No end in sight for Yemen conflict, despite Aden victory

Ongoing conflict is pushing already poor and underdeveloped Yemen ever close to the brink of collapse.

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On 14th July, more than 100 days after the announcement of the start of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition battling the rebel forces that had forced Yemen’s internationally recognised president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee the country, secured its first significant military victory.

In a morning operation in Aden, forces on the ground, backed by Saudi-trained soldiers and new United Arab Emirates (UAE) supplied weaponry and armored personal carriers managed to rout fighters loyal to the Houthis, a Zaidi Shi’a led group that seized control of the bulk of the country in March, in the strategic neighborhood of Khor Maksor. This set off a chain of events that saw anti-Houthi fighters take control of the bulk of the city, gradually forcing the Houthis and allied Yemeni troops to withdraw and, in some cases, surrender.

In the days that have followed, anti-Houthi forces have consolidated their control over Aden, as a handful of members of the exiled government – based in Riyadh since late March – have trickled into the southern port city. The now open nature of Saudi Arabia’s military presence underlines Yemen’s northern neighbour’s eagerness to shore up the city as a bulwark from which aid – both humanitarian and military – can flow into the country.

While Hadi was quick to claim victory the reality on the ground is far more complicated.

But while Hadi was quick to claim victory in a speech made from Riyadh on the 16th July the reality on the ground is far more complicated. Victory against the Houthis in Aden and, for that matter, other parts of South Yemen – where anti-Houthi sentiment is widespread and the fighters, who hail from the far northern province of Saada, are widely seen as foreigners – is one thing. But dislodging them from the capital – let alone their strongholds in Yemen’s Zaidi Shi’a tribal north – represents a far greater challenge.

This is to say nothing of the issues wrought by the makeup of the forces who have taken control over Aden. Much has been made of the small presence of Al Qaeda fighters in the ranks of anti-Houthi fighters. While anxiety over Al Qaeda’s potential to make gains in the current atmosphere is far from irrational – Al Qaeda-allied militants are currently in effective control of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city – the fighters’ presence in Aden has, until now, been minimal. But far from being “pro-Hadi” fighters, the key forces behind the Houthis’ defeat in Aden have been members of the Southern Movement, a group that aims to dissolve Yemen’s 1990 unification and return independence to the south. Deeply skeptical of Sanaa-based politicians – including Hadi himself, despite his southern roots – the fighters have proudly celebrated their victory by brandishing the southern flag in the streets of Aden, a city they consider their once and future capital.

Looking forward, much remains unknown. The Houthis appear unlikely to regain Aden, but forecasts that the rest of the country will fall in domino-like succession appear overly optimistic. In the key provinces of Lahj and Taiz, fighting continues unabated. And while the opening of the port of Aden and Aden International Airport will eventually allow fuel, food and other key goods to enter the country, the country’s humanitarian crisis still appears set to burn on for some time.

Little remains clear – save the fact that the ongoing conflict is pushing already poor and underdeveloped Yemen ever close to the brink of collapse. 

While recent events in Aden have suggested that the Saudi-led military offensive has begun to bear fruit, it remains difficult to envision the conflict coming to an end in the absence of a political solution. Notably, recent weeks have seen a significant push from Oman, the United States and other key actors aimed at bringing the warring parties back to the negotiating table. Previous talks, held in Geneva under UN mediation in June, were widely dismissed as a failure: the two delegations never even managed to meet in the same room. But some have expressed hopes that the defeat in Aden will spur the Houthis and their allies of convenience among the supporters of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to make concessions, while granting a victory, of sorts, for the exiled government, which is currently in the process of relocating to Aden. But little remains clear – save the fact that the ongoing conflict is pushing already poor and underdeveloped Yemen ever close to the brink of collapse.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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