Yemen: More Talking, Less Fighting


May 12, 2023: Peace negotiations seemed promising earlier in the year but have stalled, mainly because the Shia rebels, the Yemen government and Saudi Arabia cannot agree on who should get what. There were brief ceasefire agreements that were renewed several times but by the end of 2022 progress had stalled and that has not changed in 2023. The rebels demanded large cash payments and other concessions if there was to be another ceasefire. The government refused. Some fighting resumed after the ceasefire expired, mainly in the usual war zones; Taiz province in the south and Marib in central Yemen. The fighting was low key and the Saudis did not resume their airstrikes, nor have the rebels’ resumed attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This turned out to be the result of direct negotiations between the rebels and the Saudis. This was the first time the rebels and Saudis worked out such a deal. Iranian influence on the Shia rebels is fading and many rebel factions were calling for some kind of peace deal and an end to a civil war that the rebels were losing. Factionalism among the rebels is something that the government and Saudis are unable to address.

The ceasefire negotiations did have some positive results, in addition to the reduced fighting plus halts to Saudi airstrikes and rebel missile attacks into Saudi Arabia. Commercial passenger and cargo flights were resumed in the rebel controlled airports. In February aid shipments resumed through the Red Sea port of Hodeida for the first time since 2016 with the arrival of the first general cargo ship which unloaded followed by the arrival and unloading of two more. The cargo delivery was made possible by the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Shia rebels. Bringing general cargo in via Hodeida was cheaper for customers in the northwest than the previous use of the southern port of Aden. This required sending the cargo north by truck.

There is still some fighting in the usual war zones; Taiz province in the south and Marib in central Yemen. The fighting is less intense than in the past. The Saudis continue to negotiate directly with the Shia rebels in order to keep the peace on the Saudi border. The peace in the Shia rebel north is partly the result of exhaustion after eight years of fighting and not much to show for it. Down south the Yemen government controls 80 percent of Yemen but has to deal with separatist southerners and Islamic terrorists. The STC (South Transitional Council) and many government troops spent the ceasefire period going after Islamic terrorist groups AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the south and east. A major reason for rebels agreeing to a ceasefire was a decline in Iranian support due to lack of funds plus unrest at home. The Iranian weapons, cash, advisors and smuggling network supercharged the Shia rebels, enabling them to keep fighting the more numerous and better armed force arrayed against them. Iran has been openly supporting the Shia rebels since 2014 and later admitted that less visible support had been supplied since 2011.

Eight years of civil war have revived the centuries old north-south divide. This was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported formation of the STC. This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader, is seen as more popular in the south than any government official. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels.

Currently Iranian aid for the rebels is much reduced because the Iranians have their own problems at home and have switched to supplying the Russian forces in Ukraine. Based on interceptions by American and other warships in the naval blockade of rebel controlled coastline, but at a lower intensity and consisting mainly of infantry weapons rather that cruise and ballistic missiles used to attack Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are negotiating directly with the Iranians about the fighting in Yemen and how to reduce it. This is part of an effort, brokered by the Chinese, to improve relations between the Saudis and Iran and reduce the tensions in the Persian Gulf and Yemen.

Yemen was in bad shape economically before the civil war began in 2015. Since then, the situation has gotten much worse. There have been nearly 400,000 deaths, most of them caused by starvation and illness, not combat. The damage to infrastructure and lack of food led to an outbreak of cholera in 2016, which has made over two million people ill since then, killing about 4,000. Nearly fifteen percent of the population were driven from their homes. Nearly 20 million of the 24 million Yemenis have suffered hunger and/or poverty as a result of the war. Most Yemenis are exhausted by the years of privation and violence and are willing to accept peace on just about any terms.

April 17, 2023: The Red Cross, the UN, Saudi Arabia and the Shia rebels carried out a complex prisoner exchange over four days. Nearly a thousand prisoners held by the rebels and Saudi Arabia. The was made possible by months of Saudi peace talks with the Shia rebels. The Saudis and the Yemeni Shia have a long history. There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect that the Houthis dominate. In 2009 only a few hundred thousand Zaidi were up in arms against the government, and not all of them were actively resisting the advancing troops. The Houthi religious leaders, despite their disagreements with Iran over what form of Shia beliefs was superior, accepted Iranian offers of support in regaining self-rule for the Zaidi Shia in Yemen as well as the million Zaidi across the border in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis created this division of Zaidi Shia in the early 1930s as they were establishing the borders for the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before that the Zaidi in the mountains of northwest Yemen had maintained their independence for centuries. The Ottomans left the Zaidi alone as long as there was no interference with Turkish administration of Mecca, Medina and the Red Sea port that brought in pilgrims and cargo.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the Zaidi created a Shia kingdom led by the Houthi religious and tribal leaders. That ended when the Saudi forces moved south in 1930 to establish the borders of their new kingdom. The Saudis recognized the hill country of what is now northwest Yemen as a good place to put the border. The Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia developed methods that made any Shia uprising, or cooperation with their Zaidi brethren on the other side of the new border, highly unlikely. The Yemen Zaidi lost their autonomy in 1962 as the rest of Yemen finally united as one country. Zaidi resistance to this local domination began small and grew to the point where the goal of full autonomy seemed much closer. What made it even more real were Iranian pledges to support that effort and reunite Yemeni Shia with the Zaidi trapped in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s.

The Iranians convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during years of civil war. It’s an impossible situation for the Saudis because the Iranians want to use Shia controlled areas in northern Yemen as a perpetual base for attacks on Saudi control of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians have also displayed a preference for violating any treaty they enter into and the Yemeni rebels do likewise.

Before the Iranians got involved, the Saudis avoided problems with the Zaidi Shia living in Saudi Arabia by making sure the Zaidi got a share of the oil wealth that had made all Saudis loyal to the kingdom. Some groups (tribes) were more loyal than others and that included Sunni tribes that were on the losing side during the war the Saud coalition fought to create the kingdom. Most Saudis are Sunni Moslems adhering to the very conservative Wahhabi form of Islam. Technically that meant any Shia were not acceptable. The Saudi family were Wahhabis but practical, which is why it became Saudi Arabia. The Saud royal family persuaded the Sunni to at least tolerate the Shia minority among them and much of the oil wealth went to rewarding those who went along with this policy. Down south this tolerance persuaded the Saudi Zaidi to keep the peace. As long as the Yemen Zaidi did likewise the Saudis tolerated Zaidi from both countries moving back and forth. The Houthi clan disagreed with that agreement and once the Houthi had Iranian support, they were powerful enough to exploit that tolerance in an effort to make the Zaidi autonomous once more. The Saudi Zaidi did not go along with this although many maintained a form of neutrality.




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