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Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Crisis Group Yemen Update #10
Crisis Group Yemen Update #10

Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition

Flawed as it is, Yemen’s political settlement avoided a potentially devastating civil war and secured President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation, but now the challenge is to address longstanding political and economic grievances.

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Executive Summary

As messy as it has been and unfinished as it remains, Yemen’s transition accomplished two critical goals: avoiding a potentially devastating civil war and securing the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the impoverished country for over three decades. It also cracked the regime’s foundations, while making it possible to imagine new rules of the game. Still, much remains in doubt, notably the scope and direction of change. The nation essentially has witnessed a political game of musical chairs, one elite faction swapping places with the other but remaining at loggerheads. Important constituencies – northern Huthi, southern Hiraak, some independent youth movements – feel excluded and view the transition agreement with scepticism, if not distain. Al-Qaeda and other militants are taking advantage of a security vacuum. Socio-economic needs remain unmet. The new government must rapidly show tangible progress (security, economic, political) to contain centrifugal forces pulling Yemen apart, while reaching out to stakeholders and preparing the political environment for inclusive national dialogue.

On 23 November 2011, following eleven months of popular protest, Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and an accompanying set of implementation mechanisms. Boiled down to its essentials, the GCC initiative provided the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in return for his stepping down. The UN-backed implementation document added flesh to the bones, providing valuable details on the mechanics and timetable of the transition roadmap.

The agreement outlined a two-phase process. In the first, Saleh delegated powers to his vice president, Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi. Feuding politicians then formed an opposition-led national consensus government with cabinet portfolios split equally between the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The president established a military committee tasked with reducing tensions and divisions within the armed forces, which had split between pro- and anti-Saleh factions during the uprising. Phase one ended with early presidential elections, on 21 February 2012, in which Hadi was the uncontested, consensus candidate.

In phase two, Hadi and the government are given two years to, among other things, restructure the military-secu­rity apparatus, address issues of transitional justice and launch an inclusive National Dialogue Conference with the goal of revising the constitution before new elections in February 2014. It is a laudatory program, but also plainly an ambitious one. Already the scorecard is mixed, as implementation has fallen short.

Indeed, although much has changed, a considerable amount remains the same. Begin with the most important: the settlement failed to resolve the highly personalised conflict between Saleh and his family on the one hand, and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, as well as, the powerful al-Ahmar family, on the other. As both camps seek to protect their interests and undermine their rivals, the contours of their struggle have changed but not its fundamental nature or the identity of its protagonists. Likewise, the underlying political economy of corruption has remained virtually untouched. The same families retain control of most of the country’s resources while relying on patronage networks and dominating decision-making in the government, military and political parties.

For frustrated independent activists, the struggle at the top amounts to little more than a political see-saw between two camps that have dominated the country for some 33 years, a reshuffling of the political deck that has, at the party level, hurt the GPC and helped the JMP. This has serious policy implications. As politicians squabble in Sanaa, urgent national problems await. Humanitarian conditions have worsened dramatically since the uprising, with hunger and malnutrition levels growing at an alarming rate. A year of political turmoil has resulted in severe shortages of basic commodities; aggravated already high poverty and unemployment rates; and brought economic activity to a virtual halt.

The army is still divided, with warring commanders escaping the president’s full authority. Armed factions and tribal groups loyal to Saleh, Ali Mohsen or the Al-Ahmars remain in the capital; elsewhere the situation is far worse. The government’s writ over the periphery, already tenuous before the uprising, has contracted sharply since. In the North, the Huthis have vastly expanded their territorial control. In the South, the government must contend with challenges from the Hiraak and its affiliated armed groups. Most worrisome is the spread of Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction. The government, fighting alongside local popular committees, has recaptured territories in the South, but the battle with al-Qaeda is far from over.

Yet, despite these multiple crises, partisan politics and jockeying for the most part persists in the capital. Encumbered by infighting and lacking capacity, the new government has yet to articulate or put forward a political and economic vision for the transitional period. What is more, it has done too little to bring in long-marginalised groups and is sticking to a largely Sanaa-centric approach. Reformers are concerned that vested interests in both the GPC and JMP are seeking to maintain a highly centralised, corrupt state that favours northern tribal and Islamist leaders, thus further deepening the divide with the rest of the country.

Securing Saleh’s peaceful exit from the presidency was hard enough; implementing the remainder of the agreement will be harder still. Neutralising potential spoilers – competing elites associated with the old regime as well as the divided military/security apparatus – is a priority. This cannot be done too abruptly or in a way that privileges one side over the other, lest it trigger violent resistance from the losing side. Instead, Hadi should gradually remove or rotate powerful commanders in a politically even-handed fashion and end their control over individual army units, while forcing them to demonstrate respect for the military chain of command under the president and defence minister. In like manner, the influence of powerful political parties and interest groups should be diluted in a way that ensures no single one finds itself in a position to dominate the transitional process. Equally important, the national dialogue needs to be broadly inclusive, requiring immediate confidence-building measures and continued outreach efforts toward sidelined groups: the youth, the Huthis and the Hiraak.

Implementation also is suffering from its overall opaqueness. No one – not the government, parliament, or military committee – has publicly kept score so as to shed light on who is violating the agreement and how. Nor has Hadi formed the interpretation committee, even though it is mandated by the agreement, and even though it could usefully settle disputes over the meaning of the initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The political settlement has numerous flaws. It was an elite compromise that excluded many original protesters as well as marginalised constituencies. It failed to adequately address issues of justice, and it kept in power leaders and parties at least partially responsible for the country’s woes. But, at a minimum, it offers the chance for a different future. If politicians in Sanaa fail to resolve, or at least contain, the ongoing elite confrontation and move forward with an inclusive dialogue, the country risks experiencing further violence and fragmentation. Yemen has long run away from critical decisions. It should run no more.

Sanaa/Brussels, 3 July 2012

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.