August 20, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Balancing of Allegiances in Yemen
Historically, alliances in Yemen have been fluid and fractious, and the state of alliances within the current conflict is no exception. As the tactical balance on the ground continues to shift, so too will the strategic calculus of the various actors. Within the context of these shifts, differences in the ultimate goals of the actors will begin to emerge. It remains to be seen whether this will be a problem for the Houthi coalition, which includes several Zaydi tribes, as well as supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the anti-Houthi coalition, however, divergent strategic goals pose a more serious threat to its cohesion.
While the anti-Houthi coalition has been united by its desire to push the rebels out of southern territory, there remains no stated consensus as to the coalition’s ultimate strategic goal. For the Southern Movement—known locally as al-Hirak—there is likely very little motivation to advance into territory in northern Yemen. While there was strong popular support for liberating traditional al-Hirak territory from the Houthis, there is unlikely to be strong southern support for a push into the Houthi homeland in the north. Instead, it is more likely that al-Hirak will focus on consolidating power in its traditional centers, and especially Aden. In fact, there is already evidence that al-Hirak is expelling pro-Saudi fighters from the city.
What, then, is the ultimate goal of the foreign coalition? This is the third instance in which Saudi Arabia has provided military assistance to southern Yemen in its conflicts with the north. In a telling move, the Houthi rebels recently agreed to withdraw from the Shabwa governorate, ceding control to the Saudi-backed Popular Resistance. The seemingly voluntary transfer indicates some form of collaboration between Houthis and specific tribes within the Popular Resistance. This fragmenting of alliances—especially along tribal lines—will increase the difficulty of advancing to Sana’a, if that is, in fact, the strategic plan of the Saudi-led coalition.
Among the international partners in the anti-Houthi coalition, divergent strategic goals also pose a threat to continued cohesion. Though the coalition is officially 13-members strong—to include the U.S.—the main driver behind the intervention in Yemen is Saudi Arabia. Though the coalition was initially united by a desire to reinstall the elected government of President Hadi, there are internal questions over member states' levels of commitment. Many of the members of the coalition are only providing air and naval support of the blockade of Yemen, and others like the United States are only providing only logistical support. To date, the only foreign troops on the ground in Yemen are Saudi and Emirati, with a small number of Egyptians and Jordanians now operating in training roles in Aden.
As the humanitarian crisis worsens and international calls for a ceasefire grow louder, it is unclear if the Saudis will be able to hold the coalition together. There are signs that Riyadh is growing frustrated with nominal members of the coalition for not providing more kinetic support, and that frustration will likely increase if the anti-Houthi forces begin to push into the highly-contested regions in the northwest of the country.
Any push by the anti-Houthi forces toward Sana’a—let alone into the Houthi heartland—will likely be extremely costly. This reality, combined with increasing international pressure for a ceasefire, make any northward push unlikely. However, these conflicting strategic goals will also make a ceasefire difficult to achieve, as there will be a multitude of disagreements over control of territory and resources. Regardless of the final outcome of the conflict, the tangled web of allegiances will play a key role.
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