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Four years after the war in Yemen broke out on 26 March 2015, no solution has been found to the complex military and political reality. This is due to the balance of power on the ground and the nature of the local forces and countries supporting them. These forces are composed of a patchwork of sectarian religious movements, political parties and regionally based groups with differing degrees of importance and influence. These are described below, along with their main strengths and vulnerabilities.
Although the war was initially intended to defeat the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia movement founded in the 1990s following the unification of South Yemen and North Yemen, they continue to dominate the conflict, both in terms of territorial control, including fortified mountainous areas and the capital Sanaa, and reserves of fighters.
The Houthis’ strength can be attributed to a number of factors, the most important of which are: having a central command, a firm ideology based on the Zaidi doctrine and a solid nucleus of members who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through the Hashemite dynasty that has ruled parts of Yemen for more than a thousand years. The exact number of Hashemites in Yemen is unknown, but they are estimated at 4.2 per cent of the population, amounting to tens of thousands of fighters who are ready to sacrifice their lives. This is in addition to their control of state institutions, specifically the army and security services.
At the beginning of the war, the Houthis lost important areas, notably what was formerly South Yemen. They later also lost the southern part of the west coast. However, they were able to withstand attacks launched by their local opponents supported by a Saudi-led coalition of mainly Sunni countries, and there were no significant defeats in the fortified areas in the mountains. They also managed to keep control of Hodeidah Port, which is a vital entry point for food, fuel and medicines.
The Houthis rely on local sources of funding by virtue of their control of state institutions, and on Iranian support, especially military, the exact extent of which remains unknown. The size of the Houthis’ military force is also unknown, but it is estimated to be around 100,000 fighters, known as the Popular Committees. This is in addition to brigades of the dissolved Yemeni army, which have also come under Houthi control.
Despite their strength, the Houthis have not been able to take control of the rest of Yemen for various political, military and sectarian reasons. For instance, most of the central and southern regions adhere to the Shafii order of Sunni Islam, making them anti-Houthi incubators.
The legitimate government
Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, is internationally recognized as the legitimate president of Yemen. He came to power through a Saudi-sponsored political settlement at the end of 2011, after the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi was not supposed to stay in power for more than two years. However, the faltering political settlement and the outbreak of the war meant he remained the de facto leader although he lost all legal legitimacy. In theory, Hadi’s government controls more than 70 per cent of the country and about 30 per cent of the population. However, this control is largely symbolic, with some places, such as the city of Aden, being effectively under the control of hostile forces.
Hadi nominally leads the General People’s Congress, which he inherited from Saleh, but the party no longer has an actual presence on the ground except in some tribal areas in the central and northern regions that are fighting the Houthis for sectarian reasons.
In any event, all areas under Hadi’s authority are administered directly or indirectly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which provide financial and military support and international recognition of this authority. Without it, Hadi’s authority would fade away because there is no significant support for his government inside Yemen, and most of the forces fighting under his umbrella are affiliated with political parties and other actors that have their own agendas.
The al-Islah Party is a coalition of tribal and religious elements with its origins in the international Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. As of 2014, it was the second biggest political party after the General People’s Congress. Its influence continued to grow after the start of the war because it was the main party resisting the Houthi influence in the north. As a result, its military base has expanded dramatically, and most of the forces in the northern areas that make up the National Army have come under al-Islah’s effective control.
Al-Islah’s strength is concentrated in the oil and gas-rich Marib Governorate and the nearby al-Jawf and Taiz governorates, where it controls local authorities, financial resources, and military and security forces. Some estimate that these forces number hundreds of thousands.
In addition, the party has members across Yemen, although their activities are limited in areas controlled by the Houthis or separatists. Despite this, the party is one of the most organized political forces, with the capacity to mobilize people for election purposes, and its members dominate the most important positions in the legitimate government and its media organizations. This dominance may be short-lived, however. The party has no local allies and whatever support it currently enjoys from Saudi Arabia is likely to end if the Houthis are defeated or another political force, such as the General People’s Congress, emerges to replace it.
The southern separatist movement has benefitted greatly from the war. The south of Yemen was the main battleground against the Houthis, and the separatists were among those who received money and arms from the Saudi-led coalition members, especially the UAE, which was behind most military operations across the south. With the withdrawal of the Houthis, the separatists have replaced them in many areas, specifically the Aden, Lahj, and Dali governorates.
Some of the leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which ruled South Yemen before unification, joined the separatists.
The separatists, with clear support from the UAE, have established military and security forces in many parts of the south. These forces, in alliance with some Salafists, control a number of areas in the south and have a presence on the west coast.
It is estimated that the separatists have 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers at their disposal who are equipped with light-to-medium weapons.
The main weaknesses of the separatists are their almost complete dependence on external support, internal differences, and the absence of central leadership, despite establishing the Southern Transitional Council to push for secession. Accordingly, the separatists are likely to see their influence decline if external support dries up and the legitimate government regains its authority.
Conservative Sunni Salafists have engaged heavily and effectively in the fighting against the Houthis on several fronts, including Aden, Taiz, and the west coast. The ideological conflicts between the two groups have been the main motivation for the Salafists to become involved in the war. Members of the Saudi-led coalition, specifically the UAE, have exploited this ideological motivation, forming large forces of Salafist fighters and deploying them on more than one front, including the Saudi-Yemeni border areas where the Houthis regularly attacked major Saudi cities with drones and ballistic missiles.
The Salafists make up a large number of military organizations with different names. In some southern regions, they are deployed as the Security Belt Forces and the Elite Forces, in west coast areas, they operate as the Giant Brigades and in Taiz as the Abu al-Abbas group. The Salafists spearheaded the campaign against the Houthis in Taiz and the west coast areas as well as most areas in the south.
The exact number of Salafist fighters is unknown, but some estimates indicate that there are over 30,000. Their main weakness is their disunity, lack of political organization and experience, and extremist beliefs, which makes them similar to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in terms of behavior and ideology. Therefore, they are considered to be one of the driving forces of violence in the country and a potential source of terrorist movements in the future, especially if they start to lose external attention.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen has been the most active branch of the extremist organization in the world, although its activities have declined over the past two years. This followed control of a number of important areas in the early stages of the war, specifically Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt Governorate. During that period, the organization limited its public presence to some remote mountainous areas in the south and the northern governorates of Marib and al-Bayda. This appeared to be a new tactic to counter military pressure applied by the UAE, its local allies, and American aircraft.
It is believed that al-Qaeda still has several thousand supporters in Yemen and significant financial resources obtained during its control of Mukalla. In any event, al-Qaeda and its counterpart, Islamic State, remain dangerous organizations that can be active at any time and are difficult to defeat given the chaotic situation in the country.
There are several other minor actors in the conflict, including those associated with a particular region, such as the Tihamah Resistance on the west coast, the Hadrami Elite, which controls the southern part of Hadramawt Governorate, and the Shabwani Elite, which controls most of Shabwah Governorate, and the so-called Republican Guard, which is led by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the former president. All of them are backed by the UAE.
Based on the above, it is clear that the current balance of power does not allow for anyone party to triumph. At the same time, this situation cannot lead to a realistic formula for peace because of the nature of the conflicting forces. Major actors such as the Houthis, the al-Islah Party, the Salafists, and al-Qaeda are essentially totalitarian religious movements that do not accept political pluralism. The separatist and regional forces have the potential to partition the state and monopolize power in specific areas, meaning they cannot be part of any joint political process. However, their exclusion will almost certainly perpetuate the conflict, which can be sustained indefinitely by funds from rich Gulf states.