Time to grapple with Yemen’s new reality

Even if international actors are able to avoid responsibility for Yemen’s plight, they will not be able to avoid the spillover from its collapse.

While UN Yemen Envoy Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed has increased his efforts to broker a ceasefire, the various factions have continued to escalate the conflict. On Saturday, an apparent airstrike targeting a funeral attended by key Yemeni tribal and political elites lead to the death of over 100 people, including a number of prominent officials. And in the last week, Houthi allied forces, which have controlled much of the country since ousting the country’s internationally recognized president two years ago, have directly targeted an Emirati ship used by the Saudi-led coalition.

Aside from these flashpoints, sustained fighting has continued on numerous fronts: clashes continue in western Marib, civilians have been caught in the crossfire of Houthi shelling in the central city of Taiz, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives have continued to launch operations against security officials in the south of the country. International rhetoric notwithstanding, a breakthrough has never seemed further away.

The continued failure of the peace process is epitomized by the recent satirical images on Yemeni social media, featuring the dramatically expanded waistlines of various political figures.  The juxtaposition of the country’s increasingly rotund political class and its increasingly impoverished—if not famine-stricken—majority attests to a larger message: the gulf between Yemen’s formal leaders and the people they purport to represent has grown to the point where it may be insurmountable. While many may be able to call on the support of their own tribal, regional or religious constituencies, unifying figures are increasingly absent.

Indeed, the only thing keeping the country’s “two sides” together are shared enemies; in some regard, it is far more accurate to say that, rather than a “Houthi-Saudi” conflict, the larger battle racking the country is one between those who see themselves fighting the Houthis and those who see themselves fighting the Saudis.

In the north, the continued perception of the Saudi-led military coalition as the greater adversary has allowed the Houthis and their allies among Saleh’s backers to solidify their somewhat quixotic alliance, formalizing their ties with each other despite continuing underlying tensions. In the south, however, where the Houthis have largely been expelled, the common enemy is no longer there to unify and once-hushed tensions between southern separatist factions, anti-Houthi pro-unity factions and the internationally-recognized government itself have left the strategic port city of Aden—ostensibly Yemen’s temporary capital—a powder keg, even amidst continued Emirati-backed efforts to stabilize the city. While a number of members of the internationally recognized government have relocated to the city, they are all but imprisoned in a heavily fortified compound, unable to travel in the city.

Amidst the swirling and multifaceted tensions, peace talks have stalled, risking devolution into a perfunctory exercise in political theater. And even as the humanitarian crisis has descended into famine, international attention has remained elsewhere — despite the deep British and American involvement in bolstering the operations of the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and military assistance.

For many in the West, it’s easy to write Yemen off as a perpetual den of anarchy; even many analysts of the country frequently cast it as a Game of Thrones-esque chessboard of bloodletting and intrigue. But regardless of whether international actors are able to wall off any sense of responsibility for the collapse of the country—which, it’s worth stressing, followed the unraveling of an internationally-hailed UN-led transitional period—the fact remains that it will be impossible to wall off the spillover from Yemen.

This is not just a matter of refugees making it to Europe’s shores—though a steady trickle of Yemenis have made their way to Athens and Salonica. In the medium to long term, Yemen’s lost generations represent a ticking time bomb: hundreds of thousands of children are growing up acutely malnourished, unable to attend school, growing up in a country with a moribund economy where the few easily accessible jobs come behind the barrel of a gun.

Europe thus has both a moral and a strategic imperative to act. On the most basic level, the means are obvious: renewed efforts must be taken to push key actors towards achieving a preliminary agreement towards a cessation of hostilities, while significant resources must be devoted to mitigating the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the country, in addition to supporting efforts to establish an independent, international inquiry into allegations of war crimes.

But going through the motions is not enough. It is imperative that diplomats incorporate parties outside of the formal peace talks—including Southern secessionists, tribal figures, local officials, militia leaders and politically independent youth, women and technocrats—into the larger process; recent meetings between Yemen-focused European diplomats and prominent Southern Movement leaders represent a key step in the right direction.

That being said, it is also crucial that efforts continue to preserve what remains of Yemen’s state institutions. Recent unilateral moves, including the Houthis’ decision to name a government and the internationally-recognized government’s decree to move the Central Bank to Aden, represent actions that, at best, serve to destabilize and further divide the country while scuttling any nascent peace efforts. 

Finally, it is essential that efforts to deliver aid work in tandem with local authorities. The provision of humanitarian aid represents a crucial opportunity to bolster the deeply diminished operational capacity of local authorities—even if all available efforts should be made to ameliorate the blockages that have strangled the country’s economy and to facilitate the return of normal shipping into the country.

Above all, work must be guided by an increasingly obvious – albeit inconvenient – fact: Yemen has changed irreparably. Rather than attempting to reverse the opening of Pandora’s box, it is time to grapple with Yemen’s new reality.

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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