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The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
Militia men loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi loot the barracks of the Special Forces in the southern port city of Aden, on 19 March 2015. REUTERS/Yaser Hasan

Yemen at War

Yemen is now at war. Fuelled by Saudi-Iranian rivalry and a violent jihadi upsurge, fighting is fragmenting the country and could spread beyond if parties do not immediately de-escalate and – with the support of Gulf neighbours – return to negotiations on a compromised, power-sharing leadership.

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I. Overview

Yemen is at war. The country is now divided between the Huthi movement, which controls the north and is rapidly advancing south, and the anti-Huthi coalition backed by Western and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies that President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi is cobbling together. On 25 March, the Huthis captured a strategic military base north of the port city of Aden and took the defence minister hostage. That evening Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign, in coordination with nine other, mostly Arab states, to stop the Huthi advance and restore his government. Hadi left for Riyadh and will attend an Arab League summit on 28 March. No major party seems truly to want to halt what threatens to become a regional war. The slim chance to salvage a political process requires that regional actors immediately cease military action and help the domestic parties agree on a broadly acceptable president or presidential council. Only then can Yemenis return to the political negotiating table to address other outstanding issues.

The political transition, in trouble for some time, began to unravel in September 2014, when Huthi fighters captured Sanaa, toppling the widely unpopular transitional government. Neither President Hadi nor the Huthis (a predominantly Zaydi/Shiite group, also known as Ansar Allah) honoured the soon concluded peace deal. In January, conflict over a draft constitution led the Huthis to consolidate control in the capital, precipitating the 22 January resignation of the prime minister and president; the latter subsequently fled to Aden.

The Huthi-Hadi divide is the most explosive, but it is not the only conflict. Tensions are also unsettling the recent marriage of convenience between the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, after being deposed in 2011, has taken advantage of popular dissatisfaction and tacitly allied himself with the Huthis against their common enemies to stage a political comeback through his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and possibly his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Divisions in the south, which was an independent state prior to its 1990 union with the north, are rampant as well. Southern separatists are internally split and suspicious of Hadi, a southerner who supports continued unity with the north. Then there are al-Qaeda and a nascent Islamic State (IS) movement, both determined to fight the Huthis and take advantage of the state’s collapse to claim territory.

This combustible brew has overwhelmed the UN-led negotiations in Sanaa, a legacy of the 2011 GCC initiative and its implementation mechanisms. Initially, the political process was promising: it removed Saleh and facilitated a ten-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that reached constructive conclusions on the political future. But after three years, stakeholders have little confidence UN-sponsored talks alone will overcome the impasse or produce a lasting settlement.

GCC countries have lost faith as well and are increasingly committed to reversing Huthi gains at virtually any cost. Saudi Arabia considers the Huthis Iranian proxies, a stance that pushes them closer to Tehran. Throwing their weight behind Hadi, the Saudis moved their embassy to Aden and reportedly bankroll anti-Huthi tribal mobilisation in the central governorate of Marib and the south. They lead efforts to isolate the Huthis diplomatically, strangle them economically and, now, weaken them militarily. In turn, the Huthis denounce Hadi as illegitimate and offer $100,000 for his capture. They have conducted military exercises on the Saudi border and likely will harden their position in response to Saudi military intervention. They are less dependent on Tehran than Hadi and his allies are on Riyadh, but on today’s trajectory, their relative self-sufficiency will not last long. They are already soliciting Iranian financial and political support.

More than others, the GCC had the financial clout and historical ties with Yemeni stakeholders to incentivise compromise, but it ramped up pressure while pinching off the safety valve. In March, when Hadi asked Riyadh to host GCC-brokered talks, it accepted and set impossible preconditions for the Huthis: to recognise Hadi as president and withdraw all fighters from Sanaa. The Huthis and Saleh’s GPC, which the Saudis partially blame for Huthi advances, refuse to move talks from Sanaa, insisting that the UN continue its mediation there.

Egged on by regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, Yemenis may not be able to avoid a prolonged war. If they are to, the GCC should step back from the military path and harmonise diplomatic efforts with the UN, which still has a critical role in facilitating compromise. The UN Security Council ideally would condemn regional military involvement in Yemen and at a minimum should refrain from endorsing and promoting it.

The immediate priority should be a UN Security Council brokered and monitored ceasefire, followed by UN-led peace talks with GCC backing, without preconditions, focusing on the presidency and leaving other power-sharing topics until basic agreement is reached on a single president with one or multiple vice presidents or a presidential council. Agreement on the executive would enable further talk on other aspects of pre-election power sharing in the government and military, and on state structure, particularly the future of the south, where separatist sentiment is strong. Both have been core drivers of conflict since the NDC ended in January 2014.

Without minimum consensus within and beyond its borders, Yemen is headed for protracted violence on multiple fronts. This combination of proxy wars, sectarian violence, state collapse and militia rule has become sadly familiar in the region. Nobody is likely to win such a fight, which will only benefit those who prosper in the chaos of war, such as al-Qaeda and IS. But great human suffering would be certain. An alternative exists, but only if Yemenis and their neighbours choose it.

Sanaa/Brussels, 27 March 2015

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.