On March 26, the fifth anniversary of Operation Decisive Storm—launched by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition with the stated goal of restoring Yemen’s internationally recognized government—Secretary-General António Guterres called for the immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen. His call for a negotiated political solution, especially to facilitate efforts to contain the possible spread of COVID-19, was welcomed by the legitimate government, the Arab Coalition, and the Houthis. However, even though the Saudi-led coalition seems to be nearing its end, a total end to the war remains distant.
After five years, the coalition has not accomplished any of its stated goals—particularly the restoration of the legitimate government after the Houthi-led coup in September 2014. This is partly because the coalition failed to maintain its cohesion. The first fissure in the coalition was the internal rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia suspended Qatar’s involvement in the operation. Qatar subsequently leveraged its relationship with the Islah Party (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood), who control the levers of power in the legitimate government, and invested its media empire in discrediting the coalition. More countries have since withdrawn as the coalition’s ability to maintain strength and continue justifying the operation has dwindled. Sudan’s interim Sovereignty Council, under pressure from the opposition, began a reduction in forces in October 2019, further cutting its troops in Yemen in December and again in January. This represented the largest reduction in ground troops to the coalition, from 40,000 Sudanese troops in early 2017 down to 657 as of January 2020. The remaining soldiers are merely a symbolic gesture to save face for the coalition and provide a justification for its continuation.
More prominently, on February 8 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced its complete withdrawal from the coalition. This was likely to protect its economic interests, as the arrival of a Houthi airplane to Abu Dhabi in 2018 heralded a subsequent understanding between the UAE and Iran over the impact of the marine tanker crises between America and Iran, which also included an indirect calm between the Emirates and the Houtis through Iranian mediation. The UAE had contributed more than 15,000 soldiers and carried out more than 130,000 sorties, according to Lieutenant General Eissa Al-Mazrouei. In its absence, Saudi Arabia is nearly alone in the coalition.
This fracturing of the coalition is reflected in states’ direct or indirect support for the emergence of political and military groups rivaling the legitimate government. The Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, formed in July 2016, created the National Salvation Government in November 2016, and together they control Sanaa and other Houthi-controlled areas in the north. In 2017, the UAE supported the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council, which exercises power in Aden and some isolated parts of the southern provinces, limiting the legitimate government’s reach there. The Yemeni parliament—the same one elected in 2003—has similarly split into two factions. One supports the Houthis and is based in Sanaa, while the other remains loyal to the legitimate government and held a parliamentary session in the city of Sayoun in Hadramaut province on April 13, 2019.
Over the past few years, the coalition—in particular the UAE, the biggest enemy of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood—has also begun to favor various military groups operating independently of the legitimate government. In addition to its support for the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, the UAE began supporting Brigadier- General Tareq Saleh, who stopped fighting against the coalition and began working with them after the Houthis killed his uncle, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, on December 4, 2017. Together, they established the National Resistance, a well-trained force largely comprised of former members of the Yemeni Republican Guard and which, while ostensibly loyal to the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, does not have to follow its lead in the battle against the Houthis.
As the withdrawal of Sudan and the UAE has prompted Saudi Arabia to abandon its support for the national army in favor of engagement in talks with the Houthis, the Arab Coalition has lost much ground, leaving more room for local military forces to consolidate control. Within Yemen, there are now four “military provinces,” each de facto controlled by one primary force or group of forces. The national army, operating on behalf of the legitimate government with the support of the Arab Coalition, controls its stronghold of Marib province, most of the southeastern provinces, and parts of the southwestern governorate of Taiz. Meanwhile, the Houthis control Sanaa, the northern governorates (including al-Jawf along the Saudi border), and the rest of Taiz. The Houthis are also closing in on Marib from three sides: east from Nihem, south from Sarwah, and north from al-Jawf. The Southern Transitional Council controls the interim capital of Aden and the adjacent governorates, Lahij and Dalea, and shares control with the national army over the governorate of Abyan, east of Aden. The fourth force is Tariq Saleh’s National Resistance, whose influence stretches across western Yemen between Mokha and Hodeidah, the latter of which is shared with the Houthis.
Of these forces, the national army may be in the worst shape. While no exact enlistment figures are available, in April 2019 Yemeni Minster of Defense Mohammed Ali al-Maqdashi conveyed that 70 percent of his force consists of people using fake names and taking their salary without ever seeing battle. Because of this corruption scandal, in May 2019 UAE took back the heavy weapons and patriot missiles they had provided to the national army, leading to further setbacks and losses. In addition, a conflict exists within the national army between divisions who align with the Muslim Brotherhood and those who align with the General People’s Congress, which was headed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The latter includes Chief of Staff Saghir Bin Aziz of Neham governorate, who issues the army’s most important strategic orders. The national army further lacks a professional military intelligence unit, the absence of which facilitates Houthi infiltration.
While numbers regarding Houthi fighters are equally scarce, their special military units known as the Popular Committees remain effective, at least at launching offensive attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In particular, the Houthis have increased their air and rocket capabilities and continue to threaten the most important points of interest in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including a drone attack on the Abu Dhabi International Airport in July 2018. In June and August 2019 they downed two U.S. MQ-9 drones over Dhamar governorate and, more recently, on February 14 they downed a Saudi Tornado warplane and its two pilots in the al-Masloob area of al-Jawf governorate. The Houthis’ strategic shift from defense to offense stems primarily from the duration of the war, which has given them more experience in how to wage an unequal conflict, but also indirect gains made due to coalition-caused citizen fatalities. For example, when the Arab coalition attacks civilians, some young sympathizers join the Houthis’ forces in retaliation to the Arab coalition.
By contrast, the UAE-trained and armed forces are reportedly “ ” to those of the legitimate government. Together, these forces total nearly 200,000 fighters split into various regiments that are making decisions independently of the legitimate government’s military command. Under the leadership of the Southern Transitional Council, UAE-trained forces have been dispatched to the southern governorates of Aden, Lahij, Abyan, and Dalea, joining what is known as “the support and backup forces,” together with the Security Belt and Hadrami Elite (“Nukhba”) forces. These forces are security and military formations trained and armed by the UAE. Meanwhile, along the western coast Tariq Saleh leads the National Resistance—also known as the Joint Forces—consisting of the Giants Brigades, the Tihama Resistance, and the Republican Guard Brigades. All of this is in addition to the presence of other Salafi forces aligned with the UAE, such as the Abu al-Abbas Brigades in the southwestern governorate of Taiz.
The Houthis’ increased attacks on sensitive targets deep in Saudi and Emirati territory, as well as the growing influence of UAE-backed forces, have led Saudi Arabia to agree in November 2019 to open indirect talks with the Houthis. Preoccupied with successive crises—the diplomatic fallout surrounding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the drop in oil prices to under $30 per barrel, and the COVID-19 pandemic—the Saudis seem closer than ever to accepting a political solution to end the war in Yemen. This is most evident in their reduced aggression toward the Houthis, particularly the decline in aerial attacks since the Houthis claimed credit for an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil installation in September 2019. But the biggest impediment to a political solution remains Saudi Arabia’s fear of the Houthis’ subordination to Tehran, leading it to precondition any political solution on guarantees of peace and security along its southern border.
Moreover, Yemeni citizens no longer trust political resolutions to succeed, even if under the auspices of the UN, after seeing other recent agreements fail to live up to expectations. The Stockholm Agreement, signed in December 2018 by the legitimate government and the Houthis, warded off a humanitarian catastrophe facing the coastal town of Hodeidah, where a blockade and intense fighting had precipitated extreme food insecurity. But not only has the ceasefire not held, on March 12 the internationally recognized government announced it was pulling out of the joint control points on their military border in Hodeidah in favor of forces from an international observation misision, accusing the Houthis of having shot one of their own ceasefire observers at a joint control point.
Likewise, not a single clause of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement, which Saudi Arabia brokered between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council, has been implemented yet. According to the internationally recognized government, this is because the Southern Transitional Council’s leadership—although initially agreeing to the requirement that it share power with the legitimate government within one state—has ceased implementing it due to opposition from extremist secessionists in the south.
In the continued absence of an agreement, and with coalition forces greatly reduced, Saudi Arabia will change the way it intervenes in Yemen. Local agents, supported by foreign powers, are now organizing and positioning themselves for a war on behalf of their outside patrons more seriously than ever before. This has made clear that regional actors are deliberately creating local proxies to exploit and carry out their agendas and protect their interests in Yemen.
Yemenis are already facing what the UN has classified as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, but if the war transforms into a full proxy conflict, their suffering will only increase as more local and tribal communities are forced to take sides. Moreover, an influx of money and weapons from regional actors will lead to further polarization. Alongside the Yemenis’ suffering, international humanitarian and civil NGOs will lose their security guarantees, as the Arab coalition has not indicated any responsibility to protect humanitarian workers if the crisis worsens. Yet by turning the conflict into a fully fledged proxy war, the states that once comprised the Arab Coalition would evade their responsibility to provide reparations and aid in reconstructing the country.
Ammar Al-Ashwal is a Yemeni journalist and media and communications master’s student at the Lebanese University in Beirut. Follow him on twitter @Ishwal.