Challenging Binary War Narrative Key to Ending Hostilities in Yemen

Displaced Yemenis from areas near the border with Saudi Arabia sit amid World Food Programme (WFP) food aid in the northern district of Abs in the country's Hajjah province, on July 8, 2019. (ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has scaled back its military presence in Yemen, apparently in coordination with Saudi Arabia. Coverage of the UAE’s decision has largely been analyzed in terms of its impact on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict and regional tensions with Iran. This is in line with the general framing of the Yemeni conflict: a regional power struggle between Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Recent public comments by the former foreign minister of Yemen, Khaled Alyemany, underscore this fact, as he referred to the civil war as a fight for freedom against Iran. Framing the crisis in Yemen solely in binary terms, however, does not do justice to the complexities of Yemeni society and the situation on the ground, and inhibits efforts to end the conflict and build peace.

Yemeni Politics and Society

Current hostilities aside, Yemen has long been a country with unstable social, political, and economic environments. Though briefly hailed as a success story during the Arab Spring, the country quickly slipped into chaos as the new leadership failed to consolidate its power and implement necessary changes—the recurring nature of which has haunted Yemen for over six decades.

Today, there are at least four interconnected but separate zones of ongoing conflict in Yemen: the war in the north between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition; the struggle for succession in the South; the southeastern conflict against scattered militant Islamists from the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and the battles for Taiz and the port of Hodeidah. Each arena of conflict has its own adversaries, strategies, and goals, highlighting that the experience and challenges of the war are not homogenous, and that going forward, the solutions will not be uniform either.

Though Yemenis have come together on several occasions to navigate these challenges—whether in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative in 2011, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013, or the most recent Stockholm agreement of 2018—the lack of political will and institutional capacity to effectively implement plans has led to the systemic collapse of the Yemeni economy and state infrastructure, resulting in a dangerous cycle of unending violence and political upheaval.

The troubling persistence of the binary narrative of the conflict perpetuates ineffective approaches. Strategic positioning fixated on Iran as the only “bad actor” in the conflict only serves to undermine the complex dynamics of the crisis, but also shifts the responsibility of the conflict away from the Yemeni leadership. Though it seems like an easy way out, this is ultimately exacerbating tensions and violence in the country, opening up space for countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States to pursue their own interests in the region, at Yemen’s expense.

Saudi Arabia in Yemen

The professed goals of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen are in line with United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, which calls on the support of Arab countries “by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention” and notes the “authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen” against aggression by Houthi insurgents. However, the Saudis also represent the Sunni alliance against Iranian influence in the region, who fear the rise of the Houthis—who are Shia—as they gain control over Yemeni territory. Propagating the singular-war-against-belligerent-Iran narrative serves this interest well, as it gives the Saudi’s enough leverage to use it as a justification for continued intervention in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has not shied away from expressing concerns about the rise of its biggest rival in its own backyard. As an important leader of the Muslim world by virtue of being the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the success of the country’s campaign to demonize the Islamic Republic of Iran remains to be seen, however, it has provided ample opportunity for its allies like the US to further exploit tensions with Tehran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently condemned Iran and its surrogates for unprovoked attacks on American and allied interests, referring to the recent attack by the Houthis at Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia. He has vigorously pursued building a global coalition comprising Saudi Arabia, the US, UAE, and Asian and European allies to counter Iran, including a recent push in the Middle East. Violence in Yemen has only escalated since then, as Saudi Arabia launched air attacks against Houthi rebel forces in Sana’a, who then responded with renewed drone attacks in Abha and Jizan.

If tensions continue to rise, these quid pro quo attacks could continue to produce disastrous ripple effects both in Yemen and in the broader region, particularly given the escalating standoff between Iran and the US. Should the narrative persist and the Yemeni government follow suit, the likelihood of Saudi Arabia stepping down and ceasing hostilities seems unlikely. This will only trigger increased violence and regional instability, and produce the exact opposite of its intended result: a more influential Iran. Up to now, Tehran’s role in Yemen’s affairs has been marginal, especially in comparison to other GCC states. The war in Yemen is a low-cost high dividend scenario for Iran; a simple way to make its biggest rival uneasy. Furthermore, continued foreign intervention by all actors will leave no room for Yemenis to make peace among themselves.

An additional risk is that of conflating Houthi and Iranian interests, which is problematic given the limited influence of Iran on Houthi tactics. Though Iran has provided overt military and technical support to the group, it was not the puppet master behind the rise of the Houthi movement. Both groups follow separate branches of Shia Islam, and cooperation is apparently largely based on political ambition than religious beliefs. It is important to consider these facts in any diplomatic engagement to build confidence among the Houthis that their interests and concerns are not being overlooked.

Road to Peace

The road to peace for Yemen will be long and arduous, but the only way to ensure its sustainability is to first recognize the crisis for what it truly is: a web of deeply fragmented religious, political, and socio-economic dynamics that are further complicated by a multitude of local, regional, and international actors. There is no single problem to confront, and therefore, no single straightforward solution.

Fixating on Iran as the only ill-intentioned actor will prove counterproductive, as it could provoke further tensions in the region and exacerbate what is already an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. It could also encourage continued foreign intervention in Yemen, which will neither create an environment conducive to comprehensive and inclusive peace agreements, nor address the deeply-rooted issues that have plagued Yemeni society for decades. Unsurprisingly, Yemeni people are the only ones bearing the grave consequences of this faulty approach. Not Iran. Not Saudi Arabia.

Local, regional, and international leaders must understand these dynamics to be able to carve a sustainable road to peace. The situation in Yemen is a mosaic of various causes and effects that has proven largely impervious to conventional, template-driven solutions. The implementation of exhaustive measures is needed to address the crisis, but it will only be possible through a thorough and comprehensive grasp and analysis of the conflict itself, and the development of institutional capacity by the Yemeni government to push for necessary reforms.

This means that the primary onus of addressing these challenges lies in the hands of the Yemeni government. International involvement has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and if the Yemeni leadership continues on the same path, the biggest losers will be the millions of Yemeni civilians, many of whom may never know peace.

Janhavi Apte is a protection of civilians and humanitarian affairs intern at the International Peace Institute (IPI).