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Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South
Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South

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 reinforcement convoy of Yemen's Security Belt Force dominated by members of the the Southern Transitional Council (STC) heading to Abyan province, Yemen. AFP/Saleh Al-OBEIDI

Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South

Separatists have announced self-administration in southern Yemen, angering the internationally recognised government. The last thing the country needs is more fighting. Gulf powers and the UN should help implement a stalled 2019 agreement so that national ceasefire talks can go ahead.

On 25 April, the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-administration in areas of Yemen’s south that were part of an independent state prior to unification with the north in 1990. The declaration came on the heels of escalating tensions between the STC and the Yemeni government, nominal allies in the fight against Huthi rebels based in the northern highlands. It also came as the UN struggled to engineer a nationwide ceasefire and COVID-19 response plan. STC forces quickly took control of ministries, local government offices and the Central Bank building in Aden, the government’s temporary headquarters since the Huthis pushed it out of the capital Sanaa in 2015. The STC has not yet taken over day-to-day management of state institutions, but it has formed committees charged with doing so, and STC officials say they will soon start running southern affairs.

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

The STC may have hoped to shore up its waning popular support.

It is not yet clear if the STC’s announcement is indeed an attempt at establishing an autonomous state or a gamble aimed at improving the group’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In justifying their move, STC officials point to stalled implementation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement. This Saudi-brokered deal prevented a civil war within a civil war in the south after the secessionists drove Hadi loyalists out of Aden in August of last year. The agreement offered the STC a limited role in government and UN-led peace talks in exchange for a phased mutual withdrawal of forces from Aden and neighbouring Abyan governorate and a handover of heavy weapons by both sides to the Saudi-led coalition. The agreement also stipulates that the STC be integrated into the government’s military and security institutions. The secessionists say they have done everything asked of them, while Hadi has carried out military redeployments that benefit his side and delayed political reforms. The latter are supposed to include appointing new local security and government officials and forming a more inclusive government and negotiating team for UN-sponsored talks.

The STC may also have hoped to shore up its waning popular support. Although the Riyadh Agreement left the STC in effective control of Aden, the government continued to run state institutions and hold purse strings, a situation the STC says played to the government’s advantage by tying its own hands. Since January, STC officials assert, the government has halted salary payments in Aden and allowed public services to wither. Hadi officials acknowledge the holdup in paying salaries – which in the case of most STC security and military forces were anyway paid by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) until the end of 2019 – but attribute it to cash flow problems. They claim that the deterioration of services derives from tensions among the STC, the government and Aden-based Saudi forces. After a devastating spate of flash floods exacerbated electricity and water shortages in April, residents directed their anger at the government and STC in equal measure. Because salaries are going unpaid, some STC leaders worry that their fighters will defect to the government, if it can pay them, or to new Saudi-overseen military units, which receive wages directly from Riyadh.

Developments elsewhere in Yemen also played a role. Government forces in the north have been tied down in heavy fighting with Huthi rebels in Marib since January, limiting their ability to launch or counter a major offensive in the south. STC leaders were also angered in April by their continued exclusion from formal UN negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire and the restart of national political talks. Perceiving a choice between, on the one hand, inaction that would undermine their local popularity and position and, on the other, taking steps that could incur the wrath of regional powers and foreign diplomats who they feel are distracted or ignoring their pleas for inclusion, STC officials say they opted for the latter. At least this way, they say, they have taken matters into their own hands.

What Next?

Predictably, the government condemned the STC announcement as yet another coup attempt, saying the secessionists “blew up” the Riyadh Agreement. They say the STC has refused to honour its obligations under the accord and is instead spoiling the process in hopes of gaining a seat at peace talks without making meaningful concessions on the ground. The government says this bad behaviour on the STC’s part should not be rewarded. It demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed, who was prevented from entering Aden earlier in April, to return and lead the government from the city. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been more circumspect. They rejected the STC’s announcement, calling upon the government and secessionists to return to the Riyadh Agreement.

The government demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed to return and lead the government from the city.

It is unclear what each side plans on doing next. Hadi-aligned military leaders in the south have made inflammatory statements in recent months about wanting to forcibly wrest control of Aden from the STC. They could see the STC’s announcement as a pretext for launching an offensive. The STC says it is prepared for a fight, and that it could win new territory in a replay of the hostilities of August 2019. Riyadh will want to avoid more infighting within the anti-Huthi camp and still hopes to see the agreement fulfilled. But both the STC and the government increasingly mistrust Riyadh and doubt the kingdom’s ability to follow through on overseeing implementation. As a result, the Saudis may be unable to get the parties to return to negotiations without help from other regional or international powers.

The actor best placed to make a difference in the south is the UAE. Abu Dhabi has a close relationship with the STC, whose president, Aydrous al-Zubaidi, is based in the UAE. The Emiratis withdrew from southern Yemen in mid-2019 and Saudi Arabia has since run coalition operations in Aden. But the UAE still has leverage. Absent outside support, which the STC would most likely seek from Abu Dhabi, an autonomous region is unlikely to survive for long. Emirati officials therefore should be able to help convince Zubaidi to return to the negotiating table. Given its dislike of the Hadi government, which it sees as being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Dhabi will need some encouragement to do so, most likely from Washington.

The Huthis have taken pleasure in this latest episode in the STC-Hadi power struggle, which has done a great deal over the past three years to undermine the government’s credibility. Tensions in the south have divided the anti-Huthi bloc and diverted the government’s attention from battles with the Huthis in Marib and al-Bayda governorates in the north. If the STC and the government enter into another violent showdown, it would weaken military efforts against the Huthis in Marib and elsewhere.

The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war.

Some Yemeni observers believe that the conflict in the south is creating an opportunity for the Huthis to strike a deal with the STC that excludes the government. This eventuality would accelerate the country’s fragmentation. The rebels and secessionists view each other as lesser threats compared to other rivals and, in theory, such a deal could benefit both. Yet officially, each side says it will negotiate with the other only within a UN-led framework. The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war and reach an acceptable accommodation with the Huthis before the anti-Huthi front collapses under the weight of its internal differences. The Huthis, who are holding out on a nationwide ceasefire agreement in hopes of getting the Saudis to fully reopen their area’s sea and airports, are keenly aware of the kingdom’s predicament and are likely to double down on their demands.

A Modest Rather than Maximalist Approach

In many ways, the STC’s timing could not be worse for UN efforts to secure a nationwide ceasefire, initiate a national COVID-19 response plan and restart political talks. The government is all but certain to use the standoff in the south as an excuse to delay these efforts. The Saudis, a vital part of any agreement, will now be stretched even more thinly and will likely find it more difficult to find common ground with the emboldened Huthis.

Humanitarian aid efforts could also be affected. Ongoing fighting and disjointed COVID-19 responses by local authorities are already staunching the flow of basic goods and medicine throughout Yemen. Fighting in Aden would shut off Yemen’s second largest port and one of just two airports operating international commercial flights in and out of the country during the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni riyal’s value has already started to fall in light of uncertainties surrounding the impact of the STC’s Central Bank takeover. If the STC tries to run the bank, the government will likely freeze access to its dollar accounts and international payments systems.

A return to the status quo ante is a recipe for renewed violence.

Renewed STC-government fighting is the last thing Yemenis need. Yet a return to the status quo ante – a stalled Riyadh Agreement and gradual deterioration of economic conditions in Aden – is likewise a recipe for renewed violence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are right to urge the parties to return to politics. But this approach will only work if they reassess and amend the Riyadh Agreement to enable implementation, something neither side appears willing to do at present. As it stands, the agreement’s objectives, particularly integrating two opposing military forces, are too ambitious absent a nationwide political settlement.

Instead of taking a maximalist approach, the two sides could agree on minimum requirements for implementation: separation of forces and demilitarisation of key cities; formation of an inclusive government focused on basic security and service provision; and assembly of a more inclusive negotiating team for UN talks. Saudi Arabia will need to accept help in coaxing the two parties to carry out their obligations in good faith. At the very least, this task will require more involvement from the UAE and ideally oversight from the UN.

Beyond the Riyadh Agreement, the STC is right in saying that the UN’s national ceasefire initiative will not work without its cooperation. As Crisis Group has recommended in the past, UN officials are seeking to establish a UN-chaired national military body that would negotiate ceasefire arrangements. Yet the body supposedly would include only delegates from the government and the Huthis, with meetings attended by Saudi officials as well. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has discussed his ceasefire plan, which the STC publicly welcomed, with the group’s senior leadership, but his team is understandably cautious about their formal participation in military-to-military talks. The dilemma is clear: including the STC may prompt a multitude of other Yemeni combatants to want to be included as well, making the process unmanageable and delaying a much-needed ceasefire; not including the STC – or at least securing their clear buy-in – nearly guarantees ceasefire collapse.

Under an imperfect compromise, the UN – with help from the UK and U.S. – could push the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the STC and other important armed groups have a voice in military talks by adding representatives aligned with or even chosen by them to the government delegation in the military body. To make this solution more palatable to the government, which views the STC and similar forces as non-state actors and refuses to legitimise them, the additional delegates optimally would hold pre-war military rank.

Events in the south underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups in any overall settlement to end the conflict.

Events in the south are a stark reminder of Yemen’s fragmentation after five years of war. They underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups, like the STC, in any overall settlement to end the conflict. Regional and Western diplomats working on Yemen so far have largely avoided the south’s messy politics, and they may be tempted even now to leave the problem to the Saudis. But more of the same will not make the problem go away, and failure to engage will only make the war harder to end.