The prospects for a mediated settlement to Yemen’s conflict in the near term are fading as the al Houthi-Saleh faction seeks better implementation of the ceasefire before engaging in negotiations in Kuwait. The delayed talks would not have ended the war in Yemen, but may have begun a process of de-escalation. Key Yemeni factions will not be represented at UN-led high-level talks, driving concerns that low-level fighting will continue after a political solution is found.
Representatives from the al Houthi-Saleh faction refused to attend UN-led peace talks in Kuwait until the ceasefire is implemented on the ground. Al Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam reiterated al Houthi demands that the Saudi-led coalition end sorties and airstrikes and that coalition-backed troops stop their ground advance. The al Houthi-Saleh faction also sought clarification of the agenda for the talks. The agenda was reported to be limited; it was focused on discrete objectives, such as prisoner exchanges, to begin de-escalating the conflict. The reasons for the perceived al Houthi-Saleh about-face are not clear, but they are probably seeking guarantees in advance of a process they have labeled as biased against their interests. Delegates representing Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi arrived in Kuwait on April 17 in advance of the scheduled April 18 talks. Hadi recently reshuffled his cabinet. He removed Khaled Bahah, a one-time al Houthi-approved candidate for prime minister and the prospective candidate for the presidency in a consensus government, from the office of the vice president and prime minister on April 3. Hadi appointed LTG Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a conservative Islamist and powerful military commander with ties to northern tribes, as his vice president and former member of the ruling party, Ahmed Obaid bin Daghir, as prime minister. Hadi probably appointed Ali Mohsen as vice president in order to build support among northern tribes and to neuter Bahah.
The increase in Iranian support to the al Houthis is intended to generate reactions within Saudi Arabia. The weapons Iran appears to be providing the al Houthi-Saleh alliance are not sufficient to make a difference on the battlefield. They are, rather, a message to Saudi Arabia about Iran’s ability to project power as the two continue a regional proxy war. The U.S. Navy announced that it had interdicted another Iranian weapons shipment destined for the al Houthis on March 29, the third such interdiction since February 27. The timing of the shipment better coincides with regional developments, as Saudi Arabia and Iran seek to secure their interests in Syria, over developments in Yemen where the Saudis just opened up direct bilateral talks with the al Houthis.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) still controls Yemen’s third-largest port city, al Mukalla, in eastern Hadramawt governorate. AQAP recently took control of land in the city and still enforces its conservative interpretation of shari’a. It seized the al Mukalla airport and planted explosives as a defensive position around the al Dhaba oil terminal west of the city, according to an unconfirmed report. Al Mukalla has been an AQAP stronghold since the group entered the city in April 2015, and AQAP has exploited al Mukalla-based organizations and infrastructure to generate funding for its activities in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition is refocusing its efforts against AQAP. Coalition airstrikes targeted AQAP positions in Lahij, Aden, Abyan, Shabwah, and Hadramawt governorates. The coalition is concentrating efforts on Abyan, bombing AQAP positions in Zinjibar and elsewhere on April 17. The intent may be to build on successes in neighboring Lahij governorate, where the coalition conducted airstrikes in advance of a ground offensive. Coalition Apache helicopters supported Yemeni ground forces against AQAP-linked militants in al Hawta, the capital of Lahij, on April 15. AQAP militants withdrew to the surrounding countryside after clashes. Coalition airstrikes targeted AQAP positions north of al Hawta on April 16. The coalition shift from prioritizing the fight against the al Houthis to one against AQAP began in early March. Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Rob Malley recently expressed that as the conflict in Yemen de-escalates, the coalition forces would focus more of its efforts against AQAP and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).
Southerners turned out in large numbers in Aden to call for independence from the north. Thousands of secessionists demonstrated in Parades Square in Khormaksar district and elsewhere in Aden the eve before the scheduled April 18 talks in Kuwait. Protests continued into April 18. Current officials within the Hadi government spoke at the demonstrations, including Aden Police Chief Shalal Ali Shaye’a and Aden Governor Aydarus al Zubaidi. Both of the officials are southerners who had been active in the Southern Movement (al Hirak) before Hadi appointed them into his government. Other officials included the head of security for Lahij. Hadi’s government is not perceived as legitimate by many in the south, and the secessionist movement will increasingly challenge Hadi’s government in its de facto capital in Aden. Southerners and other sub-state actors are not represented at the UN-led talks.
Low-level fighting continued along established frontlines throughout Yemen even under the ceasefire, though significant fighting tapered off. The ongoing clashes did not appear to factor into high-level talks in advance of the scheduled April 18 peace talks in Kuwait. Al Houthi-Saleh forces reversed some of the key coalition-backed gains as the April 11 ceasefire fell into place in Taiz and fighting continues in the city. They also attacked coalition-supported positions along the road from Taiz to Aden near Kirsh, Lahij governorate, maintaining control over the south-east entry to Taiz. Northeast of Sana’a, coalition-backed forces made gains against the al Houthi-Saleh forces, taking positions in Sirwah, Ma’rib and in al Jawf governorate.
Sub-state actors have the potential to serve as spoilers for any negotiated political settlement that they do not find acceptable. These actors must be brought into talks during the initial process in order to find a lasting mediated solution. They could otherwise continue to challenge the Yemeni government, creating conditions that AQAP would exploit for growth and expansion.
Jon Diamond and Jessica Kocan contributed significant research for this report.