The Yemeni Civil War: A Microcosm of Rivalries

10 August 2017 Michael Wieteska, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Since the 2015 intervention of the Saudi-led coalition, the security situation in Yemen has deteriorated significantly.
  • With most of the parties involved also suffering from internal divisions, the prospect of a diplomatic resolution appears unlikely.
  • In addition to the fighting, a naval embargo has prevented aid from reaching vulnerable population centres, contributing to a dire humanitarian crisis.
  • Under these conditions, a variety of Islamist insurgencies have proliferated, predicating a long-term sectarian and civil conflict.


The civil war currently unfolding in Yemen has evolved into the most complex and intractable that the conflict-prone state has experienced to date. In response to the rapid territorial gains of the Houthi rebel movement in 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine African and Middle Eastern states in support of the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Initially dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, the intervention rapidly ground to a halt in the face of rugged terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Houthi movement militias.

Already the poorest country in the Arab world, the ensuing security vacuum in Yemen has contributed to a severe humanitarian crisis. In turn, the conditions have provided fertile grounds for the emergence and proliferation of such organisations as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The complexity of this scenario is magnified by internal frictions within the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and pro-Hadi forces, as well as the actions of foreign actors seeking to influence the outcome of the Yemeni conflict in pursuit of their broader geopolitical objectives.


Since as early as the seventh century AD, there has been no extended period in which Yemen has not been embroiled in conflict. Once divided into North and South, and only unified in 1990, the country hosts a diverse array of tribal, ethnic and religious groups. These factors loosely underpin the current crisis, which is causally linked to events in 2011. The Arab Spring movements of that year did not immediately devolve into a bloody civil war in Yemen as they did in several other states. Rather, then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office by non-violent democratic protest, and replaced by his deputy, Hadi. Seeking to pre-empt the violent civil wars breaking out elsewhere, the GCC and United Nations oversaw the implementation of a joint transition plan.

Dubbed the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the plan proposed reforms to the constitution, and outlined the process by which Yemen would become a federal democratic republic. According to the NDC, Yemen’s new power structure would incorporate representatives of each of the major groups vying for political power, proportionate to their relative influence. Conflict was sparked when a draft of the NDC was released. The Houthis, already engaged in a rebellion against the government since 2004, felt that the NDC would legitimise the decades of repression that they had been subjected to under Saleh’s presidency. Consequently, they capitalised on the transitional weakness of the government and military and attacked southwards. The capital, Sana’a, was taken in January 2014. Less than two weeks later, the transitionary NDC parliament was dissolved, and the Houthis declared their Revolutionary Committee to be the sole political authority in Yemen.

Despite a history of enmity with the Houthis, Saleh returned from exile to provide the movement with political legitimacy, leveraging the power networks and patronage structures that remained well-entrenched after the 33 years of his presidency. The Hadi Government’s growing legitimacy deficit enabled various tribal militias to leverage power and secure preferential access to state powers and resources. Seeking to weaken the Houthi movement and protect the Hadi Government, while likely fearing a spill over of the conflict into its own territory, a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in mid-2015. In the two years since that intervention, new players have emerged and what began as a limited, domestic conflict has evolved into a complex, multilayered microcosm of Middle Eastern rivalries.

Parties to the Conflict

Houthis (officially: Ansar Allah)

Officially established in 1994, and now composed of anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000 active fighters, the Houthis are a predominantly Zaidi-Shia religious-political movement ostensibly pursuing a greater role in the Yemeni Government. Supporters of the movement see the Houthis as correcting the wrongs of the country’s 2011 transition agreement, which preserved the power of corrupt regime élites. They praise the Houthis’ willingness to confront corruption, combat AQAP and fill the security vacuum left by the failed transitionary government.

Having captured Sana’a in 2014, the Houthis pushed south through predominantly mountainous terrain in January 2015. After seizing large territories including Ibb province to the south and al-Hudaydah to the west, pro-government militia fighters reinforced by the Saudi-led coalition successfully halted the Houthi advance in August, and pushed the movement out of the southern-most regions. In the two years since the intervention, those initial successes remain the only notable victory achieved by the predominantly mechanised coalition forces. A lightly-armed and highly mobile insurgent group, the Houthis continue to capitalise on Yemen’s mountainous terrain, negating the efficacy of mechanised units and artillery strikes. Similarly, the air strikes long favoured by the Saudi-led coalition have been unsuccessful in achieving any strategic objectives, while civilian casualties increase support for the Houthis and other militant groups.

Yemen 1 - Houthi Areas

Both Saudi and Yemeni officials allege that the Houthis are receiving advanced weaponry and military advisers from Iran. The emergence of drones, long-range missile systems and other advanced technologies in the Houthi arsenal gives some credence to these claims. Prior to adopting a more open role in the Syrian conflict in 2014, Tehran embraced a similar approach to providing logistical support for militant Shia groups. In the context of the broader regional Iranian-Saudi confrontation, the possibility of an Iranian ally emerging along the Kingdom’s most porous border is likely to be the primary motivation for the Saudi intervention. Notably, the Houthis have been absent from UN-sponsored peace talks, but have taken part in talks mediated by Russia.

While it is unlikely that the Houthis will seize and control all of Yemen, internal divisions within pro-Hadi forces, as well as the continuing GCC-Qatar crisis, are positive signs for the Houthi cause. Houthi forces are spread very thinly, occupying almost three-quarters of the country’s most densely populated areas. In the event that coalition forces make significant territorial gains from the south, it is likely that AQAP and other jihadist groups will push their own offensive from the east. Conversely, if any headway is made in any of the peace dialogues, the Houthis are likely to receive numerous concessions and a greater degree of political representation. That is assuming, however, that at the end of the current conflict Yemen will emerge as a single, unified state.

Yemeni “Popular Resistance”

After the Houthis abducted senior Yemeni officials, President Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden, whereupon he rescinded his resignation. As the Houthis advanced southwards, he relocated to Saudi Arabia, where he set up a government-in-exile in Riyadh. Lacking a coherent governing body, the Yemeni armed forces disintegrated, some remaining loyal to Hadi, while others sided with the Houthis or other emerging militias. Supported by military loyalists, a diverse array of political, religious and tribal groups have armed and tentatively amalgamated in defiance of a common enemy in the Houthis. Collectively referred to as the “Popular Resistance”, this ad hoc pro-government coalition is made up of groups pursing varied and often contradictory objectives. Familiarity with the terrain, among other factors, makes most fighting components of the Popular Resistance far more effective than the better-equipped but poorly trained GCC coalition forces.

Popular resistance groups can classified into three main categories. Sectarian and religious groups make up a small, but growing proportion of the broader Houthi opposition. Affiliated with that category are the Sunni Islamist groups AQAP and ISIL, which, for ideological reasons, clash with both the Shia Houthis as well as some anti-Houthi groups. The largest of the popular resistance groups is the Southern Movement. A paramilitary group based in Aden, the Southern Movement has broad public support and seeks to secede from Yemen and reinstate the formerly independent republic of South Yemen. The third category is the least easily classifiable, as it incorporates a variety of political parties and tribal militias dispersed across the entire country. These groups reject the Houthi domination of their territories and are fighting for greater self-governance. This category includes the Yemen Muslim Brotherhood as well as various Hadi party loyalists, who frame their fight as one for a unified, federal Yemen.

Other than their opposition to the Houthis, one of the few commonalities that members of the Popular Resistance appear to share is an unwillingness to see Hadi return to power. In the event of a decisive Houthi defeat, such newly-empowered groups are therefore unlikely to concede power to a reinstated Hadi-led government. In that sense, cracks within the Popular Resistance are already starting to appear, with reports emerging of some groups turning against pro-Hadi public servants and local ministries. More problematically, within this heterogeneous group there are three incompatible visions for the form of a post-conflict Yemen.

Southern Movement (“Al-Hirak”)

Divided between independent Northern and Southern republics after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was unified in 1990. Despite that, political infighting between prominent Northern and Southern political figures prevented the passing of any meaningful legislation. Ethnic and tribal grievances continued to dominate political discourse. Southern grievances, reinforced by the North-favouring Saleh Government, as well as the still-recent memories of north-south wars fought during the pre-unification era, prompted the widespread resurgence of several Southern secessionist movements, all with the common goal of restoring independence to South Yemen.

While publicly backing the Hadi Government, and benefiting greatly from arms and training provided by the Saudi Government and its allies, the secessionists’ primary objective will likely see them clash with both groups in the event of a Houthi defeat. Notably, in the reclaimed southern territories that the Saudi-led coalition is using as a staging point for its operations, the only flags visible are those of the former Southern republic, rather than those of the unified Yemen.

Yemen 2 - Flags

Saudi-led GCC Coalition

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen with the declared intent of forcing a Houthi retreat and reinstating Hadi to office, while supporting the bureaucratic and security mechanisms necessary to keep him there. Although differing from a long-standing Saudi policy of simply containing instability within Yemen, the potential for an Iranian puppet state to appear on the Kingdom’s most vulnerable border served as a potent mobiliser. After installing their Revolutionary Committee in Sana’a, the Houthis opened direct commercial flights from there to Tehran, the first of many potential signs of growing Iranian influence.

The Saudi intervention marks a notable shift in the Kingdom’s approach to the Iranian dilemma. Rather than employing its own proxies to fight those of Tehran, Riyadh is directly taking on what it perceives to be an Iranian proxy. King Salman’s administration appears willing to take gambles that his predecessor avoided, as evidenced by the recent Qatar crisis. The speed with which the decision to invade Yemen was made is evident in the stalled outcomes two years on. The Saudi intervention has largely worsened the domestic security and humanitarian situation in Yemen, strengthening the Houthis by legitimising their movement and creating a security vacuum that AQAP and ISIS have capitalised on. While nine countries now make up the coalition, Saudi forces comprise the vast majority of the fighting forces. Saudi forces engaged in Yemen number approximately 150,000, with the next largest contingent made up of some 6,000 Sudanese troops.  As a result, the Saudi Ministry of Finance has stated that the occupation is costing the Kingdom up to US$700 million each month, straining a federal reserve already challenged by low oil prices.

In addition to those factors, the dispute with Qatar may strain the political will of the Saudis, or other coalition states, while potentially pushing the small, wealthy Gulf state closer to Iran and Turkey. By creating enemies on multiple fronts, and embedding themselves in a protracted Iraq-style counterinsurgency, there is no easy way out for either the Saudis or their allies. Notably, a long history of military inefficacy shadows the combined armed forces of the GCC. In the case of Yemen, it appears as though this history has largely been ignored and superseded by a mantra of “buy the best, be the best”.

The confluence of these factors has the potential to quickly erode the long-term political resolve required to prosecute an effective counterinsurgency. As King Salman’s health deteriorates, the future of the occupation lies in the hands of his successor. In a recent move, King Salman elevated his favoured son – Muhammad bin Salman – to crown prince. The de facto foreign minister for the past two years, the timing of bin Salman’s promotion suggests that the Kingdom’s policy towards Yemen is likely to continue unchanged.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda has thrived in an environment characterised by state collapse, increasing sectarianism and an emerging war economy. AQAP has consistently demonstrated a capacity to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances, which has allowed the initially small Yemeni cell to expand into a potent movement holding territory and challenging state authorities. AQAP’s motivations are no different from those of its other regional affiliates. The group seeks to purge Muslim countries of Western influence, and replace secular “apostate” governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes. Within Yemen, those objectives translate to deposing the Houthi regime in Sana’a, killing Western nationals and their allies, and establishing a staging point for attacks on the United States homeland. ISIS can loosely be grouped together with AQAP when outlining the objectives of both groups. The primary difference between the two groups stems from the definition of apostate; for ISIS, the term incorporates all ideologies but the radical Salafism that it adopted.

While nearly all local and foreign fighting parties in Yemen claim to oppose AQAP and ISIS, most of those parties have directly contributed to their rise. Much of the initial Houthi push south passed through predominantly Sunni areas, with the subsequent violence allowing AQAP to present itself as part of a wider Sunni front fighting Houthi expansionism. Similarly, the almost single-minded focus of the Saudi-led coalition on defeating the Houthi bloc has greatly bolstered AQAP. The group has claimed large territories to the east, seized weapons intended for pro-Hadi forces and activated new streams of revenue by raiding banks and controlling ports. The group has also demonstrated an emerging capacity to covertly operate public institutions in central Yemen. In addition to creating a separate militant movement, Ansar al-Sharia, to broaden its domestic appeal, AQAP has been able to exert this influence and dictate regional Sunni narratives, blurring the lines between local Salafi militias, AQAP subsidiaries and aggrieved Sunnis.

Yemen 3 - AQAP

ISIS has been less successful in gaining recruits or capturing territory. Despite that, the group continues to operate in regions that have experienced sectarian violence, particularly within Aden. ISIS has predominantly targeted the Hadi Government, indirectly benefiting the Houthi front by weakening its common enemies. Continuing a trend set in Iraq and Syria, notable AQAP figures, including senior ideologue Sheikh Mamoun Hatem, have defected to ISIS. In the event that enough pressure mounts on AQAP in the future, this trend of defection is likely to continue, prompting the exponential growth of ISIS in Yemen.

US forces engaged in counterterror operations against AQAP within Yemen have had limited success in curtailing the organisation. In January 2017, senior AQAP leader Abdul Rauf al-Dhahab was killed in a raid in the remote district of Yakla. Unsurprisingly, al-Dhahab’s death has had little impact on AQAP’s operational capabilities, while civilian causalities incurred during the raid will probably produce support for the insurgency. As the Yemeni conflict drags on, the ability of both AQAP and ISIS to generate support and amass financial and military resources will only increase.

Governance and Internal Security

At the end of July 2017, territory in Yemen was divided between three major groups, which, to varying degrees are each struggling with internal divisions. While conflict between those parties appears intractable, two years of violence and a naval embargo imposed by the Saudi-led coalition have contributed to a steadily worsening humanitarian catastrophe. For a state that has traditionally imported more than 90 per cent of its staple foods, the Saudi embargo has proven disastrous. An estimated 17 million Yemenis are food insecure, including some ten million who are acutely malnourished. Restrictions on imports of fuel, water and medication have further worsened the situation, contributing to a cholera outbreak, which, as of March 2017, had affected some 22,000 civilians. Damage to infrastructure incurred during the fighting, including to health facilities, roads and sewage plants, impedes efforts by external agencies to provide aid and will challenge post-conflict rehabilitation efforts. In the long term, and in a cyclical manner consistent with the history of Yemen, these factors predicate future conflict and instability.

This poor human security scenario plays into the recruitment tactics of the various Islamist organisations in Yemen. Civilians in such circumstances will seek alternative providers of security. With AQAP holding substantial territories, the organisation is able to present itself as a viable alternative to the state by providing services and amenities. Ensuring security, services and a rule of law, compliant residents in AQAP-controlled territory generally benefit from a better standard of living than those in Houthi- or coalition-held areas.

Facing successive military defeats in Iraq and Syria, and having already tentatively established a foothold in Yemen, senior ISIS leaders may try to re-emerge in Yemen. Despite presently holding little territory, the resurgence of ISIS in Yemen is a brewing crisis. It is partly due to the relegation of the Islamist threat as a secondary priority for the Saudi-led coalition, with the expulsion of the Houthis taking precedence. As a result, limited victories against the Houthis are largely fuelling future setbacks at the hands of nascent Islamist movements.

A Bleak Forecast

In many ways, the Yemeni conflict is among the most complex of those that were sparked by the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings. Already, a variety of both regional and international actors have demonstrated an interest in shaping or guiding the conflict. Regionally, almost all members of the GCC are invested, while a strong body of evidence exists to suggest Iran is involved to at least some degree. Internationally, Russia’s mediation efforts, the first the Houthis have taken part in, are likely partially founded on the promises allegedly made by Saleh during his presidency to allow the construction of a Russian naval base in Yemen. With so many actors already involved, and with the conflict having devolved into a protracted Afghanistan-style quagmire, other parties are unlikely to join the conflict in the future. While the US is pursuing limited counterterror operations against AQAP targets, the Trump Administration has clearly expressed support for the military autonomy of its allies.

The recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan will have greatly informed that approach, but if the situation tips unfavourably against the coalition, the US may yet become involved. Already, the grounds for the strengthening of a number of Islamist insurgencies have been established. Increased frictions between local groups aligned against the Houthis could disintegrate what is a fundamentally tentative alliance. Under such circumstances, a US intervention may be merited, but is highly unlikely.

While various negotiations and peace talks are taking place, it is hard to see a diplomatic breakthrough being made. Both the Houthis and the Hadi bloc control large territories that they will be unwilling to part with in the case of a negotiated settlement. In a similar vein, the catalyst for this conflict – dissatisfaction with levels of political representation – is not a perspective limited to the Houthis. With many smaller groups capitalising on the free flow of arms and recruits and swelling in relative power, they will be unlikely to give up their newly-acquired strength, potentially leading to the conflict breaking down into a variety of land grabs and the resurgence of historic grievances.

As the humanitarian scenario in Yemen continues to deteriorate, human security issues will fuel future conflict. After close to 1,500 years of conflict, there is little chance of Yemen becoming a functional and reasonably cohesive state in any meaningful span of time. Even the most rational of solutions currently being proposed – the federal division of the country – will prompt dispute and conflict between newly-empowered militias and ethnic groups.

In the event that the coalition drastically reassesses its strategy, there may be an opportunity to push the Houthis out of the major population centres that they currently hold. Despite that, there is little in the way of a cohesive post-conflict political apparatus for Yemen. Thus, while the Hadi bloc might lose its primary armed opposition, internal fragmentation will prevent political progress. Similarly, despite loosely allying with the main anti-Houthi coalition, the Southern Movement is vocally unsupportive of Hadi and has similar grievances to those of the Houthis regarding the transitionary government’s treatment of the south. The Southern Movement is by far the largest group within the Popular Resistance, so, in the event of a breakdown within it, one of the most coherent and effective anti-Houthi fighting forces will deteriorate. While unlikely, a diplomatic resolution favouring the Houthis may emerge from such a scenario.


The Saudi-led occupation of Yemen has come at great diplomatic and fiscal cost to the Kingdom and the GCC, with a decisive victory appearing unlikely. In any counterinsurgency, the primary objective of the occupying force should be to provide security and safety to the civilian population, negating the attractiveness of the insurgent movement as an alternative to the legitimate government. That the most successful group in this regard has been AQAP highlights a severe lack of foresight on the part of the Saudi planners. In place of the promised rapid victory, the coalition has rushed into a quagmire, inadvertently strengthening its opposition while provoking a severe humanitarian crisis.

Regardless of what form it takes, a timely resolution to this most recent addition to Yemen’s long history of conflict appears unlikely. The Saudis lack the strategic nuance to decisively see their campaign to a close, while pulling out altogether will shatter the Kingdom’s already wavering image and ensure Yemen’s complete descent into sectarian violence. A massive drain on resources and political legitimacy, the occupation is an unresolved issue for a Saudi Arabia still espousing the rhetoric of an imminent victory. In such a scenario, no real victor can emerge.

Instead, the millions of Yemeni civilians suffering from food, water and health insecurity that are yet to pick a side are increasingly motivated to do just that. Already an exporter of terrorists prior to this conflict, Yemen appears likely to emerge as the new focal point for international counterterror operations. Regardless of whether the Saudis are capable of recognising that and shifting their strategy accordingly, the people of Yemen will continue to face a bleak future.



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