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Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
Yemen’s Houthi Takeover
The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?
The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?

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.

A woman walks in the old city of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. July 2019. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury.

The International Approach to the Yemen War: Time for a Change?

Originally published in Yemen Policy Center

The international community has mediated in the Yemen war since its outbreak. Although the efforts have yielded some results, none have resulted in a lasting de-escalation of violence or real progress toward political solutions. A new international approach could change that. 

In December 2018, Western and international policymakers demonstrated something that Yemenis had long suspected: when motivated by developments on the ground or at home, they can produce (some) diplomatic results, as the United States did by pressuring Saudi Arabia and by extension the internationally recognised government of Yemen into accepting the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement. The deal, which averted a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida, is the signature diplomatic success story to date in the ongoing Yemeni conflict that began in late 2014. For the warring parties and to Yemeni and international observers, however, the agreement also symbolises the limits of external mediation in resolving the conflict: international pressure forced the parties to endorse the deal, but not to implement it.

Almost two years on from the Stockholm Agreement, the fleeting opportunity it presented to end the civil war appears to have been squandered. Instead, a major escalation is currently under way. In addition, the international policy approach toward its resolution is “handcuffed” to a two-party framework that may no longer make sense and that thus far has done little to mitigate two of the core factors on the ground that continue to prevent a resolution to the conflict: Huthi empowerment and government fragmentation. To make diplomatic progress and to end the conflict, the overall approach to mediation may need to change. In particular, talks could be expanded to include more of the Yemeni parties, and international policymakers may need to coordinate more closely and establish a clear division of labour to ensure progress.

A Stalemated War

In September 2014, the Huthi movement, or as it prefers to be called, Ansar Allah, seized control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. By the following March, Yemen’s transitional president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had fled Sanaa to shelter in the southern port city of Aden. A Huthi offensive against Aden that month proved a step too far for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which at Hadi’s request launched a military intervention, on 26 March 2015. A month later, Riyadh made a successful push for UN Security Council Resolution 2216, ostensibly affirming Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate president and imposing an international arms embargo on the Huthis, which Saudi officials then used to justify the effective blockade of Huthi-controlled ports.

The vote on the resolution – 14-0, with Russia abstaining – reflected the Western powers’ general position on Yemen. They viewed Hadi as the legitimate leader and the Huthi takeover, which the Huthis call their “revolution,” as an Iran-backed coup. U.S. policymakers in particular had in addition felt the need to show their support for Saudi Arabia amid a very public debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.

The conflict descended instead into a quagmire necessitating a mediated solution based on a balanced compromise between the parties.

Negotiations over the nuclear deal, eventually signed in July 2015, had caused consternation and upset among some of the Gulf states, where officials believed it would provide Tehran with a pathway to normalised relations with the West without curbing its regional ambitions. Support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, in the form of intelligence sharing and arms supplies as well as political cover, was partly shaped by a desire to assuage Saudi fears. Resolution 2216 was one-sided, in effect demanding the complete Huthi surrender that Riyadh had sought and claimed it could achieve. The conflict descended instead into a quagmire necessitating a mediated solution based on a balanced compromise between the parties.

The fighting in Yemen stalemated by the end of 2015, after southern separatists pushed the Huthis out of the south and tribesmen forced them from the oil-rich Marib governorate to positions east of Sanaa. After several stalled efforts by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to convene talks in Switzerland, the Hadi government and the Huthis and their allies finally met in Kuwait in April 2016, the latter represented by movement members and General People’s Congress officials from Sanaa aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose quiet support had been instrumental in the Huthi takeover of the capital.

The negotiations produced the essence of an agreement that would have seen the Huthis and their allies hand over weapons and territory in exchange for a minority role in a new coalition government in Sanaa and dilution of Hadi’s power. The talks and a subsequent last-ditch effort at ending the war by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ultimately failed because of an unbridgeable gap between the Huthis and the Hadi government over the sequencing of political and security measures and the positions each side expected in transitional governance and in security and military arrangements. Nonetheless, along with Resolution 2216, the Kuwait agreement came to serve as a framework for subsequent UN-led mediation initiatives: two-party talks on ceasefire arrangements and interim security measures followed by the formation of an interim coalition government, with confidence-building measures interspersed along the way.

The Saudi Factor

After the Kuwait talks, a confluence of events transpired to challenge the UN framework. By late 2017, the conflict had deadlocked, resulting in the two main warring Yemeni parties turning their attention to their other adversaries, including temporary allies. The Hadi government and its allies entered into open conflict with UAE-backed separatists in the south and with UAE-aligned forces in Taiz after a rift between Hadi and the Emiratis over his government’s close relationship with Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party that the UAE considers a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it reviles.

Meanwhile in Sanaa, after months of growing tensions, the Huthis killed Saleh during fighting in December 2017, leaving them in sole control of the north. Later that month, the Huthis’ rivals – perceiving that the battles between the Huthis and Saleh loyalists had weakened the movement – launched offensives along almost all of the major front lines. The Huthis were able to quell most of the attacks, but by October 2018 they had lost considerable ground along the Red Sea coast to UAE-backed forces that had encircled Hodeida, threatening a vital economic and humanitarian lifeline to Huthi-controlled areas, where the majority of Yemenis live.

Mounting scrutiny of the humanitarian implications of a battle for Hodeida placed Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s successor, the British diplomat Martin Griffiths, under pressure to halt the fighting around the city. The push toward the Stockholm Agreement, however, was not entirely the result of UN diplomacy. Rather, the seeds of an agreement emerged unexpectedly in Istanbul from the October 2018 murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi by a group of Saudi security officials. Congressional outcry in the U.S. had already been mounting over the Saudis’ military conduct in Yemen, and it grew in the wake of the Khashoggi killing along with reports on the potential humanitarian fallout of a battle for Hodeida. Threats of Congressional action to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia prompted U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to make a last-minute call to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to ensure that the Yemeni government acquiesced to the Stockholm Agreement, announced on 13 December 2018.

External pressure had been enough to get the parties to reach an agreement, but not enough to force its implementation.

Even with such U.S. support, the agreement soon floundered. The Huthis and the government had radically different interpretations of the hastily constructed agreement, which the UN had hoped might act as a foundation for joint governance and power sharing, and struggled to find the common ground needed to implement a plan to demilitarize Hodeida and surrounding territory as agreed. The Huthis viewed the deal as sustaining their control over the port of Hodeida, while the government perceived it as restoring its rightful sovereignty over the area. Talks over prisoner exchanges and a truce in Taiz also became deadlocked. External pressure had been enough to get the parties to reach an agreement, but not enough to force its implementation.

Divisions in the Government Camp

Facts on the ground in Yemen have shifted further since 2018. In August 2019, the pro-independence, UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of Aden, the Hadi government’s temporary capital, giving the lie to the fiction of a united anti-Huthi bloc by exposing internal divisions among the Hadi government, rival anti-Huthi groups and the UAE. Saudi Arabia was forced by this turn of events to broker a deal itself, the December 2019 Riyadh Agreement, to prevent a civil war within a civil war between the Hadi government and the STC.

The Saudi-backed deal has faltered over time, in a manner similar to the Stockholm Agreement. Meanwhile, a brief thaw in late 2019 saw the Huthis halt cross-border missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reopen back-channel talks with Riyadh, leading to a lull in ground fighting, but fresh battles erupted in the north in January 2020, with the Huthis launching a new campaign for oil-rich and populous Marib, the government’s last stronghold in the north.

Citing the threat posed by COVID-19, since early 2020 Griffiths has sought to broker a nationwide ceasefire and bring the Huthis and the government back to the table for talks, but to little avail. The Huthis sense that victory is near in Marib while the government has baulked at the Huthis’ terms for a truce – reopening Sanaa airport, easing restrictions on imports to Hodeida and instituting a new joint mechanism to pay state salaries nationwide (the government says it does not object to any one of these measures in principle, but instead to the way they have been presented by the UN thus far). The Huthis’ confidence stems from the anti-Huthi groups’ collapsing unity and sinking morale and international policymakers’ increasing exasperation with the Hadi government.

A New Way Forward

Diplomats working on the Yemen file are vexed by the intransigence of the parties, frustrated by the Hadi government’s shrinking credibility and hindered by the lack of tools at their disposal to hurry them all along, the Huthis in particular, toward a political settlement. Whereas in 2018 military aggression could be tempered by Western appeals to UAE and Saudi policymakers, there is no easy way for diplomats to coerce or persuade the Huthis to halt their Marib campaign, other than the economic concessions that the government has thus far rejected. A mediated settlement in Yemen is not impossible, but ending the conflict may require a new approach.

Diplomats working on the Yemen file are vexed by the intransigence of the parties, frustrated by the Hadi government’s shrinking credibility and hindered by the lack of tools at their disposal to hurry them all along toward a political settlement.

Consensus is growing in some diplomatic circles that the accepted framework no longer reflects the realities on the ground and may not be able to end the war and build peace. The Huthi-Saleh alliance and the Hadi government were relatively evenly matched in 2016, but after the Huthis killed Saleh, they grew stronger, while Hadi could no longer claim to represent the majority of the anti-Huthi bloc.

Even if the Huthis and Hadi were to reach an agreement, it is not clear that the full range of armed and political groups that hold areas of Yemen outside of Huthi-controlled territory would support its implementation. Moreover, the Huthis would be the chief beneficiary from talks with an unevenly matched negotiating partner who enjoys little legitimacy among key groups on the ground. Diplomats, meanwhile, have all too often worked in silos and relied too heavily on U.S. pressure, the UN or Riyadh to establish contact with the Huthis and resolve such problems as infighting among anti-Huthi forces when collectively they could have had an impact. If the UN decided to shake things up, there are two things that could make a difference: expanded Yemeni participation and a new international contact group.

In an effort to make the Hadi government a more credible negotiating partner for the Huthis, Saudi Arabia had sought in the Riyadh Agreement to gather the anti-Huthi groups and local authorities under the government’s umbrella. That, too, has stalled. If more Yemeni parties with consequential constituencies, including political parties and civil society groups, were directly involved in talks, it could incentivise the Houthis and the government alike to start making deals with local foes and allies alike to improve their overall negotiating power. The Houthis would have to take more seriously the rival bloc that formed as a result of this process. The UN could also expand formal participation in ceasefire negotiations and political talks. Resolution 2216 allows for expanded formal participation, but political resistance by the Hadi government, the Huthis and Saudi Arabia has made this task virtually impossible for the UN envoy. Given this, the Security Council may have to act, making it clear that talks over ending the war should be more inclusive and creating space for Griffiths to undertake the new approach.

International efforts to end the war have also been too fragmented.

International efforts to end the war have also been too fragmented. If the UN envoy adopts a new approach, and indeed even if he does not, he could seek U.S. assistance in forming a new international contact group to support his effort. This forum should take a more proactive stance than the current P5 ambassadorial working group – comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S.) – which is hampered by caution, internal divisions, and lack of communication channels with the Houthis and other key Yemeni actors. The new group could consist of the P5, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (most importantly, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), and the European Union. The UN envoy’s office would chair the contact group, which could meet biweekly to coordinate action on the political, military and economic files. The group should establish a division of labour among its members to further the primary objective of determining steps to maximise the chances of inclusive UN-led negotiations succeeding in bringing an end to the Yemeni war.