regions and, in 2008, reaching the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa. The conflict, which has brought about extensive destruction, pits a rebel group, known generically as the Huthis, against government forces. Today’s truce is fragile and risks being short-lived. A breakdown would threaten Yemen’s stability, already under severe duress due to the global economic meltdown, depleting national resources, renewed tensions between the country’s northern elites and populations in the south and the threat from violent groups with varied links to al-Qaeda. Nor would the impact necessarily be contained within national borders. The country should use its traditional instruments – social and religious tolerance, cooptation of adversaries – to forge a more inclusive compact that reduces sectarian stigmatisation and absorbs the Huthis. International actors – principally Gulf states and the West – should use their leverage and the promise of reconstruction assistance to press both government and rebels to compromise.

After two decades of relative stability that confounded foreign diplomats and analysts alike, the convergence of economic, political and secessionist challenges are testing the regime’s coping capacity. The Saada conflict might not be the most covered internationally, but it carries grave risks for Yemen’s political, sectarian and social equilibrium.

The war began as a quasi-police operation to arrest a former parliament member, Husein al-Huthi. Over five rounds, it has grown several-fold and become increasingly complex and multilayered. As mutual grievances accumulated and casualties mounted, the conflict metastasised, bringing in ever-growing numbers of actors, including local tribes and other members of the Saada population, covering a widening area and involving foreign actors under the backdrop of a regional cold war. It has violated two fundamental pillars of Yemen’s stability: a political formula premised on power-sharing and the gradual convergence of the two principal sectarian identities, Zaydism – a form of Shiism that in rites and practices is closer to Sunnism than to the Twelver Shiism predominant in Iran and Iraq – and Shafei Sunnism.

The war expanded because it became a microcosm of a series of latent religious, social, political and economic tensions. It can be traced to the decline of the social stratum led by Hashemites, who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and legitimised by Zaydism; lack of investment in Zaydi strongholds like Saada; failed management of religious pluralism; permeability to external influences and the emergence of new political and religious actors, particularly Salafis. It has variously and at times simultaneously taken the shape of a sectarian, political or tribal conflict, rooted in historical grievances and endemic underdevelopment. It also has been shaped by the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The 1962 revolution ended the imamate that Zaydi Hashemites ruled for over 1,000 years and overturned a social order with which they had been intimately associated. During the civil war that followed, Saada was the main opposition stronghold. Since then, the region has been largely ignored and marginalised. The religious dimension, long successfully managed, has resurfaced. Although differing on a number of theological and political issues, Zaydism and Shafeism are relatively close within the doctrinal spectrum. Over the last several decades, the gulf further narrowed, thanks partly to state educational efforts, and Yemen enjoyed cross-sectarian harmony. But a core of Zaydi revivalists remained, including the Huthis, who fought to retain Zaydism’s theology and symbolic rituals. Their cause was energised by the spread of Salafi influence, mainly from Saudi Arabia, and their sense that Zaydism was besieged. Some former rulers and Zaydi revivalists view the republic as fundamentally anti-Hashemite and anti-Zaydi.

There is a foreign dimension too, though it is hard to evaluate. As the government accuses the rebels of alignment with Iran and of loyalty to the Lebanese Hiz­bollah, Huthi leaders denounce its alignment with the U.S. They also claim Saudi interference, in particular funding of government and local tribes.

If history has left scars, the war aggravated them. The destruction of entire villages and infrastructure by army shelling, air bombardment and indiscriminate military and police violence exacerbated grievances among not only Hashemites generally and Zaydi revivalists in particular but, more broadly, civilians in all northern governorates. The rebels fuel anger by brutal acts, looting and kidnapping. Growing involvement of tribal militias beside government or rebel forces further inflames the conflict and contributes to its endurance. Competing tribes and their leaders vie for positions and resources; as some groups are marginalised, others receive government help in exchange for fighting the insurgents.

The conflict has become self-perpetuating, giving rise to a war economy as tribes, army officers and state officials have seized the opportunity to control the porous border with Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea coastline. Tribal leaders and senior officials have amassed military hardware and profit from illegal sales of army stockpiles. Continued operations have justified increased military budgets without government or independent oversight. As competition over resources intensified, the benefits of war exceeded its drawbacks – at least for the elites involved.

With only some exceptions, the international community has not recognised the Saada conflict’s destabilising potential or pressured the government to shift course. That is partly related to the West’s single-minded focus on Yemen’s struggle with al-Qaeda and the regime’s adroit portrayal of the Huthis as a subset of the so-called war on terror. It also is related to the regime’s denial of access to Saada to many if not most governments and humanitarian agencies.

Fighting ebbed as the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in July 2008. But it is far more likely a pause than an end. Observers and actors alike expect new violence; early months of this year already have witnessed recurrent localised fighting. There is no clear agreement between parties, accumulated grievances remain largely unaddressed, tensions run high, skirmishes persist and few principal belligerents appear willing to compromise. Internal mediation has repeatedly failed, as did Qatar’s well-intentioned endeavour.

But renewed war is not preordained. Local, national and international actors can do much to set the stage for durable peace. There is every reason to proactively intervene before more damage is done and to build on core Yemeni assets: a tradition of compromise between political, social and religious groups and the state’s tendency to coopt ex-foes. International help should be multilateral, involving Western and regional countries ready to exert diplomatic pressure, mediate and, most importantly, pledge reconstruction assistance as an incentive for peace. In duration and intensity, destruction, casualties, sectarian stigmatisation and regional dimension, the Saada conflict stands apart from other violent episodes in Yemen. It will need more than run-of-the-mill domestic and international efforts to end it.

Sanaa/Brussels, 27 May 2009

A woman walks in the old city of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. July 2019. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury.

The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?

Originally published in Yemen Policy Center

The international community has mediated in the Yemen war since its outbreak. Although the efforts have yielded some results, none have resulted in a lasting de-escalation of violence or real progress toward political solutions. A new international approach could change that. 

In December 2018, Western and international policymakers demonstrated something that Yemenis had long suspected: when motivated by developments on the ground or at home, they can produce (some) diplomatic results, as the United States did by pressuring Saudi Arabia and by extension the internationally recognised government of Yemen into accepting the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement. The deal, which averted a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida, is the signature diplomatic success story to date in the ongoing Yemeni conflict that began in late 2014. For the warring parties and to Yemeni and international observers, however, the agreement also symbolises the limits of external mediation in resolving the conflict: international pressure forced the parties to endorse the deal, but not to implement it.

Almost two years on from the Stockholm Agreement, the fleeting opportunity it presented to end the civil war appears to have been squandered. Instead, a major escalation is currently under way. In addition, the international policy approach toward its resolution is “handcuffed” to a two-party framework that may no longer make sense and that thus far has done little to mitigate two of the core factors on the ground that continue to prevent a resolution to the conflict: Huthi empowerment and government fragmentation. To make diplomatic progress and to end the conflict, the overall approach to mediation may need to change. In particular, talks could be expanded to include more of the Yemeni parties, and international policymakers may need to coordinate more closely and establish a clear division of labour to ensure progress.

A Stalemated War

In September 2014, the Huthi movement, or as it prefers to be called, Ansar Allah, seized control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. By the following March, Yemen’s transitional president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had fled Sanaa to shelter in the southern port city of Aden. A Huthi offensive against Aden that month proved a step too far for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which at Hadi’s request launched a military intervention, on 26 March 2015. A month later, Riyadh made a successful push for UN Security Council Resolution 2216, ostensibly affirming Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate president and imposing an international arms embargo on the Huthis, which Saudi officials then used to justify the effective blockade of Huthi-controlled ports.

The vote on the resolution – 14-0, with Russia abstaining – reflected the Western powers’ general position on Yemen. They viewed Hadi as the legitimate leader and the Huthi takeover, which the Huthis call their “revolution,” as an Iran-backed coup. U.S. policymakers in particular had in addition felt the need to show their support for Saudi Arabia amid a very public debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.

The conflict descended instead into a quagmire necessitating a mediated solution based on a balanced compromise between the parties.

Negotiations over the nuclear deal, eventually signed in July 2015, had caused consternation and upset among some of the Gulf states, where officials believed it would provide Tehran with a pathway to normalised relations with the West without curbing its regional ambitions. Support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, in the form of intelligence sharing and arms supplies as well as political cover, was partly shaped by a desire to assuage Saudi fears. Resolution 2216 was one-sided, in effect demanding the complete Huthi surrender that Riyadh had sought and claimed it could achieve. The conflict descended instead into a quagmire necessitating a mediated solution based on a balanced compromise between the parties.

The fighting in Yemen stalemated by the end of 2015, after southern separatists pushed the Huthis out of the south and tribesmen forced them from the oil-rich Marib governorate to positions east of Sanaa. After several stalled efforts by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to convene talks in Switzerland, the Hadi government and the Huthis and their allies finally met in Kuwait in April 2016, the latter represented by movement members and General People’s Congress officials from Sanaa aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose quiet support had been instrumental in the Huthi takeover of the capital.

The negotiations produced the essence of an agreement that would have seen the Huthis and their allies hand over weapons and territory in exchange for a minority role in a new coalition government in Sanaa and dilution of Hadi’s power. The talks and a subsequent last-ditch effort at ending the war by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ultimately failed because of an unbridgeable gap between the Huthis and the Hadi government over the sequencing of political and security measures and the positions each side expected in transitional governance and in security and military arrangements. Nonetheless, along with Resolution 2216, the Kuwait agreement came to serve as a framework for subsequent UN-led mediation initiatives: two-party talks on ceasefire arrangements and interim security measures followed by the formation of an interim coalition government, with confidence-building measures interspersed along the way.

The Saudi Factor

After the Kuwait talks, a confluence of events transpired to challenge the UN framework. By late 2017, the conflict had deadlocked, resulting in the two main warring Yemeni parties turning their attention to their other adversaries, including temporary allies. The Hadi government and its allies entered into open conflict with UAE-backed separatists in the south and with UAE-aligned forces in Taiz after a rift between Hadi and the Emiratis over his government’s close relationship with Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party that the UAE considers a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it reviles.

Meanwhile in Sanaa, after months of growing tensions, the Huthis killed Saleh during fighting in December 2017, leaving them in sole control of the north. Later that month, the Huthis’ rivals – perceiving that the battles between the Huthis and Saleh loyalists had weakened the movement – launched offensives along almost all of the major front lines. The Huthis were able to quell most of the attacks, but by October 2018 they had lost considerable ground along the Red Sea coast to UAE-backed forces that had encircled Hodeida, threatening a vital economic and humanitarian lifeline to Huthi-controlled areas, where the majority of Yemenis live.

Mounting scrutiny of the humanitarian implications of a battle for Hodeida placed Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s successor, the British diplomat Martin Griffiths, under pressure to halt the fighting around the city. The push toward the Stockholm Agreement, however, was not entirely the result of UN diplomacy. Rather, the seeds of an agreement emerged unexpectedly in Istanbul from the October 2018 murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi by a group of Saudi security officials. Congressional outcry in the U.S. had already been mounting over the Saudis’ military conduct in Yemen, and it grew in the wake of the Khashoggi killing along with reports on the potential humanitarian fallout of a battle for Hodeida. Threats of Congressional action to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia prompted U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to make a last-minute call to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to ensure that the Yemeni government acquiesced to the Stockholm Agreement, announced on 13 December 2018.

External pressure had been enough to get the parties to reach an agreement, but not enough to force its implementation.

Even with such U.S. support, the agreement soon floundered. The Huthis and the government had radically different interpretations of the hastily constructed agreement, which the UN had hoped might act as a foundation for joint governance and power sharing, and struggled to find the common ground needed to implement a plan to demilitarize Hodeida and surrounding territory as agreed. The Huthis viewed the deal as sustaining their control over the port of Hodeida, while the government perceived it as restoring its rightful sovereignty over the area. Talks over prisoner exchanges and a truce in Taiz also became deadlocked. External pressure had been enough to get the parties to reach an agreement, but not enough to force its implementation.

Divisions in the Government Camp

Facts on the ground in Yemen have shifted further since 2018. In August 2019, the pro-independence, UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of Aden, the Hadi government’s temporary capital, giving the lie to the fiction of a united anti-Huthi bloc by exposing internal divisions among the Hadi government, rival anti-Huthi groups and the UAE. Saudi Arabia was forced by this turn of events to broker a deal itself, the December 2019 Riyadh Agreement, to prevent a civil war within a civil war between the Hadi government and the STC.

The Saudi-backed deal has faltered over time, in a manner similar to the Stockholm Agreement. Meanwhile, a brief thaw in late 2019 saw the Huthis halt cross-border missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reopen back-channel talks with Riyadh, leading to a lull in ground fighting, but fresh battles erupted in the north in January 2020, with the Huthis launching a new campaign for oil-rich and populous Marib, the government’s last stronghold in the north.

Citing the threat posed by COVID-19, since early 2020 Griffiths has sought to broker a nationwide ceasefire and bring the Huthis and the government back to the table for talks, but to little avail. The Huthis sense that victory is near in Marib while the government has baulked at the Huthis’ terms for a truce – reopening Sanaa airport, easing restrictions on imports to Hodeida and instituting a new joint mechanism to pay state salaries nationwide (the government says it does not object to any one of these measures in principle, but instead to the way they have been presented by the UN thus far). The Huthis’ confidence stems from the anti-Huthi groups’ collapsing unity and sinking morale and international policymakers’ increasing exasperation with the Hadi government.

A New Way Forward

Diplomats working on the Yemen file are vexed by the intransigence of the parties, frustrated by the Hadi government’s shrinking credibility and hindered by the lack of tools at their disposal to hurry them all along, the Huthis in particular, toward a political settlement. Whereas in 2018 military aggression could be tempered by Western appeals to UAE and Saudi policymakers, there is no easy way for diplomats to coerce or persuade the Huthis to halt their Marib campaign, other than the economic concessions that the government has thus far rejected. A mediated settlement in Yemen is not impossible, but ending the conflict may require a new approach.

Diplomats working on the Yemen file are vexed by the intransigence of the parties, frustrated by the Hadi government’s shrinking credibility and hindered by the lack of tools at their disposal to hurry them all along toward a political settlement.

Consensus is growing in some diplomatic circles that the accepted framework no longer reflects the realities on the ground and may not be able to end the war and build peace. The Huthi-Saleh alliance and the Hadi government were relatively evenly matched in 2016, but after the Huthis killed Saleh, they grew stronger, while Hadi could no longer claim to represent the majority of the anti-Huthi bloc.

Even if the Huthis and Hadi were to reach an agreement, it is not clear that the full range of armed and political groups that hold areas of Yemen outside of Huthi-controlled territory would support its implementation. Moreover, the Huthis would be the chief beneficiary from talks with an unevenly matched negotiating partner who enjoys little legitimacy among key groups on the ground. Diplomats, meanwhile, have all too often worked in silos and relied too heavily on U.S. pressure, the UN or Riyadh to establish contact with the Huthis and resolve such problems as infighting among anti-Huthi forces when collectively they could have had an impact. If the UN decided to shake things up, there are two things that could make a difference: expanded Yemeni participation and a new international contact group.

In an effort to make the Hadi government a more credible negotiating partner for the Huthis, Saudi Arabia had sought in the Riyadh Agreement to gather the anti-Huthi groups and local authorities under the government’s umbrella. That, too, has stalled. If more Yemeni parties with consequential constituencies, including political parties and civil society groups, were directly involved in talks, it could incentivise the Houthis and the government alike to start making deals with local foes and allies alike to improve their overall negotiating power. The Houthis would have to take more seriously the rival bloc that formed as a result of this process. The UN could also expand formal participation in ceasefire negotiations and political talks. Resolution 2216 allows for expanded formal participation, but political resistance by the Hadi government, the Huthis and Saudi Arabia has made this task virtually impossible for the UN envoy. Given this, the Security Council may have to act, making it clear that talks over ending the war should be more inclusive and creating space for Griffiths to undertake the new approach.

International efforts to end the war have also been too fragmented.

International efforts to end the war have also been too fragmented. If the UN envoy adopts a new approach, and indeed even if he does not, he could seek U.S. assistance in forming a new international contact group to support his effort. This forum should take a more proactive stance than the current P5 ambassadorial working group – comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S.) – which is hampered by caution, internal divisions, and lack of communication channels with the Houthis and other key Yemeni actors. The new group could consist of the P5, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (most importantly, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), and the European Union. The UN envoy’s office would chair the contact group, which could meet biweekly to coordinate action on the political, military and economic files. The group should establish a division of labour among its members to further the primary objective of determining steps to maximise the chances of inclusive UN-led negotiations succeeding in bringing an end to the Yemeni war.