by Adam Simpson
Before the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Storm of Decisiveness in March, Yemen had many afflictions. Its weak central government was wracked by internal feuds and beset by a diverse and widespread opposition. There was a proliferation of sub-state armed groups and extremist organizations. The population faced chronic food insecurity compounded by a highly dependent and fragile economy.
Looking at Yemen now, one might think that the coalition was attempting to treat Yemen’s maladies with a hammer. Despite the coalition’s recent success in rolling back Houthi rebels in the south, the prospects of reinstalling exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and bringing “security, stability, and unity” to Yemen remain unrealistic.
Hadi fled the country as the Houthis descended on Aden in March. For months Saudi bombs pounded forces linked to the Houthi rebels and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But it was only an influx of armed forces that broke the stalemate and turned the tide in Aden. Although negotiations are ongoing with the help of UN envoy Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed and the Omanis, the talks continue to falter as the government-in-exile and the Houthis remain obstinate. While Yemen’s two primary political forces bicker, humanitarian conditions are further deteriorating and the Islamic State is implementing its singular brand of carnage in the country.
The forces cobbled together against the Houthis are likely to turn on one another, and unlikely to embrace Hadi if he returns. Despite the common tropes in the media, forces that could be described as pro-Hadi have only recently emerged in Yemen. Injected by the coalition, they are primarily comprised of expatriate workers and Southern soldiers trained in Saudi Arabia.
The fighters doing the heavy lifting are known as the “popular committees.” Their affiliations range across the Yemeni political spectrum, from separatist to Salafist and even al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Many of the fighters have links to Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, which has a long history of enmity with the Southern Herak separatists. Both groups agree, however, on their disdain for Hadi. According to Islah, Hadi sat idly by while the Houthis conquered their tribal homelands in the north; according to Herak he represents the incompetent and corrupt central government that they hope to escape from. Given their highly divergent political visions, long-term cooperation between these disparate groups is unlikely, despite whatever carrots and sticks the Saudi-led coalition use.
Aside from trouble down south, the Saudi-led coalition’s declared intention to seize Sana’a in the coming days and then pursue the Houthis onto their home turf is likely to be a nightmarish campaign. The recent landing of Emirati troops in Marib province, west of the capital, provides further evidence that the coalition is pursuing a military solution rather than political negotiations. Anti-Houthi forces remain focused on consolidating gains in Ibb, Taiz, and Mareb, while a “landing operation” is additionally being planned in Hodeidah.
Emirati armor was a key factor in breaking the stalemate in the south, but that armor becomes less relevant in Yemen’s northern highlands. Although Islah’s fighters will certainly be willing to follow the coalition, the Herak movement that played a critical role in the southern popular committees will have no interest in moving north. Theirs was a campaign of self-defense, a case that cannot be made in securing Amran province for Hadi. Although the Houthis had no local support in the south, in the north this will not be the case thanks to their key ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, due to the widespread devastation meted out in their home province of Sa’ada, the Houthis will eventually find that they have nowhere to go back to. Thus, they and their allies may have little to gain but nothing to lose by continuing hostilities.
Armed groups are also picking up the pieces in the emerging vacuum. AQAP captured Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt, in early April and is increasing its activities as the Houthi-Hadi war’s frontline moves north. AQAP fighters reportedly looted Mukalla’s central bank and local military bases. Though they reached an initial agreement with local tribes to peacefully exit the city, they will do so with more wealth and arms than when they entered. Many armed groups—from Herak and Islah to tribal confederations and local militias—will emerge from battle feeling that they are owed something for their trouble. Hadi and his allies will not be able to appease and accommodate them all any time soon.
A key factor in the mobilization and demobilization of militias is physical and economic security. Local security dilemmas will be difficult to address in the short term with security forces divided against each other and police and military infrastructure decimated across Yemen. The humanitarian situation, with the country teetering on the edge of famine, now leaves 20 million people in desperate need of aid. These populations will remain vulnerable to exploitation by groups with resources—not just AQAP, but also corrupt figures with personal rather national goals, like Saleh and his cronies. Effectively addressing that humanitarian situation will be difficult as Saudi bombs and Houthi mortars continue to cripple infrastructure such as ports, bridges, and residential areas.
Though Hadi has announced his intention to return to Yemen in September and the Saudi-led coalition prepares to advance on Sana’a, this war and the new conflicts it threatens to spawn will endure. Yemen will need tremendous support to recover when it emerges from the current chaos. But given the trajectory the coalition is steering it toward, it is doubtful that Yemen can soon recover.
Photo: Mazrak Camp, north-west Yemen (courtesy of Hugh Macleod/IRIN via Flickr).
Adam Simpson is a Project Assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.