An agreement to a roadmap for peace between the al Houthi-Saleh faction and the Saudi-led coalition will probably not lead to a negotiated political settlement in the near term because the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire and peace deal are not yet set. Key obstacles, such as the makeup of a consensus government, remain, and any negotiated settlement is unlikely to resolve local conflicts.
It is unlikely that negotiations for a political solution will advance after the most recent ceasefire even though there is expressed political will to engage on the issues. The cessation of hostilities that began on November 19 did not permit the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid, especially with the outbreak of cholera in Yemen, nor did it create the necessary conditions for progress in peace talks. Armed groups on all sides of the conflict have used previous pauses to re-supply and re-position for future operations. The Saudi-led coalition declared the start of a 48-hour ceasefire that ended on November 21, after a formal request by internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Saudi King Salman. An attempted ceasefire on November 17, brokered by the U.S. and Oman, collapsed when Hadi government officials condemned their exclusion from talks and called for continued operational support from the coalition. The Saudi-led coalition and the al Houthi-Saleh alliance agreed again on a roadmap for peace talks, but significant roadblocks remain. Key issues include the selection of and transition of power to a consensus leader, the disarmament of forces, and the control of terrain. The al Houthi-Saleh faction continues efforts to form a national salvation government in Sana’a.
Hadi-allied forces are making a drive to gain ground against the al Houthi-Saleh forces in northern Yemen. Hadi government and allied forces seized territory in the northeast of Sa’ada governorate, an al Houthi stronghold, on October 12 with significant support from coalition air assets. The last advance for pro-Hadi forces in Sa’ada was in January 2016. Hadi government and allied forces also reinvigorated operations in northern Hajjah and al Jawf governorates, seizing territory along major roadways leading from Saudi Arabia into Sana’a city. Al Houthi-Saleh forces intensified operations throughout Taiz governorate, possibly to draw resources away from northern fronts. Al Houthi-Saleh forces seek to control Taiz city, Yemen’s third largest city, and have conducted operations to secure the terrain to the southeast and southwest. Hostilities continued along these major fronts despite the November 19 ceasefire, although some fighting was reduced. An al Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile targeted Hadi government forces in Ma’rib city, east of Sana’a, on November 21, and al Houthi-Saleh forces shelled Saudi border positions with Katyusha rockets in Najran region in southern Saudi Arabia on November 20. The coalition conducted multiple airstrikes targeting al Houthi-Saleh positions during the ceasefire.
The southern issue remains an underlying challenge for the future stability of Yemen. The fracturing of the Yemeni state and effective recreation of a northern and southern bloc has reinvigorated southerners’ drive for reparations and representation. Southern political actors now call for southern independence amid near daily demonstrations over government corruption, absent government services, and unpaid salaries. The Southern Movement, an umbrella political group that advocates for southern rights and has some secessionist elements, renewed calls for an independent South Yemen. The support base is in al Dhaleh, Lahij, Abyan, and Aden governorates. Shabwah and Hadramawt, though part of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, are under peripheral influence of Hadi’s government and are operating semi-autonomously. The question of how to address southern grievances will need to be dealt with as part of the peace process.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains focused on inspiring attacks within the United States. AQAP’s English-language magazine, Inspire, urged Muslim and black Americans to carry out lone-wolf attacks in the United States. It also justified targeting American civilians by defining combatants as those who are not in a “peace treaty or a protection commitment” with Muslims “whether they fought Muslims or not.” An AQAP-printed newspaper, al Masra, claimed that the results of the 2016 presidential election prove that the United States is anti-Muslim. AQAP media also criticized the use of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Senior AQAP official and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi told supporters on November 4 that “America is broken” and vowed to continue targeting the United States. Qosi then likened the Emiratis, currently conducting counter-AQAP operations in Yemen, as an extension of the United States in Yemen in a November 9 statement. (Translated statements obtained through SITE.)
AQAP continues to position itself as the defender of the Sunni population in central Yemen. AQAP propaganda emphasized operations conducted by Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s insurgent arm, against Zaydi Shi’a al Houthi-Saleh forces in central Yemen. Ansar al Sharia claimed near daily attacks on al Houthi-Saleh forces in al Bayda, Ibb, and Taiz governorates since the beginning of October. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Wilayat al Bayda claimed to repel al Houthi-Saleh attacks in western al Bayda on October 13, November 4, and 16. AQAP acknowledged ISIS’s role in al Bayda, but reiterated its long-term commitment to the fight, and AQAP leadership has called for ISIS members to repent. AQAP and ISIS may be cooperating on a tactical level, but AQAP will remain the dominant Salafi-jihadi organization in Yemen. (Translated claims obtained through SITE.)
AQAP seeks to degrade security and preserve its safe havens in southern Yemen. AQAP maintains an operational tempo of roughly three claimed attacks per week against al Hizam brigade and Hadhrami Elite forces, Emirati-backed militias tasked with counterterrorism operations, in southern Yemen. AQAP warned southern Yemenis not to join southern security forces and justified targeting Yemeni security forces by claiming they are backed by corrupt foreign powers to fight the “mujahideen.” Previously, AQAP had given members of the Yemeni security forces a chance to repent and disavow working for the Yemeni government before facing execution, but AQAP lifted this restriction. AQAP also carried out attacks against government officials and institutions, including a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) outside the home of Shabwah’s governor on November 16. (Translated claims obtained through SITE.)
U.S. and UAE counterterrorism operations have disrupted AQAP operations, but are far from neutralizing the group. U.S. airstrikes targeted AQAP leadership in southern Yemen on October 6, 18, 21, and November 21. The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the UAE froze the assets of a Yemeni financial exchange service used by AQAP on November 2. Hadhrami Elite forces raided a large AQAP stronghold in al Bahish grove, southwest of al Mukalla city on November 8. Counterterrorism efforts may have temporarily hampered AQAP’s capabilities but it will likely recover and adapt its networks in the absence of sustained security in southern Yemen.
The focus on negotiating a settlement between national-level actors should be broadened to also include substate actors. Local conflicts will probably extend beyond a national-level settlement. AQAP has been able to expand its base of support in the context of theses local conflicts. It may begin targeting Emirati forces deployed in Yemen for counter-terrorism operations.