Recent major political developments, such as the al Houthi-Saudi prisoner exchange, increasingly indicate that there is an opening for political negotiations that may result in a nation-wide solution for Yemen. Local developments underscore the limited effect such a solution will have on stabilizing the country as empowered actors seek to secure their own objectives.
A prisoner exchange between the al Houthis and Saudi Arabia shows continued efforts on both sides to de-escalate the conflict, which may generate progress toward a mediated settlement during the UN-led talks scheduled for April 18. Both Saudi and al Houthi officials confirmed a prisoner exchange of nine Saudis for 109 al Houthis, which was completed on March 27. The first direct bilateral talks between al Houthi representatives and Saudi officials earlier this month produced a limited ceasefire and the first prisoner exchange between the groups. The al Houthis sent high-level officials to the talks, who may have broached issues that will be on the table at the April 18 talks in Kuwait. The al Houthis have sought direct communication with Saudi Arabia rather than with President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government because of the influence Saudi Arabia has over Hadi government decisions. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s representatives have generally been excluded from the bilateral talks, and his media secretary, Ahmed al Soufi, acknowledged a common objective with the al Houthis of protecting Yemen, but distanced Saleh and his faction from the al Houthis broadly.
Yemenis marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen. Al Houthi and Saleh supporters attended mass rallies in Sana’a on March 26. Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi called for Yemenis to be steadfast in the face of the Saudi “aggression,” and called for an end to the war in the interest of the Yemeni people. Saleh supporters turned out in large numbers, waving pictures of their former president. He dismissed the UN-led efforts for mediation in Yemen and called for direct talks with the Saudi regime in his speech. President Hadi also addressed Yemenis, describing the coalition’s intervention as a response to his appeal to “save” Yemen. Rallies in Aden, the Hadi government’s de facto capital, featured flags of the former South Yemen and the UAE, along with pictures of southern leader Ali Salem al Beidh, revealing how little support for Hadi exists inside Yemen’s second-largest city.
Al Houthi-Saleh forces have countered coalition-backed forces in Taiz, but have lost ground in Ma’rib, Shabwah, and Hajjah. Al Houthi-Saleh forces are actively contesting coalition-backed gains in southwestern Taiz, particularly near al Dhabab, and have prevented coalition-backed forces from advancing in the southeast of the city. The al Houthi-Saleh forces appear to be prioritizing the fight for Taiz over other battlefields and should be able to retain positions in the city, as well as control over the road from Taiz north to Sana’a. Pro-Hadi army units coordinating with local militias in Ma’rib and Shabwah continued to advance after claiming control of Harib and Usaylan districts, though clashes seem to be ongoing. They are moving through Bayhan district in northwest Shabwah toward al Bayda governorate, where the al Houthi-Saleh forces still dominate the fight. Pro-Hadi military officials declared victory in Midi district along the Red Sea coast in Hajjah governorate, though it is likely the al Houthi-Saleh forces will contest the gains because Midi port has been critical for supplies.
Anti-al Houthi-Saleh armed factions in Dhaleh demonstrated against the Hadi government, stating support for South Yemen. Dhaleh governorate, created in 1990 to bridge the north-south divide in Yemen, is a hotbed for southern secessionist activity. The southern militias have fought against al Houthi-Saleh forces, pushing them northward, but do not support the Hadi government. Southern Movement (Hirak) supporters staged protests in Dhaleh capital city on March 24 while militants established a roadblock in Sanah to the north of the city. Southern armed factions in Dhaleh are unlikely to accept the Hadi government as legitimate should there be a negotiated solution to Yemen’s political crisis.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is framing the airstrikes against it as degrading AQAP’s capabilities to support the Sunni fight in Yemen. A U.S. airstrike on March 22 targeted an AQAP training camp killing over 70 fighters. AQAP moved 29 bodies from the strike to Abyan for burial and hosted a mass rally in al Mukalla on March 29 against the airstrike, posting pictures on Twitter. The Pentagon statement noted the airstrike delivered a “blow to AQAP’s ability to use Yemen as a base for attacks that threaten U.S. persons.” AQAP’s Ansar al Sharia responded to the strike saying that the airstrike hit a camp in al Hajr, Hadramawt, that was used to train fighters who would be sent to combat the al Houthi-Saleh forces in al Bayda governorate on March 27. The Ansar al Sharia statement accused Saudi Arabia of prolonging the battle with the al Houthis. A mid-level AQAP commander, Sa’ad bin Atef al Awlaki, directly countered Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook’s statement by saying that none of the fighters in the camp were trained to fight the U.S., but were going to fight al Houthi-Saleh forces on March 30. (Statements obtained through SITE.) Rumors surfaced on March 29 that AQAP leader Qasim al Raymi was killed in the airstrike, but these do not appear to have gained traction.
The French frigate FREMM Provence interdicted a weapons shipment on a dhow off the coast of Somalia on March 20. The weapons, which included AK-47 assault rifles, snipers rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank rockets, were likely destined for Yemen where al Houthi-Saleh forces were probably the intended recipients. An Australian boat interdicted a similar weapons shipment off the coast of Oman on February 27. Both interdictions occurred under authorities granted the Combined Maritime Taskforce 150 to enforce the UN arms embargo in Somalia, which was a possible destination for the dhows.
Friction points within the al Houthi-Saleh coalition and the Saudi-led coalition will likely become increasingly visible as the date for UN-led peace talks approaches. The absence of strong support for Hadi’s government across Yemen will continue to challenge the Saudi-led coalition.
Jon Diamond and Jessica Kocan contributed research for this report.