A new North Yemen civil war in the making?
The dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which now includes a cholera outbreak, has again led to multiple calls for a negotiated solution to the war. The UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has been carrying out demarches to resume yet another round of peace negotiations.
A crucial assumption that seems to underpin the broader international expectations about Yemen’s predicament is that a halt to the Arab coalition’s military intervention would almost inevitably de-escalate things and lead to a permanent settlement to the conflict. That assumption, based on a very simplistic take on the war, is highly questionable.
With about 60 percent of the population (roughly 17 million people) in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the UN-led approach has naturally focused on reaching a cease-fire agreement. The prioritization of the humanitarian dimension includes an attempt to avoid a battle over the port of Hodeidah, today arguably Yemen’s most important port and the entry for the overwhelming majority of imports to the north.
The UN-led plan to achieve a broader settlement would then move on to two key goals. One is an arrangement between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the alliance between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi militias’ leadership to end the fighting.
The other, overlapping goal is to obtain the political and security guarantees that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the other members of the Arab coalition are looking for before scaling back their military involvement in support of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
Although it may be the most visible aspect of the war, the coalition’s intervention is only one layer of a far more complex crisis that would more accurately be described as a handful of intersecting conflicts, with roots in Yemen’s modern history. These conflicts and their aftermath explain much of the present ordeal.
North Yemen’s civil war (1962-1970), which saw the army-led republicans defeat the royalists, paved the way to the rise of Saleh, who plundered Yemen for 33 years and then spread chaos when forced to leave the post.
His actions while in power, including amassing billions of dollars in foreign bank accounts, reinforced feelings of disaffection and neglect across the Arab world’s poorest country. The consequences are all too evident today in the strong southern separatist movement, but also in Taiz, where the local flag has been raised, and in Hadhramaut, where autonomy from both north and south is becoming a reality.
The republicans’ victory in the North Yemen civil war also generated a deep feeling of injustice among the proponents of a Zaidi imamate in the north — which was the reality there for centuries — and fed the Zaidi revivalism that is so patent among the Houthi leadership today.
The rising tensions between Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress and the Houthis offer some hope that the improbable alliance that triggered Yemen’s existential crisis is one step closer to breaking point.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Another conflict, the short civil war of 1994 between northerners and southerners, left deep scars in the south. The imposition of the northerners’ terms and the neglect of the south led to a southern secessionist movement that is gaining unprecedented momentum. Only a few days ago, a few former Yemeni officials announced the formation of a Transitional Political Council to manage and represent the southern provinces at home and abroad.
Then the six Saada wars (2004-2010), which opposed the Houthis to the Yemeni Army loyal to Saleh, were a crucial chapter in the story of the Houthi movement, the battle-hardened Zaidi revivalist group at the epicenter of Yemen’s current crisis. Coupled with Iranian proselytization, the wars against Saleh’s forces decisively radicalized the Houthi leadership and their followers.
The current crisis has amplified many of these unresolved grievances that in turn render it extremely difficult to resolve. But in its essence, this crisis is about the predatory ambitions of centralized power and territorial control of both sides of the improbable Houthi-Saleh alliance.
Tellingly, all other Yemeni factions who oppose it endorsed the federation proposal that emerged from the National Dialogue Conference, an imperfect but by far the most promising way forward.
A premature withdrawal of Arab coalition forces would most likely mean the perpetuation of a conflict that no faction can win, the permanent fragmentation of Yemen and a doomsday economic scenario. It would remove the main element of pressure on the Houthi-Saleh alliance, which has time and again prioritized the military option.
Saleh’s most recent attempt to reach out to Saudi Arabia is yet another indication that he is likely to turn against the Houthis when the time is right. The rising tensions between Saleh’s General People’s Congress and the Houthis offer some hope that the improbable alliance that triggered Yemen’s existential crisis is one step closer to breaking point.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on