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Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
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

Yemeni pro-government forces gather at the south of Hodeida airport, in Yemen's Hodeida province on 15 June, 2018. AFP

Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle

The fate of Hodeida hangs in the balance as UAE-backed Yemeni forces poise for what will be a prolonged and destructive battle to expel Huthi rebels. A real but fleeting opportunity exists to avert catastrophe through a UN-mediated solution that safeguards all sides’ interests.

The battle for Hodeida is reaching the point of no return. UAE-backed Yemeni forces are poised to begin operations to take this Red Sea port and city of 600,000 from Huthi rebels. This is the final, fragile moment in which it may still be possible for UN-led negotiations to prevent a destructive fight that is likely to exacerbate dire humanitarian conditions and further delay broader negotiations to end the war.

Both the Huthi rebels who control Hodeida and the Saudi-led coalition that is backing an assault to wrest it from them say they want to avoid a battle for the port and city centre, but their negotiating positions remain far apart. Hopes now lie with the newly appointed UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who is attempting to find a middle ground. Griffiths has a real but limited opportunity to succeed due to three converging dynamics. First, the Huthis, under military pressure, have for the first time expressed openness to UN management of Hodeida port, Yemen’s largest gateway for imports. Second, the UAE, which is leading the military push on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, would prefer to avoid urban combat that would almost certainly see its forces suffer considerable losses and prompt intense international scrutiny for aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation. And third, there is growing concern among international stakeholders, including the U.S., that a pitched battle for the port and city could have devastating humanitarian and longer-term political consequences.

The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise [...] The stakes are about as high as they could be.

Finding a solution means bridging the sides’ competing positions. The Saudis and Emiratis accuse the rebel movement of using the port to smuggle weapons into Yemen and diverting customs revenues to their war effort. They want the Huthis out entirely. For their part, the Huthis have offered to turn over management of the port to the UN and jointly manage security, but have said they will not fully withdraw from Hodeida. The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise. Their respective allies should vigorously press them to accept a negotiated settlement for the port and city as the best and only tolerable option.

The stakes are about as high as they could be. Successful UN mediation toward a mutually acceptable solution that safeguards all sides’ vital interests regarding Hodeida could be the basis for a settlement not only for the port, but also for the wider conflict between the Huthis and the coalition. Conversely, failure would not only seriously undermine prospects for such talks, but also – once fighting enters the city – render a consensual deal over the Huthis’ presence in the port and the question of how it will be managed largely impossible. Hodeida can either prove to be the beginning of the end to Yemen’s war or the start of a new, likely more destructive phase.

The Road to Hodeida

The UAE launched its campaign to seize Hodeida after growing increasingly frustrated with a nearly three-year-old stalemate in which front lines changed only marginally. In the Emiratis’ view, the Huthis – who seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, with the backing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – were becoming more and more entrenched in the country’s highlands, benefitting in particular from a burgeoning war economy. Emirati officials have long seen Hodeida’s capture as key to shaking up the status quo and forcing the Huthis into the kind of settlement the coalition desires: a withdrawal from Yemen’s cities; guarantees of cross-border security; handover of heavy weapons, especially the ballistic missiles the Huthis have been firing into Saudi Arabia; and cutting ties to Iran, which supports the Huthis, in exchange for participation in a unity government.

The plans for a Hodeida offensive have been gestating since at least 2016. They were bolstered by the December 2017 schism within the odd-couple alliance of the Huthis and Saleh. Street fighting in Sanaa ended with the Huthis killing Saleh, while his nephew and military avatar, Tareq Mohammed Saleh, escaped and promptly switched sides. Since May, the joint National Resistance Forces – the Tihami Resistance, led by tribal forces from the Red Sea coast; the Giants’ Brigade, led by Salafist-leaning southern resistance fighters; and Tareq Saleh’s Republican Guards – have made swift progress up the coast, aided by UAE air support. In June, they made major, rapid advances towards the port and city, and are now on its outskirts, intending to take Hodeida by defeating the Huthis outright or by forcing them to accept a deal that would allow them to evacuate eastward to Sanaa.

The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war.

The Emiratis believe they can win Hodeida as effectively as they did Aden in mid-2015 and Mukalla, a port in the east that had become an al-Qaeda stronghold, in April 2016. In both cases, they provided military support to forces recruited from the local population. In Hodeida, too, they are counting on what they refer to as local resistance inside the city to set up internal checkpoints and neighbourhood security when Abu Dhabi gives the signal for these groups to activate. 

The coalition has been careful to communicate its plans to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access while warning that the Huthis will likely use the civilian population as human shields. The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war. Aid agencies remain deeply concerned that fighting at the port could prevent access to the country’s most important source of food, fuel and humanitarian supplies, while an assault on the city could endanger the lives of the city’s estimated 600,000 residents. The UN worries that the fighting could make the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even worse and tip some of the 8.4 million-plus Yemenis on the brink of starvation into famine. If, as seems likely, the Hodeida campaign is harder fought and longer lasting than the UAE anticipates, it is difficult to see how humanitarian access will be improved, while the lives of more than half a million will unquestionably be deeply affected.

The UN Security Council met to discuss Yemen twice in June as the operation began but has failed to stake out a unified position beyond broad language on civilian protection. For its part, the U.S., while at first cautioning the UAE against the wisdom of undertaking an assault on Hodeida, citing the uncertain military outcome and probable humanitarian cost, appears to have eased pressure on the coalition. UAE officials believe that the U.S. does not object to an assault on the port and city, although they add that their American counterparts have warned them they will be responsible for the outcome.  

On 20 June, a week after launching “Operation Golden Victory”, the UAE-backed forces announced that they were in full control of the sprawling airport complex that sits on Hodeida city’s southern edge. Although the Huthis dispute the claim, and sporadic fighting continues, the coalition has clearly gained the upper hand in the week-long struggle for this strategically important facility. Fighting has now reached residential areas on the city’s southern edges. The UAE is poised to move toward the port in the next phase of combat.

A Possible – and Necessary – Compromise

Most military analysts following the campaign say the Huthis have little chance of holding the port and city if the UAE-backed campaign proceeds. The Huthis appear to realise this as well. While they have maintained their bellicose rhetoric, they have also indicated a new willingness to hand control of the port to the UN and discuss at least a partial withdrawal from the city – ideas they had dismissed out of hand as recently as a year ago. In a televised 20 June speech, Abdelmalek al-Huthi, the rebels’ leader, said for the first time that the Huthis were willing to cede control of the port.

This is important, but falls short of the public position of coalition leaders who, capitalising on their military momentum, are calling for a complete Huthi withdrawal and handover of the port and the city to the National Resistance Forces, while offering the Huthis safe passage to Sanaa. Yet this demand could prove to be flexible. Diplomats and coalition officials apprised of ongoing backroom negotiations claim coalition leaders have hinted they might accept a compromise in order to avoid a prolonged fight for the port and city whose humanitarian impact almost certainly would be devastating.

They would have good reason to do so: given clear warnings over the likely consequences of a military offensive, any worsening of the humanitarian situation would prompt intense international criticism and condemnation of the UAE and its allies at a time when they already are under heavy public scrutiny. As an immediate step, Griffiths should therefore publicise the fact that both protagonists have told him a deal is possible and shown newfound flexibility; this would limit the risk that either side claims the other is unwilling to compromise and uses that as an excuse to block negotiations.

Time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it.

The outlines of a potential compromise that would respect both sides’ core interests are clear. The Huthis would agree to a short, firm timetable to withdraw from the port and relinquish any role in managing it. They would hand over management of the port to the UN, with current civilian staff running the port on a day-to-day basis. UN member states would lead a de-mining operation in the port and waters surrounding it to ensure it is safe for operations in conjunction with the coalition. Optimally, the UN, supported by the government of Yemen and UN member states, would implement technical upgrades to boost port capacity. 

While the Huthis might conceivably play a role in managing security within the city for an interim period, they would ultimately need to hand over security operations to local police forces and governance functions to local council members. This could be done in a gradual albeit clearly delineated process, overseen by a joint committee comprising military commanders from the Huthi camp, the coalition and the various Yemeni forces on the ground in Hodeida, and assisted by the UN and international experts. If successful, such a phased and coordinated withdrawal and handover to local, effectively neutral management could serve as a model for the rest of Huthi-held territory should talks over Hodeida succeed

In return, UAE-backed forces would maintain a military presence at Hodeida airport but refrain from sending their forces into the city and port. They also would pull back from the eastbound highway connecting Hodeida with Sanaa, through which Huthi forces could then withdraw to the highlands.

Room for such a compromise exists as long as the assault on the city has not begun. But time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it. To that end:

  • The Security Council should issue a presidential statement strongly backing a negotiated settlement on Hodeida under UN auspices as per Griffiths’ proposals, and forcefully remind the Huthis and coalition forces of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  • The U.S. should take the lead in calling for a deal that would prevent a battle for the city and port, and its fellow Security Council member states (notably the UK and France, which have supported the coalition politically and militarily) should rally behind this call. They should also make it clear that the “Pottery Barn” rule – if you break it, you own it – inevitably will apply to the UAE-led coalition in Hodeida.
     
  • UN member states that support or have open communication lines with the Huthis – Iran, Oman, Russia and the EU, for example – should ensure that the group is under constant pressure to agree to a compromise and abide by its commitments in the event of a deal. The Huthis have a long track record of using negotiations as an opportunity to reposition or legitimise their actions. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

For the past three years, it has been an international mantra that there is no military but only a political solution to Yemen’s war, even as that war has continued unabated. What happens in Hodeida in the coming days can either validate this principle and the international community’s commitment to it, by serving as a bridge to further negotiations, or undermine it if fighting escalates and prospects for peace further diminish. Hodeida offers an opportunity for the UN Security Council to demonstrate its ability to pursue negotiated solutions to conflicts at a time of growing doubt about its effectiveness and utility. It offers the warring sides a face-saving exit that protects their vital interests after years of recklessly jeopardising them. And it offers the Yemeni people a chance to avoid a devastating escalation and the persistence of endless, pointless bloodshed.