Yemen: The Road to Reconciliation

The following position paper foresees the future of the reconciliation in Yemen in light of some of the changes that have taken place during the past 6 years. It also reviews the most prominent local obstacles to real stability in the country.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Feb 24, 2021

Hopes for a political reconciliation that will end more than six years of widespread fighting across Yemen are rising. The fighting is taking place on more than one level: Domestically, the legitimate government and Ansar Allah's (Houthi movement) forces, which support the "rescue" government, are fighting. Regionally, the Yemeni scene can be considered as part of the geopolitical clash between two parties, one led by Saudi Arabia and the other by Iran. The essence of the conflict in Yemen cannot therefore be understood without awareness of the dynamics of proxy warfare and its "specified and deliberate" use of force without pushing for a more open confrontation.

Throughout the years of the Yemeni conflict, there have been many initiatives aimed at ending the fighting, and most diplomatic political figures concerned with the Yemeni issue have stressed the need for a political solution to the crisis. All these good intentions, however, have not succeeded in making real progress in bringing peace.

However, the current timing carries vital signs of possible de-escalation in Yemen. First, all the local and regional parties involved in the Yemeni file are now fully aware that there is no point in continuing this suspended conflict that cannot be resolved militarily. The legitimate government does not have the human capacity to penetrate the Houthis' control, even as it is supported by an advanced air cover provided by the Arab coalition operations. Ansar Allah's forces cannot deploy openly, for they need to avoid air strikes since they lack anti-aircraft and other means to secure their control over the ground.

Second, the Biden administration is seeking to end the war in Yemen, giving much momentum to the political dimension as a means of resolving the situation. The Biden team attaches utmost importance to the humanitarian issue for considerations regarding Washington's return to principled diplomacy. Biden's February 2021 presidential speech on US foreign policy outlined the US strategy to impose a settlement in Yemen based on "ending all US support for offensive operations, including related arms sales," and creating the legal conditions for a diplomatic solution by delisting the Houthis as terrorist and repealing the State Department's decision late during Trump’s presidency to list them a terrorist group, as US law and security custom prohibit communication, or support, with any group on terrorism lists.

In contrast, in keeping with Washington's international reputation as a reliable ally, Biden emphasized his commitment to protecting Saudi Arabia from attacks by "Iran's arms in several countries." Thus, it is irrational to assume that Washington will recede completely from military support to Saudi Arabia, for the negative connotations such act could entail.

Third, the US administration has announced that it will apply "maximum diplomacy" criteria for a nuclear deal with Iran, which would subject all the files Iran is engaged in for review, notably the Yemeni file. It is true that Tehran declares that there is no debate about its regional policies, but historical and practical experience proves that consensus on a sensitive issue is followed by a breakthrough on other issues.

Washington insists that its next steps on Iran’s nuclear file will not affect the national security of its allies. US negotiators are supposed to take into account the security considerations of the states of the region in the run-up to a new nuclear formula, pushing for a halt to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's stated and undeclared "advisory" support to the Houthis as a kind of proof of Iran's good will and willingness to behave normally with its geopolitical environment.

This time, Tehran will most likely have to demonstrate its regional goodwill before effectively lifting major economic sanctions, in order to avoid a scenario that followed the Obama-era nuclear deal, in which, according to official leaks, Iran has dedicated the financial savings generated by the deal to finance its foreign activities, giving significant impetus to its regional influence. The Biden administration, however, is not expected to repeat this strategic flaw.

On-ground negotiations ahead of the table

Experts in international negotiations agree that what is happening at the negotiating table is an extension of the realities on the ground; therefore, the various parties are striving to assert their strength in order to improve their negotiating position.

Indeed, some fronts are witnessing movement by the Houthis, such as Marib, where their supporters are rallying around it to control it in order to wrest political and demographic representation of the northern region bordering Saudi Arabia. Attacks on targets in the Saudi rear have also increased in this period (February 2021), carried out by drones and ballistic missiles. The political side of the Yemeni rescue government insists that these attacks will stop only if the Arab coalition's operations cease.

On the other hand, in accordance with the principle of stick and carrot, there is a kind of socio-political movement on the level of the exchange of hostages through local tribal mediation. Oman is also hosting direct UN-sponsored meetings between Yemeni government representatives and the Houthis to discuss ways to implement a pre-release agreement.

Military and diplomatic movement would motivate the parties to move forward towards a settlement that would end such costly strategic bleeding that exacerbates the burdens faced by the State in the Covid-19 era. Many countries are reviewing their foreign policies and trying to end their involvement in economically costly files to provide the liquidity needed to cope with the consequences of the pandemic.

The search for a "way out" of the Yemeni crisis will be hampered by several local obstacles, most notably:

1. The power imbalance between Ansar Allah and the legitimate government

Apart from external support, the balance of power shows the Houthis' weight at the expense of government forces, giving this armed group a psychological superiority that will deepen its desire to gain more representation in the upcoming official political structure.

The Iranian-backed forces have also shown consistency, unlike the legitimate government which has clashed with some of the actors that were supposed to support it, such as the Southern Transitional Council. This disagreement reflected a disparity in the system of states opposed to Iranian influence in Yemen, but efforts are being made to bring positions closer and unite the "front" politically and militarily against the common enemy.

Here it seems necessary to create a political combination that takes into account the interests of all actors, without excluding any party or giving way to any to dominate over the Yemeni political decision.

2. The fragility and duplication of existing institutional structures

After Ansar Allah-backed forces took control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, the legitimate government was forced to declare Aden an interim capital in which to exercise state functions. In November 2016, another dramatic development occurred when the Houthis' Supreme Political Council agreed with the General People's Congress (GPC) led by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to form a "rescue government" in which the two sides shared ministries and jurisdictions.

This government remains in place despite Saleh's assassination in a direct clash with the Houthis in December 2017. This incident has increased the political vacuum in the country amid the absence of popularly convincing and balanced figures with a kind of regional credibility.

The situation is further complicated by the deterioration of existing institutions and their inability to perform their functions due to the deteriorating security situation, as the country is under the weight of a severe living crisis that is ravaging civilians on more than one level, such as the provision of health care, safe drinking water and the educational content for children away from extremism and "superstition".

If we assume that there is political consensus in Yemen, there is a challenge to achieve an administrative consensus among the existing institutions, especially since the current situation has produced "war traders" who benefit from the absence of the state and will prevent any change that undermines their financial capabilities, for behind the dual institutions of two "fragile" governments, there are several networks which play the economic roles of the State.

According to the latest fragile states index, Yemen was the most fragile country ahead of Somalia, which until recently was an example of a failed state.

Those interested in making stability in Yemen should take into account the existing living realities and try to take advantage of post-war studies, which focus on transferring stability from the political to the social level so that the sources of conflict are mitigated and the appropriate environment for natural practices within the "state" is created.

3. Proliferation of weapons outside combat formations

Official statistics have estimated that there are nearly 60 million weapons in Yemen, which has a population of 25 million, at a rate of 3 weapons per citizen. This statistic -- reported by several media outlets -- was issued in 2013 before the outbreak of open confrontations, and the proliferation of weapons among civilians is certainly greater than that of 2013, for It is fairly facilitated to obtain an "automatic" weapon comparable to that used by official armies.


Any government would find itself facing a popular impasse if it sought to control arms and confine it to official frameworks, especially since Yemeni popular culture prides itself on arms and considers it part of the societal identity.  There are therefore high fears of the "militarization" of the narrow conflicts that will arise after the settlement of the great conflict, as we have often been informed by the media that dozens have been killed in Yemen as a result of a tribal or personal clash.

4. Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch returns momentum

Although al-Qaeda's presence has been reduced under the influence of ISIS' media dominance, al-Qaeda's Yemen branch remains a prominent security threat, due to the practical and tactical expertise of its leaders, for Yemen's geography has long been a safe haven for terrorists to use for the purposes of planning and training terrorist operations or to escape security control.

Underscoring the seriousness of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Biden excluded counterterrorism operations from the decision to halt US military operations in Yemen. The US will continue to track and target the terrorist threat, which is not limited to Yemen’s interior, but also to neighboring countries and Europe. ISIS has claimed responsibility for some major attacks in these countries, and intelligence reports have indicated that it has provided logistical and technical support in attacks that it has not officially adopted.

Therefore, in the face of a new in-formation reality, all parties capable of influencing the course of events in Yemen, such as Saudi Arabia, US, and Iran, must strive not to deepen the security vacuum and neutralize their conflicts when it comes to combating terrorism. Without this treatment, terrorism, with its two versions, Al-Qaida and ISIS, will expand near Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is vital for navigation, bringing about serious implications for regional and Yemeni security.

In short, the Yemeni environment does not seem to be ready for peace now, and what is being discussed closely to reach a political solution is only a regional settlement closer to a geopolitical trade-off than an actual reconciliation. The imposition of stability in Yemen has a long path of domestic complexity to address. As post-war theories put it, conflict usually continues under a cover of precarious stability until comprehensive development that provides a better alternative path than living reality is achieved.

Therefore, in the best of circumstances, a Yemeni solution will be found whereby the conflict with its regional dimension will be ended and the qualitative transition will remain at the will of Yemenis and their agreement to rebuild their homeland, socially, economically and politically, the matter which requires the cessation of all external interventions and the non-harnessing of Yemen's wealth in a way that is not in the common interest of the exhausted people.


Policy Analysis Team