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

- January 26, 2018
Houthi supporters walk past al-Saleh Mosque as they attend the funeral of Houthi fighters allegedly killed during recent clashes in Sanaa, Yemen, on Dec. 7. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFA/Shutterstock)

Yemen’s war has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. The preventable consequences of the war have been well documented, and the military conflict is now at a stalemate. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s announcement this week that he will step down as U.N. special envoy at the end of the month is yet another indication that the conflict has reached a stalemate. With an ultimatum from the separatist Southern Transitional Council, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi now faces challenges not only from the Houthi movement that controls Sanaa but also within his temporary capital, Aden. Amid diplomatic wrangling and military conflict, 2018 promises Yemeni civilians a sustained downward spiral.

While media coverage of the war and its effects has recently increased, developments in Yemen have received relatively little analytical or scholarly attention compared with conflicts elsewhere in the region, such as Syria and Iraq. Access for journalists and researchers is tightly controlled, 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 empirical and theoretical analysis of Yemen.

Therefore, on Nov. 10, the Project on Middle East Political Science convened a workshop with a diverse array of scholars and analysts with deep experience on the ground. That half a dozen European and Yemeni scholars initially planning to attend ultimately could not travel to Washington because of complications surrounding the Trump administration’s travel ban highlights the broader cost to academia of such restrictions. The workshop papers — published today in a new open-access POMEPS Studies collection — offer important insight into the central actors, alliances and war dynamics and show how Yemen has fractured in ways that will make any negotiated settlement extraordinarily challenging and fragile.

The binary lens of Iranian-backed Houthis and a Gulf-backed president is deeply and dangerously misleading. Instead, as evidence from the papers in the collection show, there are at least five axes around which events are simultaneously in motion:

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 and to retain important financial and military resources. His de facto alliance with former adversaries, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement, allowed the capture of Sanaa and expulsion of the Hadi government in 2014. That alliance came to a decisive end in December 2017 when Saleh’s call for an uprising against the Houthis failed and ended with his death.

As April Alley demonstrates, the Houthis were the militarily stronger faction in the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and Saleh’s General People’s Council party may not survive the death of its leader. Since Saleh’s death, the battle lines have changed only marginally, coalition airstrikes continue apace, and U.N. humanitarian agencies struggle to secure access to besieged civilians.

2. The Southern question

The focus on the battle in the North often distracts attention from the powerful changes on the ground in the South. The Southern Movement, a broad grass-roots coalition of actors dissatisfied with the Saleh regime’s development policies and Northern political hegemony, has presented a significant challenge to Yemen’s leadership since 2007. Internally diverse, the Southern Movement was large and coherent enough to create significant challenges for Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, but too divided to achieve many of its central objectives.

The war has intensified both of these characteristics. The Houthis’ 2015 advance on Aden and the need to organize against such “Northern” aggression galvanized Southern identity and reshaped calls for secession. At the same time, the war has encouraged the emergence of rival leadership circles in the South. As Susanne Dahlgren illustrates, the UAE’s unique role in the South has accelerated the declaration of a Southern Transitional Council and the development of governing capacity as a prelude to secession.

3. Jihadist militants and Islamists

The war has also transformed the militant landscape in Yemen. The relationship between local grievances, regional identities and religio-political claims makes it difficult to paint militant Islamists with a single brush. Elisabeth Kendall shows how AQAP sought local buy-in through community development projects, positioning itself as more indigenous than the Islamic State.

Laurent Bonnefoy demonstrates the impact of the war on the wider Salafi political field. The war has changed their relationship to the Islamist Islah party and with militant groups in the South. 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. Through the U.N. process, Saudi Arabia has pushed to maintain the fiction that this is primarily a war aimed at reinstalling a legitimate Yemeni president. 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 all raise questions about the extent of Gulf coordination. As Ulrichsen indicates, the UAE and Saudi Arabia 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 postwar reconstruction phase. 

(5) Yemeni society

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 Albukari, local communities have come to rely almost exclusively on local and self-organized forms of security provision. Marieke Transfeld’s research shows that many Yemenis have actually remained quite physically secure during the war, given the urban concentration of the war and the predominantly rural population. These rural communities, however, are also cut off from most public infrastructure and state services.

Ala Qasem and Ala’a Jarban each show the enormously destructive effects of the war for Yemen’s youth. Denied an education and meaningful access to political processes, youths — 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 youths in the peace-building and reconstruction process, a challenge that seems vital to any successful outcome.

The essays in the collection are not very optimistic about an inclusive or equitable peace process or reconstruction phase. Peter Salisbury shows how the political economy of war has become entrenched in ways which will defy easy adaptation. The country will have to contend with what Sheila Carapico describes as “de-development” through the targeted destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and environment.

In light of such challenges, the research in this POMEPS Studies collection 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 is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and serves on the executive board of the American Institute of Yemen Studies. She is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” (I.B. Tauris, 2013).