For over three years, Yemen, officially the Republic of Yemen, has been the theatre of a bloody civil war.1 The situation has reached an apparent stalemate, although the recent assassination of a former president may just alter that balance. Given the complexities of who is fighting who, as well as Yemen’s tumultuous history, there appear to be four possible outcomes to this conflict. (Featured Image © Ibrahem Qasim)
Who is Fighting Who Again?
The war originally started with the Houthi’s rebelling against the government of president Hadi and taking over the capital Sana’a in September 2014.2 The president fled south, to the port of Aden and managed to gain the support from certain Gulf States.3 After Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition to fight the Houthi’s, the conflict spiraled out of control.
The Houthi’s until recently formed an unlikely alliance with former president Saleh’s forces, with whom they were sworn enemies until 2011.4 This Northern alliance controlled the mountainous northwest, the capital Sana’a and a part of the northern coastal strip.5 Allegedly, these Northern forces, especially the Houthi’s, had and still have Iranian support.6
On December 4th 2017, reports emerged that Saleh had been killed by the Houthi’s whilst trying to escape Sana’a. Saleh had unexpectedly called for a “new page” in relations with Saudi-Arabia, after which fighting between Saleh loyalists and Houthi’s took place in Sana’a, which eventually ended with Saleh’s death.7
The conflict has a strong North versus South dimension
The dynamics of the civil war are likely to change, as certain Saleh loyalists may now break with the Houthi’s – especially after Saleh’s son asked to do so.8 It is possible that these Saleh loyalists will ally themselves with the Saudi-led coalition. This coalition consists of troops and clans loyal to current president Hadi: these forces are mostly Sunni and hail from the South of Yemen. This alliance controls the South and large parts of Eastern Yemen.
Finally, it should be noted that Al-Qaeda and ISIS control certain small-scattered areas in the South and in the East. Despite this exception, the conflict does retain a strong North versus South dimension. The question remains how recent evolutions may alter this balance. To find out what could be next, one should first look at Yemen’s past.
Lessons from the Past
Unfortunately, Yemen is no stranger to war. Throughout its rich and ancient history, numerous local and foreign empires have tried to control the mighty Incense Road and the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait – which separates the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa.9 Often, this has led to Northern Yemenis (being) pitted against those in the South.
This mountainous land has always been a refuge for rebels of all kinds, with the Zaydi Shiite’s being the best example, after they had fallen out with the more mainstream branches of Islam in the early days of the religion.10 This split within Islam continues to haunt the country to this day, with the North being largely Shiite (both Zaydi and Ismaeli) and the South and East being largely Sunni. As a consequence, the North versus South dimension is further complicated by religious differences.
Throughout its rich and ancient history, numerous local and foreign empires have tried to control the mighty Incense Road and the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait
After several periods of conflict, Yemen was finally reunified in 1990.11 However, tensions remained, which resulted in the civil war of 1994. The Yemenite nationalists – mostly hailing from the North – won, but had major difficulties in governing the country effectively, leading to the rise of Al-Qaeda and to the beginning of the Shiite (Houthi) Insurgency of 2004.12 With the advent of the so-called Arab-Spring in 2011, it came as no surprise that Yemen spiralled into a new conflict. In 2015, the current civil war erupted, once again pitting the North against the South.13
Even the current foreign involvement is not a new factor.14 In the 1994 civil war, Saudi-Arabia and other countries actively supported the South.15 This current war is novel in the sense that the war seems to have spilled-into Saudi Arabia and that the UAE has taken on a major role in the conflict and the keen interest in controlling the Isle of Socotra16 as well as other islands in the Red Sea.17
Given the current situation, taking Yemen’s complex society and history into account, the conflict could move into one of the following four directions.18
Resolution through Negotiations
In this best of scenarios, the international community fully implements and enforces Resolution 2216, as put forth by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).19 This would mean the involved parties eventually sign a much-needed cease-fire and resume talks. Such a ceasefire would be reached because the parties have become war-tired: no side is able or willing to make significant gains anymore, lacking the necessary resources, and/or is subject to strong international pressure.
After having broken down multiple times before, talks could continue. The Sultanate of Oman, which has refused to take sides in the conflict, could act as a broker, much like it did in the run-up to the Iran Nuclear Talks.20 Kuwait and Qatar are other options, although Qatar is currently curtailed by most GCC members.21 Another possible broker could be the EU, as it is anxious to stabilize the region in order to stem the migrant crisis and to protect this major shipping lane.22 The EU does seem divided on this issue, as certain member states have lucrative weapon deals with the Saudi-led coalition.23
In order to achieve a deal, heavy international pressure would have to be applied on both sides. Unfortunately, this pressure is unlikely to increase
The aim of such talks could be to establish a federal state, as first proposed during the National Dialogue of 2013-2014.24 A successful deal would balance the grievances and worries of the Northern Zaydi tribes and of the Southern and Eastern tribes. This deal should put forth a system of obligatory power sharing, as domination of the federal government by one tribal alliance would quickly lead to a new conflict, as history has proven.
In order to achieve such a deal, heavy international pressure would have to be applied on both sides. Unfortunately, this pressure is unlikely to increase. Syria has taken priority and there remains little will ‘on the ground’ to solve the problem.25 Taking into account the elimination of former President Saleh, this scenario currently seems to be the least likely.
Back to Two Yemens?
If the talks fail to achieve a definitive breakthrough in the short term, Yemen could head for a situation similar to one it has seen many times before: de facto two Yemen’s, with only one, in this case the South, being widely recognised by the international community.
A UN force could run a Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ) on both sides of the de facto border and try to preserve the above-mentioned cease-fire. Thus the conflict in Yemen would become a “frozen” conflict with an occasional flare-up. Other similar frozen conflicts can be found in Cyprus and several countries in the Caucasus.26
This is already a partial reality, as both North and South have established a functioning government
Such a UN force27 would most likely be limited in number, as the U.S. would veto a large force in order to protect the interests of Saudi-Arabia and its other Arab allies in the region28. The Houthi’s would possibly also see such a strong force as provocative, and some incidents could arise. Likewise, Al-Qaeda and ISIS would target these forces, in order to bring back the anarchy in which they can thrive and expand their power.29
Arguably, one could say that this is already a partial reality, as the Houthi’s have been in control of the North for quite a while, and have established a functioning government and ministries. The South has likewise done so in the parts it fully controls. However, the exact border remains elusive for now, especially given the complications of ISIS’ and Al-Qaeda’s presence. If Yemen were to split officially, it will still take significant time to materialize.
Raising the Stakes: Breakthrough
In this scenario, the backing powers of one or both factions suddenly raise their stakes due to a dramatic change of circumstances. The recent death of former president Saleh and the possibility of his forces switching sides to the Saudi coalition could just prove to be such a catalyst. Another example could be the ending of the war in Syria, as this would free up resources for the conflict in Yemen.30
The Yemen war would become a full-fledged proxy war between Saudi-Arabia and Iran. Casualties would increase, as would civilian deaths and collateral damage. Ultimately, Saudi- Arabia’s coalition could win a costly victory, as they would not allow a (perceived) Iranian presence so close to their homeland.31
Whilst the greater part of Yemen would be at peace, the Northern highlands would stay in conflict
However, an occupation of the North would be very demanding, as the Houthi’s would not cease to rebel in the difficult mountainous terrain that is their homeland, which greatly advantages guerrilla-style fighters, much like in Afghanistan.32 It is thus likely that whilst the greater part of Yemen would be at peace, the Northern highlands would stay in conflict. The Saudi-led alliance would most likely try to contain the fighting to this area.
In the highly unlikely event that the Shia Houthi’s would overpower the Saudi-led coalition, resistance in the Sunni South would be fierce.33 A government-in-exile would perhaps be set up in an allied Arab country. Yemen would most likely be largely isolated in the international community and there would be some sort of embargo on the country.34 Given the power imbalance, a breakthrough on part of the Saudi coalition seems far more likely.
Continuation of the Stalemate
The most probable scenario is the continuation of the stalemate.35 Despite changes on the ground, the Saudi-led coalition remains reluctant to put boots on the ground, as they fear public outcry at home at the risk of many casualties.36 They therefore resort to mainly using their Special Forces, navies and air forces instead of regular land units. Indeed, most boots on the ground are either Yemenites armed and trained by them, or “friendly” tribes and mercenaries.37
Another factor is that Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince, a major player in the conflict, reportedly wants a way out of the Yemen conflict.38 Due to the recent developments within the Kingdom, Saudi-Arabia will most likely focus on its internal problems.39 They may also prefer to open up new fronts against the perceived threat of Iran, rather than going all in in Yemen, a war that they seemingly cannot win. However, it is hard to predict what Saudi-Arabia will eventually do, but it will likely continue to play some role as it will try to “contain” its Yemen-crisis.
Due to the continuation of the stalemate, the Yemenite civilians would continue to suffer from indiscriminate bombing, malnourishment, lack of water and an ever-growing Cholera-crisis
Both sides will try to make some gains and the Southern Coalition may slowly approach Sana’a, but this is by no means assured. Likewise, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, perhaps strengthened by the influx of ISIS veterans fleeing Syria and Iraq, will continue to flourish and perhaps even expand their sphere of influence.40
Due to the continuation of the stalemate, the Yemenite civilians would continue to suffer from indiscriminate bombing, malnourishment, lack of water and an ever-growing Cholera-crisis.41 Major NGO’s and the UN will continue to highlight the worsening situation, but no drastic action will be taken unless a serious incident occurs that causes global outcry – one comparable to the 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria.
Yet foreign media coverage on Yemen is limited and the warring parties perhaps know very well how not to cross any so-called “red lines”. As a consequence, the conflict is likely to continue to simmer for the foreseeable time. This option, unfortunately, seems to be the most likely. As a consequence, the land that the Romans once called Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”) may for the foreseeable future stay Arabia Infelix.