Yemen: A Neglected Crisis, Ten Years On
This year marks a decade since the uprising against then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1990 - 2012), which was driven by widespread discontent among Yemen’s youth, the disenfranchisement of groups such as the Houthis, and ambition by rival figures within the ruling elite. The failure of his successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (Hadi herein) to oversee a national political dialogue to restructure the state led to an armed takeover of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014 by Houthi rebels, prompting Saudi Arabia to form a military coalition on behalf of Hadi’s government. Yemen has since been consumed by years of devastating war, all the while the humanitarian crisis has continued to deteriorate with millions suffering from preventable starvation, a lack of medical services, water pollution and scarcity, poor sanitation, wide-spread disease, and alarming rates of gender-based violence. Despite these horrors of the conflict however, Yemen continues to be sidelined in international headlines.
So what is the current state of Yemen in 2022?
According to the Yemen Data Project the month of January represented the most violent month in terms of civilian casualties in Yemen since 2016 owing to Saudi-led airstrikes that killed almost one civilian every hour. However, fighting in Yemen had largely reached a stalemate at this time. While there were some small frontline movements in the areas of Hajja and Marib, the conflict had essentially reverted back to the status quo with the Houthis and allied forces controlling much of the north, “while the rest of the country remained divided into ministates”, according to The Brookings Institution.
Then on 7 April 2022 the internationally recognised President Hadi made a surprising and decisive move to both fire his wildly unpopular Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and effectively hand over his own presidential powers to an eight-person Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which is supported by a 50-member consultative council filled with leaders of differing anti-Houthi factions. The formation of the PLC led some observers to be cautiously optimistic that increased cooperation among the anti-Houthi factions could improve the prospects for peace, especially because these developments came just five days after a UN-negotiated two-month truce was established on 2 April. The UN-brokered truce was agreed to by Houthi rebels on one side and the former Hadi government along with the Saudi-led coalition on the other, representing another tentative step that could see a lasting ceasefire in Yemen’s near-future.
But of course, despite the optimism the UN-brokered ceasefire has generated and the seeming alignment of interests between different major warring parties within the PLC, significant challenges remain: will the current UN-brokered truce hold? Can it be translated to a permanent ceasefire? How effective will the PLC be given the competing agendas and motivations of its members? And where does this leave the independence demands of the UAE-backed Southern Separtist Council (STC)?
Helen Lackner, an erudite scholar on Yemeni affairs, takes The Red Line through the major warring parties in Yemen’s conflict and their respective aims which are critical to understanding what lies ahead for Yemen - the neglected crisis in the Arabian peninsula.
The United Nations (UN)
Hans Grundberg was appointed the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen in August 2021, and has since launched a vigorous new push for peace that stands in stark contrast to his predecessor. According to Lackner, in Grundberg’s first two months as UN Special Envoy he travelled to “places previous Special Envoys have never gone before” and opened dialogue with military leaders who were previously excluded from the UN negotiating process. Grundberg’s approach to the Yemen conflict goes beyond the obsolete UN Resolution 2216 established in 2015 which has been widely criticised for only permitting engagement between the former Hadi government and Houthi-led forces in peace talks - despite there being a multiplicity of groups in Yemen each with their own respective grievances. Thus, Grundenburg’s engagement with various Yemeni factions has renewed the possibility of progressing the current truce to a permanent ceasefire or political settlement. That said, there was of course a rationale behind the previous decision to exclude these parties from negotiations, and bringing them in will make it a more complex process, with many warring parties still clinging to rigid and incompatible preconditions, making any peace talks lengthy and fraught with challenges.
The Houthis have rejected all Saudi attempts to reach a face-saving ceasefire since the onset of the internationalisation of the conflict. From the Houthis perspective, they collectively seek an end to what they describe as a siege on Hudaydah port and to overall Saudi-led aggression. From the UN’s perspective, the Houthis must acknowledge that the conflict also involves other warring parties on the ground, and any truce, peace or ceasefire talks must involve them as well.
Since 2019 the Houthis have amassed immense territorial gains and political acquiescence, resulting in their control of territory that is home to nearly 80% of the Yemeni population. They have also intensified the frequency of attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the same period, thanks in part to Iranian support. They’ve likewise increased their offensive maritime capabilities, with some experts estimating they’ve scattered “some hundreds'' of sea mines in the Red and Arabian Seas, creating threats for maritime vessels and port facilities in the region.
But what exactly is behind their recent agreement to the current UN-brokered truce, considering attempts to reach such an agreement have failed repeatedly since 2016?
"From the Houthis perspective, they collectively seek an end to what they describe as a siege on Hudaydah port and to overall Saudi-led aggression."
According to International Crisis Group expert Peter Salisbury, the Houthis have been stymied in their efforts to seize control of the strategically significant Marib, while at the same time are grappling with a dire economic crisis that has hampered their ability to procure the fuel shipments needed for their offensive operations. From this perspective, the Houthi agreement to the UN-brokered truce has been viewed as merely a refuelling opportunity. Lackner’s perspective on the other hand assesses that the Houthis are cognisant of the fact that they cannot rule all of Yemen, and as such are likely seeking a deal that leaves them in charge of areas they presently control, which are mainly in the north-western parts of the country.
The Houthi fighting forces are also extremely fatigued and have experienced extensive losses with nearly 15,000 Houthi fighters reportedly killed from mid-June to November 2021 in Marib city alone. Lackner states this is another likely impetus behind their agreement to the UN-brokered truce, but at the same time the Houthis have rejected the formation of the PLC because the “present and future of the country should be decided from inside Yemen.” Therefore, gaining legitimacy with the Houthis in facilitating peace talks will be a difficult task for the PLC.
Iran has provided support to the Houthis via the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which has played a part in the failure to negotiate thus far, as Iran remains motivated by competition with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, with Iran currently preoccupied with negotiations for a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “JCPOA”) with the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US; plus Germany), this could see a lessened focus on Yemen, or indeed see a negotiation in Yemen as part of a grand bargain with Iran.
That said, Lackner cautions against overestimating Tehran’s role in the conflict. While they have provided limited financial support and some military technology to the Houthis, they are not controlling them from afar, and the Houthis could well continue fighting and rejecting negotiations even if their backing from Tehran is withdrawn.
Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Yemeni president up until April 2022, saw time and corruption erode his legitimacy over the past several years, particularly as he continued to cling to the obsolete UN Resolution 2216 which formally recognised his presidency, despite the fact his term ended years ago and he lost the tangible ability to exert influence or leadership on the ground. He also inhibited any progression of a truce, ceasefire or peace talks in the country by sticking to rigid preconditions such as requiring Houthi forces to retreat prior to the 2014 status quo. This completely disregards the Houthis mass territorial and political gains over the last eight years - in particular since 2019, which the Houthis would almost certainly not relinquish. Thus, his transfer of power to the PLC has kindled cautious hope among many that we may have reached a turning point for peace in Yemen if new, more pragmatic leadership emerges within the PLC.
Saudi Arabia’s original intervention in Yemen in 2015, which internationalised the conflict, has certainly made the conflict more difficult to resolve. Lackner states however that Riyadh is now seeking an exit strategy owing to rising economic pressure at home and a stalemate in its fight against the Houthis. As such, Riyadh recently withdrew forces and equipment from Aden but it still has specific requirements for a full withdrawal without loss of face, and these could stand in the way of a resolution.
In addition, Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire on 30 March ahead of the holy month of Ramadan and its hosting of peace talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members from 29 March until 07 April without Houthi presence completely encapsulates the Saudis’ misguided approach toward its own exit strategy. In Mohammed Ali al-Houthis own words, “Riyadh is a party in the war, not a mediator.” If the negotiations were moved to a more neutral country such as Kuwait or Oman - both of which have attempted to mediate in the past - with Houthi participation, reaching a lasting ceasefire would have been more likely. It is without doubt that the peace talks held in Riyadh proved to be virtually meaningless, first and foremost because of the absence of one of the primary participants in the conflict.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE)
The UAE, which had exercised significant influence across the south as a key member of the Saudi-led coalition, largely removed itself from the Yemen war in 2019. However, Abu Dhabi reactivated its involvement by transitioning to a more “indirect” approach by propping up various groups inside Yemen according to Lackner. The UAEs support of various groups in Yemen is by far the most complicating factor to current negotiations.
"It is without doubt that the peace talks held in Riyadh proved to be virtually meaningless, first and foremost because of the absence of one of the primary participants in the conflict."
UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC)
The STC was formed in 2017 to demand the secession of Yemen’s south from the north, reflecting long-harboured resentment over the civil war in 1994 which the north resoundingly won. Trying to convince the STC to let go of its long-standing ambitions of forming an independent state will therefore not be easy, and sidelining their grievances or denying their representation during any negotiation is a non-starter. The STC are extensively backed by the UAE which has afforded the group the ability to undermine Yemen's governance capacity across much of the Aden, Lahaj, Dhala and Abyan governorates. According to Lackner, the STC remains determined to achieve both its own and Emirati aims in future talks that would likely result in Yemen’s fragmentation as a unified state.
Other UAE-backed forces: al-Amaliqa forces and Tariq Saleh
The UAE also supports both the diverse al-Amaliqa forces (also known as the Giant Brigades) in Abyan, some of which are fierce rivals with the STC, according to Lackner, as well as Tariq Saleh, whose forces are among the main military actors on the Red Sea coast. Tariq Saleh is the nephew of the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and he defected from the Houthi side in 2017 when the Houthis killed his uncle. Tariq’s ‘National Resistance Forces’ have since received backing by both the Emirates and the Saudi-led coalition. These groupings have a similar impact to the STC in undermining Yemen's central governance and they too will complicate peace talks.
For more on what the UAE seeks to gain from this war and why they have maintained strong links with the STC and other proxies, listen to Episode 46 of The Red Line Podcast.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
A lack of centralised power in Yemen ultimately left a political and security vacuum which provided an attractive operating environment for militants. Owing to cooperation with local Sunni tribes against the Houthis has enabled AQAP to operate in parts of the south and east of Yemen and has - at various intervals since 2022 - controlled significant amounts of territory. AQAP aims to undermine the Yemeni government while fighting the Houthis at the same time, and also maintains the intent of attacking western interests inside Yemen as well as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. AQAP have already rejected the formation of the PLC as they will have much to lose from any settlement negotiated by the council and the Houthi forces.
The Islamic State (IS) similarly enjoys control over small areas of Yemeni territory resulting from the erosion of central authority in the country. IS’s primary objectives are to undermine Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy and intensify sectarian divides in the country, while seeking to gain advantage over AQAP. IS typically operates alongside other anti-Houthi militias and likewise has the capacity to forestall talks.
Are there real prospects for peace in Yemen?
Since the start of the UN-brokered two month truce, there have been no confirmed reports of cross border attacks from Yemen or Saudi Arabia, marking a significant de-escalation in the war since 2015, according to Grundberg. Fuel shipments have also been allowed entry into the port of Hudaydah and aid has been able to reach at least 12,000 people in one district of Yemen’s poorest regions in Hajjah province. Considering access to or denial of aid has been used by all sides of the conflict as a form of economic warfare that has directly or indirectly caused the death of almost 400,000 civilians, the partial fulfilments of the terms of the ceasefire are undoubtedly significant.
However, these are marginally positive developments considering the other terms of this fragile truce, such as the opening of roads to and from besieged Taiz, and a resumption of commercial flights in and out of Sanaa, neither of which have been met yet. Indeed the first commercial flight scheduled to fly out of Sanaa after a six year hiatus was indefinitely postponed on Sunday the 24th of April. In the meantime Houthi fighting has resumed on the front lines of Taiz, Hudaydah, Marib, Hajjah, Al-Jouf and Al-Dhale provinces, representing another setback of the UN-brokered truce. This is unfortunately not a surprising development given the Houthis main objective is to end Saudi involvement in the war, while continuing to pursue the defeat of local rivals on the ground. Should Saudi Arabia also violate the truce by resuming airstrikes in Yemen, or continue their blockade on Hudaydah port and Sanaa airport, it is likely the Houthis will return to cross border attacks on Saudi and Emirati critical infrastructure. This would mark a stage for new escalation in the war, pushing the already fragile prospects for peace further out of reach.
In addition, with the PLC officially taking office earlier this week on Tuesday 19 April in an effort to negotiate a political solution with the Houthis that would ideally lead to security and stability for all Yemenis, Lackner states that a huge amount of work remains to be done within the PLC itself. For instance deep-seated mistrust within different factions of the anti-Houthi bloc, their internal differences over regional representation, political ideology and tribal divisions will be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Likewise, the long-standing secessionist demands of the UAE-backed STC also beg the question of whether Yemen will remain as one unified state or be divided into two or more sovereign entities.
The complexity of this conflict evidently makes current and future peace negotiations rife with challenges, all the while civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence and of the world’s indifference.
It’s now been reported that a child in Yemen dies every 75 seconds from preventable starvation. As such, the UN requested at least USD $484.4 million from donors to respond to Yemen’s dire hunger crisis to prevent a further 19 million people from suffering starvation in the latter end of 2022. However, the UN only received a total of USD $56.2 million, leaving a funding gap of 88%. This is a marked widening of the funding gap from last year when the UN received less than half of the assistance it requested. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have historically been among the main donors to Yemen’s relief efforts - also ironically the largest contributors to the war - but they have not pledged funds for the aid program this year. Pledges by other donors such as the EU and the international community at large have also proven to be woefully inefficient in addressing the humanitarian crisis in the country. And as Lackner points out, fundamental issues revolving around corruption, the misappropriation of funds within the international agencies themselves, and profiteers from the war economy also stand in the way of meaningfully addressing the humanitarian needs of Yemeni civilians.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yemen’s food crisis is set to become even more catastrophic as the country imports a large percentage of wheat, vegetable oil and some medicines from both countries. Events in Ukraine have shown the capability of the international community to quickly mobilise in times of crisis. For many in Yemen, who have endured what is widely understood as the worst humanitarian crisis for almost a decade, it remains to be seen if they will continue to be in the shadows of international attention.
Written by Daniela Žuvela
Edited by Owen Swift and Wade McCagh