A strange and worrisome silence settled over Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa after Houthi rebels seized power in broad daylight one September day in 2014. For weeks, rumors had been floating that something of this sort would occur. But most everyone thought a genuine coup d'état would be much more dramatic.
“I was actually wandering around the city and there was this eerie quiet,” said Iona Craig, an independent journalist who was living in Sanaa the day the rebels officially seized power, taking government buildings, even the military headquarters. “I remember I was very close to the Ministry of Defense and somebody called me and said, ‘The Houthis have taken the Ministry of Defense.’ And I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, because there’s not a single shot being fired. I’m standing 150 meters away from it.’”
And so hardly anyone noticed much of this outside of Yemen. That wasn’t unusual for the Arab region’s poorest country, which rests quietly across from Somalia on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, astride the world’s fourth-busiest petroleum-shipping choke point.
Once it had become clear that Houthis had seized Sanaa, and were resolutely marching south to the port city of Aden, the fate of a struggling nation’s 26 million people—8 million of whom were already facing famine conditions — began a dark turn for the worse. Basic government functions, already shoddy, ceased almost entirely. In the eastern seaport of Mukalla, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula briefly ran its own de facto state, largely because it was willing to clean the trash off the streets.
Two-thirds of Yemenis were already what the UN called “food insecure” before the Houthis advanced south, but in the nearly three years since then, Yemen and the wider Middle East have plunged into dangerous instability. Never known as an international tourist draw, the country has recently made headlines for outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria—and ballistic missiles that travel hundreds of miles toward the Saudi capital of Riyadh. With the war on ISIS slowing down in Syria and Iraq, Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The thousand-day war in Yemen has embroiled nearly a dozen nations, most of them allied closely with Saudi Arabia. That means most of them are, by extension, allied against Iran, which stands accused of arming the Houthis. Of particular concern, the commander of U.S. Central Command told reporters Monday, is that Iran is arming the Yemeni rebels with ballistic missiles. General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, has said that this created a “growing missile threat that is being orchestrated by Iran through the Houthis, and which I think poses a significant danger, not just to Saudis and Emiratis, but in cases where we have our forces and citizens co-located it poses a risk to us.”
A few of those Saudi allies are wondering how to proceed, now that the Saudi-led war on the Houthis has largely stalemated in a horseshoe around Yemen’s western highlands. And even though the Saudis have succeeded in some respects along the southern coast, the broader fighting has accelerated the country’s descent from failed state into a “chaos state.”
“Yemen more closely resembles a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another, and beset by a complex range of internal politics and conflicts, than a single state engaged in a binary conflict,” wrote Peter Salisbury, a researcher with the London-based Chatham House policy institute, in a December report on the country.
Yemen has been a hotbed for extremism since the Afghan civil war ended in the 1990s. For more than 15 years, the U.S. military has used drones primarily to kill Yemen-based descendants of those foreign fighters, now known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This sustained war-within-a-war may be one of the few relative bright spots inside Yemen today, with some experts saying the U.S. military may be enjoying its most successful period against AQAP to date. For a brief time, even Yemenis changed their minds about American drone strikes in their country, thanks to improved targeting methods that have reduced civilian deaths and collateral damage.
But Yemeni attitudes began to swing back in 2017, beginning with the bloody January 29 U.S. special forces raid in central Yemen. The rest of the year brought little change to the front lines of the Saudi-led war.
The persistence of the Houthi rebellion—and the fact that more than 8,000 civilians are believed to have been killed since March 2015—has turned up the pressure on Washington. The seldom-asked question looming above it all: What does the United States expect the Saudis to be able to achieve in Yemen? December was a particularly bloody month for Yemeni civilians, with more than 100 killed in Saudi airstrikes in a single 10-day period.
The war’s rising civilian toll has prompted tense responses from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. In late December, he told a Reuters reporter he’s “never okay with civilian casualties” and not to “screw with me on this.” He also said that the “costs of war throughout history … are more heavily borne by civilians, as far as I'm concerned, in almost every war in history.” He also said the United States would do its best to reduce civilian casualty numbers, and “try to get this thing to the UN-brokered negotiating table.” Of the U.S. military’s mission in Yemen: “I leave perfection to God.”
In the mid-1990s, the CIA tried to analyze how nations and states fall apart. The study didn’t advance that far because there really wasn’t enough data at the time. Too few states had fallen by 1994 to get a good read on how they fail. But a look at Yemen today suggests more than a few answers to that question—and a whole host of problems that go along with it.
The Yemen of today can in some ways be seen as the enduring failure of three fallen 20th-century empires. It was Britain that initially put Yemen on the West’s maps. The southern port city of Aden became a key supply point for British warships traveling to and from India, especially after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. The Brits, along with the Ottomans, also introduced the idea of partition to the area, drawing a north-south border line that still largely exists today.
“Some of what you see today mirrors events that have kind of occurred in Yemen throughout its history,” said John Arterbury, a Middle East analyst focusing on Yemen at the Navanti Group in Arlington, Virginia. “The concept of Yemen is not new, certainly … But seldom has it ever been any sort of unified or uniform entity. So, what you’re seeing now kind of with the Houthi rebellion—although they are occupying Sanaa, which is fairly new in terms of how these dynamics kind of play out—it is a bit of a repeat between what has historically been a North-South divide in Yemen.”
Like the Ottomans during their time in Yemen, and Egypt’s incursion in the mid-1960s, the British presence in the South sparked years of violent resistance. (The final British troops departed Aden in 1967.) The Egyptians fought an insurgency in Yemen in the 1960s, but in the North. (Unlike Nasser and the Egyptians, the British didn’t use mustard gas.) Decades of occasional missile sales from the Soviets to both the North and the South preceded Yemen’s unification in 1990. “Yemen is sort of legendary in the missile world because when the civil war was going on [in the 1990s], both sides had gotten their hands on Russian ballistic missiles and were firing them at each other,” said Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “One had a Tochka, the other one had the Scud-B.”
The remnants of these missile arsenals are believed to be in Houthi hands, and launched against their enemies since taking Sanaa in 2014. The proliferation of these weapons, along with a torrent of small arms and rocket parts believed to have come from Iran, has propelled the Houthis well beyond a Yemeni rebellion and into a full-blown regional threat. And that doesn’t even take into account the other war going on inside Yemen: America’s war on al-Qaeda.
A culture of impunity, if little else, ruled over Yemen and the surrounding area in the years after unification. “Yemen has always historically been a destination for smuggling and migration in the greater Horn of Africa,” Arterbury said. “You still have migrants coming into the the province of Shabwa, kind of in southern central Yemen. And they will transit actually directly from Somalia, and kind of circumvent that maritime interdiction ring that’s a little more intense on the western coast of Yemen.”
The country’s civil war in 1994, however, opened the door for a handful of migrants from the opposite direction: “a relatively small number of jihadists, many of them returnees from Afghanistan, were utilized by the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh [the late, former president of Yemen] against the socialist south,” Salisbury wrote in his Chatham House report. (These men returned to Yemen just one year after the U.S. military’s disastrous episode in neighboring Somalia when 19 Americans were killed and two UH-60 Black Hawks were shot down in the Battle of Mogadishu.) Saleh’s 1994 civil war “was won by the regime, but the jihadists empowered during the conflict became the forerunners of AQAP,” he wrote.
“Al-Qaeda in the end became a financial benefit really for the state,” Craig said. “There has been a long history of political assassinations in the country going way back, even preceding Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time in politics. And al-Qaeda almost became a continuation of that—particularly for the now-late Ali Abdullah Saleh when it became quite clear that there was a threat of al-Qaeda that there would be more money put his way in the form of counterterrorism funding, military training, military equipment.”
It’s hard to overstate how badly Saleh robbed Yemen. Some estimates say he personally stole $60 billion during his 33-year rule, much of it U.S. cash meant to help fight al-Qaeda.
Alliances with al-Qaeda and other shady actors are everyday business inside Yemen, but the war has only complicated things, said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University’s Pembroke College. She’s made multiple trips to Yemen over the years, most recently in August. “Al-Qaeda now don’t hold territory, but they have made strong alliances with tribes,” she said, particularly in the al-Bayda highlands north of Aden, near Houthi forces. “They’re fighting the same mutual enemy—the Houthis—and they’re feeling embattled on various fronts in the home territories against the Houthis. Why would you not hook up with a bunch of guys with guns just because they’re waving black flags?”
It’s a point U.S. policymakers would be wise to understand for their counterterrorism efforts, Kendall said. Her travels have included countless discussions with tribal leaders throughout southern and central Yemen—the location of many of America’s drone strikes against AQAP.
“If you’ve got a mutual enemy, you’ll fight alongside them. And I sometimes think this is a nuance that the U.S. doesn’t quite capture, or doesn’t wish to capture, perhaps,” she said. “But it’s very important that that nuance, that that distinction between tribes and core al-Qaeda is captured, is understood. Because if it isn’t and you end up just killing people who are not really classed as al-Qaeda, just simply that they’re cooperating with them, then you really will get a strong backlash.”
This is a problem in Yemen, where Saudi jets are dropping U.S.-made precision weapons. But worse is that no one is talking about unifying Yemen, much less about any second- or third-order effects of what an end to airstrikes might look like. The death of Saleh removed one of the key bonds of the country’s non-Houthi coalition.
“For a lot of these groups, it’s still an alliance of convenience against the Houthis,” Arterbury said. “And that’s one interesting long-term factor that I think people should be concerned about—is what happens if and when the Houthis are eventually ... driven out of Southern Yemen? You’re gonna be left with a weird mix of tribes and Islamists and southern secessionists. How does that shake out in the long term?”
Many of the factors that helped al-Qaeda endure in Yemen—widespread poverty, decades of government corruption, and another six years of civil war starting again in 2004—also fostered Shia-aligned, Houthi-armed opposition in northern Sa’dah province. The group’s spark was fanned into a flame when Saleh’s forces killed its leader. According to Arterbury, the Houthis were a rebellion that had not historically been extreme. “One thing you have witnessed,” he said, “and it is partly through attrition and it is partly through, at this point, making the conflict more of a binary, zero-sum game, you’ve witnessed ... the ascent of the hardline wing within the Houthi movement.”
By the time the Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2012—forcing Saleh from office and elevating his deputy, Abd Rabbu-Mansour Hadi—the Houthis had fought or won over much of the north and central highlands. Saleh, who had ruled Yemen for more than three decades, appeared to take it in stride.
“Saleh at the time then sort of said he was retiring from politics and he was putting his feet up and [going to] tend his garden and write his memoirs,” Craig said. “And I don’t think anybody who’d ever watched Ali Abdullah Saleh over the preceding 33 years thought that was realistic. He was able to maintain his position as leader of his political party, the GPC [or General People's Congress]. And was also quite crucially given immunity from prosecution as well.”
Many of Saleh’s soldiers either passively permitted Houthis to rule the north, or actively collaborated, handing over weapons and supplies—eventually, even ballistic missiles. And when the Houthis swept into Sanaa in 2014, the ousted Saleh thought his fortunes had turned, and he re-entered Yemeni politics on the side of the rebels.
“Saleh’s loyalists who were around all of those key government institutions allowed the Houthis then to set themselves up and take control of all of the government administration,” Craig said, describing the day Sanaa fell. It may have even saved thousands of lives. “[It] meant [the Houthis] were able to take control without having to fight for the city.”
But the Houthis wanted more than the capital. Despite signing a truce in Sanaa that September, the Houthis began marching south, killing and taking territory under the banner of fighting al-Qaeda. Most concerned Yemenis were unsure of what to make of the Houthis’ southern advance, thinking there might be another shot at stability with the Houthi-Saleh alliance. But in early 2015, the group launched its most ambitious drive when it stormed into Aden, seized the airport, and sent the sitting president fleeing for his life to neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis and their local allies—along with the United States and Britain—launched their war on the Houthis in Yemen on March 21, 2015. Dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, it began with a maritime blockade. Three navies sent more than a dozen ships to the Yemeni coast; in the weeks that followed, Saudi and Emirati special forces slowly advanced into and around Aden. When Saudi jets began their far-from-precise bombing campaign, the war turned unmistakably violent for Yemen’s starving millions. It was also immediately a boon for al-Qaeda, whose recruiters were in place and ready to capitalize.
Ambitious in scale and in scope, the operation brought 10 nations to ally with the Saudis against the Houthis; Washington contributed aerial surveillance and resupply missions. Nine air forces mustered almost 200 aircraft to strike Houthis across the entire western half of Yemen early in the operation. U.S. airstrikes, meanwhile, targeted al-Qaeda positions largely to the east.
In April, just three weeks into the broad opening offensive, the operation’s name was changed to Operation Renewal of Hope. According to Riyadh, the operation’s objectives are still protecting Yemen from a takeover by Houthi militias and their allies; preserving the security of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, especially from ballistic missiles and heavy weapons captured by the Houthi militias and their allies; neutralizing most of the military capabilities of the Houthi militias and their allies; halting the flow of weapons from outside of Yemen into the country; and safeguarding the legitimate government and its ability to conduct its affairs.
But to Yemenis, the war looks very different. “Yemen was never good. But the situation was never bad like this,” said Radhiyah Al-Mutawakkil, who leads Mwatana, an independent Yemeni human rights group. “If you tried, or anyone tried to know what is the project of the parties to the conflict in Yemen, what do they want, what they are planning to do, you will never know. Because there is no logic in all that’s happening on the ground now.”
The apparent result: an enormous amount of damage to Yemen’s already brittle infrastructure. Craig pointed to the bridge that serves as the key supply route between the Red Sea port of Hodeida on the west coast to Sanaa. “That was quite clearly deliberately destroyed [in Saudi-led airstrikes] despite apparently being on a no-strike list of targets suggested by the U.S. … The Saudis have completely ignored this and hit those targets,” she said.
Nearly a third of the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit what local observers at the Yemen Data Project, an independent group that collects information on the war, call “non-military” targets. That category includes marketplaces, water and electricity sites, food storage, hospitals, medical centers, mosques and all those kind of things, Craig said. “Less than 45 percent of Yemen’s medical facilities are now operating because of the conflict. People can’t, a lot of the time, afford to get there.” Since the war began in March 2015, Saudi aircraft have bombed water and electrical infrastructure more than 100 times. Beyond that, “there have been 68 air raids that have targeted medical facilities; 183 that have targeted marketplaces,” Craig said.
Coupled with neglected city streets and poor sanitation, Yemen’s cholera epidemic—one of the worst ever recorded, with roughly one million infected—has placed an unsustainable strain on not just the country, but nearly all of its crisis-response groups.
War has also driven up the costs of food. According to the UN, in a December 2017 report, “Overall prices are still much higher than the pre-crisis prices by 137.2 percent for maize in Hadramout, by 94.0 percent for sorghum in Taiz, 100.8 percent for maize, 74 percent for millet and 207.7 percent for barley in Hodeidah.” In addition, “animal production, including [in the] poultry sector, is under huge stress” as the price of grain feed has gone up while “household purchasing power” remains low. If the war doesn’t stop soon, “humanitarian NGOs will have to feed each Yemeni. And this is impossible,” said Radhiyah Al-Mutawakkil, the leader of Mwatana, an independent Yemeni human-rights group.
And the outlook for Yemen’s children? “It’s grim,” Craig said. “I’ve been in Taiz, for example, where you’ve got children living in sniper alleys, which means that they can’t go out and play in the street because if they do they’re gonna be in the range of snipers. They’ve watched friends and family members being killed by those snipers. And it’s almost become normal to them. They’re not afraid. They’ll come to talk to you across the street. They’ll duck down and run across the street toward you. And then you’ll run back with them. And that’s somehow become normal life, which is absolutely terrifying.”
“There are families in Yemen, very educated families. If you asked me four years ago if those families—their siblings, their sons—would participate in the war, I would never believe it,” Radhiyah said. “And now, many, many of these educated families, their sons are in the war fighting.”
The Houthis may not have an air force, but their weapons might have more lasting effects than jets. “Land mines, indiscriminatory detention and torture, enforced disappearance. Not only in Sanaa where they control the other governorates. But also in Taiz in the middle of the city,” Radhiyah said. Indeed, the Houthis have sent large ballistic missiles into the center of Taiz. They’re also launching them into Saudi Arabia, at greater distances with each passing year.
In March 2015, the Saudi government estimated that the Houthis held roughly 60 ballistic missiles, most of them seized from army depots. Others were alleged to have been transferred from Iran. The missile problem may in fact be much bigger than the Saudis have publicly admitted. Riyadh and its allies have defended themselves against more than 87 long-range Houthi missile launches, “some 50 of which the Saudis have tried to keep secret,” Newsweek reported in November, citing unnamed Middle East intelligence sources.
At least five Houthi ballistic missiles are thought to have flown the roughly 900 kilometers from north Yemen to Riyadh—including one that landed near the international airport on November 4, prompting a press conference from Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN. The Saudis took some flak for this attack from observers since Riyadh initially said the missile had been intercepted. A sixth one hit a Saudi Aramco oil refinery in Yanbu, almost as far as Riyadh on the Red Sea coast. Dozens more have landed inside Yemen as well, but an accurate count is elusive.
A few things are known about Houthi firepower. Arterbury explained that the Houthis have three general “rocket families.” They include the Burkan missiles, several of which they have fired into Saudi Arabia, including at Riyadh; the shorter-range Qaher-class missiles; and the Zelzal missiles. (Zelzal means “earthquake” both in Farsi and Arabic.)
On the other side of this missile war is one of its more puzzling contradictions, said Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council: Even with their Patriot anti-missile systems, the Saudis aren’t great at detecting Houthi missiles after they’re launched. In particular, they should be much better at detecting the Iranian made, longer-range Qiom missiles, “because there are similar launch points that we’ve seen. And there are Patriot units on the border; the Patriot has a 180-degree field of fire in the engagement zone. So because it has a 180-ish degree field of fire, you need two for 360.”
“But in this case you’re only oriented towards a border. You should be able to point it more or less at Sa’dah so your radars will pick [a missile] up earlier and you can get a good weapons track on it. Or at least try and shoot it down closer to the border,” he said. “You have to be asking yourself why the Saudis aren’t pointing their damn Patriots in the right position?” Not that “Scud hunting,” as Stein put it, is easy. “Road-mobile Scuds are very, very hard to hit. And the Qiom is, at its core, a road-mobile Scud.”
The United States and the Saudis allege that many of the Burkans are actually Iranian Qiom missiles that have been disassembled, shipped over water, then driven by truck to a storage point for reassembly. Many of their routes, according to Chatham House, have run through Oman and into Yemen’s more sparsely populated east. It’s a trade that Oxford’s Kendall said has been “extremely lucrative” for Yemen’s shady power brokers.
“The difference I’ve seen over the last two years in my various trips has been stunning,” she said, “from practically traffic jams going over the border from Oman into Yemen to now fresh fruit hanging in the streets, new shops, spanking new hotels opening at $250-a-night, new roads being built—it’s incredible. Most ordinary people can’t get anywhere close to that. So it must just be money laundering and fueled by the smuggling industry.”
“There’s obviously no end-use certificates on any of these things,” Stein said of the weapons, like Iranian-made rockets, that make it into Houthi hands. “So we have no idea when these missiles were first put in. They could have been put in five years ago for all we know, [or even]10 years ago.”
The bottom line, Arterbury said, is “the Houthis have kind of a become a low-cost, medium-high reward way of Iran countering Saudi Arabia in the peninsula. And of course, the most dramatic way that you could witness this is through missile tech.” Judging from photos released by the Pentagon and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the missiles are not indigenous to Yemen’s stocks, he added. This includes Burkan-1 short-range ballistic missiles launched at southwestern Saudi cities and almost as many at Saudi coalition forces inside Yemen, mostly in Taiz.
While the Saudis have purchased Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems, they don’t appear to be using them. Rather, most of the Saudi intercepts are assumed to use Patriot PAC-2 systems, with a blast-fragmentation warhead like the interceptors the U.S. military deployed in the Gulf War in 1991.
Coalition navies have had their chance to fend off missiles and remote-controlled boat bomb attacks too. Twice in October 2016, Houthis launched cruise missiles at the USS Mason, an American destroyer. The Navy responded by launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at the suspected coastal radar stations where the attacks were believed to have originated.
Even before that skirmish in the Red Sea, the war in Yemen had created tens of thousands of refugees and sent millions of people fleeing to the coasts. Many even fled to the al-Qaeda-controlled east by 2016, given its perception as a “much safer, more stable place to be,” said Kendall, who witnessed the exodus during one of her trips that year. In Mukalla, “there was such an influx of people from the north who were trying to escape the war, coming and trying to join al-Qaeda because they felt that it gave them better options and more safety for their families,” she said.
But wind the clock ahead to 2018, and al-Qaeda is in a very different place. No more de facto state in Mukalla. No more slick media operation. More U.S. drone strikes, which increased by three-fold during President Trump’s first year in office.
“I’m not a fan of drone strikes, but [they do] seem to be doing the job,” Kendall said. “Maybe three years ago when I was traveling in Yemen, they were absolutely, lividly against drone strikes in the east. And then towards the end of the Obama administration, the drone strikes seemed to be slightly better targeted. They seemed to be actually targeting genuine al-Qaeda core fighters, and in vehicles when they’re traveling between A and B. So they’re not harming infrastructure. They’re not killing villagers. And there was a bit less complaining, as far as I could tell.” The success may have been short-lived, though, after the disastrous U.S. special forces raid last January.
Still, “it’s certainly not helping them when they’re consistently losing what are probably mid- to lower-senior-level leaders every few weeks,” Arterbury said. “The suspicion is they’ve witnessed a lot of attrition in their media department, to the point where AQAP has not put out an Inspire magazine in ages, [and] their media production on their Telegram channels has actually kind of fallen dramatically. Whether you can correlate this to the drone program, that might be ... reading a bit too much into it. It might not be; it’s just hard to say from the outside,” he added.
For Yemenis, the final weeks of 2017 were among the most fraught of the conflict. Former president Saleh, for months allied with the Houthis, offered to negotiate an end to the fighting with Riyadh on December 2, two days after the Saudis partially lifted their blockade. The Houthis interpreted his announcement as changing sides, and 48 hours later, Saleh was found dead outside of Sanaa, reportedly from sniper fire. His death, and the quick sequence of events surrounding it—including an alleged missile launch at an Emirati nuclear facility—have plunged Yemen into further chaos.
Now more than 1,000 days in, Operation Renewal of Hope has yielded gradual advances along the southern coast, up to Taiz—near regions where tribes and loyalties can be dauntingly complex just in a single province. A small number of cities changed hands in the past year: Mokha in western Taiz, al Khawkha in western al Hudaydah, and Bayhan in northwestern Shabwah governorates, for example. But neither the Houthis nor the Saudi-led alliance appear to be close to victory.
Even as ISIS has attempted to move into Yemen, carrying out sporadic, occasionally deadly guerilla-style attacks, little has changed since at least April 2016. The advance on Mokha is a notable exception. Like the United Arab Emirates’s alleged recent development on an island in the Mandeb Strait, staging out of Mokha will be key to the Saudis as they march slowly toward Sanaa and on from there—eventually, perhaps, to the birthplace of the Houthis in northern Sa’dah province.
But that, like Mattis’s goal of UN-brokered talks, still seems a long way off. “I think it gets worse, possibly a lot worse, before it gets better,” Arterbury said. “Both sides feel very emboldened right now. … There’s no incentive really to negotiate. The UN and the international mediation process seem to be just completely dead at the moment.” After nearly three years on the job, the UN’s chief negotiator for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, recently announced he would be stepping down from his post. (His convoy was attacked last May when he tried to visit Houthi-controlled Sanaa.)
“It’s easier to think about what [the United States] shouldn’t be doing,” Kendall said. That includes “not selling arms to those who are dropping them on Yemen. That would help a great deal with international credibility.”
U.S. arms manufacturers, for their part, drew up a $7-billion arms deal with Riyadh in November. And the U.S. Congress has done little short of a symbolic, non-binding November vote in the House of Representatives authorizing U.S. pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated forces, but not against the Houthis. “In many cases, the Saudis have aligned with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis undermining our very counterterrorism operations,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, the bill’s co-sponsor.
What would a future Yemen even look like? In his December report, Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury described the country as having fractured into seven regions: the Houthi-occupied north and west of Yemen, the highland tribal territories of Al Jawf, Mareb and Al Bayda, Taiz, the separatist tribal south, Aden, Hadramawt, and Al Mahra.
The result could be a new sort of federalism for Yemen—a system that Iona Craig said failed in 2014, but now seems to offer the best hope today. Yemen’s future, she said, will have to make space for “some form of autonomy for both people in the South, and probably for the Houthis, who are still going to have to be included in this process. I think it’s very hard to see the genie being put back in the bottle on that one.” Salisbury offered a similar warning. “There is no easy way of transforming Yemen into a functioning, Westphalian model of statehood in the short time frame that many Western and foreign officials may wish for.”
Another problem is the general indifference toward the Yemeni government and those connected with it, Kendall said. “Nobody ... outside the very top elites is keen on having anything to do with any Yemeni government. Where it gets confusing is that people who are high-ranking in the regional leadership are also often involved in the smuggling trade, which has gone nuts over the last couple of years.”
This feeds into Yemen’s broader, chronic problems, Kendall said. In recent years, she has studied the appeal of al-Qaeda in Yemen. How is it, she asked, that AQAP held “influence over huge amounts of territory amongst populations that are well-armed, used to fighting, used to death—how could this happen?” What she discovered: “It’s more of a negative thing. … It’s ‘Government’s doing nothing for us. [The] international community has sponsored and helped to entrench our corrupt dictators.’”
AQAP also plays up the idea that when the international community does invest in Yemen, it is through organizations like Britain’s Department for International Development or USAID, which traditionally work through government structures. That, in AQAP’s characterization, “makes them immediately in line with the corrupt regimes everybody hates and means that so much of the money is siphoned off.”
“Even when I listened to community leaders in Mukalla moaning about al-Qaeda and asking me whether there might be various ways of helping them to get rid of them,” Kendall said, “they at the same time said, ‘Well, you know they are approachable, and they are helping us with our water problem in my village. And finally, finally after decades I’m actually getting someone to listen to my land-snatch problem.’ And so there was a certain grudging respect” for the group.
Some of the better solutions for Yemen just might be small ones, Kendall said. Things like more newspapers or radio stations to give people a voice will go a long way in a country with such high levels of poverty and illiteracy. This is a recommendation echoed in the Chatham House report. “Current policies and frameworks for peace in Yemen are built around simplistic, binary models of conflict that bear little resemblance to reality and that often reflect wishful thinking rather than careful analysis,” the report’s author wrote. “In particular, they need to lend as much weight to ground-up initiatives—complex, messy, difficult and time-consuming as these are—as to top-down processes.”
Whatever is done for Yemen’s future “needs to have a much, much better element of representation about it,” Kendall said. That doesn’t necessarily mean installing a democracy right away, as has been attempted in other Middle Eastern countries, she cautioned. “But having people think and know that they’re represented is incredibly important. So one could have some kind of indirect democracy where you actually have local leaders whom you feel genuinely represent you, rather than, ‘Oh, they’ve just been appointed by presidential decree by President Hadi ... because they can help him achieve his war aims.’ Locals feel no buy-in at all with that.”
Kendall also pointed out that AQAP, even in a diminished state, will remain a problem. “It’s certainly had the life sucked out of it at the moment; not just by so many of its core mujahedeen being droned, but also deserters and fighters joining up with militias that are paying more perhaps, and who are just generally sick of being on the run.” Those militias are often seen as the key to Yemen’s future.
To many Yemenis, “even if there is a military victory and the Houthis were just kicked out of any governorate, they [would be] replaced ... with fanatic armed groups,” Radhiyah Al-Mutawakkil said. “So what do we do? We just pay all this prize just to replace a militia with another militia?”
At a minimum, of course, Yemenis just need the basics, Craig said. “And that's food, water and electricity. … [When] you go around Yemen and you speak to people, that’s what they want. Added luxuries are a judicial system, an education system that is functioning.”
If past is prologue, security won’t come to Yemen for a long time. And it may be even longer before even a fraction of the repairs and infrastructure developments become a reality. After all, Craig said, food, water and electricity are “pretty basic needs and even before the war, a lot of Yemenis weren’t getting that.”
“If I had a magic stick, I would just get all these parties to the conflict settled and have a very strong peace solution with a very national-focused plan and force them to start to build the state again,” al-Mutawakkil said. “I keep saying in Yemen, ‘There are no heroes. We have only criminals and victims.’ For me as a human-rights defender, I want to take all those parties to the conflict to the garbage. But I know it’s only them who are going to stop the war,” he said. NGOs can only hope to fill the gaps. “They can’t act as a state. For the Yemenis to move past this disaster, [they] need a state.”
This post appears courtesy of Defense One.