[In late March 2015, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia initiated a military campaign against Yemen consisting of intensive air raids, the arming of local allies and a de facto naval and air blockade of the country. Initially termed Operation Decisive Storm but since renamed Operation Restore Hope, it continues to this day. Riyadh identified the recent territorial gains of Yemen’s Houthi movement, and the ouster of President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government, as the reasons for its campaign and pledged that both would be swiftly rolled back. Four months later neither objective appears to be in reach, nor is a negotiated end to this conflict in sight. As part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya asked April Longley Alley, Crisis Group Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula, to shed light on the causes and course of this war.]
Jadaliyya (J): Who exactly are the Houthis, why have they apparently aligned with their former nemesis Ali Abdullah Saleh, and is their domination of Yemen in your view sustainable?
April Longley Alley (ALA): The Houthis are an armed group that has its roots in a movement for Zaydi cultural and religious revivalism in north Yemen. (Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam distinct from the Twelver Shiism prevalent in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon). They have a strong militia component, but view themselves as a political and social movement against corruption and Western imperialism. Their primarily base of support is in the northern Zaydi highlands and especially in the Saada governorate bordering Saudi Arabia.
During and after the 2011 uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the movement expanded rapidly, forming alliances with disgruntled tribesmen in the north, left-leaning activists and even some southern separatists. As the Yemeni transition collapsed, they took advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of reform and also, ironically, tacitly aligned with Saleh and parts of his General People’s Congress party to defeat common enemies, including the Sunni Islamist Islah Party (a coalition that includes the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood).
The Houthis expanded rapidly into a political and security void. As long as they were in opposition, they were able to garner widespread sympathy and support, far beyond their traditional base. When they captured the capital Sanaa in September 2014, with the help of parts of the security forces loyal to Saleh and frustrated with his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi, things began to change.
The tipping point against them politically happened in February of this year when they overthrew the government and attempted to install a revolutionary council. Shortly thereafter, foreign embassies pulled out of Sanaa and a wide array of Yemeni political and social groups began to speak out and mobilize politically against them. Since then the Houthis have continued to overstretch politically and militarily as they have pushed southwards. In short, the Houthis were in many ways victims of their own success. They overestimated their popular appeal, particularly in areas like Aden where many locals viewed them as northern invaders. Neither the Houthis nor any other single group can single-handedly dominate Yemen.
J: The Saudi-led coalition began its air offensive against Yemen in late March, and four months later it still continues. What is this campaign hoping to achieve, what has it achieved so far, and are its objectives in your view realistic given realities within Yemen and the apparent hesitancy of many of Riyadh`s allies to maintain their involvement?
ALA: The campaign’s stated objectives are to reinstate the government of President Hadi, who is in exile in Riyadh, and to roll back Houthi military gains. After four months of a punishing air raids, and a naval and air blockade, the campaign has achieved some success. It has slowed the advance of the Houthis and allied military units loyal to former president Saleh.
Had the coalition not intervened in March, the Houthi-Saleh alliance would have consolidated control over the entire country. (That said, their dominance would have been short-lived; their alliance is a tactical one, and many areas of the country, especially in the south, would have eventually organized military and political resistance against them). The campaign has also destroyed the Yemeni air force and most of the heavy weaponry that was under Houthi/Saleh control. Most recently, in mid-July, the coalition had its first significant victory when Yemeni fighters, supported by new military hardware, coalition air cover, and trainers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) re-took the port city of Aden. Several ministers, although not President Hadi, have returned to Aden and the coalition is preparing to use it as base to launch attacks against the Houthis in other cities.
While some gains have been made, a maximalist interpretation of the campaign’s objectives – reinstating the Hadi government’s control over all of Yemen and defeating the Houthis militarily – is unrealistic. The Houthi/Saleh alliance can be pushed out of Aden, and possibly from other areas in the south where local opposition to them is strongest, but it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat them in the northern, Zaydi highlands. In these areas the Houthis, with or without support from Saleh, appear to be well placed to fight a protracted conflict.
The prospects for President Hadi and his government returning to rule over a unified Yemen are also scant. President Hadi has lost credibility across the political spectrum, including in the port city of Aden. There, anti-Houthi/Saleh fighters are a mix of strange bedfellows, ranging from separatists, disgruntled tribesmen, Islamists and violent jihadists, most with little allegiance to the Yemeni government in exile.
At present, neither the Houthi/Saleh bloc nor the Saudi-led coalition opposing it is capable of achieving military victory throughout Yemen, or of carving out a stable territorial base. If the coalition could split Saleh and his supporters from the Houthis, they would have a better chance militarily. But this would require a political compromise. Even then, a full surrender or defeat of the Houthis in the northern highlands is unlikely.
J: To what extent has the balance of forces within Yemen shifted since the beginning of this conflict? Do you believe that the prospects for a Southern secession from Yemen have increased as a result?
ALA: The power balance in Yemen has gone through a number of dizzying shifts in recent years. The Houthis were the biggest winners of the 2011 uprising, but they have quickly overextended, particularly in Yemen’s southern areas. Militarily, the Houthi/Saleh alliance remains the strongest Yemeni force on the ground. At the same time, it is unclear how long this alliance will remain united. On the other side, the Saudi coalition is gradually strengthening an anti-Houthi fighting force, although this group remains internally fractious, and is divided between Islamists, separatists and tribal groupings with very different visions for Yemen’s future.
One of the main outcomes of the war is that the southern separatist movement has shifted from a peaceful movement to an alliance of armed militias. Given the brutal fighting that took place in Aden between southern fighters and the Houthi/Saleh northern alliance, their commitment to separation is even stronger now. As fighting continues and the divisions between north and south are inflamed and militarized, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine a unified Yemen emerging from this conflict.
J: The efforts by the United Nations to broker an end to this conflict have produced only an agreement for a short ceasefire in May and one in July that collapsed almost immediately. Efforts by other states, notably Oman, have similarly come up short. Why does there seem to be no room for diplomacy to end this conflict and what would be required for a negotiated resolution to be successful?
ALA: The main problem is that the two parties best positioned to halt major combat, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, are not ready for a political compromise and both believe that they can achieve more militarily. The Saudis and their Yemeni allies appear to be preparing for a prolonged conflict lasting years, as are the Houthis. The Houthis certainly want a ceasefire and a lifting of the blockade, but it is not clear how much they are willing to concede in return. Until now, they have not indicated, either through specific proposals or actions on the ground, that they are prepared to withdraw from cities they have recently conquered and share political power. For their part, Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies do not trust that the Houthis will respect any compromise unless the latter suffer substantial military loses or are completely defeated first. While the coalition may be able to push the Houthis back further in some areas, it will come at tremendous cost to the civilian population. In the highlands, a complete capitulation of the Houthis is an unrealistic objective. The intransigence and hubris of both sides is dragging the country into a multi-year conflict.
J: Many view the current war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What are your views?
ALA: Like many conflicts in the region, this one has domestic as well as regional drivers. This conflict is a battle between Yemeni stakeholders over political power and the structure of the state. But this struggle has been overlaid by the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is reasserting its power in Yemen, which had waned in recent years, by buttressing the Hadi government and weakening the Houthis, who Riyadh views as Iranian proxies. Regionally, the Houthis fall within the Iranian political orbit. But they depend far less on Iran for military assistance than their adversaries do on Saudi Arabia. What is certain is that Riyadh’s perception of Tehran’s interference in Yemen, coupled with the Houthis’ unwillingness to constructively address these fears, has magnified the violence and is making resolution of this conflict infinitely more complex.
J: There seems to be an almost deliberate attempt to foment a humanitarian emergency in what is already the Arab world`s poorest state. Is the situation as bad as reports indicate, and what are the implications of this?
ALA: The situation is catastrophic. In early July, the United Nations (UN) raised Yemen to a level three crisis, the same level as Iraq, Syria and South Sudan. Airstrikes, fighting on the ground and, most importantly, the blockade have created a perfect storm that is driving the country to the brink of famine. Health services have virtually collapsed. Water, which is extracted by diesel pumps, is quickly running out. In cities like Aden, which have borne some of the worst of the ground fighting, there have been reports of dengue fever outbreaks. The scale of the humanitarian crisis poses a stark ethical challenge to the Saudi-backed coalition and its supporters, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Houthis, and the army forces fighting with them, are far from blameless. Their actions are largely responsibly for plunging the country into war, and they have at times seemingly violated international humanitarian law, by indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. But the main driver of the humanitarian challenge is the blockade that is meant to prevent the Houthis from acquiring weapons. The de facto blockade of regular civilian imports is tantamount to collective punishment of the Yemeni population on account of the actions of a small group of fighters. After four months, the coalition and the Yemeni government exiled in Riyadh have been either unwilling or unable to resolve the challenge of screening for arms while allowing a sufficient flow of commercial imports, especially of diesel and food.