Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The United Nations (UN) has called Yemen’s four-year-old war the worst humanitarian crisis in nearly a century, with 10 million on the brink of famine and nearly a quarter million at “catastrophic levels of food insecurity.” Despite a brief glimmer of hope following negotiations in December 2018, “millions of Yemenis are hungrier, sicker and more vulnerable now than they were a year ago.”[1] At every stage, the scale of suffering has been preventable, and yet pervasive misunderstandings—and some deliberate mischaracterizations—mean that the war has reached a deadly stalemate.

The war is conventionally understood as beginning in 2015 when Saudi Arabia launched air strikes to restore the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the capital after it was seized by the longstanding northern insurgent group known as the Houthis and their allies. But the conflict soon escalated into a more substantial war as a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—motivated to contain what they characterized as an Iranian-backed coup in Yemen—employed aerial bombardment, naval blockades and ground forces to push back the Houthi’s advance. With UN quiescence and US and European weapons, the war’s antagonists have had access to asymmetric military and diplomatic resources, yet it is clear that there is no military victory to be had in Yemen.

While the war indeed may be asymmetric, the conflict is not neatly two-sided, as the conventional framing suggests. Viewing the war through a sectarian lens (between Sunni and Shi‘i forces) or a regional lens (proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia/the Gulf and Iran) belies the complex interplay of actors and alliances on the ground. Those lenses also fundamentally underemphasize Yemenis’ pursuits of diverse outcomes. Neither the Saudi-Emirati coalition nor the opposition to Hadi are uniform blocs. The complexity of Yemen’s multi-faceted war is important to understand analytically in its own right, but also because that multi-faceted dynamic has ethical and political implications.

The tendency to reduce Yemeni politics to a few recognizable actors is not new, nor has it ever been politically neutral. Indeed, the US and GCC-backed transitional process that unfolded at the end of Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising made political choices about which groups to recognize and which to exclude. The real aim of that transitional framework was to build a government and a post-conflict process that empowered actors whose aims did not challenge regional Gulf interests or US counterterrorism objectives. In the process, excluded local groups and their grievances were ignored in ways that stymied the transition and paved the road to war by 2015.

In the context of this multisided and often simplified catastrophe, Americans and Europeans whose governments have supplied weapons and intelligence to the coalition and provided it with diplomatic cover in the UN are implicated in the war. Many of those citizens have begun to take actions to restrain their government’s contributions to the war. Yet the necessary work of curtailing weapons sales or pressing for accountable investigations into war crimes committed by all sides will not by itself be sufficient to produce a sustainable peace or to address the destruction caused by the war in a way that is just. A just peace will also require a commitment to a post-conflict process that reckons with the interests of diverse Yemeni and non-Yemeni stakeholders. That process must not reproduce the drivers of conflict by elevating the voices and interests of only the most recognizable and foreign-allied factions. Those committed to a just peace will need to turn a critical eye toward the region’s political economy as a whole, and its relationship to US economic and military policy more broadly.

Background to the War

The immediate roots of the war can be traced to the Arab uprisings of 2011, when millions took to the streets to demand the downfall of their autocratic and corrupt regimes. Yemenis participated in an 11-month uprising that forced longstanding President Ali Abdullah Salih to the negotiating table. Yemen’s wealthier and more politically stable (if also more repressive) neighbors, under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), brokered a negotiated exit for Salih that included three key provisions relevant to the current war.

The first provision granted Salih and his closest family and associates legal immunity, which sowed concerns among Yemenis because it meant that the ousted president could remain politically active in Yemen. More consequentially, the other provisions saw two significant groups excluded from the transitional power-sharing government: the Hirak, a collection of southern groups that had been seeking greater political and economic autonomy since 2007; and the Houthis in the North, a group known also as Ansar Allah that had been fighting the government for greater cultural autonomy and political accountability since 2004.

Excluded from any formal representation in the new transitional cabinet (following Hadi’s February 2012 election by uncontested referendum), the Hirak and the Houthis were each able to derail elements of the transition process, particularly during Yemen’s poorly designed and executed National Dialogue Conference (NDC).[2] Hadi then created ad hoc committees where real decision-making took place—without any participation from the Hirak, the Houthis or the voices of those independent women and youth who had been so crucial to the 2011 uprising’s success.

Western investment in this failed transition process doubtless stemmed in part from a reassessment of its ineffectual policies in Libya and Syria and the desire to contain any fallout from Yemen’s uprising. For the Gulf’s undemocratic monarchs, a genuine popular movement on their southwestern border was worrisome, and the GCC prioritized the concerns of foreign actors over the substantive demands of the millions of Yemenis who mobilized for change. Hadi’s transitional government also proved responsive to the interests of foreign actors.

The legacies of Salih’s long-standing policy of insecurity rent-seeking also stymied the transition. Salih had attracted foreign aid by amplifying the risk posed by militant groups, especially Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which allowed him to direct resources to his own political survival throughout the 2000s.[3] As he faced a steady string of internal challenges in the 2000s, Salih began to personalize the use of repressive force by putting most sectors of the armed forces and intelligence services under the control of family members.[4] After the uprising, the transitional leadership lacked the capacity to dismantle Salih’s personalization of the security sector. As a result, fragmented militias across the country absorbed much of that military equipment and personnel, enabling them to hold ground in the war to come.

After the unsatisfying conclusion of the NDC, the Houthis escalated their criticism of the central government and staged protests outside of their traditional areas of support. Capitalizing on this momentum, armed Houthi militants moved on Sanaa in September 2014. A substantial number of troops loyal to Salih stood down as Houthi forces entered the city, signaling the possible emergence of a Houthi-Salih alliance with the power to bring down Hadi’s faltering transitional government.

For a short time, a negotiated agreement offered the Houthis and Hirak a share of a new transitional cabinet and maintained a fragile peace, but the government was largely paralyzed. In January 2015, presidential appointees on the Constitutional Committee announced a draft constitution that included federal restructuring. The draft was unacceptable to both the Houthis and the Hirak, as it carved the country into regions that would undermine the local authority of both.[5] Houthis forced Hadi and many of his ministers to flee to Aden and began to push into the South. That move inflamed the southerners and pitted the Houthis against both the Hirak and supporters of Hadi’s government.

These developments in the South between the Houthis, the Hirak and Hadi’s government are crucial to understanding the war in Yemen, yet they fall outside conventional framing of the conflict. The Hirak’s opposition to the Houthi putsch did not equate to Hirak support for Hadi or his Saudi backers. Instead, southerners sought to retain their autonomy and viewed the Houthis as outside invaders. When Hirak groups later created a Southern Transitional Council (STC) to insure their autonomy, they sought aid from the Emiratis—not from the Saudis, who were pushing for Hadi’s government to control all of Yemen, including the South. Meanwhile, AQAP capitalized on the chaos to experiment with territorial governance in the Hadramawt region, an eastern-central valley that had been effectively ungoverned since the uprising. AQAP’s move drew the United States and the UAE into direct military conflict, but not the Saudis or Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi. This fragmentation and realignment of actors engaged in conflicts across Yemen shaped the dynamics of the next stage—the war itself.

Cascading Effects of War

On March 25, 2015 Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm, which many consider the formal beginning of the war. The massive air campaign was accompanied by the imposition of a naval and land blockade designed to restrict the ability of the Salih-Houthi coalition to receive external support. The blockade did not stop the flow of arms, nor did it prevent the Houthi capture of existing weapons (and weapons production facilities) inside Yemen. Beginning in August 2015, the Saudi forces began bombing civilian infrastructure to cripple the North by destroying economic productivity. Since 2017, the coalition has encircled the port of al-Hodeidah, the main conduit for food imports and humanitarian aid to much of the North.

Over four years of blockade, Yemen has developed a war economy through a system of black-market transit and taxation, providing a powerful source of revenue for border regions and the militias that operate their checkpoints. The economic collapse of the country was furthered by the deliberate weaponization of civil service salaries and the relocation of the central bank from Sanaa to Aden. Goods enter and circulate in Yemen, but profiteers grow rich as these goods move to (expensive) markets in urban areas. Given that Yemenis are predominantly rural, the urban concentration of expensive goods and the realities of a divided geography and war-torn infrastructure produced vast islands of suffering, from both violence and starvation.

The exact number of conflict-related fatalities is not known. A UN official offered a figure in August 2016 of more than 10,000, while the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project puts the death toll at more than 60,000 from January 2016 through December 2018. Some 37 percent of those killed in 2018 died in al-Hodeidah—an 820 percent increase in conflict-related fatalities from the previous year.[6]

Yemen’s war may be less lethal than that of Syria, but its worsening humanitarian catastrophe has touched every part of Yemen—and fully 80 percent of the population. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 24 of Yemen’s 29 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. Fewer than half of the already weak healthcare facilities are functioning in any capacity, and those that function lack adequate medicines, bandages and facilities for sterilization. Hundreds of thousands are ill as a direct result of poor sanitation and water-borne diseases.[7] As a result of destroyed sewage facilities, Yemenis have suffered from the worst cholera outbreak in decades with 1.2 million suspected cases. UNICEF reports that a Yemeni child dies every ten minutes from preventable causes.[8] More than 1 million pregnant women suffer from malnourishment.[9] The effects of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen will be intergenerational.

Human security is made worse by the growing number of Yemenis who are forced to flee their homes for safety, food or because their homes have been destroyed. At least 3.3 million are internally displaced, with as many as 1 million displaced from al-Hodeidah governorate alone in the past six months.[10] On January 26, 2019, eight were killed and at least 30 wounded as a result of the shelling of a center for displaced persons in Haradh district, Hajjah governorate.

The collapse of the economy caused by the war has made things worse. The Yemeni rial fluctuates between a half and a quarter of its former value. Some 35 percent of businesses have entirely closed, while 51 percent of the surviving firms have seen their business shrink significantly. Prices of food commodities are 73–178 percent higher than before the war; fuel costs have risen at an even higher rate.[11] Combined with the divided banking system and the crisis of cash liquidity, Yemenis desperate to feed themselves have sold all manner of possessions and borrowed sums from friends, relatives and local merchants. Some families are even marrying their daughters in their early teens or even younger, to settle debts, raise money for food and give the household one less mouth to feed. Many more are finding employment in the one growth area of the economy: fighting for military groups. The recruitment of children into the military increased by 25 percent in 2018, and women are joining militias for employment on all sides of the conflict.

When considered in their totality, the cascading effects of Yemen’s war extend well beyond battle deaths and are disproportionately borne by civilians and vulnerable populations most likely to be excluded from any political settlement.

The Politics of Multiple Wars

Foregrounding the needs and voices of Yemenis most affected by the war requires a reckoning with its political drivers and the multiplicity of its antagonists. Ideology, sect, tribe, region and political claims all intersect in ways that defy easy categorization; they are also imbricated in local, regional and global politics.

The conflict in the North is the most discussed: the Saudi-led coalition seeks to defeat the Houthis and restore to power what international actors—but not all Yemenis—view as the legitimate government of Hadi and his cabinet. Most of the fighters in the North are Yemeni, while most of the air strikes are foreign. Iran’s backing of the Houthis and the Saudis’ backing of Hadi lend the conflict a sense of Shi‘i-Sunni sectarianism. This dimension has become, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophesy fueled by war.

Despite growing sectarian polarization, the conflict in the North is more complicated than this binary suggests. The Saudi-led coalition is not entirely unified, with the North a primary concern for Saudi Arabia but not for its coalition partner, the Emiratis. The Saudis work comfortably with members of Yemen’s Islamist Islah, in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a powerful role and is aligned with many coalition-backed militias. The UAE, by contrast, has targeted members of Islah in the South, where Islah members have been detained and tortured, Islahi leaders assassinated and the organization’s assets seized or destroyed.

Northerners not involved in the fighting are divided in their allegiances: some support the Houthis, some hope for Saudi defeat of the Houthis and some disavow both—among other configurations. Nor are all northern or Zaydi tribes allied with the Houthis; as the war broke out, tribal leaders in the Khawlan region even sought to remain neutral. And Yemen’s Vice President Ali Muhsin, who was the longstanding commander of the First Armored Division of Yemen’s military before he abandoned Salih during the 2011 uprising, has close ties to many northern militias but cannot be counted as an uncomplicated Saudi ally.

In the South, meanwhile, the sometimes-fragmented Hirak groups oppose the Houthis but without supporting Hadi or his Saudi backers. The UAE has played a more direct military, political and economic role in the South than its Saudi counterparts have in the North. In part because of their distrust of Islah, the Emiratis are seen as reliant upon salafimilitias hostile to both the Houthis and the Brotherhood. Southerners often greet Hadi’s infrequent visits to Aden with large demonstrations marked by pre-unification Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) flags that announce secessionist intentions.

Thus, despite their coalition partnership, the Saudis and Emiratis have focused their activities on different parts of Yemen. At times, rival Gulf militias have reportedly exchanged fire when they meet in front line areas like Taiz and al-Hodeidah. The wartime division of labor, however, has largely kept at bay conflicts that may emerge around incommensurate visions for post-war Yemen. Such intra-Gulf rivalries often fly below the radar, but they are not entirely new.[12] Internal schisms between Qatar and its GCC allies, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, came to a head in 2017 and resulted in Qatar’s withdrawal from the coalition in Yemen. That crisis has also put tremendous pressure on Oman, the primary backchannel for Yemeni negotiators and their regional allies, to renounce its position of neutrality.[13] Oman’s unwillingness to choose sides may in part explain the expansion of both Emirati and Saudi forces in Yemen’s eastern province of al-Mahra.[14]

Regional dynamics elsewhere in the Middle East have also shaped the conflict in Yemen. Iran’s patronage of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is reasserting control over almost all of Syria, puts Iran in a stronger position regionally than before that war. Similarly, post-ISIS government policies in Iraq have assumed a sectarian flavor that affords Gulf actors little ability to influence Iraqi politics. In this context, anchoring Yemen firmly within the Sunni Gulf regimes’ sphere of influence has taken on a greater urgency—perhaps more than it did at the beginning of the war.[15]

Alongside these regional and peninsular rivalries is a global context that has abetted the war. One source of this is US policy. The administrations of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump have all tended to view Yemeni politics as inscrutable and to largely limit US engagement to counterterrorism objectives. One primary consequence—and one that cannot be attributed to the Trump administration alone—has been the deferral of US policy to Saudi priorities. The statist nature of the UN further compounds this deference, giving more weight to the sovereign prerogatives of the war’s state-based antagonists than their non-state adversaries—to say nothing of Yemeni civilians. Despite some limited progress, efforts to investigate war crimes committed by all sides have been repeatedly blocked with US assistance.

Developments in Europe have been guardedly more progressive, where activist efforts to suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia not only advanced earlier and with more government support but have been explicitly tied by government officials to progress in negotiations.[16] Sweden hosted peace talks in December 2018 with significant support from Germany and other European allies. Great Britain and the United States, however, have largely maintained their policies in support of the coalition amid mounting pressure from activist groups and from Congress.

Mobilizing Against War

Activist efforts to bring about an end to Yemen’s war have gained considerable momentum over the past 18 months, as several previously disconnected streams have coalesced. The first and most important stream originates in the work of Yemeni activists themselves. Globally dispersed in a diaspora of considerable precarity, Yemeni activists have struggled to address political, military and humanitarian dimensions of the war. Most face at least some surveillance and scrutiny in the countries in which they work.[17] Online campaigns have sought to connect communities of diasporic activists, but spatial fragmentation is only one of the barriers to coordinated action. Yemeni activists in the diaspora are no less divided on the underlying political questions that drive the conflict in Yemen than are their family members in Yemen. The most coordinated action, however, was likely the Yemeni bodega workers’ strike, organized in opposition to the Trump administration’s ban of Yemeni immigration.[18] The categorical denial of entry to Yemenis living under escalating conditions of crisis was a unifying factor that contributed momentum and helped build new activist allies.

Among non-Yemeni allies, anti-war activists have the longest-standing relationship to the conflict. Many anti-war organizations in the United States and Europe first took notice of Yemen in the context of Obama’s increasing reliance on drones as a part of his military approach to counterterrorism. Groups like CodePink and Amnesty International documented the escalating reliance on drones during Yemen’s tumultuous transitional period, when Hadi extended Salih’s authorization of the use of drones in Yemeni territory. As with his predecessor, this policy damaged Hadi’s legitimacy at the local level. It also contributed to the deterioration of security that many Yemenis, particularly those in the South, experienced prior to the Houthi advance on Sanaa in 2014.

Anti-war activists focused on drone warfare did not always connect their cause to the growing insecurity that followed Salih’s departure from power. They nonetheless provided important impetus for the broader approach that organizations like the Yemen Peace Project and Win Without War adopted as Yemen’s failed transition shifted to open war. The concerted media and lobbying campaigns by groups such as these helped to generate steady and somewhat bipartisan Congressional interest in US policy toward Yemen long before the fallout of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination by Saudi Arabia in October 2018. The first effort in the Senate to restrict weapons sales to Saudi Arabia came in 2016 in the form of the resolution advanced by Sen. Rand Paul and Chris Murphy; it secured only 27 votes. By December 2018, however, a broader War Powers resolution passed the Senate; the newly elected Democratic majority passed the resolution in January 2019 in the House of Representatives. This momentum mirrors similar growth in activism in Europe, where several of the coalition’s military backers faced legislative pressure to limit arms sales as a means of pressuring Yemeni antagonists and their regional backers to come to the negotiating table.

A New Framework, A New Peace?

As promising as this momentum may be, it reflects the modest horizons of an anti-war strategy pursued through legislative means. Restricting arms sales promises to slow the war and perhaps encourage negotiations. It does not, however, speak directly to the wreckage of the war or the almost unfathomable challenge of reconstruction. The war economy, which generates profits from the clandestine trade in people as much as in goods, will be difficult to supplant; cross-border reconstruction promises to lock in regional clientelism. This process in Yemen parallels developments in Syria but also draws on longstanding Gulf dynamics.[19] Should US and European supporters of the coalition manage to incentivize a negotiated settlement of some kind, that agreement would need to address these concerns. And such a peace would have to reckon with the multi-faceted dynamics of the war—dynamics that are ignored by the United States and in the UN Security Council resolutions that continue to treat the war as a two-sided conflict.

In the meantime, parts of Yemen are experiencing piecemeal reconstruction through the private sector, an approach that US and Gulf actors strongly favor but one that may well hinder the restoration of state institutions or capacity.[20] This approach does not challenge—and may even entrench—the material interests of external actors who have already shaped the war and its antecedent conflicts. Absent a significant shift in policy—in Yemen and in the region—toward one that promotes accountable governance and the rebuilding of a shared concept of the public, it seems unlikely that such an approach to reconstruction will support a just or sustainable peace. Just as the war has fragmented and isolated Yemen and Yemenis, reconstruction as it is currently unfolding amounts to little more than the privatization of peace.

 


Endnotes

[1] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, New York, 09 January 2019.”

[2] Erica Gaston, “Process Lessons Learned in Yemen’s National Dialogue,” USIP Special Report 342, February 2014.

[3] Sarah Phillips, Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[4] Michael Knights, “The Military Role in Yemen’s Protests: Civil Military Relations in the Tribal Republic,” Journal of Security Studies 36/2 (2013).

[5] Tobias Thiel, “Yemen’s Imposed Federal Boundaries,” Middle East Report Online, July 20, 2015

[6] The organization does not offer numbers for the first ten months of the war due to poor data problems.

[7]UN OCHA, “Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock Briefing,” 2019.

[8] UNICEF, “Health Workers in Yemen Reach More Than 306,000 People with Cholera Vaccines During Four-Day Pause in Fighting,” October 5, 2018.

[9] UN Population Fund, “UNFPA Humanitarian Response in Yemen,” October 2017.

[10] UN OCHA, “Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock Briefing,” 2019.

[11] Oxfam, “Yemen’s Shattered Food Economy and its Desperate Toll on Women,” February 9, 2019.

[12] Marc Lynch, ed., “Visions of Gulf Security,” POMEPS Studies 7 (March 25, 2014).

[13]  Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “Oman is a mediator in Yemen. Can it play the same role in Qatar?” Washington Post, July 22, 2017.

[14] See Susanne Dahlgren’s article in this issue.

[15] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Endgame for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen,” POMEPS Studies 29 (January 2018).

[16]  Deutche Welle, “Germany rebuffs UK call to lift ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia,” February 20, 2019.

[17] Dana M. Moss, “A Diaspora Denied: Impediments to Yemeni Mobilization for Relief and Reconstruction at Home,” POMEPS Studies 29 (January 2018).

[18] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “The Ties That Bind,” Middle East Report, no 281 (Winter 2016).

[19] On the Syria comparison, see Steven Heydemann, “Reconstructing Authoritarianism: The Politics and Political Economy of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Syria,” POMEPS Studies 30 (September 2018).

[20] Kristin Smith Diwan, et al, “The Geoeconomics of Reconstruction in Yemen,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, November 16, 2018.

 

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