North Africa, West Asia

Yemen’s hopes and expectations - Part 2: Can Saudi Arabia leave Yemen?

While Saudi Arabia seeks an exit from the Yemen war, it is deepening its involvement in the South instead.

Helen Lackner
31 January 2020
A secondary school student walks over a school building damaged by airstrikes in Ibb province south of Sanaa
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Picture by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This four part series summarises the main changes in the Yemen crisis during 2019 and suggests what may happen in 2020. Part 1 deals with the Stockholm Agreement, primarily focused on the Huthi-controlled area. Part 2 deals with the crisis which arose within the anti-Huthi coalition between President Hadi’s internationally recognised government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Part 3 addresses people’s living conditions, the humanitarian crisis and Part 4 deals with the looming environmental disaster and other environmental issues.

Last year saw some significant changes in Saudi strategy in Yemen. Following on the UAE departure, the new Deputy Defence Minister, Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother, has taken over the Yemeni file. While wanting to disentangle his country from the conflict, he was instead forced to increase Saudi involvement, particularly in the South.

The southern question moves to the frontline

As the coalition was forced by the Stockholm Agreement to give up its offensive on Hodeida and was therefore left without a military strategy to win the war, UAE decision makers, frustrated after four years of stalemate, started withdrawing their forces from the Red Sea coast and in June 2019 announced a complete withdrawal.

Although they still have a small military involvement in strategic positions in Bab al Mandab and along the southern coast of Yemen, Emirati military intervention has largely ended, as indeed, has that of many of its Sudanese mercenaries. This effectively means that Saudi Arabia is the only relevant external coalition member remaining and leaves it, since the summer of 2019, alone in taking decisions concerning the war in Yemen, including the situation in the South.

Since early-2017 when the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) was established by two separatist leaders dismissed from the government by President Hadi, tensions have periodically flared up into armed confrontations between the UAE-supported STC with its militias, the Security Belts and Elite Forces on the one hand, and the military of Hadi’s internationally recognised government (IRG) on the other. Clashes erupted in Aden between IRG supporters and those of the STC starting in early 2018 and throughout the last two years in Soqotra.

The loss of its capital was a major threat to the government’s credibility as it effectively turned it into a government in exile.

In August 2019 the STC expelled Hadi’s forces and ministers from Aden, using as justification a Huthi attack on a military parade in Aden which killed an important Security Belt leader and 40 new military graduates, which the STC accused the Islah party of having perpetrated. The loss of its capital was a major threat to the government’s credibility as it effectively turned it into a government in exile. As had happened on previous occasions, but more urgently this time, Saudi Arabia intervened to try and reconcile the rivals, all officially part of the anti-Huthi coalition.

Saudi mediation, after three months of difficult indirect negotiations between the two groups, led to the Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November 2019. The main elements of this agreement are the removal of all armed elements and their equipment to their previous positions in early 2019, the integration of all military and security personnel into the official coalition forces under the authority of the Ministries of Defence and Interior respectively and the formation of a new government of no more than 24 members including 50% southerners [there are more than 50% southerners in the current government]. Most importantly, all state income is to be managed through the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) which is to be accountable to the parliament.

The agreement is to be implemented according to a strict timetable: almost three months into the period, nothing has been done on time, and the only activity carried out at all, has been the return to Aden of the Prime Minister and other senior officials concerned with finance, who were explicitly mandated to ensure the payment of salaries to security staff, something which remains an outstanding issue. The main problems are, predictably, relating to the withdrawal of forces and handover of heavy weaponry.

What is abundantly clear at this stage is that this agreement is characterised by over optimism in its sequencing and timetable, something it shares with earlier agreements, including the Stockholm agreement and the GCC Agreement of 2011 which led to the transition and the war. Given this situation, it is not unreasonable to ask why such unrealistic timetables are systematically agreed.

Since the agreement was signed there have been confrontations in Abyan and Shabwa with new cease fire lines and fronts gradually established, leaving the STC in control of only a small part of coastal Abyan, while UAE forces and their supporters are still in control both of the gas terminal in Balhaf and a major military camp along the pipeline in Shabwa. The STC is more firmly in control of its strongholds in Lahej and Dhali’ governorates, but here also they are challenged, by other southern forces in Lahej and by the Huthis in Dhali. In Aden itself the Emiratis handed over their military positions to Saudi forces in 2019; and their attempts to oust STC Security Belt elements from different positions in the city have been only partially successful.

What is abundantly clear at this stage is that this agreement is characterised by over optimism

The new timetable agreed on 9 January 2020 gives more details about the Saudi supported redeployment of forces throughout the South. It also states that it should be implemented within 20 days; limited progress was achieved and the murderous attack on the Presidential Guard forces (who were due to be deployed in Aden) in Marib on 19 January threatens all aspects of the Riyadh agreement. A missile killed more than 110 troops and civilians in a military camp mosque shortly after evening prayers. No one has claimed this attack, but the government has accused the Huthis who have themselves denied responsibility: accusing anyone else would openly jeopardise the Riyadh agreement and put its sponsors, the Saudi government, in a very difficult position.

The longer term fate of the Riyadh agreement will depend primarily on the willingness of the UAE decision makers to impose its acceptance on the STC and its militias, and force them to implement decisions taken on the ground by the Saudi forces and the Saudi-dominated implementation committees. Events in the first month of the year do not suggest this is happening. So 2020 is likely to be another year of uncertainty for southerners, particularly those residing in the various frontlines and in Aden. Regardless of claims to the contrary and loud assertions of infrastructure investments from the Saudi Reconstruction Fund, particularly promising constant electricity and water supplies, living conditions are unlikely to improve in the coming year. As the Saudis have taken over all aspects of the situation in Aden and beyond, they are left with an additional set of problems, at a time when they also would like to see a solution to the Yemen crisis.

Huthi-Saudi negotiations

A major development in 2019 has been a fundamental change in the Saudi strategy. This has resulted from a number of factors: abandonment of the Hodeida offensive, a series of Huthi incursions into Saudi Arabia leading to their capture of Saudi military personnel and equipment, Huthi launching of a number of more powerful missiles into Southwest Saudi Arabia. More controversially, successful missile attacks on the east-west pipeline in May and the attack by more than 20 missiles on major ARAMCO oil facilities, the country’s biggest economic asset, were both claimed by the Huthis, contrary to evidence indicating that Iran was directly responsible for these attacks.

The immediate outcome of the strikes on Aramco was to reveal the fundamental weakness of the Saudi-USA alliance under the Trump administration. Claiming deep friendship with the new Saudi regime, and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Trump was explicit about his real priorities. After publicly blaming his number one enemy, Iran, for the attack he then delayed taking any action in support of Saudi Arabia, making it clear that Saudi Arabia must look after itself: “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.” And then added: “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully… I haven’t promised the Saudis that [US protection].... We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”

In plain translation: the US will not protect Saudi Arabia and will only help in exchange for cash, ie act as mercenaries. However, regardless of who was actually responsible for the Aramco attacks, they clearly led to a serious review of policy in Saudi Arabia.

There is little doubt that the Saudi side is seriously interested in bringing its military involvement in Yemen to a close

All these factors, particularly the Aramco attack, combined to persuade Saudi authorities to engage in direct discussions with the Huthis in September. These have been assisted by ‘confidence building measures’ in particular the halt of missile attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Huthis as well as a series of exchanges of prisoners, including the return to Saudi Arabia of 13 Saudis captured during various confrontations (7 on 28 December and a further 6 on 1 January 2020). For their part, the Saudis have reduced their airstrikes quite remarkably since the talks started.

While the negotiations between the two sides are likely to be delayed and suffer from the consequences of the flare up of the US-Iran conflict following on the assassination of senior Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani, there is little doubt that the Saudi side is seriously interested in bringing its military involvement in Yemen to a close. Whether the Huthis will let them do so remains to be seen.

In some ways, the Huthis need the war, whereas the Saudis most certainly do not; and the current renewed fighting on the northern fronts may, in part, be their way of supporting Iran after the assassination of Suleimani. Regardless of the latest flare up in fighting, it is likely that some kind of mechanism will be found during the year to further reduce Saudi air strikes on Huthi territory and ground fighting, particularly now that the Saudis are so much more deeply involved in dealing with the southern problems.

This is certainly not to the taste of Hadi’s government, for whom formal or informal ending of fighting leaving the Huthis in situis clearly not good news. Its frustration has become public in recent days with strong statements against the Stockholm Agreement seen as a step towards acceptance of Huthi participation in a settlement, which it insists on rejecting, pursuing its unrealistic goal of complete victory.

Casualties and survival

This may be an opportune moment to look at war casualties in 2019, as they are an effective indicator of the nature of fighting. With a total of 1181 airstrikes during the year, the numbers dropped dramatically in the last three months: 80 in October, 39 in November and 18 in December. Unsurprisingly, the largest numbers were in Saada (465) and Hajja (311) governorates, ie the home of the Huthis bordering Saudi Arabia and the site of much ground fighting. Other areas where there have been significant numbers of strikes are Sana’a governorate (83) and city (39), where major Huthi military facilities are located and the new front line in Dhala’ (69) on the former border between the two pre-unification states. [1]

Ground fighting between Yemenis continues, and is likely to persist during the year

With respect to overall fatalities [2], although 2019 was the second deadliest year since 2015, closer attention to the details clearly indicate that these are mostly in ground action and that the renewed and worsened fighting in the South is responsible for a large share of deaths. Of course, the first point that needs to be emphasised here is that the figures only include directly war-related deaths. Readers must remember that the vast majority of deaths are unrecorded and are the result of malnutrition related diseases and the dramatically worsened living conditions due to the war.

With respect to war related deaths there are far fewer civilian deaths than in previous years, with 1263 civilians out of a total of 23194 dead. The vast majority of people were killed in battles (13762), through shelling, artillery and missile attacks (3762), while another large number is from air strikes (2650), and remote explosives and landmines (2640). Geographically, despite the major flare up of fighting in the South, the largest number of deaths occurred in the part-southern governorate of Dhala’ (4025) followed by the main northern fronts along the Saudi border, al Jawf (3951), Hajja (3327) and Saada (3164). It is worth remembering that, including the overwhelming majority of those killed in battle, the vast majority of those killed were simply ordinary young men trying to help keep their families alive and joined military forces in the absence of alternative employment.

In conclusion it seems that 2019 has seen a considerable reduction in the direct military involvement of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, involvement which is likely to diminish further in 2020. Ground fighting between Yemenis continues, and is likely to persist during the year, thus facing the continuing difficulties of survival will remain most people’s priority. As long as the economy is unable to recover, the need for humanitarian aid will continue. These are topics which will be discussed in greater detail in the next parts of this series.

[1] Data from Yemen Data project which unfortunately does not systematically provide a month by month total

[2] Data from ACLED. Please note that they do not guarantee 100% accuracy, which is only reasonable, as that would be practically impossible.

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