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Yemen

The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Overview

Yemen’s war is in its eighth month, and there is no quick end to the violence in sight. Fighting between the Huthis (a Zaydi/Shiite movement) and military units aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on one side and a variety of anti-Huthi fighters, including Yemeni government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition on the other has killed over 5,700 people, more than 800 of them women and children. The war has destroyed the country’s meagre infrastructure, opened vast room for al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) expansion and sharpened intra-Yemeni regional, political and sectarian divides. Even if the UN succeeds in bringing warring parties together for talks, the road to lasting peace will be long and difficult. The country is on a path toward state disintegration, territorial fragmentation and increasing sectarian violence fuelled by regional powers. This will not only be devastating for Yemen, but will undermine the security of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, while feeding global terrorism networks.

The EU, its member states, and the wider international community should:
  • Increase support for the efforts of UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to broker a ceasefire and restart the political process by encouraging both the Huthi/Saleh bloc and the Yemeni government to return unconditionally to negotiations; support a new UN Security Council (SC) resolution that would call for a political solution; and criticise any side that obstructs a return to talks.
  • Encourage the Huthis to de-escalate the conflict by suspending hostilities on the Saudi border, releasing political prisoners and allowing unhindered humanitarian access to Taiz city. To the extent possible, the EU delegation should encourage the Huthis to come to UN talks with concrete suggestions on withdrawal from cities and disarmament. The EU and its member states should also facilitate better communication between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia.
  • Place greater diplomatic pressure on the Yemeni government and its Saudi supporters to engage constructively and without preconditions in UN negotiations over implementing UNSC Resolution 2216, which focuses primarily on security and the Huthis’ obligations, but also over a ceasefire and return to an inclusive Yemeni political process.
  • Continue to focus international attention on dire and worsening humanitarian conditions by calling on the UN and the Saudi-led coalition to expedite the flow of commercial goods into Yemen and on the Huthis and other armed combatants to allow unhindered humanitarian access.
  • Press all armed actors to abide by the rules of war; publicly highlight the inadequacies of a Yemeni government-led panel of inquiry, established by the UN Human Rights Council, into alleged abuses of international humanitarian law by all sides; and press for an independent UN panel of inquiry into alleged crimes.
Background

Yemen’s political transition has been shattered by war. The descent into violence has its roots in a transition that was overtaken by old-regime elite infighting, deepening corruption and the inability of the country’s National Dialogue Conference (concluded in January 2014) to produce consensus on national-level power sharing and the future state structure, particularly the status of south Yemen where the desire for independence is strong. The Huthis bear much responsibility for triggering the war. Against the backdrop of stalled UN negotiations over a new executive leadership, they unilaterally dissolved the transitional government in February 2015 and then marched south, supported by aligned military units, in pursuit of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had fled to Aden.

If the Huthis initiated the military confrontation, Saudi Arabia poured fuel on the fire when it launched an air campaign on 26 March, backed by nine other mostly Sunni Arab states and supported by the U.S., the UK and France. Their stated aim was to roll back Huthi advances and reinstate the Hadi government. But the intervention had less to do with the intricacies of Yemeni politics and more with Saudi domestic considerations and the regional balance of power. The intervention was in part a response to perceived Iranian encirclement concomitant with perceived U.S. political disengagement from the Middle East or, worse, a suspected shift in favour of Tehran (in the context of ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1). The Saudi-led war also came on the heels of a historic change in leadership from King Abdullah to King Salman, a shift that concentrated power in Salman’s son, Mohammed Bin Salman. The latter, second in line for the throne, has become the face of the Saudis’ prosecution of the war; his political progress is widely believed to hinge on the war’s success.

Eight months into the war, neither side is close to victory. Anti-Huthi Yemeni forces are dominant in predominantly Shafai (Sunni) areas in the east and south, where opposition to the Huthis is strong. But the Huthi/Saleh bloc remains the dominant power in the Zaydi highlands, including the capital Sanaa. Since September, battle lines have moved north from Aden, with fighting particularly intense around Taiz city and the western parts of Marib governorate, a critical access point to Sanaa. The Huthi bloc has upped the ante by increasing cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, sensing that the kingdom will not halt military operations until it feels pain in its territory. For the Saudis, the raids help in legitimising the war at home and make ending the conflict without a clear military victory more difficult. The Huthis have been pushed out of the south, but a mix of armed militias has stepped into the void. Both al-Qaeda, which has controlled the capital of the eastern province of Mukalla since April, and IS are gaining ground, especially in Aden.

The stalemate could and should provide incentives for both sides to negotiate a face-saving exit. Following losses in the south, the Huthis have started to take their adversaries’ demands seriously, agreeing to participate in talks about a return to the political process and accepting UNSC Resolution 2216 (which, inter alia, requires them to withdraw from territory). In November, Saudi officials indicated both publicly and privately that they are ready for the war to end and for UN talks to start. Still, Hadi’s government, which has few incentives to end the war given that its make-up is likely to be changed as a result of negotiations, has hardened its position. It insists on retaking Taiz and having talks focus narrowly on Resolution 2216, a list of demands on the Huthis.

Officially, the Hadi government and the Huthi/Saleh coalition are committed to a new round of talks on 15 December in Switzerland, but whether either side is prepared to compromise remains unclear. Even if they meet and, in a best-case scenario, agree to a durable ceasefire, the road to lasting peace will be long. The unresolved domestic political challenges that led to violence have been worsened by war. The government does not control all of the armed groups fighting against the Huthis.

As the belligerents fight, humanitarian conditions worsen. The Saudi-led coalition’s de facto naval blockade, which has the declared aim of preventing the Huthis from rearming, has amounted to collective punishment, severely limiting commercial traffic in a country that is over 90 per cent dependent on food imports. The Huthis have prevented supplies from reaching civilians in Aden and Taiz. According to the UN humanitarian coordinator, nearly 21.2 million people (82 per cent of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance. Approximately 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes; an additional 120,000 have fled the country. The UN has declared Yemen a “level three” humanitarian emergency, on a par with Syria, Iraq and South Sudan.

Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.


Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

 
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