Gunmen loyal to the Houthi movement in Sanaa in 2015.
Posted on: 22nd March 2017
This week marks the second anniversary of the formation of a Saudi-led coalition to fight the Houthi movement in Yemen. This coalition was created at the request of the Yemeni government, in response to a gradual coup led by the Houthis that culminated in the flight of the president to the south, and then from the country.
Yemen currently has two parallel governments. First, that led by the internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, based in Aden, and controlling a geographic majority of the country, though a minority of its population. Second, the coalition between the Houthi movement and forces loyal to former-President Saleh – overthrown in the 2011 uprising – dominating the north and west, including the capital. The Houthi movement is a Zaydi Shia extremist group, and the Houthi-Saleh alliance's territory is mostly made up of the Zaydi parts of the country.
Hussein al-Houthi established the Houthi movement in northern Yemen in the 1990s to advocate for Zaydi Shia culture and education, and to combat the spread of Salafi and Wahabbi groups in the region. The Houthi movement produces propaganda presenting itself as a moderate force opposing the ideologies of jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. However, one of its most prominent slogans over the past two decades has been "God is great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory for Islam."
Since being repelled from Aden in July 2015, the Houthis' strength has remained relatively constant. However, the last few months have seen some movement. The port of Midi, near the border with Saudi Arabia, and the port of Mocha, at the south of the Red Sea, have both been seized by pro-Hadi forces, leaving the Houthis in control of only one sea port, and increasing the economic vulnerability of the populations under their control. Meanwhile, ongoing fighting in heavily populated areas to the north-east of Sanaa, and around Taiz, are exacerbating already severe humanitarian threats.
Not a two-party conflict
Yet Yemen's conflict is much more complicated than a simple battle between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi movement. The Houthi-Saleh coalition is itself fragile. Saleh's government fought six wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. The coalition has failed to agree on who should replace the head of the Republican Guard, killed in a Saudi-led airstrike on a funeral in Sanaa in October 2016. Meanwhile, resentment about the lifestyles of Houthi leaders is growing, especially as public sector employees and some fighters are going without pay.
The internationally recognised government is also struggling to maintain its authority. In February, there was fighting between the security forces at Aden airport and the Presidential Guard over who should control the airport. This has added to rumours of disputes between Hadi and the leadership of the province.
AQAP takes advantage of economic vulnerability
The conflict has been a gift to one of the strongest al-Qaeda affiliates in the world, AQAP. The group took advantage of the chaos when it seized Mukalla's Central Bank branch in 2015, providing it with the resources to gain ground elsewhere, and capture the whole of the city.
The group lost the city again in April 2016, in the face of a joint operation of pro-Hadi forces and the Saudi-led coalition. Nevertheless, the continued conflict has been used as a recruitment opportunity, particularly targeting young people susceptible to its Salafi-jihadi ideology. This has enabled AQAP to take ground, most recently in the southern city of Abyan.
The presence of ISIS in Yemen has also presented an opportunity for AQAP's propaganda. While ISIS' activities and recruitment are limited in Yemen, the group has claimed responsibility for some significant attacks over the past two years. In 2015, 142 civilians were killed when the group attacked a Zaydi mosque in Sanaa. The scale of such attacks allowed AQAP to promote a narrative presenting itself as a 'moderate' alternative to ISIS.
Attempts at peace
The last two years have seen three stalled UN-led peace talks, with both sides playing a role in their breakdowns. The most recent session, lasting three months in Kuwait in 2016, collapsed after the Houthi announcement of a new Governing Council. A plan proposed by the UN envoy in October 2016 was rejected by President Hadi. These talks have failed to recognise either the fractured nature of the various parties to the conflict, or the stake of other groups – such as the secessionist Southern Movement – in its outcome. It is essential that peace negotiations include groups such as these, as well as women's groups and civil society, in order to ensure the sustainability of any agreement.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.