Why it won’t be easy to resolve Yemen’s many wars

A condensed version of this piece is also available on the Monkey Cage blog on the Washington Post

Yemen’s war has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. In September 2014, the Ansarallah (Houthi) movement allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize control over the capital city Sana’a and renegotiate Yemen’s fragile power-sharing agreement, and then several months later pursued President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi south to Aden. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a military intervention, ostensibly to restore Hadi to power. More than 1,000 days later, that war has settled into a brutal stalemate. Officially, the Houthis remain in control of Sana’a and much of the north, while the Saudi-UAE coalition controls much of the south. A comprehensive Saudi-UAE blockade and air campaign has caused incipient famine conditions, the spread of communicable diseases such as cholera and diphtheria, and a wave of internal displacement.

The war and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen has received relatively little analytical or scholarly attention compared to the conflicts elsewhere in the region, such as Syria and Iraq. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-UAE coalition tightly control access for journalists and researchers, making up-to-date, on the ground research difficult. Media coverage is dominated by propaganda, reinforcing prevailing narratives of either Iranian encroachment or Saudi adventurism. These conditions have not been conducive to sustained, rigorous, empirically and theoretically informed analysis of Yemen. How have political coalitions and movements adapted to more than two years of war and economic devastation? How does governance actually work under the Houthis, the coalition, and in other areas of the country? How has the intervention changed the prospects of the southern secessionist movement? What prospects exist for a political agreement which might end the war?

On November 10, the Project on Middle East Political Science convened a workshop on these questions with participants from Yemen, Europe, and the United States. The invited scholars and analysts all have longstanding research ties to the country, and most have been able to carry out very recent research inside the country. It is worth noting that assembling the workshop proved exceptionally challenging. The highly polarized political situation in Yemen extends to the analytical community, making publishing analysis a potential problem for Yemenis who live – or aspire to return – to Yemen. More directly, changing American travel regulations ultimately deterred numerous invited participants from attempting to reach Washington D.C., including several Yemeni scholars and several European scholars with deep experience in the region. While some participated via Skype, the loss of a number of critically important Yemeni and European scholars from the workshop tangibly represents the broader cost to academia of these travel restrictions.

Despite these obstacles, the workshop brought together a remarkable group of American, European, and Yemeni scholars. Their papers and workshop discussions offered insightful analysis into the central actors, alliances, and war dynamics, and how these are likely to shape whatever future agreement may arise in Yemen.

The most central point that emerges from all of the essays in this collection is that Yemen has fractured in ways that will make any negotiated settlement extraordinarily challenging and fragile. Once robust movements and alliances have been torn apart, tentative coalitions formed during the 2011 uprisings have disintegrated, and governance in its many forms has broken down. Reaching an end to the war will be difficult, and doing so will only be a first step in what promises to be a prodigiously difficult reconstruction. Grappling with this reality means moving beyond narratives dominated by regional politics and instead develop a more well-rounded understanding of local dynamics, actors, and interests. Given the scope of the man-made humanitarian crisis that has left so many millions of Yemenis acutely vulnerable, the need for such analysis cannot come soon enough.

International policy narratives tend to approach the war in Yemen through a binary lens of Iranian-backed Houthis and a Gulf-backed President Hadi. This binary is deeply and dangerously misleading. There are at least four axes around which events are simultaneously in motion. The first and most familiar of these is essentially a northern conflict, pitting forces aligned with former President Saleh and Ansar Allah (the Houthis) against a Saudi-backed coalition of forces loyal to displaced transitional president Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi. The United Nations-sponsored peace process, for example, has taken these factions as the primary participants in several rounds of (failed) negotiations, and most media reporting on Yemen discusses the war largely in these terms.

But there are also significant developments in South Yemen that have little to do with these northern alliances and, at times, seem to be following a logic of their own, such as the conflict between the secessionist Southern Transitional Council and President Hadi’s government. Both southern secessionist and pro-government forces also contend with a third axis, an increasingly active jihadist movement that is more (or less) aligned with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Southern forces, both in their fight against AQAP and increasingly in their confrontation of the Hadi government, have found support from the United Arab Emirates, which indicates that the fourth axis is a regional one, tied up in the fracturing politics of the Gulf Cooperation Council. None of these conflicts can be addressed in isolation of the others.

(1) The Houthi-Saleh Alliance

When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to leave office in November 2011, a controversial immunity provision enabled him to remain in the country. International sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States did not prevent him from retaining important financial and military resources, and he remained one of several important powerbrokers during the transitional process. His de facto alliance with his former adversaries, the Houthis, puzzled many observers, but was widely viewed in Yemen as a marriage of necessity, doomed to dissolve when circumstances changed.

Those changes came in early December, first with Saleh’s defection and soon thereafter, with his death. As April Alley ably demonstrates in her essay in this collection, the seeds of the Houthi-Saleh alliance’s disintegration were in place well before then. Following Saleh’s announced break with the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition of forces signified its realignment by offering air support for Saleh’s forces as they conducted five days of intense urban combat and house-to-house fighting. Both sides claimed victories, but as this collection goes to press, former President Saleh has been killed, the battle lines have changed only marginally, coalition airstrikes continue apace, and UN humanitarian agencies struggle to secure the ability of besieged civilians to leave their homes. As Alley’s essay argues, the Houthis were the militarily stronger faction in the Houthi-Saleh alliance, so while it is difficult to predict anything with certainty, it seems safe to conclude that Saleh’s death and the end of this alliance will, as Alley argues, “deepen and prolong Yemen’s regionalized civil war to the detriment of Yemen’s people and regional security.”

(2) The Southern Question

There are also powerful changes on the ground in the South, many of which are not fully reflected in policy discussions that focus predominantly on Sana’a or the disintegration of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. The Southern Movement, a broad grassroots coalition of actors dissatisfied with the Saleh regime’s asymmetric development policies and Northern political hegemony, has presented a significant challenge to Yemen’s leadership since 2007. Itself internally divided, the Southern Movement was large enough and coherent enough to create significant challenges for Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, but too fragmented to achieve many of its central objectives.

The war itself has paradoxically intensified both of these characteristics: the Houthis’ advance on Aden in 2015 and the need to organize against such “Northern” aggression galvanized Southern identify and forged some new alliances, while rival leadership circles developed in different areas of the South. The UAE decision to intervene directly in southern Yemen and work with the Hadi government to combat both Houthi and AQAP has further regionalized the war. For Yemenis in the North, the primary conflict has been between Houthi-Saleh forces and the Saudi-backed coalition. In the South, it has been more targeted against AQAP and in closer coordination with UAE ground troops. As Susanne Dahlgren illustrates in her contribution to this collection, the UAE’s unique role in the South accelerated the declaration of a Southern Transitional Council and the development of governing capacity as a prelude to secession. These “facts on the ground” complicate the notion that any kind of solution can be negotiated without the full participation of the South and challenge interpretations that treat the Coalition as a unitary actor. 

(3) The Role of Militants

The war has also had a transformative effect on the militant landscape in Yemen, though these effects, as with so much else, are also regionalized. Laurent Bonnefoy’s essay considers the impact of the war on the wider Salafi political field – its relationship to the Islah party, the formation of the new Rashad Union, responses to Houthi advances against Salafi institutions during the transitional period, and, more generally, the porous border between militant Salafis and more openly jihadi groups like AQAP in the South. Bonnefoy shows that Salafis can be mobilized to take up arms but that this is far more likely to occur when they perceive aggression along other dimensions of their identity (tribal, regional, etc.). Once mobilized to fight, however, he argues that Salafi militants have an ideological dimension that encourages them to take the fight northward, to Houthi-held territory. This is consistent with the themes of regionalism and diffusion in Elisabeth Kendall’s account of AQAP during the war, as it has moved from exercising direct governance in Hadramawt by speaking to Hadrami concerns and respecting Hadrami traditions toward more systematically integrating into communities throughout the South by positioning itself as “more indigenous” than the Islamic State. The relationship between local grievances, regional identities, and religio-political claims makes it difficult to paint militant Islamists with a single brush; the situation is further complicated by the UAE’s cooperation with many Salafi militias to combat both AQAP in the South and the Houthis around Taiz.

(4) Regional Politics

As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen argues, the war in Yemen is also part of a rapidly changing set of regional dynamics. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tied his personal fortunes to the outcome of this war, and Saudi Arabia has pushed consistently via the UN process to maintain the fiction that this is primarily a war aimed at reinstalling a legitimate Yemeni president. As he works to consolidate power at home, the war in Yemen has provided a useful – but very costly – means of galvanizing domestic support. At the same time, Qatar’s expulsion from the coalition last summer, Oman’s persistent neutrality, and the UAE’s quasi-independent policy in the South raise questions about the extent of Gulf coordination. Ulrichsen indicates that the UAE and KSA have acquired “different zones of responsibility that evolved into competing spheres of influence” in Yemen, raising uncertainty about their future role in a negotiated peace or post-war reconstruction phase. 

Looking Ahead to a Postwar Yemen

Should a negotiated end to this destructive war be achieved, it will mean that Yemenis are faced with the task of reconstructing political institutions, public infrastructure, and markets in the face of incalculable destruction. According to polling carried out by Marie-Christine Heinze and Hafez Albukhari , local communities have come to rely almost exclusively on local and self-organized forms of security provision, meaning that any single nationwide effort at security sector reform will need to contend with the weakened capacity and legitimacy of security services and decide whether or how to integrate these local security providers into the public system. Heinze and Albukhari as well as Marieke Transfeld indicate that many Yemenis have actually remained quite physically secure during the war – given the urban concentration of the war and the predominantly rural population, this makes some sense. These rural communities, however, are also cut off from most public infrastructure, as Transfeld’s analysis of the disruption of the education system illustrates.

Ala Qasem and Ala’a Jarban each argue that the effects of the war for Yemen’s youth have been enormously destructive. Denied an education and meaningful access to political processes, youth – who comprise close to 70 percent of Yemen’s population – are left with few options. Both raise the question of how to more meaningfully integrate youth in the peacebuilding and reconstruction process, a challenge that seems vital to any successful outcome. Silvana Toska’s essays considers some of the structural barriers to the success of the youth movement in Yemen in the run-up to the war and argues that overcoming these barriers will be essential to securing the “civil state” that activists value in any post-conflict future. Dana Moss points out that the Yemeni diaspora, like other diasporic groups, is theoretically well-positioned to be a powerful source of reconstruction assistance, but that internal divisions within that diaspora and the intense surveillance it experiences in the United States and Europe, especially, have made it logistically difficult to connect diaspora capital to communities in need.

The essays in the collection are not very optimistic about an inclusive or equitable peace process or reconstruction phase. In addition to addressing the myriad fractures and fissures that developed over the course nearly three years of war (and several years of disintegration before then), the country will have to contend with the effects of what Sheila Carapico describes as “de-development.” The targeted destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and the environmental damage wrought by the war – indeed, even the data-gathering capacity of the central government, a function essential to post-war development planning – lays ground for asymmetric patterns of dependent development in the post-war period. Comparing the targeted destruction with similar developments in Gaza and Iraq, Carapico anticipates the likelihood that Gulf investors will steer Yemen’s redevelopment in a way that will challenge the sovereignty and accountability of any future government.

This collection offers no clear path forward for policymakers. But it does draw on the depth of knowledge and detailed research conducted by an interdisciplinary group of scholars who have committed themselves to the study of Yemen and who doubtless hope that this research can help to inform policies that promote a peaceful resolution to this devastating war and an inclusive and sustainable process of rebuilding. 

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Marc Lynch, George Washington University, POMEPS Director


January 2017