Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining Yemen’s troubled political transition.
“At present, the conflict appears to be settling into a cycle of violence followed by periods of fragile peace, in which combatants plan for new confrontation,” April Longley Alley, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula.
In its latest report, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, the International Crisis Group examines the shifting power balance in north Yemen at a sensitive moment in the country’s transition.
The Huthis, arguably the biggest winners from the 2011 uprising against former President Saleh, successfully capitalised on state weakness and widespread frustration with old-regime elites to expand their political influence and territorial control. While their politicians participated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and support the political transition, their fighters continue to combat rival groups. An escalation threatens to draw the state into a prolonged conflict, imperilling national institutions and undermining the nascent political consensus.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- Renewed violence could significantly disrupt Yemen’s political roadmap. Amid deteriorating security and a dire economic situation, the state has to draft a new constitution and prepare parliamentary and presidential elections for 2015. The NDC, completed in January, produced a blueprint for reform, but it lacks specificity and broad consensus around key elements, such as federal borders.
- Fighting between Huthis and their allies, including tribesmen aligned with Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC), and their opponents – the Ahmar family, Yemeni army elements aligned with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Salafi fighters, and tribesmen affiliated with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah – threatens a prolonged conflict that could stall or upend the transition.
- A compromise that secures each camp’s core interests is possible, but negotiating the details will be difficult. The priority now should be securing a general ceasefire and transforming a military confrontation into political negotiations to reach a peace deal based on NDC conclusions.
Such negotiations must include Huthi leaders as well as representatives of other main stakeholders: the GPC, Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Three elements are critical: 1) a national and local power-sharing deal that brings Huthis into the consensus government until the elections; 2) a gradual disarmament plan, including oversight mechanisms, that applies to all non-state actors; and 3) guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activity.
According to Longley Alley, “Without basic agreement on political inclusion, all sides are likely to adhere to maximalist positions, enhance their military readiness and refuse to relinquish weapons”.
“Further government military intervention almost certainly would complicate and expand the conflict”, says Robert Blecher, Acting Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “That would be an outcome the country can ill afford. The combination of renewed fighting in the north, a continued campaign against al-Qaeda and a fiscal crisis may be more than the government can bear”.