Yemen: a state born of conflict

Yemen has slipped well down the global agenda—behind Israel-Palestine, Syria and Iraq—but, as security deteriorates, significant international effort is needed to renew its stalled transition.

Aaron Edwards
26 July 2014

Earlier this month the Houthis, a tribal grouping from the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam concentrated at Yemen’s north-western border with Saudi Arabia, seized Amran City, capturing and killing the 74-year-old commander of the 310th armoured brigade, Brigadier General Hamid Mohammed Abdullah Al-Qushaibi. The brigadier was a member of the principal Islamist oppositionist party, Islah, and a respected figure with a long military career. It is not without irony that he had taken part in the military coup d’état in 1962 which unseated the ruling imam, Muhammad al-Badr, and sparked an eight-year civil war between Egyptian-backed republican forces and al-Badr’s Zaydi royalists. In a sinister twist, Al-Qushaibi’s body was returned to Sanaa purportedly sporting signs of torture.

On 11 July the president of the United Nations Security Council, Eugène-Richard Gasana of Rwanda, expressed the council’s “grave concern about the serious deterioration of the security situation in Yemen in light of ongoing violence in Amran”. UNSC resolution 2140 this year had demanded that those seeking to undermine the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) desist from violence and get behind the political transition initiated by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Gasana reminded all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian and human-rights law.

This latest round of fighting has many causes, most fuelled by political failure to implement the recommendations of the NDC, as well as inherent economic weakness. This has confounded all attempts by the Yemeni government to end the Houthi insurgency in the north and the huge secessionist push in the south.

“Dancing on the heads of snakes”

Yemen is a state born of conflict which has been edging towards a tentative peace since unification between north and south in 1990. Throughout his time as president, from 1978 to 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh referred to his coalition-building between the various tribal, ethnic and political groupings as “dancing on the heads of snakes”. The main plank in his strategy for maintaining power was to dispense patronage, to allies and political opponents alike, to offset the same violent challenges that had toppled his predecessors. But this strategy proved ineffectual when a growing tide of disaffection in the wake of the Arab Spring plunged Yemen once more into crisis.

Under the terms of the GCC initiative in 2011, Saleh’s former deputy, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was to serve as a caretaker head of state until March 2014, handing power then to a democratically elected successor. Yet because the NDC did not present its recommendations until January this year—several months later than anticipated—this deadline was missed and the process awaits completion.

Moreover, the international community seems to see the NDC recommendations as an end in themselves, rather than in the context of a process requiring further diplomatic investment. Indeed, in the past year western diplomats have departed Yemen in droves as security has deteriorated. With the exception of the British ambassador, a courageous former top diplomat in Tehran, Jane Marriott, the west has all but abandoned Yemen—outside of a “counter-terrorist” response which emphasises containment via a controversial drone programme.

For analysts of Yemeni politics and society, the glacial pace of the NDC reform process is unsurprising. In the heady days of the Arab Spring, when six states—Libya, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt—were in the throes of revolutionary change, a new dawn for the Middle East and north Africa appeared to loom. With hindsight, the “spring” quickly turned to a harsh “winter of discontent”, with change coming to only two countries: Libya and Tunisia. The remainder have in some respects returned to the status quo, even if the long-serving heads of state of four have been replaced.

Elite divisions

Security-sector reform has been no more rapid than the political transition to which it is intimately linked: it reflects the divisions in Yemen’s ruling elite. On the one hand, the old regime’s interests are represented by Abdullah Saleh’s son General Ahmed Ali Saleh, the heir apparent; on the other, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s former tribal brother-in-arms, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, sided with anti-Saleh protesters in 2011. Before being stood down by President Hadi, both men headed the two largest military-security powerbases in the country, the Republican Guard and the Firqa (or tribal guards), where loyalty flows towards power centres and patronage flows away. Hadi initiated a process of military and security restructuring in April 2013 but both powerbases remain very much in place. As a report in April by the International Crisis Group noted, “Only by closely integrating the process of military-security restructuring within the larger effort to produce an inclusive political consensus—a national pact and new constitution—can the two be successful.”

And then there is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP can trace its roots back to those Yemenis who returned to their country in the early 1990s fresh from fighting alongside the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. They were initially courted by Ali Abdullah Saleh but were prone to volatility and were responsible for the bombing of the Goldmore Hotel in Aden in December 1992, where US marines were quartered en route to Somalia, and, most spectacularly, the suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. It was not until 2009, however, that AQAP emerged as a cohesive component of Al-Qaeda’s “general command”. Then the threat came from the hate preachings of Anwar Al-Awlaki, reportedly the inspiration behind the actions of Major Nidal Hussein, who was eliminated by the US in a missile strike in 2011. After Awlaki’s death AQAP became known as Al-Qaeda’s most deadly franchise and even managed to seize and hold ground in Zingibar, Mukalla and other parts of Abyan and Shabwa provinces in the south.

With the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or now simply the Islamic State (IS), some are asking whether it has sought to team up with its Yemeni counterparts. There may be something to this: Ibrahim al-Asiri (32), a Saudi citizen regarded as the chief AQAP bomb-maker, is based in Yemen and the formation of Ansar al-Sharia, which has a Yemeni section, has provided fertile ground for IS’s transnational ambitions.

Serious questions

This leaves serious questions for western counter-terrorism officials who have placed a premium on containing the problem within Yemen. Katherine Zimmerman of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute has criticised the Obama administration’s containment strategy, arguing that the theoretically low-cost but high-return “Yemen model” is flawed. And the emphasis of such investment as there is on the tactical and operational—providing transport aircraft to give the Yemeni armed forces greater operational reach, with limited US military personnel to train, mentor and advise them—neglects a broader strategic response to a security problem which cannot be resolved by hard power alone.

Conflict in Yemen is often forgotten as the world turns to other perennial disputes in Israel-Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Only through a more concerted regional effort to promote the peaceful resolution of disputes—without resort to violence, proxy conflict or remote-control containment—can meaningful change be secured.

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