To learn more about the ongoing war in Yemen, FPI student fellow Evie McCorkle sat down with April Longley Alley.
Dr. Alley is a senior analyst of the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group. She has conducted fieldwork in Yemen since 2004. She works with other members of the Middle East program to research and produce reports on security, conflict, political, governance, human rights and social issues related to the Arabian Peninsula with a particular focus on Yemen. She has written extensively on Yemen for a variety of publications including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, PS: Political Science and Politics, The Middle East Journal, The Journal of Democracy, and The National.
To say that the current conflict in Yemen is complicated is an understatement.
It has aspects of a multifaceted civil war, but layered on top of that is a Middle East regional power struggle. On the domestic front, the conflict is connected to unresolved issues following the Arab Spring in 2011 and the changes that resulted. Yemen was a special case because the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed, after some time, to leave power and transfer authority to his deputy when he was faced with popular protest. This agreement was supported by regional states, including Saudi Arabia. It provided for a short transition period and a national dialogue to revise the social contract in the country, to have a new constitution, and to address festering political issues – issues of domestic regionalism and powersharing, reform of the military – which are sensitive questions.
Unfortunately, this transition, which had some promise of reform, failed for a number of reasons. Some of its promises weren’t fulfilled, and it wasn’t as inclusive as it could have been, and so it began to falter around 2013. There was a growing separatist movement in the south of the country; there was widespread frustration with the economic situation and continued corruption; and there was a growing armed conflict in the north that involved a group called the Huthis, a Zaidi rebel movement that had fought six rounds of armed conflict against the Saleh regime in the past.
During the transition, the Huthis participated in the national dialogue, but at the same time they were fighting a war against a variety of enemies, including their ideological enemy, the Sunni Islamist party, Al-Islah. Former President Saleh and his allies were deeply alienated by the transition, which they felt unfairly marginalized them. They eventually formed a alliance with the Huthis against common enemies. So there was a swift re-alignment of the political space in the north. The Huthis, supported by Saleh, came to the capital and overthrew the transitional government. These actions eventually triggered an internal civil war driven by a complex web of overlapping political, historical, regional and ideological rivalries.
Now the war has effectively fractured the country along regional divides, which unfortunately at times overlap with confessional/sectarian divisions as well. The Huthi-Saleh bloc is strongest in the far north, the Zadyi – a branch of Shiism- highlands. The south, an independent country prior to 1990, is largely dominated by southern separatists seeking to establish an independent state. The most strongly contested areas lie between these two regions and along the Red Sea coast, all areas of the former north Yemen that, like the south, are historically Shafi – a type of Sunni Islam- like Taiz, Marib and Hodeida provinces.
This domestic feud has been prolonged and complicated by regional military intervention. Saudi Arabia viewed the Huthi’s rise to power in Yemen as an indication of Iran’s expanding ambitions and in March 2015 intervened to push back the Huthis, which it views as Iranian proxies, and to reinstate the transitional government. What started as a domestic power struggle became inseparable from the regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the view of the Gulf States. Now finding a resolution to the conflict is not only a matter of Yemen, but also addressing Saudi Arabia’s and Emirati political and security requirements.
You already began to answer my next question, which was how do external, regional power players influence the current situation in Yemen. You mentioned Saudi Arabia and other regional powers…
They have a profound influence on the Yemen conflict. It’s important to note that the ground fighting occurring in Yemen is overwhelmingly Yemeni versus Yemeni, but most of the funding for the conflict comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who support various, and sometimes competing, components of the anti-Huthi side. Anti-Huthi-Saleh fighters are a diverse group, so it’s hard to call it the “Hadi government” side; all its constituent groups don’t necessarily support President Hadi right now. This fragmentation has been one of the factors that has prolonged the war, because the anti-Huthi-Saleh coalition is internally fragmented and at times works at cross purposes. In the south for example, the UAE is working closely with groups that want separation – which is to say, they don’t support the idea of one government rebuilding itself and controlling a unified Yemen. In other words, there are interesting contradictions within the coalition that are, in effect, amplifying the divides within Yemen.
Iranian influence and particularly the Gulf States’ perception of this influence is also an important factor in the conflict. Saudi Arabia entered the war on the side of the Hadi government as part of a larger effort to balance the expanding influence of Iran. From their perspective the Huthis are an Iranian proxy, and indeed there are connections between the Huthi movement and Hezbollah, and the Iranians. In our estimation this connection is exaggerated, but nonetheless real. To some extent, the connections between the Huthi-Saleh bloc and the Iranians has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The connection seems to be stronger because that group has no other allies to turn to. Again, the Saudis perceive the Huthis as being part of a larger struggle within the region against Iranian expansionism. At the time they entered the war, the US was negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran. So there was a perception that Iran was going to use this new deal to gain more resources and take advantage of more opportunities to support its proxies. Saudi Arabia has always considered Yemen to be part of its backyard, part of its domestic politics, so for them the idea that Iran would have gained a foothold through an armed group that was going to control the Yemeni state was unacceptable.
In the foreign policy community, what are your thoughts on how the conflict in Yemen is being discussed, or beyond the foreign policy community, how is it being reported on in the media?
It is hard to keep Yemen as a priority, particularly in the Western press, because there is some degree of fatigue when it comes to conflict in the Middle East in particular. Yemen usually takes a back seat to Syria, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and the fight against IS. When it does gain media attention it is usually the humanitarian crisis that grabs headlines. It is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and the world’s most severe hunger crisis. Now the country is being ravaged by cholera. So there is some attention to the humanitarian disaster, punctuated by a discussion of whether or not the United States and Great Britain should continue to supply arms to the Saudi Coalition, given the widespread accusations of violations of international humanitarian law.
How would you advise the current administration that the US move forward?
Since the beginning of the conflict we have advised over and over again that the US government actively push for political settlement because a clear military victory by one side is not possible and continuing the war is destroying Yemen while further undermining the security of Saudi Arabia. But it is hard to push for political settlement when, through political and military support for one side, the US basically has become a party to the conflict and, even under Obama, it wasn’t willing to use real leverage to encourage its allies to take a political settlement seriously.
The last administration was uncomfortable with the war from the beginning and became increasingly uncomfortable with it because of the accusations of international humanitarian law violations and because of the growing humanitarian crisis. It was a reluctant partner but a partner nonetheless — because U.S. support for Saudi war in Yemen was essentially compensation for the nuclear deal with Iran. The Obama administration was trying to show the Saudis that it would stand with them on regional security issues and back their confrontation with Tehran, even as Washington itself negotiated with Tehran. US reservations increased over time. There was a symbolic reduction in support for the military operation from the Obama administration with the withholding of precision-guided munitions and then a late effort by Secretary Kerry to facilitate talks, but really those interventions were too little too late.
Under the current administration, I think the prospects of the United States playing a pivotal role in pushing for any sort of political solution or peaceful settlement have become even less likely. It has been clear in its desire to strengthen its relationship with allies like Saudi Arabia that had been alienated by the Obama administration. And it has been clear that it seeks to confront what it sees as Iranian expansionism, and Yemen is one place to do that. That hasn’t happened as sharply as some thought it might – it was the US that, for now, has stopped the coalition’s assault on the port city of Hodeide – but I’d say that the US is likely to ask fewer questions about the military campaign. Nor does it seem that this administration will be deterred or shamed by violations of international humanitarian law. In practical terms, the Trump administration has moved forward with the sale of precision munitions that the Obama administration had halted, and more broadly increased military support for the campaign. None of this by itself adds up to a fully articulated Yemen policy, but it gives you a sense of where the administration is likely to go.
In terms of advice, it is the same as we gave to the Obama Administration. The United States should help its allies find a political resolution immediately. Saudi Arabia has legitimate security concerns for sure. The conflict has spilled over Saudi Arabia’s border during the course of the conflict, and it has allowed Iran the chance, for the price of a very small investment in the Huthis, to pull Saudi Arabia into an expensive and unwinnable quagmire. Al-Qaeda is also taking advantage by forming tacit alliances with forces fighting the Huthi-Saleh alliance and by stepping into the void left by a crumbling and fragmented state, even at times governing territory. All of these things are security threats for Saudi Arabia, and need to be addressed in any settlement. The way the war has progressed has undermined Saudi security and has not achieved the country’s stated goals, so there needs to be a pivot to some sort of political settlement as opposed to pursuing more of the same – aerial bombardments and trying to squeeze the Huthi Salah bloc militarily.
You’ve mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and you’ve written about the famine; can you discuss how the conflict thus far has played a part in escalating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?
First, it’s important to note that Yemen was a poor country before this conflict. And the issue of hunger was a serious one before the war began. But now the crisis is spiraling – some 17 million people being food insecure and parts of the country are on the verge of famine. The crisis is a product of the war. No natural disaster is responsible and it can be still addressed if there is a pivot towards a ceasefire and political settlement. The media tends to focus on the issue of the availability of food, and that is an important problem. If, for example, fighting were to reach the Port of Hodeida, the most important port in the country, it probably would constrain food availability, which then would become the main problem. But at the moment the main problem is on the demand side of the equation.
Over the course of the conflict the economy has collapsed and Yemenis do not have money to buy the food in the markets. Since September of last year, public sector employees have not consistently been paid salaries, particularly in Huthi-Saleh controlled or contested areas of the North, which is where the majority of the population resides. People have exhausted their personal savings and have tapped into extended networks of support that are drying up over time. Increasingly they are not able to buy what food is available in the market, which is why it is critical to deal with the issue of liquidity and having a functioning central bank, an issue that has been politicized by all parties in the conflict. The economy has become another weapon in the war. Far more people are dying as a result of hunger, cholera and preventable diseases, which are connected to the war, than they are from the actual fighting.
What are some of the conflict resolution or foreign policy lessons that can be learned from what we see happening in Yemen?
There are several. To name a few: Yemen is a lesson in the alarming state of disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law by institutions and states that claim to champion them. Both sides of Yemen’s conflict have repeatedly violated these norms, yet the United States, the United Kingdom and France have continued to supply weapons to the Saudi-led coalition and have shielded their allies from censure in the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council. Selective application of IHL is not new, but what is happening in Yemen, and in places like Syria, is rendering these concepts all but meaningless on the ground and doing lasting damage to their credibility.
On the conflict resolution side, one lesson that stands out is the importance of having the right framework for negotiations and the right stakeholders at the table. This seems obvious, but Yemen is an example of where the structure of UN talks, which is based on UN Security Council Resolution 2216, has been a consistent obstacle to peace. 2216 is a resolution that in effect calls for the surrender of one side, the Huthi/Saleh bloc. There is little room for a negotiated settlement in the resolution, yet after nearly two years of a military stalemate, it should be increasingly clear that no clear military victory is possible and a compromise is needed. The resolution also sets up a problematic structure for UN talks. On one side is the internationally recognized government and on the other, the Huthi/Saleh bloc. Yet the Yemeni government has little support on the ground and does not represent many of the strongest anti-Huthi/Saleh fighting forces, including southern separatists, whose voices must be heard if a durable settlement is to be reached. Regionally, Saudi Arabia’s security concerns are a critical part of securing a lasting settlement. Yet the negotiations also omit this critical component, forcing these issues to be dealt with indirectly.
You’ve conducted lots of fieldwork in Yemen, can you talk about what sorts of challenges or opportunities you experienced as a woman conducting field work, particularly in a conflict zone?
I love my job mostly because of the fieldwork. I thoroughly enjoy traveling to Yemen and interacting with Yemenis. They are an incredibly open group of people, enjoy talking about politics, and have a sense of humor. For me work in the field is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, even during the war.
Doing research in Yemen as a woman has many advantages. As a woman I have more access than a male researcher would to a range of Yemeni females, so I can talk to women activists, politicians, and civil society leaders, and also go to people’s homes and interact with their families. By contrast, male researchers tend to have a more constraints. It is unusual for them to be invited to family gatherings where women are present or to get to know women who do not have a public presence. Yet as a foreign female researcher, I also have full access to the world of men. So I have this interesting, almost gender-neutral status, and I am accepted into both communities. I’ve found that beneficial to research, and being able to understand the society more holistically.
You said you went to Yemen somewhat recently, can you tell us a little about what you are currently working on?
Right now we are getting ready to shift gears. Yemen is in its third year of war and there is still no political settlement. So I think the next project we’ll do is an assessment of what a political solution could look like now, which may be quite different than what was possible at the beginning of the war. We’ll assess what elements may be missing from the UN-sponsored framework that has been on the table since the beginning of the war: what new actors need to be included in the negotiations, what new elements need to be addressed, and what’s not so relevant now.
When you do this sort of assessment do you have an angle? How to pitch it to the US or an international power, or is it an ideal solution for Yemen or for all parties involved?
When writing reports and making recommendations we try to reflect the perspectives of all of the conflict actors and then within Crisis Group we come up with our own recommendations. In the case of Yemen we are at the same time trying to influence Yemeni, regional and global actors. What I enjoy about the work is that it is not from the US perspective, a government perspective, or a view from sitting in Brussels or a European capital. We try to have Yemeni voices in particular be heard and analyzed.
At FPI we are inspired by a Madeleine Albright quote, where she says “women have to learn to interrupt…” – basically if you aren’t getting called on but you have an answer then you need to interrupt the feedback loop to contribute. With that in mind, what advice do you have for fellow/incoming interrupters in foreign policy?
I am not a natural “interrupter” so to speak. For those like me, I would recommend spending the time to really get to know an issue. Read everything you can on an issue/functional area/country and get as much practical experience as possible. You will likely find reason to interrupt the policy discussion and, when you do, you will be well prepared to defend and explore your ideas in a public arena.
Do you have any recommendations for books, documentaries, podcasts or blogs you like going to for foreign policy content or stories specific to your areas of interest?
The first book that I read on Yemen was: Yemen: The Unknown Arabia by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. It is neither political science nor history, but is a wonderfully written, rich travelogue. After reading it I was hooked.