Yemen’s civil war continues to interact with multiple conflicts. It has become part of the regional Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy war. It is an internal Yemeni war between the al Houthi-Saleh factions and the coalition that supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government. It also involves various other sub-national conflicts within Yemen. Attempts to end the war by resolving only national-level disputes have failed because both local and regional actors and tensions continue to drive the conflict and preclude any straightforward negotiated settlement. None of the various parties to the conflict accept that they are close to defeat, moreover, greatly reducing the likelihood that any of them will make significant concessions to achieve peace any time soon.
Peace talks are unlikely to resume in the near term. The al Houthi-Saleh faction toughened its demands for the resumption of national-level peace talks by calling for the end of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s term. An October 4 al Houthi-Saleh statement declared that Hadi must go and that the UN must offer a written and comprehensive peace plan. The terms also included demands for the end of the “aggression,” the Saudi-led coalition air campaign in Yemen, and the lifting of the siege conditions. Hadi’s government continues to insist on the implementation of the terms in UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the al Houthi-Saleh faction to disarm and withdraw from territory it has seized, before it will return to talks. So far from preparing to make any such concession, however, the al Houthi-Saleh faction is attempting to consolidate its rule over the part of Yemen it controls. It has taken additional steps to create a formal state government in Sana’a. The al Houthi-Saleh Supreme Political Council appointed the former governor of Aden, Abdul Aziz Saleh bin Habtour, Prime Minister and called for him to form a new government of national salvation on October 2. Bin Habtour is from Shabwah governorate and there were rumors circulating in March 2015 that he would have supported former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son for president to replace Hadi. U.S. Secretary John Kerry’s late August effort to renew peace talks, which included a proposed plan, collapsed without significant buy-in from either side.
Al Houthi-Saleh forces, perceived by Gulf States as part of Iran’s regional influence, fired a missile at an Emirati ship passing through the Bab al Mandab Strait, a step-change in their naval operations. The October 1 attack against the Emirate HSV-2 Swift is the first such attack that the Saudi-led coalition has publicly acknowledged. A coalition statement claimed the vessel was on a routine voyage to deliver relief and medical aid to Aden city. An al Houthi-Saleh military source stated the attack destroyed the vessel. Al Houthi-affiliated al Masirah TV released a video that shows a vessel bursting in flames, including the bridge. The video has not been validated. The UAE Foreign Ministry called the attack an “act of terror” in an October 4 statement. The HSV-2 Swift is a high-speed wave-piercing catamaran optimized for moving heavy cargo at high speeds, meaning that it was most likely moving military equipment and supplies to Yemen in addition to the claimed aid and medical supplies, according to Institute for the Study of War naval analyst Chris Harmer He added that he had moderate confidence the attack was conducted with a guided anti-ship cruise missile, possibly of the Silkworm class.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains actively engaged in the anti-al Houthi-Saleh conflict, though counter-terrorism operations may be disrupting its ability to operate. AQAP continues to claim credit for attacks targeting al Houthi-Saleh forces in al Bayda, particularly in Rada’a and al Zahar districts. AQAP’s ability to provide support to local tribal militias had increased its popular support within al Bayda governorate in particular. Six U.S. airstrikes targeted AQAP militants in the vicinity of Ma’rib and al Bayda governorates in September. (Translated statements obtained through SITE.)
The al Hizam Brigade, a Salafi-leaning militia group, is probably receiving Emirati support to combat AQAP in Aden, Abyan, and Lahij. Southern Yemeni leaders in Abyan have issued a statement of support for the group. The al Hizam Brigade first began operating in Aden neighborhoods in the early summer and then expanded operations in Lahij governorate, north of Aden. AQAP has targeted the group with explosive attacks, including attempts on the life of al Hizam Brigade commanders. Reports of the al Hizam Brigade operating in Abyan governorate started to surface in late August. It continues to operate in the southern governorate, recently killing a local AQAP leader and arresting another in Abyan. AQAP has claimed numerous attacks against the group in Abyan, including assassinating members and suicide attacks. Emirati support for militia groups in Yemen may be creating conditions that could challenge local authorities in the future. (Translated statements obtained through SITE.)
President Hadi’s decision to appoint a new head for Yemen’s Central Bank and to relocate the bank from Sana’a to Aden politicized one of the country’s few remaining institutions and further divided the country between a North and South government. Hadi dismissed Mohammed Awad bin Humam from his position as chairman of Yemen’s Central Bank, which he had held since April 2010, on September 18 and appointed his finance minister, Mansur Saleh Mohamed al Quaiti, to the position. The decree also relocated the bank to Aden, the de facto capital under Hadi’s government. The move followed a series of escalating statements from Hadi government officials accusing bin Humam of spending down some $4 billion held in reserves in support of the al Houthi-Saleh faction. The bank had continued to pay state salaries during the war. The al Houthi-Saleh government has led an ongoing campaign to support the Sana’a Central Bank throughout areas under its control.
Southern Yemeni military and political leaders, some of whom have positions within the Hadi government, have called for the South to organize in the face of Yemen’s “new reality.” The civil war has effectively divided Yemen into at least a northern and southern entity since the primary frontline stalemated along the contours of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). The division is unlikely to generate a visible border or limit freedom of movement between the areas, but decreases the likelihood that there will be a unitary state inside of Yemen’s current borders in the future. Aden’s governor, Aydarus al Zubaydi, proposed the formation of a new political council in southern Yemen in a meeting with the governors of Abyan, Lahij, and al Dhaleh governorates on September 15. His proposal received general support. Yemenis protested against Hadi’s government in southern cities from October 2 to October 4, citing unpaid salaries, rolling blackouts, and general conditions. Hadi’s government relies heavily on support from southern leaders, who have openly voiced their short-term support for the government in order to set conditions for an autonomous or independent south.
The humanitarian situation throughout Yemen remains alarming. The WHO reported that over 6,780 people had been killed and 33,800 injured since March 2015. This estimate is derived from information reported to functioning health facilities and the actual figure is therefore very likely to be significantly higher. Air strikes and shelling have damaged hospitals and disrupted services, especially in Taiz and Hajjah governorates. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have been concentrated in the vicinity of Taiz, Sana’a, Hajjah, and Sa’ada governorates over the past month. Nine of Yemen’s 22 governorates remain at emergency levels for food security. Access to Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city with an estimated current population of 200,000 people, remains limited due to ongoing conflict.
The Yemeni state continues to fragment. The al Houthi-Saleh faction has taken steps to preserve state institutions and to create a government based in Sana’a as the internationally recognized government builds new iterations of state institutions in Aden, setting conditions for two semi-legitimate, semi-functioning governments in Yemen. It is unlikely that one side will gain a military advantage over the other given current conditions, nor is there sufficient agreement to the terms of a political solution to negotiate an end to the war. Conflict will likely thus continue, giving AQAP and other Salafi groups opportunities to recruit, organize, and train fighters for use in Yemen and other theaters. Continued civil war also fuels the regional Saudi-Iranian proxy war and risks giving both sides excuses to escalate it. The fighting additionally precludes serious efforts to address the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has gone largely unremarked-upon in international media, but that is setting conditions for extreme and long-term damage to Yemeni society.
Hamsa Fayed and Maher Farrukh contributed significant research to this situation report.