The War in Yemen: Fragmentation and Consolidation of Local Power Structures
Author: Anne-Linda Amira Augustin
The Western media often discusses the war in Yemen in an overly-simplified manner without shedding light on its complex history. The conflict is mostly depicted as a war between Sunnites and Shiites, with the Saudi and UAE-led military coalition on one side and Iran on the other. In this account, Yemeni actors are often described as mere puppets of their foreign protective powers. Another common and very simplistic perspective describes the war as a conflict between Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized Hadi government ousted from Sanaʽa by a coup. The recent UN-mediated peace negotiations held in Stockholm in December 2018 seemed to confirm this picture of the war, as these two parties were the only ones to participate. The actual situation in Yemen, however, is significantly more complex, and involves many other actors who have had an important influence on the war and its continuation or could work towards its end. The following article by Anne-Linda Amira Augustina, dvisor at the Foreign Representation of the Southern Transitional Council in Europe, focuses on the different political and military actors involved in the Yemeni crisis while also offering an overview of the key issues that led to the war and showing the country’s ongoing fragmentation since 2015.
Old Grievances and the Outbreak of War in 2015
The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 was the culmination of the discontent felt by a significant part of the Yemeni population, caused by a decades-long dictatorship, a failed economy, and corruption and repression under Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime. In 2011, the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council led a transitional process that put an end to Saleh’s 33-year-long presidency and granted him immunity. Saleh had used repression against his political adversaries, and as conflicts grew throughout the country in the 2000s so did his brutal response to opposition, especially against the Houthis and the Southern Movement.
During the 2000s, Saleh started six wars against the Houthis, who call themselves followers of God (Ansar Allah). The movement originated from the group “Faithful Youth”, founded in 1992, whose main objective was to promote the Zaidi faith within the Saada region. For decades, Saleh’s central government excluded the Houthis from the political process and their region of origin, the Saada Governorate, from economic development measures, causing them to denounce the corrupt practices of the central government. In addition, the Houthis, most of them of Zaidi affiliation, felt that their traditions and identity were being suppressed and that their Zaidi faith was being systematically repressed by the central government. The construction of a Wahhabi educational facility in Dammaj, Saada, funded with Saudi resources, contributed to the worsening of this perception. The Houthis also condemned foreign influence in Yemen, especially the cooperation between the Yemeni government and the United States in the so-called War on Terror.
The second group strongly marginalized and oppressed under Saleh’s rule were stakeholders in the south of the country, in particular the Southern Movement, which caused a stir with their first protests in 2007. The Republic of Yemen has only existed since Yemeni unification on 22 May 1990, on which date the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, also known as North Yemen), which originated from the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen in 1962 and had been led by Saleh since 1978, united with the Marxist-oriented People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, also known as South Yemen), a country created in 1967 from the Federation and the Protectorate of South Arabia, which had been under British colonial rule for the past 129 years. Only four years after Yemeni unification, war broke out between the army units of the PDRY and the YAR, which had not yet been merged. After the PDRY fraction lost the war, thousands of South Yemenis lost their jobs in the army and the public sector and were forced to go into retirement. People close to the Saleh regime took over farm estates in South Yemen and control of oil income (80 percent of Yemen’s oil comes from South Yemen), and those forced into retirement formed the basis of the Southern Movement in 2007. The grievances in South Yemen and the ensuing demand for an independent South Yemeni state as existed before 1990 are known as “the Southern Cause”.
Particular attention was paid to the Southern Cause and the Saada cause by their corresponding working groups at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that took place between 2013 and early 2014 in Sana’a. The conference was part of the transitional process brokered by the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which stipulated the end of Saleh’s rule and the election of a new president to lead the transitional process in Yemen. The South Yemeni Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh’s vice-president since 1994, was the only candidate permitted to participate in the election, which was boycotted by a large part of the South Yemeni population.
An essential topic during the NDC was the introduction of federal state structures intended to give more autonomy to the regions and ensure the departure from a centralized state. As it was impossible for the NDC to achieve consensus regarding the division of the country, President Hadi allowed the decision to fall to a committee he created and which was comprised of people close to him. In no time, the committee decided to divide the state in six federal regions, four in what used to be North Yemen and two in the former South Yemen. The decision to divide South Yemen into two regions met with massive resistance from the supporters of the Southern Movement, as its representatives did not participate in the NDC despite its attendees being 50% South Yemeni and having a working group specifically devoted to the Southern Cause. The reason for their exclusion was that, before the talks at the Initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council had even begun, it was determined that any NDC outcomes had to preserve the integrity of the Republic of Yemen. Many suspected that dividing South Yemen into two regions was also an attempt to weaken the south and its efforts to regain sovereignty. The movement reacted to the decision with street protests in Aden, a South Yemeni port city and the former capital of the PDRY. The Houthis also took issue with the division because the region that was to contain Saada was not guaranteed access to the Red Sea, which they had campaigned hard for throughout the NDC.
The conference ended without a consensus regarding the country’s restructuring. As the economic situation worsened between February and September 2014, killings and attacks continued to shape daily life, and the implementation of the outcomes of the NDC remained on hold, discontent among the population rose. The Houthis were able to take advantage of the situation and establish themselves as a revolutionary power against a Hadi government perceived as being corrupt. With the help of their former worst enemy, the former president Saleh—who was able to stay in the country thanks to the immunity he had been granted—the Houthis advanced swiftly towards Sanaʽa from the north. In September 2014, they seized the city, putting pressure on President Hadi and his government, ultimately driving Hadi into house arrest and forcing his resignation. Hadi was nonetheless able to flee to Aden, where he then withdrew his resignation. The Houthis and the troops loyal to Saleh followed him towards the south, whereupon he fled to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis then seized Al-Anad, the country’s largest airbase and military camp, in the Lahij Governorate in South Yemen, and continued towards Aden and its surrounding regions, where the biggest battles of the Yemen War up until mid-2015 took place. After Hadi turned to Saudi Arabia for help, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the war, bombing Yemeni cities and important military facilities. The official goal of the intervention was to protect the Hadi government and reinstate it in Sanaʽa; that is, to stabilize the Yemeni state and protect it from the Houthis. The outcomes and demands that emerged from the NDC are considered to have failed since at least the beginning of the war in 2015.
Resistance to the advance of Houthi/Saleh troops in South Yemen grew very quickly. As the South Yemeni army had been dissolved during the 1994 war, the general public and members of the South Movement created citizen militias that fought as the Southern Resistance. Opponents of the Houthis, such as Salafist groups, also enlisted in the resistance. The Houthi/Saleh troops perpetrated serious human rights violations in Aden and the surrounding territories until the city was liberated in July 2015 by the Southern Resistance, with support of the military coalition, including Emirati ground troops. Since then, the frontline has remained fixed in central Yemen, particularly in the city of Taiz and later also in Hodeidah, a port city on the Red Sea.
Fragmentation in the Yemen War: Three Governments and Multiple Actors
Both the first UN-mediated peace negotiations that took place in Geneva in 2015 and the talks in Kuwait the following year failed. In accordance with UN-Resolution 2201, the peace process focuses only on two protagonists—the Houthis and the Hadi government—which does not reflect conditions on the ground. The reason for this dichotomy is the widespread impression that the war is between the Houthis and the Hadi government, with a number of different groups with completely divergent political goals ascribed to the latter party. The war has exacerbated the fragmentation that was already present in the country prior to 2015, strengthening local powers and governmental structures, thereby rendering impossible a return to the centralized structures that existed in 2011.
Regions under Houthi Rule
In the war jargon of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, Yemen is usually divided into “liberated” and “non-liberated” regions. The “non-liberated” regions are ruled by the Houthis, who are the de facto rulers of most of the Yemeni population, as they have also been able to spread their power to the heavily-populated northern highlands. Since coming to power, the Houthis have managed to take over existing institutions and political structures and supplement them with additional governmental structures. In August 2016, they created a counter-government with 27 ministers called the “National Salvation Government”. There is also a national assembly with 551 members led by a five-member presidential council. The fragile coalition with Saleh lasted until late 2017, and Saleh was killed by the Houthis on 4 December 2017 after he terminated their alliance. Some members of Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, are still part of the state-like institutions mentioned above. Others, especially those from southern and central Yemen, now work on Hadi’s side. According to estimates, around 100,000 people are currently fighting on the side of the Houthis.
The Southern Transitional Council
The “liberated” areas include all of South Yemen and the regions of Central Yemen located between the Houthi-controlled territories and South Yemen, such as parts of Tihama, Taiz, and Marib. These “liberated” areas are often depicted as an anti-Houthi bloc in the international press and in diplomatic circles, often ignoring the radically different goals and interests of the numerous actors involved.
After the liberation of Aden, President Hadi drew particularly on the support of South Yemenis, appointing them to high public positions or deploying them as soldiers on the front. Because South Yemen’s efforts to achieve independence were also backed by many politicians and governors, Hadi fired several South Yemeni cabinet ministers and governors in April 2017, including Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the former governor of Aden. Following mass protests in early May 2017, al-Zoubaidi began building the Southern Transitional Council with members of the Southern Movement and the Southern Resistance. It currently consists of a leadership council of 24 people, a national assembly of 303, various departments—all of which are working on the elaboration of a constitution for an independent South Yemen, among other things—seven diplomatic offices, and numerous local councils throughout South Yemen at governorate, district and area levels. These government-like structures are intended to prepare and facilitate South Yemeni independence. There are other groups that belong to the Southern Movement but are independent from the Southern Transitional Council, although they share with it the same political goal: South Yemen’s independence.
In addition, most active South Yemeni soldiers are fighting on the side of the military coalition, and are usually described by the European media as “Hadi loyalist troops”. The various South Yemeni militias that formed against the Houthis in 2015 as the Southern Resistance were institutionalized and trained with the assistance of the United Arab Emirates. As of now, more than 70,000 South Yemenis are active in the Security Belt Forces, the Shabwani Elite Forces and the Hadrami Elite Forces. These quasi-paramilitary troops are under the command of the military coalition and serve a policing function, among other roles. They have been fighting to drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of South Yemen since 2016. The Giants Brigades, also under coalition command, are mostly deployed on the front, especially in Hodeidah. However, these troops fight under the former PDRY flag, strive for the independence of South Yemen, and see the Southern Transitional Council as their political representative.
The Hadi Government
The interests of the Southern Transitional Council run completely contra to the Hadi government, which insists on the unity of the Republic of Yemen. President Hadi was forced to resign in late 2014 due to the pressure exerted by the Houthis, and was then placed under house arrest until he managed to flee to Aden in February 2015. Once there, he retracted his resignation and named Aden Yemen’s interim capital. As the Houthi and Saleh troops began advancing towards Aden, he then fled to Saudi Arabia, where he received support to fight the Houthis and was able to rebuild his government in exile. Since then, it has acted from the Saudi capital and has little or no presence in Aden.
Hadi’s closest national ally is currently the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), which includes General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar as a member. In April 2016, Hadi appointed the general as his vice-president. Al-Ahmar was the most important general in the fight against the Houthis during the 2000s and Saleh’s closest ally until he turned against Saleh and sided with the youth movement during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Al-Ahmar has a bad reputation among the Houthis due to the numerous wars that have taken place in Saada. In South Yemen he is considered responsible for the army’s brutal course of action during the 1994 war and for the seizure of South Yemeni territories. The Islah party is particularly well represented in Central Yemen—in Taiz and Marib—where its followers fight against the Houthis, with Taiz now completely controlled by the party. The Salafist brigade Abu Al-Abbas, financed by the United Arab Emirates and active in Taiz, was forced to retreat from parts of the city in April 2019. Fighting on the government’s side, there were also units from the former Yemeni army that changed sides after Saleh was murdered by the Houthis in December 2017. The so-called Guardians of the Republic, led by Saleh’s nephew, are now fighting alongside the Hadi government. The Marib Governorate, where local tribes, the Islah party, and members of the General People’s Congress all have a strong presence can be considered a pro-Hadi territory. In addition, numerous local groups continue to strive for more autonomy. Particularly worthy of mention are the Tihama Movement and the Tihama Resistance, which also fights against the Houthis alongside the military coalition in Hodeidah, as well as groups active in the al-Mahrah Governorate, which borders Oman.
The last Yemeni parliament, elected on 27 April 2003, originally had 301 members, most of them affiliated to either the General People’s Congress—Saleh’s and Hadi’s party—or the Islah party. In February 2015, the Houthis declared this parliament dissolved, and no sittings have taken place since late March 2015. Hadi tried to revive the parliament numerous times and called for a meeting of MPs, many of whom currently live abroad or have since joined the Houthis or the Southern Transitional Council. A meeting consisting of 145 MPs that took place in the eastern city of Sayun in April 2019 was only possible thanks to Saudi protection and was accompanied by street protests organized by the Southern Movement and supporters of the Southern Transitional Council.
International diplomats and the media often describe the Hadi government as “legitimate” or “internationally recognized”. After Saleh stepped down, Hadi was nominated as a consensus candidate—and thereby the sole candidate—for the 2012 presidential election, and was only supposed to lead the country during its transitional phase. His government should have ended with an election in 2014 following the NDC, but this election never took place.
Regional and International Actors and Their Influence on the War
Behind any larger national power there is a regional power that sometimes intervenes drastically in local events, thereby also codetermining the war in Yemen and its continuation. Three countries that play an essential role in Yemen are especially worth mentioning here: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. Iran primarily supports the Houthis by supplying weapons and offering military and strategic advice. However, the relationship between Iran and the Houthis should not be equated with Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as it has considerably less influence on the Houthis and therefore a less direct influence on events in Yemen. Nonetheless, in recent years the Houthis have clearly begun to orient themselves more strongly towards Iran, which can be explained both by the military pressure exerted by the enemy as well as the growing politicization of the two largest Muslim denominations, the Shiites and the Sunnites.
The military coalition, consisting mainly of Arab states, is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia’s main interest is securing its southern border with Saada. It has influenced political events throughout Yemen’s recent history and has supported different actors at different times, especially in times of war or conflict. The kingdom attempts to secure its influence in Yemen by fighting the Houthis and thereby containing Iran’s influence in the region. In addition, it seeks to protect its geostrategic interests, including its efforts to find alternative access to the Indian Ocean for its oil industry in order to remove dependence on the Strait of Hormuz. One such attempt is the construction of oil pipelines in al-Mahra, where Saudi Arabia has built up a strong military presence in recent months, even though al-Mahra is Yemen’s most eastern governorate and also the most distant from the conflict. The United Arab Emirates follow their own interests, focussing mostly on South Yemen, where they offer financial support for the building of political and military structures on an institutional level. The background for their interest in South Yemen is, on the one hand, the Emirate’s poor relations with the Islah party, part of Hadi’s coalition, because it incorporates elements of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood that are unacceptable for Emirati internal politics. These interests are aligned with those of many South Yemenis, among whom the Islah party has a bad reputation, as many believe that the party has had a negative influence on the socio-cultural changes that the region has experienced since the 1990s. This common interest makes it easier for the Emirates to keep South Yemen free of Houthi and Islah influence. In addition, the United Arab Emirates also pursue their own geostrategic and commercial interests in South Yemen, which are mostly related to the expansion and rebuilding of trade and sea routes at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The strait separates the Red Sea from Gulf of Aden and constitutes one of the most important regions for international shipping traffic. The port of Aden, one of the largest natural sea ports in the world, could play a very important role here in the future.
The military coalition receives strategic advice and logistical support predominantly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, who are the most influential international actors involved in the Yemen war and intervene directly in its events. Despite prolonging its halt of arm supplies to Saudi Arabia for a further six months in late March 2019, Germany is involved in weapons exports via third countries, and is thus also an actor in the Yemen crisis like other weapon-exporting countries. Russia, one of a number of countries pursuing geostrategic interests at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, has tried to retain good relations with all of the Yemeni actors involved. As of late, the country has developed closer relations with the Southern Transitional Council. In March 2019, it decided to open a consulate in Aden.
Is the End of the War in Sight?
The preliminary talks for peace negotiations held in Stockholm in December 2018, which brought together the two warring parties—the Hadi government and the Houthis—for the first time in over two years, provided a glimmer of hope for an agreement and the revitalization of the political process. However, these negotiations were problematic in that they did not bring any other actors to the table, despite the fact that there are many directly or indirectly involved in the war that are neither represented by Hadi nor by the Houthis. The Southern Transitional Council sought to take part as a third negotiating party, but this was rejected by both the Hadi government and the Houthis. The regional powers directly involved in the war and thus active warring parties were also not included in the talks. Independent of who did or did not participate in the talks, however, the Stockholm negotiations are set to fail, as six months hence almost no significant progress has been made on the points agreed. The recent escalations in combat and a further shifting of the front lines  make a return to the negotiation table more unlikely.