Fighting in Yemen shows no signs of stopping, with dire humanitarian consequences.
With the last-minute postponement of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, the conflict in Yemen appears set to burn on for some time. Two months after the launch of the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm”, and one month after the start of its successor operation, “Restoring Hope”, the allied forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis remain undefeated. In fact, since the start of the operation, they have continued to make net gains, though there has been some pushback in areas in the south of the country, particularly in the province of al-Dhale, where anti-Houthi fighters took over a key military base on 25 May. Meanwhile, the Houthis’ traditional bases of support in northwest Yemen, as well as the capital, Sanaa, remain firmly under their control, with the main fronts for fighting being the southern port of Aden, the neighboring provinces of Lahj and Abyan, the tribal provinces of Shabwa and Marib, and Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city.
The opposing forces
The opposition to the Houthis is deeply divided. While frequently referred to in coalition statements as backing the legitimacy of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the vast majority of armed factions are at best ambivalent towards the president. Fighters in the south of the country – calling themselves the “Southern Resistance” – fight under the flag of the formerly independent south, rejecting Yemen’s unity and explicitly calling for secession. In other parts of the country, most openly in Taiz, opposition has largely been led by figures loyal to the Sunni Islamist Islah party (the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood affiliate). This has caused tensions, however, as many southern fighters have stressed that they view Islah and the Houthis as two sides of the same coin of northern domination. Aside from their general ties to the Saudi-led coalition, there is little sign of any meaningful coordination between the various anti-Houthi factions. Even “popular committee” fighters in the same regional area often act independently of one another.
Aside from their general ties to the Saudi-led coalition, there is little sign of any meaningful coordination between the various anti-Houthi factions
These divisions have been exacerbated by another set of tensions: those between Saudi Arabia-based Yemeni exiles and fighters on the ground. High-level contacts within the Southern Resistance have expressed increasing frustration with perceived Saudi bias towards Islah party officials as well as with what they regard as insufficient Saudi aid – particularly as the Houthis and Saleh’s allies have managed to consolidate control in Aden despite the Saudi military campaign. Tensions have also deepened owing to the vastly different fates of the “exiled government”, whose members are currently living in relative luxury in Saudi Arabia, and those fighting on the ground.
While there have been some signs of weakness from both the Houthis, whose rapid assault on the south of the country has been undermined, particularly amidst pushback in the provinces of Shabwa and al-Dhale, and Saleh’s allies, some of whom have travelled to Riyadh, there’s been little sign of their impending defeat. Moreover, these two camps continue to coordinate on the battlefield. In the wake of an airstrike on his compound, Saleh openly acknowledged his alliance with the Houthis and called on his followers to fight the Saudis. Notably, even some contacts close to members of the Saleh camp who have traveled to Riyadh, and who have ostensibly delivered their support to Hadi, stress that their aim is to negotiate some reconciliation between the Saudis and Saleh – efforts that have failed so far.
Regionalisation of the conflict
The regionalisation of the conflict continues. The Iranian government has capitalised on the conflict to criticise its Saudi rivals, while the Saudis have cast it as a legitimisation of their perceptions of the threat Iran poses to the region. Even so, either side’s ability to control its allies is limited and, particularly in the longer term, likely to grow even more tenuous. The announcement of a deployment of 2,100 Senegalese troops, who were ostensibly called upon to defend the holy places inside Saudi Arabia in order to free up Saudi forces to fight in Yemen, appears to vindicate rumours of Saudi frustration with long-time allies – particularly Egypt and Pakistan – who have not yet sent ground troops (and, in the case of Pakistan, have ruled out offensive operations inside Yemen). That said, the strong amount of attention given to this deployment – and the deployment of a number of Gulf Cooperation Council-trained Yemeni troops to Aden – suggests that some form of a ground incursion may indeed remain on the table —particularly considering the apparent build up in Hadi-allied troops in the province of Marib.
While the Saudi offensive has seemingly failed to notch up significant success, it has proven remarkably popular domestically. Furthermore, contacts have noted a surge of popularity for Mohammed bin Salman. These factors, in addition to Hadi and other exiled officials’ unreserved support for the offensive in the hopes that its success would lead to their return to power, have ensured that the Saudis are under little to no pressure to bring an end to the conflict. In short, while it may appear from the outside that Saudi Arabia is under tremendous pressure to end the war, from an internal perspective, it is just the opposite.
Many who once thought [the conflict] would end in a matter of weeks now express concerns that it is likely to continue well into next year
Meanwhile, the latest border incursions by the Houthis – which struck at the centre of the border town of Najran – suggest an intent by the Houthis to widen the conflict, while simultaneously indicating that the rebels retain significant offensive abilities. The Saudi response of pounding the Houthi stronghold of Saada appears to have only strengthened Houthi resolve.
The current, narrow remaining window for dialogue could be closing, even if the Houthis continue to endorse a political solution – albeit based on their own preconditions that there is a ceasefire and the talks occur in a neutral country. The Saudi-backed talks in Riyadh, open only to parties who have rejected Saleh and the Houthis, have largely failed to serve as a game changer. Still, there are widespread expectations that the coalition and the Riyadh government will use the talks to legitimise a rumoured escalation of the conflict spearheaded by Saudi-backed anti-Houthi tribal militias. While there is some hope for expected, if delayed, talks brokered by the UN, barring quick action, the conflict appears destined to be lengthy. Notably, many who once thought it would end in a matter of weeks now express concerns that it is likely to continue well into next year. Meanwhile, Yemen’s social fabric continues to rip apart at the seams.
The impact within Yemen
As the power vacuum has been exacerbated, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage to dramatic effect, seizing control of Mukalla and much of the eastern province of Hadramawt. For the first time, AQAP is openly and actively embedding itself in and coordinating with Yemeni tribes; tribal contacts in Shabwa have said that even a number of staunchly anti-AQAP tribal leaders have agreed to truces with the group. This suggests that the situation in Al-Bayda, where AQAP fighters have openly fought alongside anti-Houthi fighters, risks becoming the norm in much of the rest of the country.
Across the country, a dire humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. While the bombings and fighting have put civilians in the crossfire, the naval and air blockade has made the situation even worse. The price of basics like food and fuel has risen dramatically, with petrol becoming more and more difficult to find. Meanwhile, severe damage to Yemen’s electricity infrastructure has plunged the bulk of the country into an extended power blackout. The damage has already reached the point that Yemen’s infrastructure is nearing complete collapse: many hospitals have been forced to shut their doors, and schools have now been shut for two months. Contacts, meanwhile, have noted that a number of strategically important mountain roads have been obliterated, while key bridges have been destroyed.
There is still an opportunity for European involvement and mediation in Yemen, particularly with regards to aiding and backing proposed UN-brokered talks. The EU remains one of the few powers viewed positively by all key Yemeni factions, and continued EU engagement with Saudi Arabia towards attaining a cessation of hostilities, regardless of whether it yields an immediate result, is key. Furthermore, it is worth stressing that silence and public acquiescence in the face of the recent escalation – including the targeting of civilian areas – risk being interpreted as a green light by all sides and as a sign of approval by Yemenis suffering on the ground.
Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.