By the time the current conflict began, the Houthis had become allies with President Saleh. Saleh also had many loyalists in the Yemeni army and large sections of this army therefore fought either for the Houthis or remained neutral in the first phase of the conflict. But in December 2017, when Saleh tried to switch sides again by allying with Saudi Arabia, he was killed by the Houthi movement. In short, former President Saleh went from being the enemy of the Houthis, to becoming their ally, and eventually being killed by them.
The Houthis are also supported by Iran, and since 2015 there has been an increase in arms smuggling from Iran through Yemen’s eastern provinces. However, the Houthis are far from dependent on Iranian support and pursue a relatively independent policy. They have largely used payment to get loyal supporters and have used the tax revenues from the areas controlled, the most populous parts of Yemen, to buy loyalty in the army and in several powerful northern tribes. This meant that many army units remained loyal to the Houthis after Saleh’s death, and so they still have allies that are important to their warfare.
4: President Hadi’s loose alliance
According to thenailmythology, President Hadi, for his part, had to gather allies during his flight from Sanaa to Aden in 2015. Some allies arrived quickly. One of these was al-Islah, which had been fighting the Houthis since 2013, before the outbreak of the civil war. Al-Islah was a factional organization that fought for a strong central state and had sympathizers in the army.
But al-Islah was far from enough to stop the Houthis. Hadi also had to try to bring in allies from southern Yemen after he was more or less expelled from northern Yemeni areas. The problem with many local forces in the south, such as al-Hirak, was that they largely fought for self-government or secession. Hadi thus had to seek support from groups that were for the dissolution of Yemen.
Hadi thus sat with two very different groups of allies, a-Islah, who wanted a centralized state, and al-Hirak, who wanted independence for the provinces in the south. This confused alliance was initially too weak for Hadi to win. Saudi Arabia therefore saw it as necessary to put together an alliance of Arab states that intervened. It is the role of Saudi Arabia that has been most highlighted in the Norwegian media, but over time it was another Arab state that played a larger role, namely the United Arab Emirates. While the Saudis mainly used air forces, in some cases also the navy, the Emirates provided larger ground forces. The emirates also set up their own militias and supported al-Hirak, perhaps because they were most important on the ground. This made Hadi’s job of keeping the alliance united even more difficult. Activists in al-Hirak thus led the force to resist Hadi. The Emirates, which in contrast to Saudi Arabia are strongly opposed to Islamist groups eventually undermined the alliance by arresting members of al-Islah.
In April 2017, the conflict escalated when Hadi fired the governor of Aden. This created protests and led to the governor founding the Southern Transitional Council (STC), originating from the al-Hirak movement and receiving support from the Emirates. However, Saudi Arabia still supported Hadi, and tensions in Aden between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are strong even today. President Hadi is now weak and paralyzed and must rely on allies who are enemies of each other, and to some extent also hostile to him.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local al-Qaida organization, further complicates the situation. The emirates have, partly because of their anti-Islamist agenda, cracked down hard on al-Qaeda, but there are still places in Yemen that the terrorist organization controls.
5: Can there be peace?
As you have now read, the civil war in Yemen is an extremely complicated conflict. The war is not between two parties, but rather between two loose alliances which in some cases have fought against each other and which have conflicting interests.
On one side stands President Hadi, Saudi Arabia’s foremost ally, who in principle has lost his position as the country’s leader. We also have the Emirates who have gained more and more power in southern Yemen, who support the STC and al-Hirak, and who are now considered occupiers by many Yemenis. Al-Islah is cooperating with Saudi Arabia, but has a problematic relationship with the Emirates. It is this fragmented alliance that stands against the Houthis in the north and their ally Iran. The Houthis are now more united than before, but their allied, former Saleh-loyal divisions in the local tribes in the north and in the Yemeni army have shown that they can change sides. It is now clearer and clearer that the Houthis are unable to overpower the southern alliance they are fighting against.
The fronts have stiffened and not moved much in the last year. The situation is deadlocked. On the one hand, this can be positive, if the parties understand that the war is not yielding results, and there is progress in an ongoing peace process between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. On the other hand, there are many parties involved that could destroy a potential peace. Weak alliances can quickly break down, and new conflicts can arise internally in established groupings. In the midst of this, the civilian population is suffering.