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Yemen risks dissolving into 'chaos state' of mini-wars and extremism

Think tank report says UN peace efforts do not address nexus of local rivalries that could spark series of small wars after national conflict ends
Anti-Houthi fighters in Taiz are not necessarily pro-Hadi, the report says (AFP)

International attempts to end Yemen’s civil conflict are too simplistic and any agreement struck would lead to the "big war" dissolving into a series of mini-conflicts and push the country toward a "chaos state" defined by little more than its borders, a hard-hitting report has said.

The report, published on Wednesday by the Chatham House think tank, said a UN-led peace process is modelled on solving a conflict between two distinct coalitions, and is not structured to reflect Yemen's underlying nexus of local history, tribal grievances and internecine rivalries.

"Yemen: Stemming the rise of a chaos state", says it would be a “dangerous folly” to maintain “the illusion” that the Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi, and his Houthi rebel opponents represent the full spectrum of competing interests in Yemen.

And it warned that those most likely to gain from spiralling chaos were groups including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State (IS) group.

The warning came as representatives from the Hadi and Houthi blocs continue to discuss a UN-backed peace process in Kuwait, which so far has failed to produce any meaningful results.

However, the Chatham House report stated that any agreement made would address nothing more than “elite-level” interests, risking a situation where Yemen descends into a series of local wars as factions, parties and tribes vie for power.

Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islah party, loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, southern secessionists, Salafis, northern tribesmen, and the Zaidi Houthis all have their own particular agendas which, left unaddressed, would probably result in more localised wars.

“There is broad consensus... that the only way the conflict can be brought to a sustainable end is through political mediation,” the report said.

"Failure to expand representation... will almost certainly lead to renewed hostilities at a local level that could push Yemen a step closer to becoming a ‘chaos state’ – a country defined by little more than its borders, in which complex regional conflicts are deepened and prolonged by the interests and actions of external players.”

The civil war, it said, was “sharpening or calcifying pre-existing divisions and turning hitherto largely unimportant differences into serious rifts, a series of competing narratives of victimhood that will need to be addressed”.

“In the event of an end to the ‘big war’, a replication of past patterns of behaviour – focusing on the dynamics and ignoring localised issues – will most likely result in Yemen collapsing into a multitude of small wars,” the report added.

The study reiterated reporting by Middle East Eye that tensions are rife among the anti-Houthi bloc, where many do not even want Hadi as president. Ties among those supporting the Houthis, such as the loyalists to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who himself is a former enemy of the Houthis, could easily break down.

“Groups taking part in the civil war are routinely oversimplified to ‘pro-Hadi’ and ‘pro-Houthi’... The reality is that most Yemenis do not support either the president or the northern [Houthi] rebels; rather they are part of much smaller groups with their own identity, ideology, grievances and political goals, from secessionists in the south to Salafis in Taiz and Aden and tribal leaders in the north."

The report said the Kuwait peace process was repeating the mistakes made in the “national transition” process which began after the 2011 revolution against Saleh, and ended in 2014 when the Houthis kicked his replacement Hadi out of the capital, Sanaa, and ultimately led to the civil war and the entry of Saudi Arabia last year.

“The ultimate collapse of the transition was due in no small part to the failure of its backers to address basic grievances at both national and local level,” it said. A repeat of that process “cannot be countenanced”, it added.

“The diverse array of groups that emerged in opposition to the Houthi-Saleh alliance did not... perceive themselves as a unified resistance movement but as local identity groups protecting their areas from incursions of the ‘highlander’ or ‘northern’ Houthi-Saleh alliance. There was no... sense that the anti-Houthi groups would fight on behalf of President Hadi."

The report said that as a result of the civil war there were “emerging spheres of influence” in Yemen, from the northwest highlands of the Houthi-Saleh alliance, tribes in the central north aligned with the current vice president Ali Mohsin, Islah and Salafi militias in Taiz, al-Qaeda elements in Hadramawt and secessionists in Aden.

Those who have gained most, it said, were al-Qaeda and IS. Al-Qaeda, it added, was already “one of the biggest winners from the war, expanding territorially while continuing the process of rebranding itself as a local alternative to the Hadi government or the Houthis”.

Concluding, the report said a three-track process was needed to ensure long-lasting peace: an international mediation process that acknowledges the role of the Saudi-led coalition, a peace process between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Hadi government, and a “broader political dialogue” involving all key local groups that have a stake in Yemen’s future.

“The international community should not abandon the current top-down approach but rather should recognise the importance of pairing the high-level... with a meaningful grassroots approach aimed at understanding and addressing local grievances.

"The Arab world’s poorest country is on the verge of collapse, and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world has the potential to deepen even further as the country descends into even bloodier, ever more complex war.

“Yemen may not be a Western policy priority today but if it is allowed to descend into deeper chaos the humanitarian crisis and the rise of jihadist groups will eventually force it further up the international agenda.”