1 January 2019

A Review of the Yemen Civil War in 2018

For much of 2018, Yemen's civil war ground on, with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition backing the country's internationally recognized government on one side and rebels from the northern Houthi movement, who have received support and arms from Iran, on the other. The United States, through military support and funding, continues to back the Saudi coalition's efforts to dislodge the Houthis, a traditional Saudi adversary, from Sanaa, the country's ostensible capital. But support for the Saudi war effort in the U.S. Congress has been eroding in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, putting pressure on the coalition to cease hostilities.

As the year wraps up, the combatants in Yemen have been engaging in the first meaningful peace talks over the civil war in two years. Whether or not the country can find a political solution to the disputes that spawned the conflict, the pause in hostilities is opening space to address the humanitarian crisis spawned by the fighting. Stratfor's coverage of the Yemen civil war follows the ebbs and flows of the fighting and the political and strategic forces shaping the conflict.

In January, the Southern Transition Council (STC), a group pushing for an independent state in southern Yemen and aligned with the United Arab Emirates, seized the southern city of Aden from the Hadi government. The actions of the STC, a member of the anti-Houthi coalition, demonstrate the chimeric nature of the country's groups and alliances.

The Saudi-led coalition does not need to retake Aden to ensure its military position. The STC has already made clear that it will continue to support the anti-Houthi struggle. Instead, the coalition must mitigate the damage from the clash and negotiate a truce as quickly as possible. In December 2017, the Houthis split with (former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah) Saleh, who was subsequently assassinated. The move divided and weakened the rebel alliance, providing an opening for opposition forces — to change the course of the stalled civil war in the coalition's favor. Emirati tanks and STC fighters led the charge to take the key port of al-Hudaydah on the country's west coast.

Houthi rebels are still recovering strength following Saleh's departure. On Jan. 28, the Houthis held their first parliament session with former Saleh allies in Sanaa, hoping to bury the hatchet. With an accord in place, the Houthis can worry less about guerilla Saleh loyalists attacking them from behind and are better positioned to take advantage of any break in coalition forces. The STC's unexpected bid for control of Aden threatened to interrupt coalition supplies just as the Taiz offensive got underway. The official Yemeni government recognizes the danger. Hadi himself called for a cease-fire in Aden, reminding the STC that the "real and main battle is against the Iranian Houthi militias."

In March, the Houthis targeted the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with a battery of missiles, resulting in a death. The launch reaffirmed suspicions that Iran was supplying the rebels with weapons.

On the third anniversary of the first Saudi airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is grappling with continued conflict. Saudi air defense forces claimed that the country's Patriot surface-to-air missile systems intercepted three missiles from Yemen above Riyadh late March 25. Four other missiles, also launched from Yemen, were intercepted earlier that day and were aimed at Najran, Jizan and Khamis Mushait. Eyewitness reports, images and videos from across Riyadh show the missile interception as well as pieces of debris falling in populated areas. Video also showed what appeared to be several failed Patriot missiles, some of which may have caused damage on the ground.

U.N.-sponsored peace talks in September failed before they could get off the ground. The failure was seen as a byproduct of the posturing both sides engaged in as they tried to position themselves as the aggrieved party in the war.

Coalition leaders will have to carefully weigh their military strategy in Yemen against the attitudes of their Western allies, namely the United States. The approach of congressional midterm elections, in particular, could rally lawmakers to move to change the U.S. stance on the Yemeni conflict, an issue that has drawn bipartisan support in Washington. Although the United States will continue to back the Saudi-led coalition mission to restore Hadi's authority, Congress may push the Yemeni government and its foreign allies to compromise with the Houthis to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

At home, too, Saudi and Emirati leaders may find support for their campaign in Yemen waning. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's military and diplomatic prowess could come into question among the royal family if he fails to bring a decisive end to Yemen's war – and to the kingdom's costly involvement in it.

The Houthis, meanwhile, could imperil the legitimacy they have gained in northern Yemen if supporters perceive that they are responsible for prolonging the conflict. So long as they manage to portray the Saudi-led coalition as the aggressors, they can keep up their recruitment numbers and preserve their standing with the many tribes of north Yemen. But maintaining that buy-in will require the Houthis to deliver results, like food security and an improved economic situation, that may be beyond their reach.

Read the article examining the abortive peace talks and their implications: The Latest Failed Attempt at Peace Talks Means More of the Same in Yemen.

As the humanitarian costs of the Yemen war have risen, and the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi turned public sentiment against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pressure for a nonmilitary solution to the conflict has increased.

Even in the face of growing U.S. and global opposition, however, Riyadh will not easily shift its stance in Yemen. The Saudi involvement there is driven not only by its desire to deny Iran a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula through its Houthi allies, but also by the historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

The finger-pointing that undermined the last round of peace talks stands a high chance of repeating itself. A previous effort to broker a cease-fire in September failed when representatives for the Houthis never made the trip to Geneva, where talks were to be held. The no-shows were, in part, prompted by Houthi fears that the coalition would prevent the envoys from returning to their Sanaa base.

The pressure on the Saudi coalition opened the way for meaningful peace talks, which unfolded in December in Sweden. A resulting cease-fire in the embattled strategic port city of al-Hudaydah is holding for now, and both sides have agreed to sit down again after the new year.

At long last, there might finally be light at the end of Yemen's dark tunnel. In the final session of weeklong peace talks in Sweden between the country's warring parties, the two sides agreed to a future cease-fire in the critical port city of al-Hudaydah and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in Taiz. This follows a tentative agreement earlier in the week to exchange prisoners and reopen Sanaa's rebel-controlled airport to flights, so long as the planes are inspected in a coalition-controlled airport first.

In terms of al-Hudaydah, implementation will be the true test of the feuding parties' resolve, but the announcement of the confidence-building measures at the conclusion of the talks underlines just how fruitful the negotiations were. Despite the years of war, both sides displayed a willingness to talk, offering each other warm handshakes and dispensing with shuttle diplomacy in favor of face-to-face negotiations.

The Swedish negotiations have ended for now, but both the Yemeni forces and the Houthis have agreed to a new round of talks next month. And although the military conflict is continuing apace, the opening of humanitarian corridors for the first time in years could actually provide Yemenis with some much-needed relief. If a partial cease-fire actually holds in al-Hudaydah — even temporarily — it would provide a more solid foundation for other tentative agreements, as well as further peace talks in 2019.
Read more about the current peace effort: Yemen: Two Warring Sides Take a Tentative Step Toward Peace.

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