Peace in Their Time? The Challenges to Ending the War in Yemen - by Mohd Azfar Aizat & Nor Aini Mohd Nordin

Peace in Their Time? The Challenges to Ending the War in Yemen


Mohd Azfar Aizat, Universiti Malaya & Nor Aini Mohd Nordin, MiDAS


For the past 4 years, the Houthi rebels that oppose the Saudi coalition backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi have stubbornly held their ground in the face of a near total naval blockade and constant bombardment by the coalition’s air forces. To add insult to the already injured pride of the coalition’s militaries, the Houthi forces have shown that they are not only capable of taking the hits, but also to hit back. Throughout the 4-year long campaign, the rebels have targeted coalition ships operating off the coast of Yemen (Weiss, 2019) and consistently struck targets within Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles (Hanna, 2019). The most recent of these missile strikes, occurred on the 14th of September 2019 and damaged the oil processing plant located in Abaqaiq and oil extraction facilities in the Khurais oil field (Li, 2019). Despite Houthi claims of responsibility, Saudi Arabia and the US are unconvinced, claiming the attack to be the work of Iran (Nissenbaum, 2019) and causing tensions in the already volatile region to spike amid accusations and denials from both parties. But as the situation appears to be on the precipice of another crisis, the Houthis unexpectedly announced that they were ceasing all missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia and will maintain this halt in attacks if the Saudis in turn, cease all military operations in Yemen (“Houthi rebels in Yemen”, 2019). The Kingdom has reportedly been in contact with the rebels on this matter (England & Kerr, 2019) but have yet to officially release any statement of acceptance. The road to peace in Yemen finally appears to be open but reaching its end may prove to be too difficult a task for the parties involved.

            One major issue that could derail any peace process in the country is the lack of cohesion among the involved parties in the conflict. The Saudi coalition for example, though tireless in their efforts to present a united front, is far from being free of internal problems. The coalition which in the beginning consisted of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been reduced to a pairing of the Kingdom and the UAE following the deterioration of Saudi relations with Morocco (“Morocco suspends participation”, 2019) and Qatar (Yaakoubi, 2017). Even the UAE which has remained by the side of the Kingdom, have recently reduced their military presence in Yemen (Michael, 2019). This situation might seem beneficial to the Kingdom, as while they may be alone in their struggle, this also means that any major initiatives on the ground could be decided by them alone. But the UAE drawdown only marks a reduction in their direct involvement.

Support from the UAE for factions in Yemen, mainly the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is still ongoing (“UAE’s support for separatists”, 2019). While the STC have engaged in battle with the Houthi rebels, they have also fought against the Saudi backed government forces of Yemen (Younes, 2019). The STC has diametrically opposing goals to the Saudi backed government as it is a secessionist movement aiming to re-establish South Yemen while the government is attempting to reunify the country. A clash between Saudi Arabia and its sole remaining partner driven by competing interests of their proxies in the country is unlikely, but clashes between their proxies would undoubtedly slow down or even endanger any peace process aiming to bring a halt to fighting in the country.

            In addition to this, there is also the problem of the ambiguous nature of Iranian support for the Houthis. The Houthis have long been suspected to enjoy some form of clandestine Iranian support. Intercepted small arms shipments (Lamothe, 2016), UN findings of Iranian supplied fuel (United Nations Security Council, 2019, p.3) and public statements by high ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers (Taleblu & Toumaj, 2016) support this assumption. While this may show that Iran has involved itself in the Houthi cause, it does not show just how much control it has over the group. In fact, Tehran may not have that much sway over its Yemeni “partner”, evidenced by the fact that the Houthis have ignored its advice in the past, most notably in the capture of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa (Watkins, Grim, & Ahmed, 2015). Houthi religious activists have also publicly stated that the Iranian theocratic model cannot be practically implemented in Yemen (Kendall, 2017, p.3) due to the demographic differences between Sunni and Shia adherents in the country. Thus, in the absence of a clear understanding of the extent of Iran’s role, if any, in shaping Houthi actions, any peace effort will always be subject to suspicion and distrust over Houthi motives, reducing the likelihood that the opposing parties would maintain interest in seeing through the process.

            But perhaps the largest obstacle towards an enduring peace in Yemen is the unresolved long-standing issues that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place. The Republic of Yemen as a state is a relatively recent creation. The country was formed in 1990 through the unification of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the southern portion of the country and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north (Feierstein, 2019, p.1). Since unification, specifically following the end of the brief civil war in 1994, there have been outbreaks of violence driven by perceived and actual marginalisation of southern and Zaydi Shia Yemenis within the political and economic sphere (Feierstein, 2019, pp. 8-10).

The current conflict is merely the most recent and longest of these violent outbursts. Therefore, any future peace settlement would only provide a temporary reprieve unless these underlying concerns about Yemeni governance are resolved. Such an effort must address the varying levels of development and lack of economic opportunities that plague the marginalised Yemeni groups, in addition to ensuring that the aforementioned groups receive equal representation in the government. This requires reeducating the populace and rewriting legal framework in order to provide lasting peace settlement.  

The Yemeni conflict has been labeled by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. With 3.3 million people displaced, close to 20 000 dead (United Nations, 2019) and the ever looming spectre of famine, it is not hard to see why. While there is promise in recent developments, overcoming the challenges of securing a permanent peace will only be possible if both the Saudi backed government and the Houthis fully commit. Failing to do so would prolong this obscene affront to humanity and the continued suffering of the Yemeni people, Houthi, loyalist and everyone in between.



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