Analysis - Political Transformations

Complex Dynamics

Why the Yemeni Conflict will not Subside in 2018?

Writer : Dr. Hmoud Nasser al-Kadami

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Complex Dynamics

The trajectories of the internal conflict in Yemen cannot be predicted with certainty in 2018. Throughout 2017, the developments in Yemen have surged and ebbed, the only constant is that there is no end in sight yet for the internal conflict that has erupted three years ago. With the sudden departure of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his disappearance from the Yemeni political equation, the conflict turned into a confrontation between two groups, namely: the internationally recognized legitimate government led by president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by Arab alliance countries and the putschist Houthi militia, which lacks international recognition. The complicated situation in Yemen poses multiple threats, including, ballistic missile proliferation, threats to maritime security, growing attacks by al-Qaeda and mounting separatist tendencies in southern Yemen.

Internal balance of power

The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh has changed the balance of power in Yemen. The most significant changes in the Yemeni political landscape, expected in 2018, can be outlined as follows: 

1- Post-Saleh arrangements: The legitimate government and the Houthi militia are vying for attracting the remaining leaders of the General Popular Congress party residing in the areas under Houthi control. Meanwhile, members of the General Popular Congress are trying to absorb the shock of Saleh’s death, they are increasingly concerned about entering into conflict with the Houthis, given that they are civilians and do not have organized militia or heavy weaponary capable of countering Houthis’ threats, add to that their fears that their new leader could be brought under the control of the Houthi regime.

2- Divisions in the Congress party: The legitimate government strives to attract the leaders of the Conference party. In this regard, the Yemeni prime minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, quoted president Abd- Rabbu Mansour Hadi in December 2017, as saying that “Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh belongs to us, we belong to him, and let bygones be bygones”. For his part, bin Dagher called for every hesitant, bewildered or shocked member of the Congress party- in his words- to recover from the shock and join the unified General Popular Congress party, which supports the legitimate government in fighting the Houthis. Some supporters of Saleh are expected to respond to his call and join the legitimate government, while others will fear persecution and retaliation by the Houthis.

3- Houthis' retreat: It is expected that 2018 will witness a decline and a weakening of the Houthis for several reasons, including that most of the Congress party’s leaders have turned into opponents of the Houthis and seek to retaliate and avenge their leader when circumstances arise. In addition to the fact that the Arab alliance states have decided that the use of force is the only solution to defeat the Houthis and thwart the Iranian project in Yemen, which represents a real threat to the countries of the region, especially after the Houthis fired two missiles toward the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Houthis' missile threats

Houthis have created a sectarian internal conflict, as they implement an Iranian agenda and seek to establish a regime, similar to the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), in Yemen, which cannot be accepted under a Sunni majority. The Houthis make allegations to reinforce their stance and attract more supporters of their ideas, including that they are the descendants of Ahl al-Bayt.

Moreover, the Houthi group poses a serious threat to the states of the region as it is an extension of Iran’s regional project, in addition to its constant threat to international navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. For example, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mason was targeted by missile attacks three times from areas under the control of the Houthis in October 2016. In the same month, the UAE civilian ship Swift was attacked while transporting humanitarian aid and carrying the injured to be treated in the UAE.

A Saudi frigate was also attacked in January 2017 by three Houthi suicide boats while the frigate was patrolling west of Yemen’s port of Hodeidah. In March 2017, the Arab coalition forces foiled an attempted attack by three Houthi boats against a group of ships near Midi port. 

Moreover, the Houthis are continuously threatening to launch ballistic missiles on neighbouring states, and they increasingly use naval mines, floating and submersible, to target coalition vessels and merchant ships, which could cause an environmental disaster if an oil tanker is targeted.

On November 4, 2017, the Houthi militia fired Burkan H2 ballistic missile toward King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. On 19 December 2017, they fired another Burkan H2 missile at Riyadh, however, the missile was intercepted by Saudi air defenses before it could hit its target.

An unpublished report by the UN sanctions monitors was unveiled on November 24, Reuters published parts of it on December 1, 2017, that remnants of four ballistic missiles launched by the Houthi militia on Saudi Arabia this year appear to be designed and manufactured by Iran. The UN experts concluded that “Design characteristics and dimensions of the components inspected by the panel are consistent with those reported for the Iranian designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile”.

The leadership of the Arab coalition stated in November 2017 that arms smuggling for the Houthis takes place in places controlled by Hezbollah, through Syria, Iraq, Iran, and eventually smuggled into Yemen. Some analysts indicate that Iran was exploiting poor control over the port of Hodeidah to smuggle ballistic missiles into wheat and food containers that are difficult to inspect because it is difficult to be fully unloaded. These threats are expected to subside in 2018, with the legitimate government controlling the main ports and the Red Sea shores, thus depriving the militia of offshore outlets and port revenues. 

Al-Qaeda threats in Yemen

Despite destroying many strongholds of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the group is still able to maintain the positions of its cells in some areas in southern and eastern Yemen. Some governorates have witnessed successive attacks by the group, especially Abyan, Shabwa, Marib, Bayda, Hadramaut and Lahij. These attacks usually focus on targeting the military and security forces of the legitimate government.

The U.S. launched 120 air strikes on Yemeni territory in 2017 to wipe out the organization’s cadres and leaders as part of the war on terror, which Trump vowed to do in his election campaign, according to the Pentagon in December 2017. The U.S. has already succeeded in killing several al-Qaeda’s cadres and leaders, such as Abu Hajar, al-Qaeda’s propaganda chief in Yemen in a drone strike in the east of Sanaa in December 2017, and Abu Khattab al-Awlaki, leader of the organization in Yemen in June 2017. However, some of these strikes have caused civilian casualties, according to a statement issued by the U.S. army command in February 2017, that some of the raids may have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.

The legitimate government, with the support of the Arab coalition forces, has also managed to extend its influence and drive al-Qaeda out of Abyan and Hadramaut, where its members went into hiding in remote and uninhabited mountain areas. Al-Qaeda’s attacks have receded in 2017, compared to previous years, thanks to government and intelligence cooperation and coordination with the U.S. to counter the group. Should the campaign continue at the same pace, the group will be degraded, and its role will be diminished in 2018.

Southern Separatist Movement

Some separatist groups have renewed their demands for secession of the South and return to the pre-1990 borders. In this regard, the former governor of Aden Aidarous al-Zubaidi announced, in May 2017, the formation of a transitional political council to govern the South.

In October 2017, al-Zubaidi announced that he would arrange for conducting a referendum on secession of Yemen and that a parliamentary body for the administration of the region would be formed. This move led to a split between the leaders of the South, as some of them refuse complete secession. Indications are that secession will not succeed amid a lack of regional states support and the existing divisions among Southern movements, some of them are holding discussions with the capital, Sana'a.

In conclusion, the internal conflict in Yemen is unlikely to come to an end in 2018. The social, political and economic causes of this conflict are deeply rooted. In addition, the conflict of regional and international interests, as well as the increased Iranian support for the Houthis fuel the conflicts and exacerbate regional security threats, notably ballistic missiles proliferation and the targeting of maritime traffic near the Yemeni coasts.

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