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Preventing a Civil War within a Civil War in Yemen
Preventing a Civil War within a Civil War 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.


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

Members of UAE-backed forces man a checkpoint in Aden, Yemen 8 August 2019. REUTERS / Fawaz Salman

Preventing a Civil War within a Civil War in Yemen

Fighting within the anti-Huthi front threatens to make an already multi-faceted conflict even more complex and intractable. Clashes in Aden reveal tensions within the Saudi-led coalition and highlight the pressing need to address Yemen’s “southern question” now rather than wait until a post-conflict political transition.

Clashes in the port city of Aden between secessionists and loyalists of the internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, threaten to tip southern Yemen into a civil war within a civil war. Such a conflict would deepen what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and make a national political settlement harder to achieve. In the past, half-measures helped de-escalate simmering tensions in the south; today’s circumstances require robust diplomatic intervention from the UN, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to avoid the worst and help forge a durable solution.

The fighting broke out on 7 August during the funeral of Munir “Abu al-Yamama” al-Yafei. Al-Yafei was a leading commander of the Security Belts, a UAE-backed paramilitary grouping that has battled the Hadi government’s forces before, despite technically falling under its interior ministry’s command. He was killed by a missile that hit a parade ground in western Aden on 1 August. The Huthis claimed responsibility for the strike. But members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), secessionists who see themselves as a southern government-in-waiting and claim control of the Security Belts, blamed it on Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist political party, which is sometimes described – not entirely accurately – as “Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood”. STC media outlets speculate that Islah and the Huthis are conspiring to destabilise the south together, despite the fact that they are on opposite sides of the wider war.

STC officials further claim that while they respect Hadi’s legitimacy, Islah members, whom they describe as terrorists, have infiltrated Hadi-aligned military forces, including the Presidential Guard, as well as other government institutions. The Presidential Guard is stationed at the presidential palace, near the location of al-Yafei’s funeral. After reports of gunshots directed at the mourners, STC-aligned fighters and Guardsmen exchanged fire at the palace entrance and near the airport. The STC claims that eleven of its members were killed. By the early evening of 7 August, Aden residents reported that the fighting had subsided, giving rise to hopes of a ceasefire. But Hani bin Breik, the STC vice president who is widely seen as the Security Belts’ founder, called that night for the overthrow of what he described as the “terrorist” and “corrupt” government. Fighting erupted again on 8 August. It was ongoing at the time of publication after a failed Yemeni-Yemeni initiative to negotiate a truce.

STC-aligned forces have become the dominant power on the ground.

The parties have issued a welter of statements that may seem contradictory. Bin Breik reaffirmed the STC’s affiliation with the Saudi-led coalition, the force that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 to restore the president. Ahmed al-Maysari, the Hadi loyalist interior minister, claimed on 7 August that his forces had fended off a coup attempt and that the Saudi-led coalition continued to support the Hadi government. For their part, Mohammed al-Jaber, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, and Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, each called for calm without expressing support for either side.

Aden’s convoluted situation reflects the internal politics of Yemen’s anti-Huthi coalition, united against a common enemy but fragmented and lacking a shared identity. The Hadi government wishes to regain control of all Yemen. The STC, giving voice to southern grievances against perceived northern domination dating to the end of Yemen’s brief 1994 civil war, wants an independent south. Framing Islah and the Huthis as two sides of one “northern” coin, the STC alleges Islahi infiltration of the Hadi loyalists when in fact these forces are largely southerners only loosely allied with Islah. The group’s rhetoric is also likely designed to garner support from the UAE, which reviles the Muslim Brotherhood.

South Yemen’s tangled politics, in turn, reveal the differing interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the heavyweights in the Saudi-led coalition. Though the two sides in Aden both claim the coalition’s full support, forces loyal to Hadi are Saudi-backed while the STC and Security Belts are backed by the UAE. The UAE entered Yemen as part of Saudi Arabia’s campaign to oust the Huthis and restore Hadi to power. Abu Dhabi recognises that Riyadh depends on Islah-affiliated figures such as Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to sustain the anti-Huthi war effort. But UAE officials also view the Saudis’ relationship with Ali Mohsen and other Islamists warily, and consider the STC to be a vital non-Islamist counterweight. In turn, Saudi officials concede that the UAE and its southern allies have produced most of the war’s notable military successes, including the push toward the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in 2018. Yet some in Riyadh are nonetheless displeased by Abu Dhabi’s support for the STC, which they worry undermines Hadi and diverts attention from the fight against the Huthis.

The imperative of defeating the Huthis explains why the sides struck a balance in Aden, which Hadi named Yemen’s temporary capital after fleeing Huthi-controlled Sanaa in 2015. On the one hand, the UAE and its allies have allowed the government to retain a physical presence in Aden; on the other hand, STC-aligned forces have become the dominant power on the ground. But, with so many divergent interests inside the coalition, it is an unstable equilibrium.

If tensions in Aden cannot be eased, the risk is high that they will spread to other parts of the south.

At the moment, the balance of power on the ground appears to lie with the STC but outright victory is by no means assured for the secessionists. Both the STC and the Hadi government claim to have the upper hand militarily. While the STC has a larger number of affiliated forces in Aden and across the south, it is not clear that all its supporters will answer bin Breik’s call to overthrow the government. In the past, many STC commanders remained neutral during other STC units’ clashes with Hadi loyalists and even threatened to take the government’s side. Many other secessionist groups are wary of the STC, which they worry hopes to build a one-party state modelled on the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen that governed the south before the 1990 unification. The STC denies having this ambition. Other southerners view the STC and especially its leadership as biased toward al-Dhale, a part of the south whose military forces were pitted against those from Abyan, President Hadi’s home governorate, in the brutal southern civil war of 1986. There are echoes of the past in today’s political alignments and fighting.

Full-fledged support from Abu Dhabi or Riyadh for either side could be a game changer. Hadi government officials claim that Saudi Arabia warned the STC that its jets would strike anyone attempting to enter the presidential palace. This claim cannot be confirmed, but Saudi armoured vehicles reportedly have been deployed at the palace entrance. The STC leadership will likely seek to avoid any action that might place it in direct conflict with Riyadh, consistent with the UAE’s views.

The fighting in Aden is not the first standoff between Saudi-backed and UAE-backed forces in Yemen, but if it continues, it could be the most destructive. If tensions in Aden cannot be eased, the risk is high that they will spread to other parts of the south. A battle in Aden or the wider south could also draw in southern forces engaged in the fight against the Huthis on the Red Sea coast and Islah-aligned forces from northern governorates. More broadly, such a turn of events could hurt UN-led efforts to broker a deal to end the war with the Huthis who, facing less military pressure, could be in a stronger position to question both the Hadi government’s credibility as its sole negotiating partner and its ability to deliver on any putative political agreement. Intensified clashes in the south also would have serious humanitarian implications. To begin, they likely would shut off access to Aden’s airport, many Yemenis’ only reliable gateway to the outside world. Flights have already halted temporarily. Moreover, clashes would stem the flow of goods coming into the country from Aden’s port, pushing up prices of fuel, food and other staples nationwide. Millions of Yemenis already cannot afford to meet their basic daily needs.

To head off further clashes, damage to UN-led negotiations and an even more pressing humanitarian emergency, Crisis Group recommends the following steps:

  • Coordinated diplomatic intervention, led by the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to prevent further fighting in Aden and escalation in other governorates. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh should use their influence and leverage over their respective local allies to press for an immediate ceasefire.
  • Formation of a coordinating security council consisting of civilian and military leaders from the Hadi government, STC and Saudi-led coalition to discuss solutions to the dispute. The coalition would convene this council and invite international observers, such as UN personnel. This council would focus on de-escalating tensions and finding workable security arrangements to begin the demilitarisation of Aden and other southern cities. It would formulate a time-bound plan for de-escalation and cooperation on internal security and local governance over the coming year.
  • Dialogue among the Hadi government, the STC and other southern groups, initiated by the UN with the support of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The future status of Yemen’s south needs to be addressed and cannot wait for a post-war political transition. The dialogue would aim to determine broader southern inclusion in current UN talks to end the war and it should start intra-southern discussions on the future of the south that can inform a national political settlement. 

For too long, Yemen’s southern question has been an afterthought for diplomats. Even after the street battles of January 2018, little was done to resolve local tensions. The principal international stakeholders in Yemen have strong relationships with the rival sides in Aden, and now they have an opportunity to deal both with the immediate threat of conflict and its underlying causes. It is an opportunity they are unlikely to have again if they fail to seize it.