August 26, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Endless Turmoil in Yemen

• Peace talks in Yemen between Shi’a Houthi rebels and the country’s internationally recognized government have ended in failure. 

• Both sides have since taken steps to bolster their positions at their adversary’s expense.

• The political moves and increasing violence make another round of peace talks unlikely for the foreseeable future.

• The U.S. has altered its level of support for the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, just as military operations against the Houthis are likely to increase.


After four months of negotiations and a fragile cessation of hostilities, UN-sponsored peace talks between Iran-supported Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels and Yemen’s internationally recognized government have effectively ended. As the incentives to compromise quickly diminish, both sides are taking steps to bolster their legitimacy at their opponent’s expense. The result will likely be escalating violence for Yemen’s already war-stricken population, and an increasing possibility of the total collapse of negotiations. 

As talks faltered late last month, the Houthis and their ally, deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, established a joint ‘Supreme Political Council’ tasked with administering the parts of the country under Houthi control. The rebels then convened the first parliamentary session in almost two years to rubber stamp the new council. Both acts were widely condemned by the internationally recognized Hadi government and its allies, as well as the UN. Houthi supporters also held a massive rally in Sana’a, lending popular support to the new political body. In a misguided bid to gain foreign support and exploit Russia’s desire to expand its influence in the region, former President Saleh even offered to open the country’s military bases to Russian forces—an offer neither he nor his Houthi allies are in a position to make. 

In turn, the Hadi administration is seeking to temporarily move the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY)—which had remained nominally neutral in the conflict—from the capital Sana’a to the government’s current seat of power in Aden. The act would cut off Houthi access to Yemen’s foreign reserves, as well as the country’s international accounts and credits. Hadi’s government has already refused to deposit recent oil revenues into the bank’s main branch in Sana’a, and formally asked the IMF to stop dealing with CBY staff in the capital.

These moves are as much about public relations as they are about military strategy. For the Houthis, announcing the formation of the Supreme Political Council and holding mass demonstrations is an attempt to show that they are not simply a rebellious Iranian proxy, but an organized political force with strong domestic support and the capacity to govern. It also forces the Hadi government and its Gulf backers to choose between escalating the conflict or acquiescing to a de facto partition of the country. The Hadi government is desperate for the political victory of complete control over the CBY, which would make it the main broker of Yemen’s foreign economic relations. 

Such political jockeying demonstrates that the belligerents consider the peace talks moribund, and they stand to gain more from conflict than from negotiation. Thus, each side has taken actions that would have previously precluded a political compromise, making a return to talks in the near future highly unlikely.

Even as the security situation in Yemen is set to deteriorate further, the U.S. is taking a step back from its support of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. The U.S. announced this week that it had reduced the number of support staff and moved personnel supporting the campaign from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Washington appears to be distancing itself from the campaign as Saudi Arabia faces mounting criticism over civilian casualties. The criticism culminated this week with the announcement by  Doctors Without Borders that it would be evacuating all staff from Yemen after the Saudi-led coalition repeatedly targeted the organization’s facilities. The U.S. pullback is significant, coming just as the bombing campaign is likely to pick up momentum. However, given the limited U.S. role in the campaign, the act is mostly symbolic. 

The question now is whether the Hadi government and its Gulf backers will accept an Iran-backed pseudo-state in the north and a mix of al-Qaeda, southern separatist, and loyalist forces in the south, or attempt to retake the whole country by force. In either case, the political maneuvering and maximalist demands of the respective parties suggest the situation in Yemen will continue to deteriorate in the near term.


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