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Can U.S. Action Stop the War in Yemen?
Can U.S. Action Stop the 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.

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

Can U.S. Action Stop the War in Yemen?

Originally published in Atlantic Council

US-ally Saudi Arabia is leading a war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. But after nearly five months, the Houthis have entrenched themselves in captured territory, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) have gained ground, and the war has created a humanitarian catastrophe, with over 4,000 dead and aid agencies warning of impending famine. 

The United States has quietly supported a political solution while providing a preponderance of military hardware, intelligence, and logistical support to the war effort. Admittedly, the Obama administration faces tough choices. Relations with Saudi Arabia have suffered over the Iranian nuclear deal and, with the Yemeni conflict encroaching on the Kingdom’s border, sensitive policy differences on how to handle it threaten to strain the relationship further. But the current paradox in the US approach will only guarantee more of the same: dragging Yemen further into the vortex of a civil war that would destroy the country and threaten the security of the Arabian Peninsula. If the United States does not act now, the associated costs to ending the violence and mitigating the fallout will continue to climb.

The Houthis instigated conflict by capturing the capital Sana’a in September 2014, then marching south and east, seeking to subdue the whole country. The ease with which they took Sana’a and their success in driving the government of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi out of Yemen gave them the false impression that no credible force would get in their way. Within Yemen, a wide variety of political, tribal, and military actors resisted this power grab. The Houthis underestimated the necessity of power sharing in Yemen’s fractious political environment and severely overestimated their appeal in the south. In these predominately Shaf`i (Sunni) areas of the country, residents strongly reject the dominance of any group from the Zaydi (Shia) northern highlands, such as the Houthis. 

Saudi Arabia could not tolerate the rapid Houthi advance. The Kingdom, along with nine other mostly Arab states, set in motion an air war to show the Houthis the limits of their power and—more importantly—to send a message to Iran (which the Kingdom views as a close Houthi ally) that it would not be allowed to spread its influence further. Having done so in devastating fashion, the Saudi-led coalition slowed Houthi advances, but until recently had failed to roll back their gains. This changed in July when the tide turned against the Houthis in the south as Yemeni fighters backed by coalition troops and air power captured the port city of Aden. Since then the coalition has expanded gains in the south and east, where local opposition to the Houthis is strongest.

But even if coalition forces continue to build on recent gains, the rebel strength lies in the northern highlands, where they have begun to dig in for a long fight. Historically military incursions into this area have been bloody and costly affairs, more likely to create a war economy than a clear victory. Now is no different.

Rather than pushing for total victory, Saudi Arabia may have a different, more achievable mission in mind: carving out a satellite Sunni-dominated area that excludes the northern Zaydi highlands. With southerners now hopeful that the current fight will liberate the south and some anti-Houthi tribes in the north already enjoying their largesse, Saudi Arabia could plausibly secure the control of strategically important areas, while keeping the Houthis encircled in the far north—even if that terrain initially included the capital Sana’a. In theory, such a territory could be viable economically, especially if it included Ma’rib’s oil and gas fields. With the Houthis contained in the highlands, they could theoretically be left to live in their autonomous region or eventually squeezed further and have Sana’a taken away from them.

As appealing as that scenario might be for the Saudis, it would likely open a Pandora’s box of instability. For one, carving out a sub-state would require overwhelming ground forces to establish artificial borders that would likely face continuous challenge. The regions that might be included are also neither tribally nor politically homogeneous. The southern separatist Hirak Movement seeks independence for the territories of the former communist south. They would likely resist any attempt to bind them to other territories. Fragmented factions within Hirak would also likely turn against one another once the Houthi danger no longer unites them. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia would still have a Houthi insurgency now concentrated on its southern border.

Both options for Saudi Arabia would mean continued involvement in a Yemen quagmire. Without a strong central authority to impose law and order, al-Qaeda and ISIS would have the room to continue sinking roots in communities under their control, particularly in the south, and grow into a greater threat to both international and Yemeni interests. In fact, the chaos and growing frustration of Yemeni youth would prove a strong recruitment incentive for the two radical organizations whose growth rate already outstrips the attrition caused by drone attacks. 

Meanwhile, human suffering would continue to rise. Already it has reached catastrophic proportions. The United Nations has labeled Yemen a category 3 crisis—on par with Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch have all documented violations of the laws of war by both sides that inflict heavy civilian casualties. 

The United States has both the national security interest and the moral imperative to intervene diplomatically, but aggressively, to stop the fighting. Locally, political and tribal factions need to be reconciled. The UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, with strong backing from the United States and ideally the P-5, could mediate a political solution between Yemen’s warring factions, which has been stymied not only by Houthi intransigence, but also by US, UK, and French support for the Saudi-led war effort. Coalition gains have seemingly opened an opportunity for a genuine compromise as the Houthis for the first time have offered concessions through a UN-brokered mediation effort in Muscat on August 9. The United States should capitalize on this opportunity, pressing the Yemeni government in Riyadh and their Saudi backers to support a political solution that addresses their legitimate security concerns and mitigates the Houthi threat. 

Yemen has paid a high price for the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Most recently, the nuclear talks pushed Saudi Arabia towards a more muscular military response on its southern border and discouraged US objections to it in any meaningful way for fear of further antagonizing the Kingdom. While the nuclear deal is vital in its own right, in the long run it will be judged both on its ability to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and on its political impact across the region. Now the agreement with Tehran will have to be put to the test: can a new conflict resolution era in the Middle East be launched on this foundation? Or did the P5+1 effort merely succeed in limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities at the expense of the region’s problems?


Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula
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Nabeel Khoury
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East