Date: Monday, 08 January 2018
As part of this new GRI series, Nicolò Donà dalle Rose dissects major conflicts around the world and provides reflections on potential future developments. This issue focuses on the short and long-term outlook for Yemen.
While the attention of media outlets has recently revolved around President Trump’s statements regarding the establishment of a US embassy in Jerusalem, the conflict in Yemen rages on.
There have been a number of crucial developments in Yemen recently, with the assassination of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December, a new Houthi-originated missile strike attempt on Riyadh and continued military operations by the Saudi-led coalition. The cost of the conflict is borne in lives, as the number of civilian casualties has soared past 10,000 deaths, in addition to the three million already-displaced Yemenis.
The consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) – the architect behind the military operation – gives increased political weight to future Saudi decisions in Yemen. Further developments on the ground continue to have a direct impact on the regional balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran, shaping how their proxies interact in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
The recent conflict in Yemen began in 2011, when opponents of President Saleh joined a tribal opposition movement in Saana that sought to capitalize on regional upheaval in the Arab world to remove him from power.
Despite an early deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which Saleh initially accepted, the president changed his mind in the summer of 2011 and refused to step down. Fighting erupted and after President Saleh was wounded, operational power was transferred to his vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Since then, the Houthis have opposed Hadi’s plans to turn Yemen into a federation and have conducted a relatively successful military insurgency. The United Nations put forward a peace plan, but Houthi demands for more concessions in the new constitution has stalled the resolution’s process.
By February of 2015, Hadi had been driven from the capital, Saana, taking refuge in the southern port city of Aden. Upon Hadi’s departure, Saleh – at this point allied with the Houthis – publicly denounced him and called on him to go into exile.
By April of 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, made up by the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar (until June of 2017), Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Egypt began an extensive military operation that continues to this day.
Royal Saudi Air Force aircraft, including the European-made Mirage and the Eurofighter Typhoon, began air strikes on Houthi targets, while the United States supported the coalition at arms-length, agreeing to supply intelligence and logistics.
While the conflict has been characterized as sectarian in dimension, between the Zaydi Shia Houthis and Sunnis, it would be better described as an inter-tribal war with extensive foreign involvement by Saudi Arabia, its allies, and Iran. The political context leading up to the war was further exacerbated by continued grievances over public corruption and tension between political groups in North and South Yemen.
Other observers have characterized this as a plot by Saleh – a Zaydi Shia– to regain power from Hadi by lending support to Houthi factions.
There was an increase in military activities from all parties involved in 2017, particularly in the realm of aerial activity. Following the Navy SEAL raid approved by President Trump earlier in the year – which reportedly killed 14 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders and an equal number of civilians – the US conducted a number of air strikes against AQAP and Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State) targets in the country.
Meanwhile, the Houthis have been actively targeting Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia announced that its Patriot missile defense system intercepted a Houthi-launched Burqan 2H long-range missile on course for Riyadh’s airport. Some analysts refuted the claim, citing evidence that indicates an unimpeded but unsuccessful strike near the target. This has sent shivers down the back of other countries that rely on the Patriot missile defense system to counter Iranian and Russian threats. Regardless, this was just one missile in a series of over 70 attempted strikes from the Houthis.
A similar Scud missile to that of the November strike – likely supplied by Iran – was intercepted over southern Riyadh in mid-December. The increasing rate of strikes points to a Houthi leadership which is alarmed at the situation on the ground and is likely ordering strikes to counter coalition advances on the battlefield.
Source: Liveuamap, 12-30-17; Legend: Red – Ansar Allah (Houthis), Green – Ansar al-Sharia (Daesh), AQAP, Blue – Saudi coalition, Hadi administration
The Saudi-led coalition campaign has begun to inflict serious damages to Houthi positions, leading Saleh to formally sever ties with the Houthis on December 2 and call for dialogue with Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saleh was killed by Houthi fighters while trying to flee Sanaa two days later.
While Saana remains under the control of Houthi forces, maintaining this position is becoming increasingly difficult, as coalition forces move to pressure the Houthis from all sides. On 7 December, pro-Hadi forces, bolstered by coalition air strikes, seized the Al-Khokha district on the Red Sea coast, establishing a foothold from which to erode Houthi control on its western flank.
In recent days, strikes and ground maneuvers have continued. 40 Houthis were reportedly killed in a Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) bombing in the province of Dali on 27 December. On the same day, footage emerged showing logistic and equipment supply to Yemeni Military Forces and Yemeni tribal groups supported by the Saudi-led coalition. These groups are situated south east of the city of Taiz, deep within the Houthi stronghold; an attack from this location could pose a credible threat to the Houthis.
Still, the situation remains largely static from a territorial perspective. It is unlikely that Saudi-supported forces will be able to retake major portions of Houthi-controlled land in a rapid fashion, given geographic barriers and Houthi control of major cities like Sanaa.
Meanwhile the humanitarian toll of the war continues to grow.
The future of Yemen will be closely tied to Saudi politics moving forward. MBS sees Yemen as one of the leading threats posed to the Kingdom by his Iranian adversary. Given his desire to consolidate power, the Crown Prince will likely escalate the rhetoric against Iran in the coming months. Further, MBS tends to bite when he barks, so one should expect the kingdom’s activities in Yemen to intensify in the short-term. In the long-term, concerns over the effectiveness of the Yemen campaign will likely proliferate.
For Iran’s part, the evolution of the Yemen conflict has elevated its long-standing support for the Houthis into a persistent threat against Saudi mainland. The recent exposure of the Saudi Patriot missile defense system’s shortcomings only cost Iran the price of shipping the Scud missile components to Yemen, whereas Saudi Arabia has lost credibility in its ability to defend against not only Houthi strikes, but also Iranian ones.
As Tehran seeks to extend its influence in Baghdad, strengthen the regime’s presence in Syria, and support Hezbollah in Lebanon, Yemen continues to be a highly convenient proxy war. Given that Iran’s support for the Houthis accomplishes its political objectives without an extensive mobilization of its own forces or assets, Yemen is costing Saudi Arabia much more than it does Iran.
However, more than anyone, the weight of this proxy war will continue to be borne by the Yemeni population. Beyond the thousands of deaths, the conflict has led to large-scale famine and disease, scarce access to clean water, and endemic violence against women. A further escalation in the coalition aerial campaign promises a grim future for Yemenis. On 28 December, the UN reported that Saudi-led air raids killed 68 Yemeni civilians in just one day.
The domestic political dimension also remains complex. Even if the Saudi-led coalition effectively reversed the situation on the ground for Yemeni forces, Hadi’s reinstatement is far from certain. The proliferation of extremist, Islamist groups, like AQAP and Daesh, in addition to the multiplicity of political actors involved in Yemen spells a complicated recovery process for the country.
Even among coalition members, disagreements about Yemen’s future abound. While Saudi Arabia supports Yemeni armed forces directly, the United Arab Emirates has supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Despite the latter’s support for Hadi, the STC has increasingly called for secession from Hadi’s rule.
Meanwhile, the international community and European Union have called to curtail arms sales to the in light of the civilian death toll. Thus far, humanitarian concerns have been largely trumped by the profits generated from arms sales to coalition forces. With the exception of Norway, votes to ban arm sales to coalition forces have thus far been only symbolic. For the time being, there will likely be no any significant changes in the way either Saudi Arabia or Iran obtain and develop weapon systems and military equipment.
Considering all of these factors, it is very unlikely for a political solution to take place in Yemen anytime soon. Military and rhetorical escalation by involved parties will likely continue in the short-term, further increasing a quickly rising civilian death toll.
In the long-term, any sort of post-conflict reconciliation will have to account of the different forces that have vied for leadership in Yemen since well before the conflict began in 2011. In settling its domestic political dynamics, Yemen also needs to find a way to distance itself from the Saudi-Iranian proxy war. The country will stay embroiled in bloody conflict for as long as it remains the playground for the region’s great powers. Until then, the international community stands witness to one of the most brutal humanitarian catastrophes of our lifetimes.