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Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise 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

Yemeni security forces gather in Aden's Mansura district, where a car bomb was used by suspected al-Qaeda fighters to target the city's police chief on 1 May 2016. AFP/Saleh Al-Obeidi

Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

High civilian casualties from the latest U.S. counter-terrorism raid in Yemen risk aggravating rather than helping to resolve a conflict that is the principal reason for the growth of al-Qaeda in the devastated country. 

The first counter-terrorism raid authorised by U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend targeted al-Qaeda in Yemen. How effective was the operation, and what is known about the new administration’s broader strategy on Yemen? 

The raid in al-Bayda, a key battlefront in Yemen’s civil war where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local affiliate Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) are embedded in the conflict, is a good example of what not to do. The use of U.S. troops and the high number of civilian casualties – local sources report that at least ten women and children were killed – are deeply inflammatory and breed anti-American resentment across the Yemeni political spectrum that works to the advantage of AQAP. The raid ignores the local political context, to the detriment of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The tribesmen targeted had links to AQAP/AAS, yet many, if not most of them, were motivated less by AQAP’s international agenda, including targeting the West, and more by a local power struggle in which AQAP is viewed as an ally against the Huthis (a Zaydi/Shiite militia) and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At a local level, the raid not only plays into AQAP’s narrative of the need to violently oppose what they claim is a U.S. war against Muslims, but it also gives AQAP an opportunity to accuse the U.S. of assisting Huthi/Saleh forces in the fight for al-Bayda, an accusation that will likely resonate with the anti-Huthi/Saleh population in this area. This is ironic, because the U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia in bombing Huthi/Saleh forces. 

It is too early to determine what, if any, broader strategy the Trump administration has in Yemen. On counter-terrorism, it seems he will continue former President Barack Obama’s policy of relying heavily on drones and special operations. Yet drone attacks have shown limited effectiveness and a propensity to backfire politically when they cause high civilian casualties. Although they have dealt repeated blows to AQAP by killing key leaders and ideologues, they have failed to stop its rapid growth – in large part because the opportunities provided by the war outstrip its losses 

How serious is the threat posed by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda? 

AQAP is stronger than it has ever been. While Islamic State has dominated headlines in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, in Yemen, al-Qaeda has been the success story. Over the course of the country’s failed political transition and civil war, it has exploited state collapse, shifting alliances, a burgeoning war economy and growing sectarianism to expand its support base, challenge state authority and even govern territory at times. It has morphed into a local insurgency, attaching itself to a larger “Sunni” opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance and pursuing a strategy of gradualism by avoiding aggressively offending local norms and by working with local communities to improve services and swift provision of justice. AQAP is embedded in a war economy that spans the various political factions, including Huthi/Saleh fighters, and it has obtained new resources by raiding banks, controlling the port of Mukalla for over a year, looting army bases and indirectly obtaining weapons from the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that is supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Huthi/Saleh forces. 

Although AQAP has pursued a “Yemen first” strategy of addressing local grievances and blending into local conflicts, it continues to balance local and global objectives, calling for attacks, particularly “lone-wolf” attacks, against the West. There is debate about the degree to which the group poses a risk to the U.S., in particular, but a long-term threat remains.

Who are AQAP’s friends and enemies in Yemen? 

Yemen’s political elites have a long history of collaboration with and co-optation of Sunni jihadist groups, including AQAP. This creates obstacles to combating the group, as elites have the ability and sometimes an interest in using it for their own financial or political gain. On the other hand, given that AQAP and its local affiliate, AAS, are primarily Yemeni organisations with legitimate local grievances – lack of justice provision, services and jobs – there are opportunities to weaken its transnationally-focused leadership by addressing these domestic concerns. 

While virtually all Yemeni and regional belligerents claim AQAP and IS as their enemies, they have all contributed to their rise. The Huthi/Saleh front’s military push into predominantly Sunni areas has opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to insert themselves into a broader “Sunni” opposition. The Huthi/Saleh side has a counterproductive propensity to conflate a range of opponents, including southern separatists, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, AQAP, and Islamic State. For its part, the anti-Huthi bloc has operated on the principle of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, only turning on AQAP and IS once the Huthis are pushed out of territory. The Saudi-led coalition has focused on the Huthi/Saleh advance, which it views as part of Iranian expansionism, as priority number one, allowing AQAP to govern large territories for extended periods and reap the attendant financial benefits. In April 2016, coalition forces from the United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from Mukalla, for instance, but the group was not defeated and merely melted away into the hinterland. Meanwhile, it profits from continuing conflict, especially along the front lines. In short, AQAP is in the paradoxical position of being the enemy of all parties yet arguably the war’s biggest beneficiary. 

Last week, UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed briefed the Security Council and recommended an immediate ceasefire. How close are the parties to reaching any agreement to halt the fighting?

There is little chance of reaching a settlement at the moment, largely because the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government appear determined to secure military gains along the Red Sea coast before returning to meaningful talks. In October, the Huthi/Saleh alliance agreed to negotiate based on the terms of the “Kerry plan”, which combined security and political compromises allowing for Huthi/Saleh withdrawals from Sanaa, phased disarmament, and the formation of a national unity government in which they would be part. But it was unclear how far they would compromise on details of withdrawal and disarmament that are important to the Saudis and their allies. Ultimately, the intervention from then Secretary of State John Kerry proved too little, too late, as the Hadi government rejected the plan, an indication of its understanding that the Obama administration was a lame duck unable to press the Saudis toward a peace deal. Now efforts to restart negotiations are effectively dead. Although the UN remains an essential umbrella under which to negotiate a settlement, after three rounds of failed peace talks and numerous ceasefire attempts, it has lost credibility on all sides and is unlikely to revive meaningful negotiations absent a change in the main belligerents’ calculation as to what constitutes an acceptable compromise. 

If the prospects for bringing the war to a negotiated settlement remain distant, what can be done in the near term to limit the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups?

The most effective way to reverse AQAP’s gains is to address the conditions that made these possible, by ending the war through a durable, inclusive political settlement. As this is a distant prospect, there are several steps that could reduce the group’s influence. For states and groups operating in areas currently or previously under AQAP control, such as the Hadi government, affiliated militias and the United Arab Emirates, these measures include: prioritising basic security, service and justice provision, especially quick and transparent dispute resolution; disaggregating rather than conflating the wide range of Sunni Islamist groups; and using military and policing tools judiciously and in accordance with local norms and laws. For the U.S. and other governments interested in fighting AQAP, it means being willing to evaluate and constrain local and regional partners who may tolerate or even encourage AQAP/AAS for their own political or economic gain. It also means avoiding heavy-handed military action outside of a political strategy, such as the 29 January raid in al-Bayda, which is likely to aggravate rather than mitigate the problem. The Huthi/Saleh bloc could help by avoiding further military incursions into predominantly Sunni areas, which have inflamed sectarian tensions and fuelled AQAP and IS propaganda. All Yemeni and regional belligerents should refrain from labelling enemies in crude sectarian terms.