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Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Houthi militants stand in the house of Houthi leader Yahya Aiydh, after Saudi-led air strikes destroyed it in Yemen's capital Sanaa, 8 September 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Report 167 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen: Is Peace Possible?

Yemen's outlook is bleak. It is crucial that the opposing blocs and their regional allies commit to a political process to resolve the conflict, but there is no end in sight. The immediate priority should be an agreement on humanitarian aid and commercial goods for areas where civilians are under siege.

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Executive Summary

Nearly a year on, there is no end in sight to Yemen’s war. The conflict pits Ansar Allah (Huthi) rebels and military units allied with ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh against a diverse mix of opponents, including what remains of the government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition supported by the U.S., the UK and France. Ending the war requires negotiations leading to an interim settlement that must include security arrangements providing for militia withdrawal from cities, a return to the political process pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and agreement on a transitional leadership. While these are matters for Yemeni parties to decide during UN-sponsored negotiations, Saudi Arabia’s buy-in will be essential, spooked as the kingdom is by what it perceives as an Iranian hand behind the Huthis and their attacks on Saudi territory. Reaching agreement will take time, a luxury Yemenis do not have. The immediate priority thus should be to secure agreement on delivering humanitarian aid and commercial goods to war-torn, besieged areas.

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The descent into civil war has its roots in a post-2011 political transition that was overtaken by old-regime elite infighting, high-level corruption and inability of the National Dialogue Conference (a cornerstone of the 2011 transition roadmap) to produce consensus on power sharing and state structure, especially the status of south Yemen, where desire for independence is strong. The Huthis, a Zaydi (Shia) revivalist movement turned militia, thrived by framing itself as an uncorrupted outsider. They struck an opportunistic alliance with their old enemy, Saleh, against common domestic foes, including the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, the powerful Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the family), all of whom had turned against Saleh during the 2011 uprising. When the Huthis captured Sanaa, on a wave of popular resentment against the Hadi government in September 2014, a majority of Yemenis were already disillusioned with the transition. Yet, the Huthis overstretched: trying to forcibly expand their writ over the entire country, they alienated new supporters and confirmed critics’ worst fears.

In March 2015, the internal power struggle was eclipsed and reshaped by a Saudi-led military intervention. Saudi Arabia views the Huthis as part of an expanding Iranian threat in the region. Under the leadership of King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman, the defence minister and deputy crown prince, it decided to attempt to reverse Iran’s perceived gains by pushing back the Huthis and reinstating the Hadi government. It rallied a coalition of nine mostly Sunni Arab states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prime among these. The U.S., UK and France have lent support to the war effort, even as they harbour reservations regarding the conflict’s necessity and are concerned about its possible duration and unintended consequences, particularly the near-catastrophic humanitarian crisis (bordering on famine) and uncontrolled spread of violent jihadi groups such as the Yemeni franchises of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

The intervention has layered a multidimensional, thus more intractable, regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran onto an already complex civil war, significantly complicating prospects for peace. It has also solidified opposing domestic fronts that have little in common save for their position on the Saudi-led military campaign. On one side, the Huthis and Saleh have wrought a tactical alliance, despite their mutual distrust, against what they view as an existential threat. On the other, the anti-Huthi bloc is even more diverse, bringing together a range of Sunni Islamists, (mostly secular) southern separatists and tribally/regionally based fighters who reject Huthi/Saleh dominance but have radically different visions for the future of Yemen.

After nearly a year of combat, no side is close to a decisive military victory. Huthi/Saleh fighters are ensconced in the Zaydi northern highlands, while the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies are strongest in Shafei (Sunni) areas in the south and east. As the latter have pushed the Huthi/Saleh front out of southern territories, where they were largely viewed as northern invaders, a range of armed groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and southern separatists, have moved in to take their place. If the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in capturing additional territory in the north, which it appears determined to do, the result is likely to be a protracted, bloody battle producing additional chaos and fragmentation. For its part, the Huthi/Saleh bloc is significantly complicating peace prospects by increasing cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, a move that makes it more difficult for the kingdom to halt the conflict when it cannot boast a clear military victory.

Each side’s commitment to UN-led peace talks is lukewarm. Neither is defeated or exhausted; both believe they can make additional military gains; and neither has been willing to make the compromises required to end the violence. The structure of talks, too, is problematic, with Saudi Arabia, a core belligerent, conspicuously absent. Prospects for a ceasefire and productive Yemeni talks would be helped by direct high-level consultations between the Huthi/Saleh bloc and Saudi Arabia over sensitive issues such as the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran. Moreover, to succeed, UN-led negotiations must be made more inclusive, expanding as soon as possible beyond the Yemeni government and Huthi/Saleh delegations to incorporate other Yemeni stakeholders.

The immediate future looks bleak. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to expand and widened intra-Yemeni political, regional and confessional divides. The UN estimates that at least 6,000 people have been killed, including over 2,800 civilians, the majority by Saudi-led airstrikes. Even if the UN can broker an agreement to end major combat, the road to lasting peace will be long and difficult. The country is broken to a degree that requires significant time, resources and new political agreements to overcome. Without a breakthrough, it will continue descent into state disintegration, territorial fragmentation and sectarian violence. That trajectory would have calamitous consequences for Yemen’s population and severely undermine Gulf security, particularly Saudi Arabia’s, by fomenting a new refugee crisis and feeding radicalisation in the region to the benefit of violent jihadi groups.

Recommendations

To achieve a general ceasefire and return to a Yemeni political process

To all belligerents: 

  1. Abide by the law of war, refrain from media campaigns that label opponents in sectarian terms or as agents of foreign states and express support for and actively work toward a ceasefire and negotiations leading to a durable settlement. 

To Saudi Arabia, the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party (GPC):

  1. Open immediate high-level consultations on priority issues, such as de-escalating tensions on the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, that could facilitate a UN-brokered ceasefire and meaningful intra-Yemeni talks. 

To the government of Yemen, the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC:

  1. Participate without delay or preconditions in the next round of UN-brokered negotiations on an agenda specified by the UN special envoy.

To the Saudi-led coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE):

  1. Encourage government support for the UN special envoy’s negotiating agenda, including implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and compromises needed to implement it and revive the Yemeni political process.

To the UN Security Council permanent members, especially the U.S., UK and France:

  1. Back the UN special envoy, including by supporting a follow-up Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire by all sides and an inclusive political compromise. 
     
  2. Condition the supply of weapon systems and ammunition to Saudi-led coalition members on their support for an immediate ceasefire and inclusive political negotiations. 
     
  3. Encourage high-level, direct consultations between Saudi Arabia and the Huthi/Saleh bloc.

To improve the chances of a durable political settlement

To the UN special envoy:

  1. Improve the negotiating framework by:
     
    1. Integrating regional security concerns and economic reconstruction into negotiations by supporting high-level official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni stakeholders, particularly the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC, that are separate from but inform the intra-Yemeni negotiations. 
       
    2. Expanding negotiations to include, as soon as possible, additional Yemeni stakeholders, among them the Sunni Islamist party Islah, Salafi groups and the Southern Resistance, so as to ensure a durable ceasefire; to be followed by inclusion of civil-society groups, political parties and women’s organisations, to help resolve outstanding political challenges; and
       
    3. Prioritising three political challenges: i) agreement on a broadly acceptable executive leadership and more inclusive government until elections; ii) a mechanism for resolving the future status of the south and other regions seeking greater devolution; and iii) accountability and national reconciliation.

To Ansar Allah (the Huthis): 

  1. De-escalate the conflict and build confidence by: releasing political prisoners; allowing unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to civilians in Taiz; and suspending hostilities on the Saudi border for a specified period to show capacity to do so and goodwill ahead of UN talks. 

To Saleh and the GPC: 

  1. Work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemeni stakeholders to agree on the former president’s departure from Yemen for a set period of time as part of the larger political settlement, ideally along with General Ali Mohsen and President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. 

To President Hadi and the Yemeni government:

  1. De-escalate the conflict and support compromise by: refraining from calling for the military “liberation” of Sanaa and other cities; facilitating unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all parts of Yemen, including Huthi-controlled areas; and recognising publicly the need for political reconciliation and a revived Yemeni political process. 

To Yemeni parties and organisations currently left out of the UN negotiating framework, except groups that reject politics:

  1. Lobby for inclusion in the negotiations and accept an invitation, if offered, to participate in them, as well as in Track II discussions, without preconditions.
     
  2. Select representatives for negotiations and prepare proposals for elements of a political settlement, especially on sensitive issues such as state structure, national power sharing and militia disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). 

To the kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

  1. Communicate specific security requirements and political concerns, especially regarding the border, disarmament issues, and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, directly to all Yemeni stakeholders involved in negotiations and the UN special envoy.
     
  2. Participate, if requested by the UN special envoy, in official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions supporting Yemeni negotiations; make specific proposals for reconstruction, including in the north, and work toward incorporating Yemen into the Gulf Cooperation Council.
     
  3. Suspend military action in the capital, Sanaa, for a specified period of time to show goodwill ahead of UN negotiations.

To the UAE:

  1. Assist in political resolution of the southern issue by helping the Southern Resistance select its representation for future talks.

To the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  1. Approach the Yemen crisis as a low-cost, high-value opportunity to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia by: 
     
    1. Ending inflammatory rhetoric that stokes fears of Iranian intent to use Yemen to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia;
       
    2. Encouraging the Huthis to participate constructively in both UN negotiations and direct discussions with Saudi Arabia on resolving the conflict; and
       
    3. Discussing directly with Saudi Arabia ways of de-escalating tensions in the region, including through actions in Yemen that could start with ending any existing military support to the Huthis.

Brussels, 9 February 2016

Local security forces wait at a checkpoint in Al Jawf Governorate, Yemen, 5 January 2020. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen

Heavy fighting has started again in Yemen after one of the war’s quietest months. Battles on the northern front lines highlight the flaws of the piecemeal approach to negotiating an end to the war – and the pressing need for a coordinated multi-track effort.

The narrow window of opportunity to end the Yemen war that opened in late 2019 may fast be closing. Fighting along key front lines in northern Yemen, along with Huthi rebel missile strikes and the resumption of Saudi-led aerial bombardment, threatens to tilt the conflict toward a major escalation, reversing tentative steps toward dialogue. There is still a chance to break the cycle by expanding newly opened communication channels between Huthi rebels (who call themselves Ansar Allah) and Saudi Arabia to include the internationally recognised Yemeni government and others in order to negotiate a truce on all major fronts. But success will require a coordinated and continuous regional and international effort.

For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The swing from stalemate and de-escalation to shooting war was sudden. On 18 January, after a month that UN Envoy Martin Griffiths described as one of the conflict’s quietest periods, the government alleges that the Huthis launched missiles at one of its military camps in Marib governorate (the Huthis refuse to confirm responsibility). The strike reportedly killed more than 100 soldiers in one of the war’s deadliest single incidents to date. It came amid intensified combat along previously stalemated front lines in al-Jawf, Nihm and Marib between allies of the Huthis, on one side, and of the government, on the other. These battles became still fiercer after the strike, with both sides suffering heavy losses. The Huthis have since fired several more missiles at military facilities in Marib. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has ramped up its air campaign, launching dozens of raids in what the Huthis argue is a breach of a putative cross-border truce. Saudi officials label the fighting a Huthi attempt to take advantage of border ceasefire negotiations under way since October. For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The fighting underscores the limitations of the current piecemeal regional and international approach to ending the war. This approach, in which Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on the key negotiating tracks in the south and on the border, has been as much about firefighting as conflict prevention. The UN is struggling to sustain the year-old Stockholm Agreement to prevent a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is pressuring the government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) to firm up the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that ended fighting over the southern port city of Aden. Many observers, including Crisis Group, had hoped that the parties could thread these two disparate tracks together with the Saudi-Huthi border de-escalation into a single UN-led process to end the war. Progress in demilitarising Hodeida would, under this view, build confidence among the Yemeni parties; the Riyadh Agreement would prevent a war-within-a-war and lay the groundwork for forming a more inclusive government; and the Saudi-Huthi talks would help remove Yemen from the regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. 

Recent events, however, suggest that the piecemeal approach rests on inherently weak foundations: a series of bilateral agreements designed to halt specific parts of the conflict without tackling their underlying causes, something only national multiparty talks can achieve. Left unaddressed is the fighting between government-aligned forces and the Huthis on fronts in the north and south, making the approach’s success or failure vulnerable to events on the ground. The cause of the sudden escalation in the north is contested, with both the Huthis and the government claiming they are taking defensive measures in response to their rivals’ premeditated aggression. In explaining their expanded military activities, the Huthis cite a series of alleged Saudi airstrikes and ground attacks they say took place before the 18 January missile strike. The government says the Huthis had launched a series of small-scale raids on strategic positions, including highways in government-controlled areas, over the course of January before the Marib strike. What triggered the fighting may in fact have been a local dispute over a checkpoint in al-Jawf governorate early in the month that gradually spiralled out of control. 

Regardless, it is clear that both parties had been preparing for renewed hostilities in the north after a long period of stalemate. The Huthis and the government each claimed their rivals were planning major new operations in the weeks and months before the escalation. Huthi fears may have grown in recent weeks as government forces previously based in the south of Yemen were redeployed to Marib as part of the Riyadh Agreement.

The fighting in the north will have a knock-on effect on each of the ongoing negotiation tracks. Saudi-Huthi talks continue but are strained; hawks in both camps have arguably gained traction, and they have come close to scuttling discussions on several occasions. The Riyadh Agreement has also come under stress since the 18 January missile strike, in part because the Huthis’ refusal to claim it encourages speculation about its provenance. 

Pro-government news sites and social media have spread an unlikely rumour that either the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the STC, the secessionist grouping aligned with Abu Dhabi, fired the missiles. A number of government officials note that the UAE removed its Patriot missile defence system from Marib in mid-2019, leaving the area vulnerable to Huthi short-range missile attacks. Pro-government media have also used the fighting in the north as an opportunity to lambast the Stockholm Agreement, which they see as an artificial stalemate imposed from outside. The government has publicly threatened to leave the agreement. The renewed focus on Stockholm is in part motivated by concern that Saudi Arabia and the UN are close to negotiating a truce in the north at a time when the Huthis remain dominant on the ground. But it may also portend renewed hostilities along the Red Sea coast. 

At the time of writing, the Huthis appeared to be making the biggest gains on the battlefield, reportedly controlling the important Nihm front north east of Sanaa after several days in which both sides claimed a series of largely symbolic victories while suffering numerous casualties. In a sign of deep frustration and fatigue among ordinary Yemenis, public criticism has turned inward: the Huthis’ tribal allies have criticised the rebels for the high cost of what are likely inconclusive battles, while the government’s supporters have similarly reproached President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for failing to gain ground on the Huthis. Some voices in the anti-Huthi bloc blame Riyadh for providing insufficient support at what they believe was a potential turning point in the war. 

The fighting could spark renewed conflict elsewhere in Yemen. Many in the anti-Huthi bloc see it as an opportunity to attend to unfinished business. The widespread narrative in their ranks is that the Stockholm Agreement forestalled a pivotal battle that would have weakened the Huthis and allowed for a national political settlement on more equitable terms. With fighting already raging in the north and in the southern governorate of al-Dhale, many in the anti-Huthi camp believe they could make a renewed push for Hodeida and reignite battles along the border in a rare, coordinated multifront campaign. Many Huthis suspect such a battle was the Riyadh Agreement’s real aim all along. Hawks in the Huthi camp, meanwhile, appear to relish the prospect of a national showdown particularly if, as seemed to be the case at the time of writing, they have come out on top in the latest round of fighting.

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory.

An expansion of the conflict would be a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war. Senior Huthi officials have staked their reputations on the de-escalation initiative with the Saudis, and would likely lose considerable capital within the movement if it fails. Saudi as well as Huthi military leaders were already sceptical of the de-escalation effort and may decide that the only option now is outright military victory. In addition, developments in the U.S.-Iran rivalry may well have motivated Riyadh’s decision to negotiate with the Huthis, following a missile attack on vital Saudi Arabian oil production facilities in September 2019 that was claimed by the Huthis, but widely attributed to Iran. Arguably fearful of a regional war in which U.S. support was uncertain, Riyadh may have sought to mitigate the risk along its southern border by de-escalating with the Huthis and seeking to drive a wedge between them and Iran. But Saudi officials might also have reappraised this approach (or at least slowed it down) after unrest in Iran, huge protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional asymmetrical war strategy, in early January. 

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory. Crisis Group recommends the following: 

  • The UN Security Council should echo UN Envoy Griffiths’ call for a de-escalation, and urge a truce on all fronts or, even stronger, steps toward a nationwide ceasefire, reiterating the point that the only solution to the Yemen war is a political one. 
     
  • The U.S. in particular should push Saudi Arabia, and the UN, the EU and Oman should press the Huthis, to continue talks, maintain the cross-border truce and implement further bilateral de-escalation measures. In parallel, the U.S. and the UN should encourage Saudi Arabia to bring the Yemeni government and its allies into negotiations with the Huthis. 
     
  • The UN should lead the establishment of a national military body, comprising senior military representatives from the government, the Huthi movement, key military officers on major frontlines (as some anti-Huthi commanders like Tariq Saleh on the Red Sea coast do not fall under the direct authority of the government) and Saudi Arabia, overseen by the UN and advised by international ceasefire planning experts. This body would be charged with planning and implementing frontline truces and reopening key roads. It would include political liaisons capable of transmitting proposals directly to their leaders. 
     
  • International and regional support as well as coordination for such an initiative would be critical. Crisis Group has advocated in the past for the formation of a contact group of key regional and international stakeholders including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, as well as the U.S., UK and EU. Such a grouping could meet regularly and divide labour for outreach, pressure and the provision of technical expertise, taking its cues from the UN envoy. A meeting of such a group should take place as soon as possible, making the formation of a military body its immediate task.
     

The present scenario is wearyingly familiar: modest advances toward a political settlement undone by local fighting that explodes into a national escalation, driven by overconfidence or miscalculation on the part of key protagonists. There still is time to stop this dangerous slide, but it may fast run out.