For Yemen, 2019 was a year of continued failure to reach a breakthrough in efforts to resolve the conflict that has torn apart the country since the coup that ousted the internationally recognised government in September 2014.
It was also a year in which other dimensions of the crisis grew more articulated and acquired increasing prominence. While the central government-Houthi dimension of the Yemeni crisis was marked by the persistent floundering of the Stockholm Agreement that was signed in December 2018, mounting tensions in the resurgent north-south tug-of-war erupted in armed clashes in the south.
Simultaneously, regional impacts on the conflict grew more pronounced against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Gulf between Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the US, on the other, in tandem with US moves to tighten sanctions against Iran.
PLAYERS IN THE YEMENI FIELD: A STRATEGIC SHIFT
The UAE’s military withdrawal from Yemen was among the most remarkable transformations in the Yemeni arena in 2019, and its effects will continue to play out in 2020. The Emirati decision precipitated action on the part of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the chief exponent of the Southern Movement and the main bulwark against the political and military expansion of Islamist forces, to fill the vacuum created by the departure of UAE forces from Aden. The UAE had long harboured grave reservations towards the Yemeni government because the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood’s military brigades are a major contingent of pro-government forces and because the Muslim Brotherhood’s political facade, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party, forms the backbone of the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The UAE announced its intended pull-out in early July. A month later, clashes broke out following a missile attack against Al-Jalaa military camp in Aden during a military parade, claiming dozens of casualties, including Munir Al-Yafie, aka “Abu Al-Yamama”, the commander of the Security Belt Forces, the STC’s military wing. Although the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, it nevertheless triggered an armed conflict between pro-Hadi forces supported by Saudi Arabia and Southern Belt forces supported by the UAE. The warfare, in turn, fuelled rumours of sharp differences and rising tensions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the two main partners in the Arab coalition that was formed to restore the legitimate government in Yemen.
The “War of the Southern Cities”, which was fed, in part, by a resurgence of the southern secessionist project, quickly spread from Aden eastward to the governorates of Abyan and Al-Dalie. It took over two months of Saudi-brokered talks, hosted in Jeddah and Riyadh, to reach a settlement. The agreement signed between the Hadi government and the STC contains three annexes covering political, military/security and economic arrangements that, taken as a whole, reaffirm the hierarchical pre-eminence of the internationally recognised government while acknowledging a central role for the UAE-backed STC.
The military/security annex outlined a process for restructuring the “Joint Forces” so as to merge pro-Hadi forces with the Security Belt and other coalition-backed forces in western Yemen, such as the Republican Guards led by Tarek Saleh, the nephew of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Giants Brigade, another Southern Movement militia that had been instrumental in the battle to drive Houthi forces out of the south and much of the western coast before 2017. In addition, the security annex provides for the replacement of UAE forces by Saudi forces in the south, a process that had already begun in Aden, Al-Bariqa and Lahaj even before the agreement was formally announced.
The effects of warfare between the STC and government forces in the south also rippled northward to Taiz where fighting erupted between Islah forces and the Abu Al-Abbas Brigade, a UAE-affiliated militia that is part of the Joint Forces. As a result, Taiz, which has been under siege from the north by Ansarallah (Houthi) forces for several years, has become the focus of an intractable multi-faceted conflict. Observers believe that Islah is now determined to assert itself more forcefully in the Taiz theatre after having lost its influence in the south as a result of the Riyadh agreement between the government and the STC.
While some settlements and agreements have inspired optimism, their implementation is still mired in practice. The main agreement in the Houthi-government conflict, the Stockholm Agreement, has effectively been reduced to a process of imposing security arrangements exclusively in and around Hodeida in the framework of negotiations between the two sides hosted by a UN committee aboard a UN ship anchored off port. But even these have ultimately failed to produce tangible progress on the ground. The two sides continue to trade accusations over who is to blame for the failure and for ceasefire violations. A sudden wave of escalation during the last quarter of this year threw into relief the profound gap between the two sides and the UN’s inability to compel them to commit to peace.
It is also believed that the recently concluded Riyadh Agreement provoked the Houthis — who saw it as directed against them — into redeploying forces southwards towards the borders of the southern governorates. For instance, they have repositioned themselves in the southern part of Hodeida and in Al-Dalie, and they have sustained strikes against pro-government forces in the west. Some analysts have suggested that the purpose is to up the pressure on Saudi Arabia, but inside Yemen this time, as opposed to through cross-border missile attacks.
In this regard, the first half of 2019 was marked by an intensification of Houthi missile and drone strikes targeting vital targets inside Saudi Arabia, such as Abha airport and Aramco facilities. More recently, however, there have been signs that the Houthis have shifted their attention southwards where Saudi forces have replaced UAE forces.
The problems with the Hodeida Agreement extend beyond the security arrangements. The question of the prisoner exchange will also probably carry on into next year due to the lack of anticipated progress.
As for the economic question, which has been handled in a parallel track in Amman, where the UN mission to Yemen has another base apart from those in Aden and Sanaa, the institutional bifurcation of the Yemeni Central Bank remains unresolved. The Houthis control the bank’s central headquarters in Sanaa while the internationally recognised government officially relocated the headquarters to Aden on a provisional basis.
But even implementation of the Riyadh Agreement appears stuck. The main contingents of security forces have yet to be merged into a single cohesive order, as had been agreed upon, and the task of forming a Yemeni government in accordance with the power sharing provisions of the political annex has dragged on well beyond the agreed upon deadline.
THE WORST HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN THE WORLD
Five years after the start of the conflict, Yemen remains the “largest humanitarian emergency” in the world, with 24 million people out of the population of 30.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, UNICEF reported at the end of November 2019. “Despite historic gains made for children since the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted 30 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly, Yemen remains one of the worst places to be a child. Continuing brutal conflict and a subsequent economic crisis have left basic social services systems across the country on the brink of collapse with far reaching consequences on children. Today, over 12 million children — nearly every child — in Yemen is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.”
Robert Mardini, the UN observer of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told journalists in late November that despite a de-escalation of fighting in Yemen, which is positive news, the Arab world’s poorest nation faces “a very dire humanitarian situation”. In addition to an escalation in dengue cases, there are tens of thousands of cholera cases as well, he said. Reports have cited more than 3,500 cases of dengue fever in Taiz alone, while around 3,000 have been infected with Malaria in Hodeida.
For several years, the UN and other international relief agencies have been warning of the increasingly dire malnutrition crisis in Yemen. According to their reports, 22 million Yemenis out of a population of 30 million suffer from malnutrition.
Children are bearing the brunt of the conflict: 2,000 children have been killed and 4,800 have been maimed since the conflict began; 2,700 boys have been recruited into armed forces and groups; and over 368,000 children under five years old are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Despite the increasing urgency of these agencies’ warnings, they appear to fall on the deaf ears of those who should be listening to them most.
TERRORISTS IN YEMEN
For the second year running, the 2019 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), which appeared in November, lists Yemen among the top 10 terrorist-affected countries. Yemen rates the eighth highest, like last year. These 10 countries suffered 87 per cent of terrorist-related deaths worldwide. The Yemeni conflict continues to reap a horrific toll: “The war has claimed over 91,000 fatalities since January 2015, with 2018 being the deadliest and most violent year on record,” the report states.
The report ranks the Houthi Ansarallah Movement as the “deadliest” terrorist group in Yemen, while 2018 saw a continued decline in the activities of Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Yemen. Of the five IS affiliates, only the Aden-Abyan one remains active and this was responsible for only two terrorist attacks in 2018, according to the report. It was also responsible for two attacks in August 2019 in the context of the conflict between government forces and STC forces. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains active in the south. It was responsible for 19 terrorist attacks in the period covered by the report. Most of them took place in southern and central Hadramaut and Shabwa governorates. Nevertheless, AQAP activity has declined greatly in recent years, compared to its peak in 2015 when it had full control of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramaut.
The Yemeni conflict still has no end in sight. Opportunities for peace in the country that has been torn by war for over five years are growing further remote. Yemen does not have the petroleum wealth of other war-torn countries such as Iraq and Libya. If such wealth can be a major source of conflict and its perpetuation, it can also be a source of healing when its revenues are channelled into post-war reconstruction projects. Therefore, even if/when the Yemeni war ends, the country will continue to suffer its humanitarian plight, the consequences of which have been at least as catastrophic as those wrought by the war.
Because of its geopolitical position, Yemen is important at the regional level in the context of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The perpetuation of these tensions will continue to cast their shadow over the war and the prospects for peace. Conversely, developments in Yemen, whether positive or negative, will remain a gauge of Iranian-Saudi tensions and the climate in the Gulf region as a whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.