Update on Yemen

Since October 2015, when JHI issued its last backgrounder on the conflict in Yemen, fighting has intensified between the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened on the side of the Yemeni government, and the Houthis, backed by Iran and joined by soldiers loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Recently, the warring parties have entered into U.N.-brokered peace talks in Kuwait after a cease-fire went into effect on April 10th.  While the cease-fire has been on the rocks the past few weeks, including a brief breakdown in the peace talks, there is quiet optimism that the talks might lead to a more permanent political resolution.  However, in the meantime, humanitarian and counter-terror crises continue to brew within the country’s borders. 

We continue to believe that the U.S. must do more to stabilize the ongoing conflict in order to prevent the proliferation of terrorist threats within Yemen. Throughout the yearlong civil war, the U.S. has provided logistical and intelligence support, including targeting information for airstrikes, to the Saudi-led coalition.  But the support has been insufficient to achieve decisive results.  The Saudis’ sustained bombing campaign against Houthi-controlled areas has allowed the Yemeni government to recapture 80% of its lost territory.  However, since the coalition has been reluctant to commit ground forces, the Houthis have retained control of the capital in Sana’a, while Yemen’s legitimate government remains in the southern port city of Aden, where it fled following its expulsion from the capital. 

Meanwhile, the civil war’s toll on Yemen’s population and infrastructure of the country has been enormous.  According to the World Health Organization, since the fighting began in March 2015, more than 6,200 people have been killed, almost half of them civilians, and more than 30,000 have been wounded.  UNICEF reports that at least 934 children have been killed and 1,356 wounded.  The country is also in the midst of a full-blown humanitarian crisis—with food production at a standstill, international trade severely degraded, medical supplies critically short, and little humanitarian aid reaching civilians.  More than 2.8 million people have been displaced internally and over 80 percent of Yemen’s 24 million people need some form of humanitarian aid.  The nation’s infrastructure—schools, hospitals, electricity and water supplies—has been badly battered.  Already impoverished before the violence, Yemen will ultimately need significant reconstruction funds from the international community.

Over the past few months, there has been a glimmer of hope that U.N. sponsored talks might lead to an improved situation.  As a result of strong international pressure and a stalemate in the fighting, the two major warring parties—the Saudi-backed Yemeni Government and the Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels—have both signaled a willingness to end major military operations. On March 25, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Abdullah Al-Saud, expressed optimism that the peace process would succeed and pledged a “robust reconstruction program” for Yemen.  On March 29, President Hadi wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, pledging to abide by the National Dialogue Conference while insisting that the Houthi-Saleh forces respect UNSCR 2216.  Additionally, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia initiated a prisoner exchange at the end of April as a result of unprecedented talks mediated by the tribes along the border between Saudi and Yemen.  This set the stage for a cease-fire, which went into effect on April 10, and the subsequent U.N.-sponsored talks in Kuwait that began on April 18. 

While there was initially a surge of optimism around the ceasefire, the U.N.-sponsored talks immediately faced significant obstacles in bringing the various parties to the table.  Sporadic violations have continually threatened the fragile truce.  First, the Houthi delegation suspended talks citing continued airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition.  Then, on May 1, the Yemeni Government delegation withdrew from the talks, citing the Houthi’s seizure of the Umaliqa military base in the Amran governate.  On May 4, the U.N. Envoy announced that the talks would resume, after the parties agreed to form a committee to investigate what happened in Amran.    

Yet, it is unlikely that the current round of peace talks will produce a permanent political solution between the two warring factions.  Political rivalries still run deep between President Hadi and former President Saleh, while the political environment throughout the country remains weak and fractured.  Moreover, despite the international pressure pushing for a resolution, the interference of various external powers will continue to exacerbate the situation as various regional interests between the GCC states, Saudi Arabia, and Iran continue to clash over their post-war goals for Yemen.  While there is some hope for a power-sharing agreement between Hadi’s government and the Houthis, that agreement still remains far off.

Meanwhile, the security vacuum inside Yemen has emboldened AQAP, and to a lesser extent ISIS, which declared a Yemeni branch in late 2014.  In late March, the Wall Street Journal reported Islamic State fighters in Yemen in the hundreds, compared with several thousand for AQAP.  Since April 2015, AQAP has controlled Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukkallah, as well as most of the Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest governorate and home of approximately one-third of the country’s oil production.

In late April, the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces launched a major offensive against AQAP’s stronghold in the port city of Mukallah.  The government forces retook the city on April 24th without much fighting, since AQAP abandoned the city in advance of the offensive, arguing that it was trying to protect the people of the city from harm.  While this suggests some progress in combatting the terrorist group, AQAP remains well entrenched throughout Yemen.

In February 2016, DNI James Clapper testified before Congress that AQAP had strengthened its grip on territory in the southeastern part of the country.  He noted AQAP’s “proven capability” to “advance external plots during periods of instability.”  In more recent congressional testimony, Gen. Lloyd Austin, Commander of U.S. Central Command, stated that “AQAP is strengthening and expanding its reach in the absence of a significant CT effort.”

Gen. Austin encapsulated the U.S. predicament: “Prior to the unseating of the Hadi government, the U.S. maintained a physical presence in Yemen and an effective CT partnership with the Yemeni security forces.  We conducted operations against AQAP and had significantly degraded its capacity.  We were also in the process of building the Yemeni forces’ capacity through our advise and assist and train and equip efforts.  The reduced capability coupled with the lack of a U.S. presence presents a vulnerability that must be addressed.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • The U.S. must remain focused on disrupting the plans and intentions of AQAP.  Regardless of whether the parties are able to achieve a permanent ceasefire and resume a peaceful political dialogue, the threat posed by AQAP to the homeland is the most acute problem to emerge from the civil war.  Since 2009, AQAP has attempted to target the U.S. at least three times using concealed explosives and passenger airliners.
  • The U.S. must continue to find the means to degrade AQAP with kinetic force.  Perhaps not coincidentally, as the fighting in Yemen has ebbed, the focus has returned to AQAP, and a number airstrikes targeting AQAP, including by U.S. aircraft, have been reported.  On March 22, DOD announced that dozens of fighters were killed in a U.S. airstrike against an AQAP training camp in Yemen, east of Mukalla.
  • The U.S. and its allies should focus on rebuilding governance in Yemen while systematically challenging AQAP’s efforts to consolidate itself.  A renewed counterterrorism campaign in Yemen will not succeed in ad hoc fashion.  The U.S. should be engaged in forging an end to the civil war and help reinstate the Hadi government so that it can focus on both regaining a physical presence in Yemen and re-engaging with Yemeni security forces, in order to roll back AQAP and IS.