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Crisis Group Yemen Update #10
Crisis Group Yemen Update #10

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

Yemeni insurgent groups take security measures at the entrance to Aden, in the city of Ad Dali against Houthis on 12 April 2015, as the clashes continue between Loyalists of embattled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and Yemen's Shiite Houthi movement. Wail Shaif Thabet / Anadolu Agency

Crisis Group Yemen Update #10

This is Crisis Group’s tenth update on recent developments in Yemen, focusing on al-Dhale in the south. A ceasefire in Hodeida notwithstanding, violence is on the rise on other key front lines and could undermine prospects for a future peace process.

Fighting between Huthi (Ansar Allah) and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed forces is intensifying in the southern governorate of al-Dhale. Battles have cut off key transit routes connecting the southern port city of Aden, the Huthi-held capital of Sanaa in the north, and the central governorate of Taiz, which houses important food processing, packaging and distribution facilities. If allowed to continue, the fighting could significantly deepen the country’s economic woes and further complicate efforts to revive a national peace process.

Al-Dhale sits on the historic fault line between former North and South Yemen, separate countries before 1990. Formed after Yemen’s unification by combining districts of the two former states, it is a natural battle ground for future north-south struggles. Since the Huthis and their allies were pushed north out of Aden in July 2015, al-Dhale became a front line in the current civil war where fighting flares periodically. Before and after the UN-led talks in Sweden in December 2018, fighting intensified in al-Dhale with Yemeni government and UAE-aligned forces claiming advances against Huthi fighters.

Now the Huthis appear to be making gains. Yemeni media reported on 1 May that Huthi forces had captured two towns along the highway linking al-Dhale with Ibb governorate to the west. After seizing the towns of Fakhir and Shakhab, they were closing in on Qataba, a town near an important junction between the westbound and northbound highways that link southern Yemen with Huthi-held territory. If the Huthis were to take Qataba, the ensuing fighting would also cut off the northbound highway that links rival forces in Damt district in northern al-Dhale with their supplies from the south, weakening the position of separatist forces. Fighting on the Damt front has also escalated in recent weeks.

Blocked highways are yet to cause an increase in food prices in the north of the country, but humanitarian organisations worry that continued fighting could cause a price spike. Aden airport has become the main route in and out of the country for Yemenis, especially those seeking medical treatment abroad, and ongoing violence along the highways would also impede travellers from Huthi-held territory.

Map: The Huthis’ Southward Advance into al-Dhale Governorate Google

Yemeni government officials view ongoing battles in al-Dhale and neighbouring governorates as part of a Huthi plan to exploit the current UN-mediated ceasefire in Hodeida to make gains on the ground in other areas. They claim the attacks are part of a pincer move to pressure UAE-backed forces in the south and to draw UAE-backed front-line forces away from the Red Sea theatre. Indeed, some forces have been redeployed from Hodeida to al-Dhale to help turn the tide against the Huthis. Some suspect the Huthis may even be preparing to push south again toward Aden, the government’s temporary capital.

Huthi officials, however, argue that they are fighting back against a months-long campaign by the Saudi-led coalition and its allies to destabilise territory they control and gain new ground, also under the cover of the Stockholm Agreement reached in Sweden in December 2018. The Huthis are likely trying to seize important supply lines and prevent their rivals from opening new routes into territory they hold while expanding buffer zones between the different cantons of control. Damt in northern al-Dhale has become the de facto border between the warring sides along the Aden-Sanaa highway, while Qataba is similarly important to the westbound routes to Ibb and Taiz city. The buffer zones are important because several tribal and religious groups in Ibb, which borders al-Dhale to the north, have remained neutral throughout the war. Yemeni government officials are convinced that they would join the anti-Huthi cause given a supply line connecting them with the south; the Huthis too are concerned that this might be the case.

Meanwhile, southern separatists have their own interpretation of events. Members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a pro-secessionist group closely tied to the main UAE-backed forces who are fighting in al-Dhale, suspect that renewed fighting there is directly linked to the issue of southern separation. Their media outlets reported that government military units fell back in the face of the Huthi offensive, and that some previously government-aligned commanders defected to the Huthi side. They have presented the offensive as part of a plot to destabilise the south, undermine the STC and UAE-backed southern forces, and pave the way for a joint Huthi-Islah attack on Aden, despite the fact that Huthis and Islah (a Sunni Islamist party aligned with the Hadi government) are fighting on opposite sides of the current civil war. The STC suspects a “northern” Huthi-Islah reconciliation aimed at subduing the south and pre-empting a possible separation bid.

Regardless of why fighting has again flared up in al-Dhale, the humanitarian consequences could be dire if it continues.

STC suspicions of a new northern alliance against the south are speculative at best, but the Huthis are undoubtedly pressing their advantage to draw forces away from Hodeida. A considerable proportion of the Giants Brigade, the main military force battling the Huthis on the Red Sea coast, are drawn from tribes and families originally from Yafa, a zone that spans modern-day Lahj, al-Dhale and Abyan governorates. Aydrous al-Zubaidi, the STC president and a native of al-Dhale, has visited the front lines there several times since early April, while senior Giants Brigade members have also been photographed near the al-Dhale front. There are reports of some STC-aligned forces already being redeployed from the Red Sea coast to al-Dhale.

Regardless of why fighting has again flared up in al-Dhale, the humanitarian consequences could be dire if it continues. The battle for the governorate has effectively cut off the Aden-Sanaa highway and the westbound highway into Ibb, which in turn links Aden with Hawban, an industrial area to the northwest of Taiz city. As a result, the movement of goods and people between Aden, Taiz and Sanaa is frozen. A great many Yemeni merchants import goods, including foodstuffs, into Aden before transporting them north, often to Hawban, where bulk cargoes are processed and packaged for distribution nationwide. Although food prices have not yet been notably affected by the conflict in al-Dhale, Yemen’s business community warns of a potential “disaster” if the highway remains inaccessible in the coming weeks.

Bottom Line: For better or worse, implementation of the Stockholm Agreement remains the litmus test by which the warring parties judge the chances for returning to national peace talks and as such deserves priority focus. The UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, may not have the bandwidth to intervene each time fighting escalates along one of the country’s front lines, particularly given the complexity of local dynamics in each location. Still, al-Dhale should not be ignored, given the potential humanitarian consequences and its link to the thorny issue of southern independence/autonomy. While Crisis Group has highlighted other regional battles and political issues in the past, few have the potential to touch as many nerves – or wreak as much economic havoc – as the current battle of al-Dhale. Griffiths has direct contact with both the Huthis and the UAE, who are directing the major frontline forces in al-Dhale. Quiet diplomacy by his team could help reduce the fighting, prevent an escalation in neighbouring governorates and contain the festering issue of southern independence so that it can be addressed through negotiations.

Political and Military Developments

Since concluding the technical details of the first phase of force redeployments from in and around Hodeida in April, the parties have made no progress implementing the Stockholm Agreement (for a breakdown of the latest developments, see Update #9). The UN continues to try to at least partially implement the deal by seeking agreement on two outstanding issues that have stood in the way: a second phase of redeployments from the main population centres inside the city and from positions encircling it (by, respectively, the Huthis and UAE-backed forces), and the composition of local security forces that should secure areas following military redeployments. Absent a quick agreement on these issues, Crisis Group continues to advocate the redeployment of Huthi forces from Hodeida’s ports (at a minimum from Saleef and Ras Issa) as a good-faith, low-cost initial step that does not expose the Huthis to significant military risk but which buys time to enable progress on thornier issues. If there is no movement on the ground, there is a risk that there could be a renewed military push in Hodeida by UAE-backed forces, likely with U.S. support.

Left unresolved, these internal issues [between rival factions] will hamper any attempt to broker a truce in Taiz between the Huthis and the government.

In Taiz, another round of fighting between local government-aligned military units and Salafist fighters saw loyalists of Abu al-Abbas, the UAE-backed Salafist leader, departing the city to a military base to the city’s south. Tensions between rival factions in the city remain high, however (for more details on Taiz, see Update #8). Left unresolved, these internal issues will hamper any attempt to broker a truce in Taiz between the Huthis and the government, as this would require coordination between all anti-Huthi forces on the ground.

Separately, a group of Hadi-affiliated southerners met in Aden on 28 April under the banner of the Southern National Coalition (SNC), which its advocates describe as a necessary counterweight to the separatist-leaning STC. The group’s stated aims are to support President Hadi and implement the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, a series of UN-led talks held in Sanaa in 2013-2014. In particular, they propose a federal model of government that Hadi himself favours. The meeting had been planned for several months; an earlier attempt to convene members in Cairo in March failed. The coalition is largely formed of Hadi loyalists. STC officials have dismissed the SNC as an insignificant group with little legitimacy on the ground (for details of tensions between the STC and the government, see Update #5).

Bottom Line: The UN needs a win in Yemen, and in particular needs to demonstrate some form of progress on Hodeida so that peace talks can begin. Ongoing negotiations over the different phases of redeployments from in and around Hodeida are likely to take some time, so the UN should pursue the Huthis’ prior public offer to redeploy from the ports – at a minimum Ras Issa and Saleef – as a sign of good faith.

Regional and International Developments

In a communiqué issued after a meeting of the “Quad” – the UK, U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in London on 27 April, its members again called for implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. The communiqué focussed heavily on the Huthis, calling on them to redeploy from Saleef, Ras Issa and Hodeida ports, in line with Crisis Group recommendations, and to cease the firing of “Iranian-made and facilitated ballistic missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles by Houthi forces into neighbouring countries”. The Quad members said they had an “expectation” that redeployments would be underway by the time the UN Security Council meets on 15 May.

With the Trump administration trying to ratchet up pressure on Iran, many in the U.S. government will continue to view Yemen as a battlefield for countering the Islamic Republic.

On 2 May, the U.S. Senate voted on whether to override President Trump’s 16 April veto of legislation that invoked the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and would have directed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from hostilities in Yemen. A veto override requires a two-thirds vote from each chamber of Congress. The Senate vote of 53-45 fell short of the mark, and spells the end of this legislation. While some of its champions are now promising to move to new strategies for blocking U.S. support to the Saudi-led campaign – most importantly, by inserting defunding provisions in must-pass annual defence spending and authorisation bills – these do not presently appear to have the same bipartisan support as the vetoed legislation. To the extent that some members of Congress supported the war powers legislation because of outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that outrage is beginning to fade. And to the (perhaps greater) extent that some felt comfortable supporting the legislation as a political gesture primarily because they believed the president would veto it, they cannot repeat this strategy in the context of must-pass legislation.

Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for delays in implementation of the Stockholm Agreement, and was quoted in the UAE-headquartered The National on 29 April as saying the Huthis "continue to refuse to comply with the agreements that they signed up for in Stockholm, Sweden, they refuse to withdraw from the port of Hodeida...this is because Iran has chosen to direct them to do that”. In the same interview, Pompeo emphasised the Trump administration’s intention to continue its support to the coalition, stating “the support we are providing to the Saudis is in America’s best interest”.

Bottom Line: The U.S. has been the strongest public critic of the Huthis among UN Security Council members since the Stockholm Agreement was signed in December, and is expected to push the Council to censure the group during an upcoming meeting on Yemen in New York on 15 May. With the Trump administration trying to ratchet up pressure on Iran, many in the U.S. government will continue to view Yemen as a battlefield for countering the Islamic Republic. In the aftermath of President Trump’s recent veto, it remains to be seen how effective Congress will be in pushing back against the administration’s policy of continued support to the Saudi-led campaign.

Click here for the latest CrisisWatch entry for Yemen.