As the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen enters its fourth year, the prospects for the UN peace process are limited. Rawan Shaif and Jack Watling assess the outlook for the country amid a growing risk of de facto federalisation.
The Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which began in March 2015, had not demonstrably achieved its objectives by the beginning of June 2018. Abdurabu Mansour al-Hadi, Yemen’s president in exile, had not been returned to power. According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the start of the war, but the true figure is likely to be higher. The peace process has stagnated for more than two years.
Attempts by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to restart peace talks were disrupted on 22 April, when the United Arab Emirates killed Saleh al-Samad in an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike. Samad was the president of the Supreme Political Council of Ansar Allah (commonly known as the Houthis), which is one of the main protagonists in Yemen’s civil war.
Since the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 4 December 2017 following a four-day street battle with the Houthis in the capital Sana’a, armed factions have rapidly fragmented across the country. An internal power struggle has emerged within the Houthi movement, with hardliners in the ascendant, which means that a settlement is more difficult to achieve. However, if the Houthis lose the port of Hodeidah, the group will potentially be forced to the negotiating table.
With Hadi’s government lacking any presence on the ground, areas outside Houthi control have largely been left to improvise their administrations; a resurgence in local governance has consequently occurred in Marib and Hadramawt provinces. Across the south of Yemen, locally raised units – trained by the UAE – have begun to provide security and to confront Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State militant group. At a regional level, local actors are successfully imposing stability, although with no clear connection to the central government.
In the short term, this process of fragmentation, with isolated local theatres in the conflict, presents a serious obstacle to a national peace process and an all-inclusive dialogue. In the long term, the likelihood of the de facto federalisation of Yemen has increased.
In late April, the Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive on several fronts. The objective was to capture Hodeidah, Yemen’s primary port on the Red Sea. Forces with UAE backing under the command of General Tareq Saleh – nephew of the former president – had reached the southern outskirts of Hodeidah by the end of May. Saudi efforts in the north of Yemen had also achieved some progress towards the Houthi stronghold of Saada, the birthplace of the movement.
When Jane’s visited Gen Saleh’s forces in March 2018, these comprised 300 former Republican Guards, acting as non-commissioned officers to around 2,800 levied troops. This core assault force was well-equipped, with Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), Leclerc main battle tanks, and UAVs for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), provided by the UAE. The assault force was supported by the Salafi Al-Amaliqah Brigade, the Tahami Resistance, and the National Southern Resistance, which collectively amounted to approximately 20,000 personnel who were securing captured territory.
“There is unity in defeating the Houthis,” Nabil Al-Soufi, a spokesperson for Gen Saleh’s staff, told Jane’s. “Different forces from different backgrounds are working together in cohesion.”
Gen Saleh’s forces have a considerable intelligence advantage over the Houthis; the general and his staff played a prominent role in the Houthi war effort – overseeing operations on Yemen’s western coast – until December 2017, when Gen Saleh sought refuge in the UAE following the collapse of the alliance of convenience between the Houthis and his uncle.
This enabled a spate of targeted strikes against Houthi commanders in the area – including the strike on Samad – which have degraded Houthi command and control. Mansour al-Saidi, the commander of Houthi naval forces, his deputy Salah al-Sharqai, and Nasser al-Qaubari, the commander of Houthi missile forces, were all killed in airstrikes in the early stages of the offensive in mid-April.
Officers on Gen Saleh’s staff, speaking to Jane’s on condition of anonymity, noted that the Houthis were outnumbered in Haima, a port city in the south of Hodeidah province. Houthi resistance in the early stages of the offensive was light. As of late May, the Houthis were struggling to reinforce their units under intensifying aerial bombardment. Gen Saleh’s troops had advanced steadily, seizing supply and communication routes between Houthi territory in Taiz and the Yemeni coast. Progress had been slowed primarily by the need to clear hundreds of TM-57 landmines planted by the Houthis.
Hodeidah provides a steady source of income and black-market fuel for the Houthis. The city is the Houthis’ last stronghold in the west of Yemen and the group’s only means of threatening commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Houthi resistance is likely to harden around the port, but if coalition forces maintain their current momentum, Hodeidah is likely to fall within the next three months.
Co-ordination of Saudi and UAE operations is hampered by the promotion of competing proxies. A continuing power struggle is becoming more difficult to conceal, particularly in liberated areas. In February 2017, fighting erupted in the southern city of Aden when members of Hadi’s Presidential Guard – backed by Saudi Arabia – attempted to seize the airport from UAE-aligned forces. In January 2018, fighting broke out again in Aden when UAE-backed secessionists encircled the presidential palace.
The latest flashpoint in Saudi-UAE rivalry is Socotra island. The island had previously been used to carry out military exercises; however, in late April 2018, UAE cargo aircraft flew an assortment of tanks, armoured vehicles, and artillery to the island, and UAE troops discharged Yemeni customs, security, and intelligence officers.
Hadi’s government protested to the UN Security Council, calling the UAE’s conduct an “unjustified military action”. Protests also broke out across the island for and against the UAE military presence; the UAE partially withdrew its forces after Saudi Arabia intervened to mediate. UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Jane’s , “We have no higher ambitions in Yemen or Socotra, our only goal is to bring Yemen back to the hands of Yemenis.”
These tensions disrupted lines of supply and staging areas for military operations in Yemen. Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia subsequently took responsibility for different fronts, the likelihood of similar clashes in the future is high. Neighbouring Oman views this rivalry with trepidation, and is concerned by the expanded UAE military presence – including the construction of military bases – in Mahra, on Oman’s western border. It has begun to make overtures to tribal leaders in eastern Yemen, which presages its increasing involvement in the conflict and further complicates the scenario.
Pockets of Stability
Some areas have avoided such infighting by establishing robust institutions of local governance, most notably Marib and Hadramawt provinces. Marib was a major front line in the battle against the Houthis until the end of 2015; however, fighting on the front has abated and Marib has become a safe haven for Yemeni internally displaced persons (IDPs), with more than 1.5 million people having entered the province.
When the Houthis defeated former president Saleh in December, many of those fleeing Sana’a passed through Marib. Business has also returned to the area; when Jane’s visited the province in March, many new construction projects were under way. Oil exports are restarting and an official in the office of Marib Governor Sultan al-Arada told Jane’s in late May that the region’s airport was due to open later in the year.
Jane’s assesses that Marib’s relative security is largely due to Arada’s success in building a broad coalition of local tribes to oppose the Houthis. In other areas, the Houthis have won over or subdued tribal leaders, but in Marib tribal units have been organised into an effective, inclusive security force. AQAP argues that tribal leaders are corrupt; the success of tribal leadership in Marib has challenged this narrative.
Although the area is ostensibly loyal to Hadi, Arada is responsible for most of the consequential decisions in the administrative, military, and economic spheres, as it is his relationship with tribal leaders that has ensured stability. The concentration of Yemeni military bases in Marib has not translated into influence for Hadi, and although Saudi Arabia has provided considerable funding for efforts in Marib, it wields little control.
Marib highlights a process that is occurring across the areas outside Houthi control: the resurrection of tribal governance. “Marib sets a strong example of local governance where others have failed. Al-Arada has used his political and tribal influence to create a certain level of stability in Marib,” said Majed Al-Madhaji, director of the Sana’a Research Centre, speaking to Jane’s on 29 May 2018. Although this has a stabilising effect, it also exacerbates fragmentation. It is likely that any future national dialogue will involve more local actors, with primarily local concerns.
The reassertion of tribal dominance is visible in Al Bayda province, where Houthi, AQAP, and Islamic State militants are active. When Jane’s visited the province in March, it was clear that Islamic State militants had begun to imitate AQAP’s tactics of coercing local tribes to enable them to operate in the latter’s territory.
Al Bayda is on the front line of Western counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen, conducted primarily by the US with the support of the UAE. This has included ground raids, but has mainly been conducted by UAV strikes. Although the majority of these are executed by the US, the UAE has expanded its use of armed UAVs. These strikes have killed civilians in 2018, and any local stability brought about by the strengthening of tribal sheikhs will be vulnerable in the face of external intervention.
Local tribesmen are also conducting their own operations in an attempt to expel the Houthis from their lands, with some success. However, the tribes lack the financial and material support afforded to Marib province. “We are anomalies,” Mohammed Al-Jabri, a tribal commander on the Qayfa front in Al Bayda, told Jane’s , “We don’t fall in line with any political party in Yemen, that’s why they don’t fund us.”
However, the scope of tribal operations is limited to securing the tribes' traditional lands. It is therefore unlikely that AQAP will be expelled entirely, or that Al Bayda’s tribes will put pressure on the Houthis if the latter leave the area.
The Houthis face pressure on all sides. To the north, Saudi forces are advancing towards the Houthi heartland, while the UAE pushes towards Hodeidah on the western coast. Marib offers a staging area for the Houthis’ enemies to the east of Sana’a. In the south, fighting in Taiz has reached a costly stalemate, and the Houthis lack the freedom of movement to redeploy their forces.
Much of the Houthis’ administrative infrastructure was disrupted when former president Saleh’s allies fled. However, the Houthis appear determined to fight, as evidenced by the outcome of an apparent power struggle within the movement.
In the wake of former president Saleh’s death, Jane’s understands that a disagreement emerged between the Houthi old guard, which advocated a negotiated solution, and a puritanical new generation seeking to continue the fight. Samad, having close ties to Saleh’s family, was potentially a credible negotiator; his death marked the final defeat of those advocating for peace talks. This assessment aligns with public statements by members of the group. Moreover, during the dispute, several prominent Houthis, including founders of the movement such as Mohammed Ayesh and Mohammed Azzan, went into exile.
Mahdi al-Mashat – Samad’s successor as president of the Supreme Political Council – previously ran the office of Abdel Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement. Mashat is closely linked to the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbullah. Sources in Yemen, speaking to Jane’s on the condition of anonymity, said that Mashat was partly responsible for Hizbullah’s provision of media and communications training to the Houthis, and that he was likely to attempt to expand this relationship.
However, Jane’s judges that the Houthi leadership has little interest in Iran’s political project – of which Hizbullah is a part – and shares few ideological or religious convictions with Tehran. It is unlikely that Iran has substantial influence over the Houthis’ decision-making.
Iran may not seek such influence. “Yemen was an opportunity, not a plan,” Nasser Hadian, professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran and a close friend of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, told Jane’s on 18 March 2018. “Iranian involvement is minimal,” Hadian told Jane’s , “but the aim is to do to Saudi Arabia what they are doing to us in Syria. They must learn that hostile actions against us have consequences. There must be a cost to what they do.” Members of the Iranian Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), speaking to Jane’s in interviews that took place in Iraq and Europe and on the condition of anonymity, similarly argued that Yemen was not a vital interest but rather an effective means of tying down Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, UK security officials told Jane’s in March that Iran had publicised its own involvement, and claimed responsibility for smuggling that was in fact carried out by others. The officials noted that with major and ongoing financial commitments to Syria and in Iraq – and with financial trouble at home – Iran was seeking the appearance of involvement in Yemen to pin the Saudis into the conflict, while committing as few financial resources as possible.
As the Houthis come under increasing pressure, the need to show that they are inflicting harm on the enemy will intensify, and ballistic missile strikes against Saudi Arabia are one of the few avenues available. Before his death, Samad announced that 2018 would be “the year of the missile”.
However, it is likely that the pace of missile fire is not sustainable. Previous long-range missiles launched by the Houthis – with some hitting the Saudi capital Riyadh – were manufactured by combining components from several stockpiled missile systems. These stocks are diminishing, and with few components for long-range attacks there may be a shift towards more short-range strikes across the border targeting the Saudi port of Jizan.
The security and stability outlook for Yemen for the next six months is negative. None of the parties involved in the conflict will be interested in a negotiated solution until a decisive military objective is met, whether in Hodeidah or Saada. The emergence of divisions among rival armed groups following the death of Saleh has not prevented the consolidation of territorial control in the north and south of the country.
However, the fragmentation of armed groups means that any negotiation must encompass many more parties, with diverging interests. A noticeable change in the front lines – most obviously, a push from the north of Hardh and Kitaf, in Saada province, combined with the loss of Hodeidah – could force the Houthis to negotiate. In the past, economic strangulation has allowed the group to blame hardship on the Saudi-led coalition, and has in fact strengthened its support in Sana’a.
In the long term, despite the ongoing conflict, the trend is towards regional stabilisation. The Houthis – no longer able to rely on Saleh’s family – are being forced into a governance role. In Marib, local government has created a haven for IDPs, enabling aid to reach displaced Yemenis. AQAP and the Islamic State are increasingly contained in Al Bayda province. Deconfliction between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has proven difficult, and there are several points of tension, but so far both parties have managed to de-escalate confrontations between their proxies.
The upshot of these developments is the emergence of political structures that have local legitimacy, or at least authority. Although this is a barrier to the start of negotiations, it means that those negotiating will be better able to implement any future deal. The National Dialogue Conference, which concluded in 2014, had proposed the federalisation of Yemen; that programme foundered over the details, but the conditions for a new framework may now be coalescing from the ground up.
Originally Published by Jane's Intelligence Review, on 5 June 2018.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.