By Afro-Middle East Centre
The increasing tensions between forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi are a symptom of the differing interests both have maintained from the initial stages of Yemen’s current civil war. These are being manipulated by countries in the region, especially the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi seeks to influence the path and goals of the Saudi coalition.
The recent spat between Saleh and the Houthi originated from a 19 August speech by Abdel-Malek Houthi, in which he accused Saleh’s forces of playing a double game in the country by claiming to support the Houthi coalition while also negotiating with the Saudi coalition. This is especially since Saleh has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia. The speech reiterated Houthi grievances of not being proportionally represented in governance structures. Despite being jointly represented in the supreme political council, the Houthi are weary of not participating in local structures. Saleh’s 20 August response, accusing the Houthi of corruption and comparing the group to a militia, was also criticised as crossing a red line and seen as a declaration of war.
It was feared that these differences would erupt into violence at the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) on Thursday, 24 August, especially since thousands were expected to attend, and because the Houthi leadership criticised the gathering and deployed troops to prevent citizens from attending. Despite these measures, the celebration went ahead; Saleh vehemently criticised Houthi corruption, while also astutely expressing his opposition to the Saudi intervention.
Violent clashes were largely contained; however, Houthi combatants prevented citizens residing outside Sana'a from attending. The past week’s events have rendered the alliance’s survival tenuous, especially since the two have openly criticised each other.The killing on Saturday of Colonel Khaled al-Rida, deputy head of the GPC’s foreign relations committee, has worsened the antagonism, and it seems only a matter of time before the coalition falls apart.
The Houthis still require the support of Saleh’s well-equipped troops to contain the Saudi intervention, especially in Sana'a where they lack support, and will thus act to contain the situation. However, as Rida’s killing indicates, the popular resistance committees are difficult to control, and coordination between them and Saleh is limited. Rida’s assassination has given GPC officials the impression that it was deliberately allowed by the Houthis, leading to the GPC accusation that the Houthis are a ‘group that knows no morality or oaths’. It is, however, unlikely that the Houthi would have actively sought Rida’s death, thus running the risk of losing GPC support – which is crucial to maintain control over Sana’a. There is, clearly, a breakdown of communication between the allies, a factor that will be further weakened as the mistrust between them increases.
Saleh conversely will likely accept a deal, which would see him being incorporated into a new Yemeni government. This is in a context wherein the success of the celebration, which saw tens of thousands of Yemenis defy the Houthi ban, clearly indicates his enduring popularity, and wherein regional powers are seeking exit strategies.
This was predictable, especially since the coalition was formed to realise different objectives, and was thus more a marriage of convenience than a strategic pact. Saleh has sought to protect his influence following the November 2011 GCC agreement, which saw him forced to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. He thus coalesced with the Houthi to undermine Hadi’s administration. The Houthi conversely saw the GPC, specifically the powerful military units allied to the party, as critical in allowing the group to extend control over Aden and ward off Saudi intervention. Already in March 2015, the two groups clashed over control of the Raymat military base, and in February that year, Saleh criticised the Houthi decision dissolving the government. Saudi Arabia’s intensified aerial campaign since March 2015 forced the two groups together, and in November 2016 they formed a ‘national salvation government’ headed by Abdel Aziz Habtour. Notably, Saleh fought four wars against the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, creating an intractable trust deficit and calcifying Houthi paranoia over Saleh’s double game.
In recent months, mistrust between the two has also been influenced by the UAE’s attempt to court Saleh in line with its stance of backing strongmen to reverse the gains of the 2011 uprisings. In June, Abu Dhabi reportedly organised a meeting between Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, and Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and now advisor to the kingdom’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Further, leaked emails of the emirate’s Washington ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, show the UAE as envisaging a role for Saleh in a Yemeni peace agreement.
Moreover, in the south, the UAE has continued to finance and arm separatist forces in Aden, and Salafi anti-Islah forces in Taiz and Hadhramawt. Abu Dhabi perceives participatory Islamist parties like Islah as posing an existential threat to the regime. Further, in line with its attempt to consolidate control over the Bab al-Mandeb waterway, it has also begun constructing a base on the island of Socotra together with its bases in Berbera (Somaliland) and Assab (Eritrea).
These have severely weakened the Saudi coalition’s efforts to recapture Sana'a, and even parts of Taiz; Hadi has accused them of being an occupier and not a liberator. The battle lines have thus remained largely constant, despite two years of external intervention. The UAE had already halted frontline operations in June 2016 in line with its ambitions to empower proxy forces, while the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has expressed his desire to exit the two-year long expensive military adventure, which has cost kingdom between two and five hundred million dollars daily.
Friction has intensified, especially since the institution of a transitional council to govern areas in the South by the separatist southern Hirak movement in May 2017. It is thus difficult to envisage a unified Yemen; Hirak has consolidated control over Aden, while UAE-supported forces in Hadhramawt and Taiz will be difficult to dislodge, especially since it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi will sanction a partnership between them and Islah. It is also significant that prior to 1994, Yemen was two distinct countries with two different models of governance. Hirak and likeminded groups are greatly influenced by this, and by the fact that following unification power has been concentrated in the north.
Saudi forces have since been deployed to protect the presidential palace in Aden, as well as its air and naval ports, at Hadi’s request. This indicates that the differing Saudi and Emirati interests in the conflict may be intensifying. Further, a pro-Hadi parliamentary delegation met senior Saudi officials, including Mohammed Bin Salman – the individual responsible for initially sanctioning the Saudi intervention – in the past week, prior to the Saudi troop deployment. It is significant that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Yemen’s current vice president, is close to both Islah and elements within the Saudi regime. This militates against Riyadh being swayed by the UAE to combat Islah, a move that will inadvertently work against its interests, especially if it leads to the secession of the south.
While this ‘new’ fragmentation may see a reduction in the intensity of the Saudi coalition’s interference in the country, it will be replaced by more localised conflicts. This is especially since tribal differences have hardened, and because the conflict has engendered a situation, wherein provinces such as Hadhramawt and Marib now possess autonomy, which they are unlikely to relinquish. Further, the separatist Hirak and Houthi now possess more sophisticated arms. The foregoing will ensure that the country remains in conflict unless a solution that incorporates all the different actors is formulated. However, regional contestations over the roles of Iran, participatory Islamists and militants such as Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula have ensured that peace talks have remained elusive. This is especially since the fulfilment of UNSC Resolution 2216, which advocates a Houthi and Saleh arms surrender unrepresentative of the balance of forces, continues to be the basis for negotiations.
The UAE likely sees the current stalemate as a means of installing a client regime, and is positioning itself to maintain influence in both Aden and Sana'a, especially since secession would likely impede its ability to maintain its bases in Socotra. Further, both Saleh and Aidarus Al-Zubaidi (the former governor of Yemen and head of Hirak’s Southern Transitional Council) are strongmen who view Islah negatively. It is however questionable that Riyadh will alter its stance in favour of reincorporating Saleh, even though Mohammed bin Salman has expressed his desire to exit the Yemeni conflict. Riyadh still views Saleh and the parts of the GPC he controls as renegades, especially since the kingdom was influential in negotiating the November 2011 GCC agreement.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Although the United Arab Emirates recently announced that its troops would no longer be involved in Yemen’s civil war, the conflict in that hapless country endures. A ceasefire, which had held between April and August has crumpled, largely due to the collapse of the most recent round of peace talks in Kuwait City. Although calls have been made for a simultaneous, two-track, military and political approach, the plan recently mooted by US secretary of state John Kerry is mostly a rehash of the failed June Kuwait three-point plan, with minor adjustments.
Militarily, a balance of power has emerged. Progress for both parties, the Hadi coalition and that of the Houthis, has been slow and subject to reversals, resulting in worsening conditions for ordinary Yemenis. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions risk starvation; tens of thousands of refugees have fled the country. For a solution to be found that allows Yemen to emerge united, the nuances within the two blocs need to be considered and addressed in an inclusive manner, and the problem of spoilers will need to be dealt with.
Different actors, competing interests
Generally regarded as a conflict pitting Iranian-backed Houthis (or Ansarallah) against a Saudi-backed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi coalition, Yemen’s conflict is contested by a variety of actors with varying agendas. The Houthi coalition consists of its own fighters as well as military units – particularly from the republican guard – loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from office in November 2011 by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Most of Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and certain northern tribes also form part of the coalition. The agendas of these groups for Yemen’s future differ, and are sometimes contradictory; opposition to Saudi intervention seems to be the only uniting factor. There have even been clashes between groups within this coalition. For example, Houthi and Saleh fighters clashed in March 2015, prior to the Saudi intervention, for control of the Raymat military base near Sana'a. The GPC also opposed the Houthi decision to dissolve the government in February 2015. The Houthi are suspicious of the GPC, partly based on Saleh having fought six wars against them between 2004 and 2010; and many in the GPC oppose the Houthi religious fervour. But both were aggrieved at being marginalised from governance after the 2011 GCC initiative which saw Saleh transfer control to Hadi. The Houthis and GPC participated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) between March 2012 and January 2014, which was to chart a future for the country, but they realised that Hadi controlled the day-to-day running of the state, and that the process was stalling. Iran supports the Houthi-GPC coalition, more in terms of moral and political support, rather than military or financial assistance.
The Hadi alliance is even more disparate, including the southern secessionist Hirak movement, participatory Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, and former GPC officials such as Hadi and a group based in Riyadh. Some Salafis, especially from Taiz, and northern tribes – including the powerful Hashed tribe led by Hashim Al-Ahmar – are also in the coalition. The aims of these various groups are diametrically opposed: Hirak seeks the south’s secession, while Islah and Hadi want a unified Yemen. Hirak joined the coalition only because it regarded Houthi incursions into Aden in February 2014 as another attempt at Northern hegemony. Hirak’s members are mostly secular leftists, but a small pro-secessionist Salafi fringe is gradually emerging. Yemen was two separate political entities before 1990 when North and South Yemen reunited, leaving the northern elite dominant, causing tensions and engendering mistrust amongst southerners. A brief civil war between groups from north and south in 1994 paved the way for Sana'a to control Aden.
Formed in 1990, Islah (Reform party) includes tribal figures, businesspeople and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) chapter. It was initially close to the former Saleh regime, but that relationship grew tenuous and in 2001 it coalesced with other parties to form the Joint Multi Party coalition (JMP). It was one of the first groups to support the Yemeni uprising in 2011, and benefited from the 2012-2014 transitional period. Its role in the current conflict could allow it to consolidate the group within Yemeni institutional politics, and to develop enough of a relationship with Saudi Arabia that the latter might reverse its March 2014 decision labelling Islah a terrorist organisation. Islah also includes Salafis from Taiz and tribal elements from Mirab who seek to protect their regions from northern domination.
The Hadi alliance will probably fragment once a deal is reached that ends the fighting. Apart from their differing positions on southern secession, Hadi’s legitimacy is also tenuous, with the levers of power, especially in the south, now held by Hirak members.
A coalition of ten countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have politically, financially and militarily backed the Hadi bloc and is responsible for Hadi retaking Aden in August-September 2015. The coalition even deployed ground troops to support Hadi. Saudi Arabia exaggeratedly paints the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in a context where it is fearful of Iran’s new role in the region following the Iranian nuclear deal. Different states within the Saudi-led coalition back different factions within the Hadi alliance; Saudi Arabia funded and armed Islah and the Ahmars, while the UAE, which wants to destroy the MB, worked with Hirak and its military wing, the Southern Resistance. The UAE’s decision to no longer deploy ground troops in frontline positions was mainly because Aden and other southern areas are relatively secure, and because it wants to strengthen Hirak and allied groups. It will thus remain involved in the conflict, propping up forces to oppose a revival of the MB.
Roots of the conflict
Even before the 2011 uprisings, conflict seemed to be on Yemen’s horizon. Corruption, a concentration of power, and Saleh’s intention to transfer power to his son Ahmad had caused much disquiet, especially from Islah and influential members of the Hashed tribe. The uprisings gave these movements impetus, and by mid-2011 threatened to erupt as the influential General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar and his first brigade changed allegiances. Fearing this would lead to a long civil war, the GCC secured a transitional agreement that saw Saleh hand over power to his deputy (Hadi) in exchange for immunity from prosecution. A national dialogue process was to formulate a new, more inclusive constitution, and Hadi’s term in office was to expire in February 2014.
The process was, however, flawed from its inception. Hadi and Islah benefited most, and a government comprising of GPC and JMP members (fifty per cent each) was formed. Hadi commenced restructuring the military and Saleh allies were removed from key posts, including from the republican guard and airforce, and replaced with Hadi allies. No one was held accountable for the 2011 events, and Saleh was allowed to remain in Yemen and head the GPC. This indicated too many that only a select few were benefiting from the transition, and that violence was the only means to secure representation. The problem was compounded by the ineffectiveness of the NDC, which was not fully representative and was perceived to be a means of stalling. Two Houthis attending the dialogue were assassinated in 2013-14 and southerners refused to participate as secession was not up for discussion. Government revenue plummeted as tribes from Mirab, often supported by Saleh sympathisers, halted Yemen’s oil and liquefied natural gas production. Social services were non-existent and insecurity and lawlessness increased.
A survey in January 2013 reported that over fifty-five per cent of Yemenis felt the economy was deteriorating and around seventy per cent that job prospects were worsening; forty-two per cent thought corruption was increasing. Events came to a head in August 2014when the government raised fuel prices by more than even the IMF had demanded, increasing disillusionment and support for Houthis. In September that year Sana'a was taken over by forces loyal to the Houthi alliance with little resistance; and in February 2015 the Houthis dissolved parliament, replaced it with a presidential committee, and commenced moving on Aden under the guise of combating al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia and successfully lobbied for Gulf assistance to halt the Houthi advance, playing on Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran position. With the Iranian nuclear deal about to be concluded, and with Muhammad bin Salman appointed Saudi defence minister, the kingdom acted impulsively.
The current stage of the conflict was triggered in March 2015 when the Saudi coalition commenced airstrikes on forces in the Houthi alliance. Following the recapture of Aden by Hadi’s forces in September 2015, many, especially within the Saudi coalition, thought the civil war was reaching its end. However, the past year has illustrated that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force Houthi and Saleh forces from the north. Hadi’s forces have made gains in sum Northern provinces, recapturing most of oil rich Marib and Jawf, but this was largely due to the hundreds of Saudi coalition airstrikes, and most gains occurred December 2015 during a supposed ceasefire. Houthi forces have never felt welcome in southern provinces, but their entrenchment in the north, especially in Sa'dah and Sana’a, makes it unlikely that the population will revolt against it. Further, most of the forces loyal to Saleh are based in the north. The Saudi strikes also assisted in engendering closer ties between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, and they recently formed a combined Supreme Military Council to administer territory they control and to better coordinate their activities. With this scenario, it will be difficult for Hadi’s forces to take control of the north.
In the areas around Sana'a, both coalitions maintain control of strategic territory; the frontline has remained relatively constant since Hadi’s gains December 2015. Taiz too remains elusive; though controlled by Islah, the routes around it remain under Houthi control despite the Saudi bombardment. Even after the collapse of the ceasefire in August, there has been little territory changing hands.
The power vacuum and lack of governance resulting from the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, exacerbated by the civil war, has allowed the strengthening of AQAP, adding an additional dimension to the war. The group held the port city of Mukalla in oil-rich Hadramawt province for a year until UAE-backed southern forces forced it out in April 2016, allowing the USA to redeploy troops into Yemen. AQAP has consolidated control in other areas in Hadramawt, and in Shabwa and Abyan provinces in the east. It now controls around 900 square kilometres of territory, but has been the target of coalition airstrikes and US drone attacks in recent months, which in June 2015 had killed its then influential head Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Before this, it had largely been ignored by the Saudi coalition which perceived it as a lesser threat than the Houthis. Although AQAP has consolidated control over a number of areas in southern Yemen, it has not claimed responsibility for any major attack on western targets in the past year and a half, since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Its greater priority seems to be stemming the growth of the Islamic State Group (IS), which has struggled to gain a foothold in Yemen since the establishment of its Yemeni affiliate in 2014, and has been forced to resort to random bombings of Houthi and Hadi targets.
The rise of IS and re-emergence of AQAP has caused global powers to regard Yemen with increased importance. They are especially wary since the Bab-el-Mandeb (Mandeb Strait) is traversed by vessels carrying much of the world’s trade. The UN has thus sought to mediate. After two rounds of failed talks in Switzerland in June and December 2015, the two big alliances finally held three months of talks in Kuwait from mid-April. These too failed, with disagreement on sequencing and representation. The three-point Kuwait plan, which was to commence with the formation of a supreme military council consisting of military personnel not involved in the war, followed by the disarmament and withdrawal of Houthi forces from towns, and culminate in the formation of a government of national unity and holding of elections, was opposed by the Houthis. They oppose the proposal to disarm before the formation of a government of national unity. Kerry’s latest initiative proposes that disarmament and the formation of a unity government should occur simultaneously, but Hadi is unlikely to accept this, and the Houthis will insist on real institutional influence before disarmament. The mediation scenario is further complicated by the presence of Saleh, whose re-emergence is unlikely to be tolerated by Gulf countries and Hadi’s fighters, and whose allied troops are unlikely to agree to disarm. UNSC resolution 2216, the basis of the negotiations, has complicated matters further as it heavily favours the Hadi coalition, and does not represent the balance of power on the ground. For example, it requires disarmament from Houthi forces (and not from Hadi’s), despite their holding territory inhabited by around sixty per cent of the population.
Consequences, humanitarian impacts
The sixteen-month conflict is having dire consequences for the Yemeni population. Over 10 000 people, mostly civilians, have already been killed, and much of the country’s infrastructure is in ruins. Over eighty per cent of civilians (20 million) do not have access to medical assistance and 15 million are deprived of adequate water. Seven million people are severely food insecure, and around a million children risk death and stunted development as a result of severe malnutrition if the conflict continues. Significantly, Yemen imports over ninety per cent of its food requirements, and the coalition’s naval blockade has rendered such importation impossible, despite the formation of an inspection and verification committee.
Just thirty-two kilometres off the coast of Djibouti, the Yemen conflict is also having a dire impact on Horn of Africa states. Before the Saudi intervention, Yemen hosted over 250 000 registered Somali refugees and a million Ethiopian migrants seeking work in the Gulf. The conflict has reversed these patterns and thousands returned to their home countries while others remain trapped in Yemen. This has placed enormous sudden pressure to provide food and other services on already struggling states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, and it is feared that groups such as al-Shabab may use these migration patterns to replenish their capacity. Yemeni trade with Africa has also come to a halt. Remittances sent by African refugees in Yemen are decreasing, placing even more stress on the economies of Horn of Africa states.
Over half of the Saudi coalition, however, is composed of African states. Egypt, Sudan, Senegal and Mauritania have contributed troops to the coalition, and Morocco and Somalia have provided logistical and aerial support. Essentially, this African support is because of financial enticements and solidarity with the Saudis.
An inclusive solution, involving Yemeni actors, needs to be concluded as soon as possible in order to end the war and begin serious reconstruction of infrastructure and lives. The current perception, from the UN and policy makers, that the two blocs have clearly defined and unified agendas risks repeating the mistakes of the 2011 GCC initiative, which merely tried to include and incorporate Islah elements into the governing structure rather than assessing the differing interests of the many actors involved in the attempt to oust Saleh.Already some within the Hirak movement are calling for secession and Hadi, a southerner, has little to no influence over the situation on the ground. The Houthis are nominally open to a federal solution, while Islah and the GPC seek a unified Yemen. Tribes at the margins of the two alliances, such as those in Amran, Hadramawt and Mirab, have the potential to become spoilers if they feel excluded.
The larger conflict could be replaced by multiple smaller conflicts if inclusiveness, transparency and,most importantly, accountability are not enforced. Through the period of the war, small intra-northern and Southern tribal conflicts have re-emerged and been engendered. Further, unlike in the recent past, Hirak possesses arms and has sympathetic members governing southern provinces including Aden and Lahij. The Houthis too are unlikely to relinquish their weapons unless they are provided a real space in the country’s governance structures. Saleh’s supporters (especially from within the republican guard) would need to be incorporated into the newly emerging Yemeni military, but remain potential spoilers.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
By Afro-Middle East Centre
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The striking advances of Houthis in Yemen, having already taken de facto control of the capital Sana'a last month, has implications for Yemen as well as for the greater Middle East. Within Yemen, they signal the return to political prominence of the Zaidi-Shia, who had been marginalised since 1962, and a divergence from the federalist future that was being contemplated for the country by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Regionally, in addition to becoming part of the cold war confrontation between two hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthi gains also affect the manner in which al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) positions itself against its various enemies.