Politics: The New Battlefront in Yemen's Civil War

5 MINS READApr 8, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
Political Battles Take Shape in Yemen
Placards with images of Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, at a March 26 rally in Sanaa show the depth of support he still enjoys years after he left office.

The chaotic political situation in Yemen is no more settled today than it was five years ago, when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned, compelled by protest and nursing serious injuries from an assassin's bomb. The transitional government that replaced his administration never put down deep roots, and Saleh's influence never truly dissipated. Now that peace talks are set to start April 18 in Kuwait in an effort to end a yearlong civil war, political maneuvering in the country is underway in earnest once again.

Saleh's rule was shaken in March 2011, when 150,000 protesters inspired by Arab Spring uprisings across the region coalesced from various opposition groups to demand his resignation. Around the same time, Saleh's backing from the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states evaporated. But it took an assassination attempt to remove Yemen's president from Sanaa. After convalescing in Saudi Arabia for several months, Saleh eventually signed a GCC-brokered agreement to resign.

Five years later, another March rally took place — this time organized by Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party. At the rally, 70,000 protesters condemned the war that began as a Saudi-led effort to oust Shiite Houthi rebels — who have been at war with Yemen's government sporadically since 2004 — from the capital. On the day of that rally, Saleh, who has opposed current President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and his Saudi backers, gave his first public speech in Yemen since the conflict erupted. Afterward, he rode through Sanaa and greeted citizens, having met with the country's tribal leaders at his estate over previous weeks. Despite his battered credibility and the risk of renewed exile from Yemen as part of a political transition to end the fighting, Saleh clearly retains a sizeable support base. But this is due more to a perceived lack of viable options among Yemenis who dislike Hadi — whom they consider complicit in the Saudi coalition's enduring bombing campaign — than to deep support for Saleh.

Reorganizing the Government

Facing political challenges of his own, Hadi has shuffled the country's leadership in an effort to shore up his position (and that of his most important backer, Saudi Arabia) as the peace talks approach. On April 3, he demoted Khaled Bahah, who held the offices of both vice president and prime minister, to an advisory role. Hadi justified his decision by citing multiple failures on Bahah's part. The next day, Bahah charged that his dismissal violates Yemen's Constitution. This suggests that Bahah will not take his firing quietly, which could lead to more political infighting. Bahah also has connections to the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi coalition partner, which affords him some influence. 

In Bahah's stead, Hadi named former General People's Congress official Ahmed bin Dagher as prime minister and Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as vice president, a move designed to reinforce political support on two fronts. Al-Ahmar, a general under Saleh until the 2011 revolution, co-founded the conservative Islah party, Yemen's Saudi-supported Muslim Brotherhood branch, and has links to Wahhabi leaders in Saudi Arabia. As a northerner, however, al-Ahmar's reclamation of valuable territory in the south of Yemen has antagonized southern tribes. Bin Dagher, on the other hand, may have been chosen in an effort to gain support among Saleh's party stalwarts. Despite Hadi's likely hopes for a southerner such as bin Dagher to build ties with the Southern Resistance movement, however, al-Ahmar's unpopularity in the south likely negates any potential benefit bin Dagher could offer.

The leadership shuffle may ultimately reduce the influence of the UAE and the Southern Resistance going forward. Bahah had developed ties with Emirati leaders and his removal from power could limit the UAE's ability to shape Yemen's future in the peace talks. Bahah is highly regarded by the Southern Resistance, too, and his attempts to distance himself from Hadi may enhance his popularity among the group. Even so, Maj. Gen. Nasser al-Nubia, a prominent leader in the Southern Resistance, has expressed support for Bahah's replacements.

However, this should not be mistaken for full support from the Southern Resistance: The movement is composed of many factions, each with differing visions of what Yemen's optimal future would look like. Al-Nubia's approval instead reflects an understanding that his forces will need cooperation from Yemen's leadership as they continue to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). At the same time, they will also rely on ties with more powerful external parties such as the United States, United Kingdom and the GCC, all of which back Hadi.

Underlying Struggles

Underlying the commotion of Saleh's post-Arab Spring ouster are political rivalries that have never settled, leaving a weak and fractured political landscape that has enabled outside powers to intervene. While elements of the Yemeni military remain loyal to Saleh, the Islah party and one of its more powerful mouthpieces, al-Ahmar, are now in a position of control. Moreover, the conflict in Yemen has exposed delicate tensions between GCC members of the coalition. Even though they are united in a common fight against Saleh, the Houthis and various militant groups, the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not necessarily have the same goals for a postwar Yemen.

The UAE, which has lost more troops to the Yemen conflict than any other campaign in Abu Dhabi's history, wants to ensure that its sacrifice is worthwhile. While UAE leaders are sure to be upset by Bahah's dismissal and will be mistrustful of al-Ahmar's appointment, Abu Dhabi is cautiously accepting of the new vice president. Meanwhile, the connection between Iran and the Southern Resistance faction known as Hirak will be of future concern to Saudi Arabia. More Hirak military leaders have trained in Iran — Saudi Arabia's archrival — than Houthi rebels, which had already drawn Saudi concern. For their part, the Houthis, whose insurgency against Hadi brought in the Saudi coalition, have expressed support for a cease-fire set to begin April 10.

One possible result of the Kuwait peace talks could be a new GCC-backed federalist plan for Yemen. But if enough Hirak leaders, and their vocal southern Yemeni support base, feel that a federalist solution will not meet their needs, they could once again turn to Iran for support. The Saudis, along with GCC and Western interests, also do not want the Hirak forces and other southerners to take up with the resurgent AQAP or Islamic State movements that are active in southern Yemen. As Yemen's turbulent history and the country's various factions attest, a peace negotiation unfurled in Kuwait may end the Saudi coalition's campaign, but it will not necessarily bring lasting peace to the country. 

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