Conflict Watchlist 2023

Yemen: Uncertain Trajectory Amid Truce Collapse and Ongoing Negotiations

Posted: 8 February 2023

The civil war in Yemen erupted in September 2014 when a tactical alliance between former President Ali Abdullah Salih and the Houthis — a group of Shiite insurgents from the country’s north — led to the takeover of the capital city of Sanaa. The conflict acquired a regional dimension in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition (SLC) intervened in support of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Internationally Recognized Government (IRG). Among the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century, the war in Yemen has resulted in an estimated 158,000 reported fatalities from violence between January 2015 and December 2022, including over 15,700 civilians killed in direct attacks.

Between 2015 and 2021, the conflict evolved through different stages. The Houthis have gained full control of state institutions in the northwest of the country, after killing their former ally Salih in December 2017. The IRG — which controls Yemen’s southeast — has suffered from internecine fighting, with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) gaining de facto control of large areas of the south. Concurrently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have manifested diverging agendas within the SLC. Lastly, the precarious security situation has led to sporadic attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State.

Yet, in 2022, the conflict took a new turn. Houthi advances into the oil-rich Marib governorate, which had been ongoing since 2020, were suddenly halted by the intervention of UAE-backed forces. Ensuing confrontations caused the highest level of political violence in the country since March 2021. The Houthis reacted to this setback by launching missile and drone attacks that caused the first fatalities on UAE soil, highlighting Abu Dhabi’s vulnerability to high-precision strikes. Overall, these confrontations showed an unprecedented military equilibrium between the warring parties.1Peter Salisbury, ‘Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements’, International Crisis Group, 8 April 2022 

At the regional level, a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia resulted in Tehran playing a crucial role in bringing the warring parties toward a settlement.2David Hearst, ‘Saudi-Hezbollah meeting secured Yemen ceasefire and Hadi resignation’, Middle East Eye, 27 June 2022 Meanwhile, the eruption of the war in Ukraine increased international pressure to end the Yemen war. The crisis pushed international donors to reduce aid funds destined for Yemen,3Omer Karasapan, ‘Yemen in the shadow of Russia’s war on Ukraine’, Brookings, 18 April 2022 while provoking an increase in wheat, fuel, and fertilizer prices that threatened to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the country.4Al Jazeera, ‘Overshadowed by Ukraine war, Yemen on brink as pledges fall short’, 19 March 2022

Capitalizing on these developments, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg secured a truce between the Houthis and the IRG, which lasted from 2 April to 2 October 2022. The truce allowed for a political reconfiguration of the IRG, with President Hadi being replaced by a Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) headed by former interior minister Rashad al-Alimi, with members from the major anti-Houthi factions. 

The countrywide halt to offensive military operations led to a 90% reduction in the reported fatalities associated with confrontations between the warring parties compared to the six months before the truce. Concurrently, airstrikes from SLC fighter jets completely stopped. Yet, political violence continued during the truce. Confrontations between Houthi and IRG forces resulted in at least 450 reported fatalities, while internecine fighting fragmented the IRG field; local tribal conflicts regained momentum; and civilian casualties remained at high levels due to heightened repression and increased mobility in conflict zones.

With the end of the truce on 2 October 2022, the conflict entered a new phase. Political violence remained at low levels throughout the end of 2022. Yet, the Houthis waged unprecedented drone attacks on Yemen’s southern ports in October and November, effectively preventing the export of the country’s oil and gas resources. This new strategy aimed at pressuring the IRG to accept Houthi demands in order to renew the truce.

What to watch for in 2023

Against this backdrop, 2023 is set to be a year rich with unknowns for Yemen. The Houthis are currently engaged in back-channel talks with Saudi Arabia.5Yemen News Agency, ‘The arrival of an Omani delegation to the capital Sana’a’, 22 December 2022 Their demands to achieve a truce renewal are clear-cut: first, a complete reopening of land and sea ports, and second, the payment of the salaries of civil servants and military and security personnel from Yemen’s oil and gas revenues.6Ansarollah, ‘Extending The Truce Is Rejected Without Paying Salaries And Opening Airports: The Patience Of The Yemeni People Will Not Be Long’, 25 December 2022 The latter condition has effectively derailed previous rounds of negotiations, with the UN defining the payment of military salaries as a “maximalist demand.”7United Nations Security Council, ‘Security Council Press Statement on Yemen’, 5 October 2022

Depending on the outcome of the diplomatic efforts, two scenarios can be envisaged. Should the talks fail to secure a truce renewal and an expansion of its conditions, the Houthis would likely resume their drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE,8Yemen News Agency, ‘Muhammad Ali al-Houthi: The battle against aggression has not ended yet, and the next one is more severe and more painful for them’, 26 December 2022 which could lead to renewed SLC airstrikes on Yemen. Houthi leaders have also made explicit threats to international sea routes, amid reports of renewed Houthi militarization on the Red Sea coast.9Ansarollah, ‘Pictures From The Solemn Military Parade Of The Fifth Military Region, The Victory Brigades, The Navy And The Air Force, “The Promise Of The Hereafter”’, 1 September 2022; Ansarollah, ‘Minister Of Defense: We Will Deal Forcefully And Firmly With Any Development That Poses A Threat Or An Attack On National Sovereignty’, 13 December 2022; Aden al Ghad, ‘Suspicious Houthi movements in Hodeidah and the militia threatens to target international shipping’, 14 December 2022 On the domestic front, the conflict could pick up in al-Dali, Marib, and Taizz, where clashes are currently ongoing. 

On the other hand, successful negotiations would not automatically pave the way for a resumption of the domestic political process. Tensions that led to the September 2014 coup remain largely unresolved. Furthermore, despite publicly criticizing the current “no peace and no war” situation,10Yemen News Agency, ‘Supreme Politician: The state of no peace and no war is unacceptable and will not last long, and the armed forces are in full readiness’, 19 December 2022 the Houthis are arguably benefitting from the conflict’s deadlock and have launched a process of internal reforms. Achieving salary payment concessions would be a political victory and would grant the Sanaa-based government economic sustainability. The Houthis could use such gains to strengthen their grip on the northwest of the country, while temporarily disregarding the prospect of Yemen’s unity.

At the same time, SLC countries do not share a common agenda. Since at least 2019, Saudi Arabia has been seeking a disengagement from the Yemen war. As the prospect of a military victory against the Houthis has gradually waned, Riyadh’s priority remains to secure the Saudi-Yemeni border. To this effect, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to both normalize diplomatic relationships with the Iranian regime and engage in direct talks with the Houthis, who are deemed capable of acting with wide degrees of autonomy from Tehran. The invitation of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council President Mahdi al-Mashat to Saudi Arabia is an unprecedented sign of easing tensions, which might prelude further concessions from Riyadh.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is unlikely to escalate its direct involvement in the conflict, especially after high-precision Houthi strikes targeted its territory in early 2022. More plausibly, it will continue the current strategy of financing local militias with the double aim of countering the Houthis and AQAP, while also securing international sea routes.11Brian Carter, ‘Understanding Military Units in Southern Yemen’, Critical Threats, 16 December 2022; Intelligence Online, ‘Abu Dhabi imposes its control of Red Sea on Aden’, 26 December 2022 However, overall, UAE-backed actors do not constitute a unitary front and share no coherent political vision for Yemen’s future. Among them, the STC might expand its political competition with the IRG in Hadramawt and al-Mahra, causing further distress in the already fragmented anti-Houthi camp.

Anti-Houthi forces are struggling to coordinate and find a shared identity, albeit united under the umbrella of the PLC in April 2022. In August 2022, UAE-backed forces launched an offensive on forces affiliated with the Islah party and ousted them from large swathes of Shabwa governorate. Despite both camps officially belonging to the PLC, this episode of violence led to the deadliest week during the UN-mediated truce. Limited sporadic clashes continue in Shabwa, with the threat of spreading to neighboring Hadramawt and Marib governorates. In Hadramawt, STC leaders warned of a violent escalation in late 2022, amid an unprecedented wave of demonstrations calling for the removal of Islah-affiliated forces from the governorate.12Maged Al-Madhaji, ‘Defeat in Shabwa Forces Islah to Reckon With New Political Reality’, Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, 18 August 2022; SMA News, ‘Al-Kathiri: The people of Hadramawt are ready to fight the battles against the first military zone if it is imposed on us’, 17 December 2022 Although the Houthis did not exploit intra-PLC rivalries during the truce, they could decide differently should these manifest again. 

Finally, the resurgence of AQAP in 2022 suggests that the organization could also act as a spoiler and further undermine peace prospects. AQAP’s political violence activity more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, mostly following the spread of STC forces in southern Yemen in the latter part of 2022. AQAP responded to the STC’s Operation Arrows of the East by launching the retaliatory Operation Arrows of Righteousness in September 2022, which led to the highest levels of AQAP activity since July 2018. In 2023, AQAP could exploit both intra-PLC rivalries and any renewed fighting between Houthi and PLC forces to continue regrouping and consolidating.