Saudi operations are pushing the pro-Iranian Houthis back. But the war is dismantling Yemen’s social and political structure, and there’s no going back.
It’s been more than four years since the Houthis (an Iran-aligned, Zaidi Shia-led rebel group) took over Sana’a and nearly three since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in order to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power. But the conﬂict now appears to be more intractable than ever. Even if peace could ultimately be achieved through political talks or a decisive victory from one side or the other, at this point those futures seem far oﬀ at best. And as the ﬁghting continues, a mosaic of tensions has begun threatening to ignite further conﬂicts within Yemen’s war that could shake the country for years to come, even after any potential peace agreement.
That isn’t to say that the Saudi-led coalition has failed to make progress since the start of the conﬂict. It is undeniable that the Houthi expansion in Yemen has been halted. The area under the rebel group’s control has been steadily contracting since the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm. Meanwhile, the Yemeni economy has also collapsed, and the governing methods employed by the Houthis have grown increasingly authoritarian, particularly following the assassination of their adversary-turned-allyturned-adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Thus, even in areas under Houthi control, popular opposition has been growing.
Nonetheless, no one would go so far as to predict a fast and decisive victory. And as the conﬂict drags on, it has only served to strengthen Iran’s ties with the Houthis; indeed, owing in part to apparent help from the Islamic Republic, the rebel group has dramatically increased the range of its missiles, striking Riyadh twice at the end of 2017. The bulk of Yemen’s population centres, including not just Sana’a but also the key cities of Ibb and Hudayda, remain in Houthi hands. And even in many of the areas from which the Houthis have ostensibly been driven out, stability is still far from taking hold. Yemen’s declared temporary capital, Aden, remains rife with assassinations and occasional terrorist attacks, and areas on both sides of the country (including Aden) continue to suﬀer from a poor provision of services. Despite continuing counterterrorism operations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) maintains a signiﬁcant operating space in the country. Even liberated areas of the city of Taiz (still under siege by the Houthis) remain riven with inﬁghting.
As many proponents of the ongoing military oﬀensive frame it, these issues are signiﬁcant but ultimately secondary. They view the continued pressure applied to the Houthis as the key to resolving the situation. And, in many regards, the continued war of attrition has gradually started to deliver results. The Houthis have lost not only land but also allies, most crucially the network of former President Saleh, which has largely broken with the rebels since their alliance collapsed into open street battles in Sana’a last December, even if they’ve been able to reconsolidate power over the past month.
Such assessments, however, fail to take into account some of the most important side eﬀects of the continuing conﬂict: the disintegration of Yemen’s institutions, the shredding of the country’s social fabric and the fracturing of the Yemeni polity. Key administrative branches of the government have been hollowed out or divided by political wrangling. Funds have been diverted, and many of the most capable bureaucrats have ﬂed to the private sector or comparative safety abroad. Key positions have been used as tools of patronage, leading to unqualiﬁed and often uninterested oﬃcials lording over key portfolios. Sectarian and regionalist sentiments that were once hushed are now trumpeted.
At its essence, this disintegration has only made the conﬂict more diﬃcult to resolve. After decades of dominating the country’s political life, Yemen’s traditional power centres – most notably Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party (GPC) and the components of the established opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) – have been weakened tremendously, even if other ﬁgures, particularly within the military establishment, continue to play key roles. The traditional leadership is increasingly being driven into exile, detained or killed. Their ability to act has been constrained by their alliances with various outside powers, and their presence on the ground has dissipated. All the while, a diverse group of actors have been taking advantage on the ground, eﬀectively redrawing the country’s power map.
Key factions of the Southern Movement (an amorphous grouping aimed at restoring autonomy to Yemen’s formally independent south) have coalesced into the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Beneﬁtting from increasing popular support and the Emirati backing a number of its key leaders, the STC has grown increasingly powerful, directly challenging the internationally recognized government. STC casts itself as the representative of the voices of southerners and has called for their inclusion in the political process. Tensions between the STC and the internationally recognized government have repeatedly erupted, most recently in the form of clashes that shook Aden for much of late January.
Regardless of how things settle, these tensions are likely to continue, particularly since steps that have fuelled a de facto sort of autonomy have already been taken. UAE-backed local security forces such as the Security Belt and the Hadramawt and Shabwa Elite Forces have already moved to establish a strong presence on the ground. It remains unclear what role they will play in the future or in a post-conﬂict scenario, particularly considering that they appear to be operating outside of the Yemeni armed forces chain of command. But in spite of ongoing tensions in Aden, Mukalla, the capital of the key province of Hadramawt, has remained a relative bastion of peace since its liberation from AQAP-aligned ﬁghters in spring 2016, although terrorist attacks do continue there.
Similarly, in some areas liberated from the Houthis, a combination of coalition aid and traditions of tribal governance has fuelled a return to a relative calm. This has been particularly true in Marib, which has experienced an economic boom as a mix of internally displaced Yemenis and economic migrants have relocated to the city. Simultaneously, local authorities have used their ties to key powers to further a long-hoped for process of decentralization, something that local oﬃcials see as crucial to the provincial capital’s new prosperity.
And yet in many parts of the country, the vacuum has provided space for a variety of radical groups to operate, including AQAP and the Yemeni branch of Islamic State (IS). In some regards, AQAP has experienced setbacks. They’ve lost control of much of the territory once under their control in Hadramawt, Shabwa, Abyan and other parts of the south. Nonetheless, they continue to retain the capacity to carry out attacks. And, simultaneously, a variety of rogue armed groups continue to hold eﬀective control of some parts of key cities, including Aden and Taiz, where they’ve been accused of engaging in attacks against their political opponents and intimidation campaigns aimed at silencing civil society. With the humanitarian situation continuing to worsen, there is nothing
Yemen needs more than peace. But any plan that fails to take into account the dramatic ways in which the nation’s power structures have been destroyed is bound to fail. Thus, while diplomats speak of a single peace deal, a return to a previous status quo has become impossible. If there is to be a sustainable peace, Yemen will require a wide restructuring of its governing system. Such a task is anything but simple; the past four years have made Yemen’s already complicated mosaic of ethnic, political and religious dynamics even more convoluted. But the alternative is nothing less than indeﬁnite, devastating conﬂict.