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Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?

Yemen’s Houthi Takeover

Originally published in Middle East Institute

Once touted as a relative success story among Arab uprisings, the internationally backed transition process in Yemen has unravelled in the wake of the September 21 Houthi takeover of Sana. Nominally there is still a political process in place, but events on the ground are moving in a different direction and the country appears poised for yet another round of upheaval, possibly more transformative than the events of 2011.

In the north, the balance of power has tipped sharply in favor of the Houthis, a predominantly Zaydi-Shi‘i movement that took control of the capital in September and has since consolidated and expanded southward and along the Red Sea coast. Supporters of the movement see the Houthis as correcting the wrongs of the country’s 2011 transition agreement, which preserved the power and corruption of old regime elites. They praise the movement’s willingness to confront corruption, combat al-Qa‘ida, and fill a security vacuum left by a feckless government.

Opponents see things differently. They view the Houthis as an Iranian-backed militia and accuse them of aligning with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a marriage of convenience to gain power. They are convinced that the Houthis harbor a discriminatory agenda aimed at preserving the political dominance of the northern, Zaydi highlands and, more specifically, of reviving the privileged political status of Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled north Yemen for over a millennia before the republican revolution of 1962.

Undoubtedly, the Houthis have shaken a moribund transition process and opened new opportunities to upend the corrupt political economy. But they are also polarizing politics and compounding political and economic challenges. Saudi Arabia increasingly views them as Iranian proxies and has reportedly suspended the bulk of its financial assistance to Yemen. Support from the Kingdom has kept the country’s economy afloat to the tune of at least $4 billion since 2012. If they do pull the plug, it will almost certainly increase hardship for average Yemenis, undermine the new technocratic government formed in November, and raise the prospect of fiscal collapse in early 2015.

Inside the country, the Houthi takeover is galvanizing calls for southern independence. Separatists argue that recent events are further evidence that they cannot tie their political future to the north. They are betting that Saudi Arabia will eventually change its stance on unity and support their independence bid as a bulwark to a Houthi-dominated north. Most worrisome, by taking the lead in the fight against al-Qa‘ida, the Houthis are opening the door to a sectarian conflict that the country has never experienced. Yemen does not have a history of Shi‘i-Sunni violence—Zaydis, Shi‘i Muslims who form the majority in the far north, and Shafais, Sunnis who are the majority in the rest of the country, are close in religious practice and have lived relatively peacefully for centuries. Al-Qa‘ida, however, is explicitly framing the battle in sectarian terms and is using it as a recruitment tool. This dynamic is overlapping with historically grounded political tensions between the Zaydi highlands and the Shafai south in ways that could open new conflict dynamics.   

The political and economic situation is increasingly grim, but Yemen’s post-Saleh transition has been in trouble for some time. The November 2011 Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Initiative and UN-backed implementation mechanisms removed the long-time autocrat from power and temporarily avoided a civil war, but they failed to resolve intra-elite rivalries or to fundamentally change the corrupt political economy in which these fights are played out. Instead, over the course of three years, a shuffled deck of old regime elites belatedly ticked off a transition to-do list and fought over state spoils, while economic and security conditions for average Yemenis deteriorated, giving way to frustration with the political process and those leading it.

For a time, widespread conflict was held at bay by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a ten-month negotiation intended to lay the groundwork for a new constitution. The NDC succeeded in bringing together diverse political stakeholders and producing a set of principles for building a democratic, federal state. Yet results were often vague and the conference failed to produce a clear consensus on pre-election power sharing arrangements or on the contentious issue of state structure, particularly the future of the south, where the desire for independence is widespread and growing.

The conference ended in January 2014, but six months later core political agreements, such as the formation of a more inclusive and capable government, remained unmet. Worse still, a poorly-timed decision by the government to lift fuel subsidies in July proved too much for the system to bear. The Houthis took quick advantage of the national discord, organizing demonstrations demanding a reinstatement of subsidies, a new government, and a swift implementation of NDC agreements. Their demands resonated widely and far beyond their core support base.

Even before protests came to Sana, the Houthis had been gaining strength. They succeeded in attenuating the power of their political rivals in the far north through a series of battles in which they aligned with disgruntled tribesmen and Saleh loyalists against common enemies, including Salafis, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, the Ahmar family, and General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, a powerful commander under Saleh who defected during the 2011 uprising.

A similar dynamic played out in the capital. As peaceful protests degenerated into battles between the Houthis and fighters loyal to their arch rival, Ali Mohsin, large parts of the security forces, many with connections to Saleh, sided with or at least refused to fight the Houthis. When President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi declined to issue public orders for the military to oppose Houthi advances, thousands of Sunni militiamen affiliated with Islah chose not to enter the fray. The result was a swift Houthi victory and a virtual surrendering of the city, the implications of which are still unfolding.

In the shadow of the takeover, all parties signed the UN-brokered September 21 Peace and National Power Sharing Agreement (PNPA). On paper, the agreement is positive and long overdue. Already it has produced a new, inclusive technocratic government. It also outlines steps for addressing far-reaching economic and military-security sector reforms, to include anti-corruption measures and disarmament. Theoretically, it reopens the unresolved issue of state structure, particularly the number of federal regions.

But the agreement may be too little, too late. Confidence in and commitment to the existing political process is at a new low. The Houthis claim commitment to the PNPA, but they have little incentive to implement steps like disarmament that would impinge upon their growing power. Already they have broken the spirit of the deal by tightening their grip in Sana and expanding territorial control, ostensibly to fight al-Qa‘ida and to provide security and stop corruption until the government can carry out its responsibilities. As of December, they are the dominant authority in no less than nine of the country’s 21 governorates, with representatives in ministries and other state institutions overseeing decision making. Most recently they have directly challenged Hadi and the authority of the new government by, among other things, rejecting the president’s appointment of a new army chief of staff, storming the central bank, and ousting the director of the country’s second largest port, Hodeidah.

The two main political parties are also less than committed. Following the November 7 UNSC sanctions against Saleh for his alleged role in the Houthi takeover, his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), is now openly hostile to the president, the UN Special Envoy Jamal bin Omar, and the newly appointed transition government. Saleh’s supporters have voted to remove Hadi from the party’s leadership and they appear to be betting on government failure, possibly waiting on an opportunity to step into the political void. The other major political party, Islah, has no confidence that the Houthis will honour the PNPA and they feel betrayed by Hadi for failing to use the military to stop Houthi advances. The party is still in shock from Houthi gains, but they are far from defeated. As they recalibrate, members worry that some of their rank and file will turn to extremism, even al-Qa‘ida, to counter Houthi advances.  

In the south, calls for separation are louder than ever and what limited support existed for the NDC has largely dissipated. A minority of southern movement activists, a group seeking independence or greater autonomy for the south, are still open to the possibility of two-part (north-south) federalism, a position that the Houthis were supportive of during the dialogue. But the majority view recent events as an opportunity to galvanize domestic momentum and Gulf support for independence.  

In this context, reviving a realistic, locally supported political process will be far from easy and may not be possible. Much depends on the Houthis and how they interpret their strengths and weaknesses. They are the victors for now and have rapidly filled a void left by an inept government. But their dominance is as real as it is fragile, dependent on common enemies and frustration with the transition, rather than support for a specific political program. If they realize their limitations and embrace inclusiveness and compromise, especially with Islah and southern movement activists, they would significantly improve the prospects for peaceful reform. If they do not, they risk unleashing new rounds of conflict with regional and sectarian undertones.

Yemen’s political trajectory is also tied to decisions made in the Gulf. GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are in a unique position to exacerbate or mitigate growing tensions. Unfortunately for Yemen, Riyadh increasingly views events in Sana through the prism of its regional struggle with Iran, in which the Houthis are seen as Tehran’s proxies. Based on this understanding, Saudi may be tempted to financially pull the plug on the new government, leaving the Houthis and by extension Iran holding the bag. They may also pursue divide and rule tactics by supporting anti-Houthi proxies.

Both policies are likely to backfire, worsening security conditions in Yemen and, by extension, Saudi. If the Kingdom wants to support Yemen’s political process, it should provide the new government, which is not controlled by the Houthis, with the support it needs to rebuild confidence in the state and the political process. This may not work, but the alternative is worse. If the new government falters under economic collapse, this will almost certainly open the door to a renewed power struggle in the north and possibly a chaotic disintegration into multiple regions, not just north and south.

Alternatively, Saudi could help to calm growing tensions and to channel inter-communal competition back into a political process. It has the financial leverage to demand cooperation from the government and the Houthis for implementing key economic and security sector reforms, particularly the phased disarmament and integration of Houthis fighters in to the security services, in exchange for economic assistance and investment. Saudi Arabia and the GCC also have long-standing ties with key stakeholders in both the north and the south that could help reach the informal political consensus necessary to implement agreements, or, in the case of the south, come to a more durable solution. Unfortunately, the history of Saudi-Yemeni relations as well as recent dynamics bode poorly for this option.

Unlike other countries experiencing popular mobilization in 2011, Yemen has neither a full-fledged counter revolution nor civil war. Instead it is hanging somewhere in between. The Houthi takeover and accompanying power sharing agreement in some ways opens a new opportunity to implement reforms and to address outstanding issues, including state structure. But it has also produced a new set of domestic and regional obstacles that leave little room for optimism.
 

Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman witness the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, at the Saudi Royal Diwan. SPA/Riyadh and Mohamed Bin Zayed Twitter account

The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?

For the first time in years, a viable pathway to peace in Yemen is in view. But obstacles remain, chiefly the gaps between the conflict parties’ positions. 

The Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November, has averted a war within Yemen’s civil war, at least for the time being. The deal prevents a collapse of the fragile alliance of Yemeni forces that Saudi Arabia has supported since intervening in Yemen in March 2015 to prevent Huthi rebels from taking over the country. The question now is whether the agreement can act as a bridge to a nationwide political settlement or if it simply marks a pause before another round of violence. 

By signing, the two parties to the agreement – the internationally recognised government of Yemen, led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) – have ended a three-month standoff that threatened to split the anti-Huthi bloc. In August, simmering tensions between STC-aligned forces and the Hadi government boiled over following the killing of a senior STC military commander. The Huthis claimed the attack, but the STC suspected a government hand in the event and soon took Aden by force. The STC then attempted to consolidate control over all the territory of the former south Yemen, an independent state prior to 1990, with the goal of declaring self-rule. The government charged the UAE, the STC’s main backer and at the time the leading player in the Saudi-led coalition in the south, with supporting a coup, and launched a counteroffensive. With the Saudis’ Yemen campaign in peril, the kingdom’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khaled bin Salman, intervened, calling the STC and Hadi government first to Jeddah and later to Riyadh in the hope of reaching a compromise. 

The agreement calls for formation of a new, Aden-based, 24-member government comprising equal numbers of northern and southern ministers and for integration of STC-affiliated forces into national military and security structures as part of an initiative that will see fighters and heavy weapons removed from towns and cities across the south. In addition, it stipulates that the STC be included in government delegations to future UN-led talks with the Huthis over a political settlement to end the war. 

Diplomats and UN officials say they are hopeful that the agreement will clear a path to a national-level political settlement. For the time being, the deal halts government-STC fighting that would have strengthened the Huthis and delayed the prospect of national peace talks. It also makes prospective talks more inclusive, helping address a shortcoming of previous UN-led talks, which were built around an April 2015 Security Council resolution that frames the conflict as a two-sided war between the Huthis and the government and effectively demands that the Huthis surrender. The Hadi government may have international legitimacy, but it does not represent the full assortment of political and military forces that make up the anti-Huthi bloc, particularly the separatists, whose agenda the Hadi government rejects but who have a strong presence on the ground. 

The Riyadh Agreement places Saudi Arabia at the epicentre of Yemeni deal making. Khaled bin Salman will oversee its implementation and thus help shape the new government and security structures. The Saudis have also assumed coalition command in the south from the Emiratis, who have been withdrawing their forces from Yemen. Beyond the STC-Hadi talks, Saudi officials have reportedly been convening senior politicians from Yemen’s major parties in the hope of uniting anti-Huthi groups under one political umbrella. 

Meanwhile, in the north, discussions between the Huthis and Saudis over a de-escalation of cross-border attacks and front-line fighting have been inching along since September. If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation. The Saudis thus have a chance to bring the various channels of negotiation together into a national political process under UN auspices.

If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation.

The Riyadh Agreement, however, bears hallmarks of past intra-Yemeni deals that have failed. It is loosely worded, likely because vagueness was required to induce the rivals to sign it, and it leaves a number of questions around implementation unanswered. For example, the deal calls for both formation of a new government and a series of security sector reforms in Aden within 30 days of signing. The reforms include the formation of new mixed security forces, the removal of military units from the city and the transfer of heavy weapons to sites that the Saudis will oversee. But the deal does not specify in which order the parties are to take these steps. The Hadi government would prefer that the security track proceed first, as a prerequisite for movement on the political side; the STC would prefer it the other way around. Other outstanding issues include who will get the posts of defence and interior minister in the new-look government, with both being potential deal-breakers for the STC. 

Most importantly, neither side seems to have fully bought into the compromise to which they agreed on paper. A signing ceremony for the deal had been scheduled for 31 October, but it was postponed after fighting between STC and government forces in Abyan governorate, to the east of Aden. In common with past deals, delays and mutual recriminations can be expected once implementation begins. A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible. 

A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible.

A pivot to national political talks is by no means guaranteed, either. The Huthis say that talks with Riyadh are going well but that the Saudis are moving too slowly doing their part in de-escalation. They also report Saudi troop buildups along key front lines and worry that the Riyadh Agreement may presage a concerted military push against them. From their side, Hadi government officials say they are unsure what Riyadh plans after the deal, but concede that a reinvigorated campaign against the Huthis is an attractive option. In fact, part of the STC’s sales pitch for Saudi patronage – which its leaders believe they have now secured – was willingness to play a stepped-up role in or even lead the fight against the Huthis. 

In any case, lasting peace will not come easily to Yemen. The main parties to the conflict have barely changed their positions since the beginning of the war: the Hadi government wants the Huthis to hand back Sanaa and other areas they control. The Huthis demand a power-sharing arrangement that gives them significant weight in a unity government. The STC and its allies want to break away from Yemen altogether. The Saudis want the Huthis to sever ties to Iran, give up heavy weapons to the state security forces and guarantee border security. The gaps between these positions are not minor. Nonetheless, for the first time in years, a viable, albeit bumpy, pathway to peace is in view.