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From Stockholm to Hodeidah, Yemen’s Proxy War

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In recent days, dozens of people were killed in main port of Hodeidah[1], despite the UN’s call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Yemen’s civil war seems to have reached stalemate as the sides are unable to open dialogue.

In another development, at the beginning of October, hundreds of Sudanese soldiers[2] entered Saudi Arabia en route to Yemen, increasing Khartoum’s role in the region.

For years, Yemen has been the battleground for proxy military engagement between external stakeholders, leading to a dreadful humanitarian tragedy.

The national Yemeni Army battles alongside the Southern Transitional Council (STC) loyalist militias against the Houthis. In a fragmented public space with deep social, religious, and tribal cleavages, this military standoff is complemented by the presence of state-sponsored and largely institutionalised militias.

The objective of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Yemen is still to secure a total military victory and install a regime with interests aligned to those of Riyadh. To bring this objective to fruition, the Saudis have formed an international military coalition, the Saudi Airforce is deployed, and billions have been invested[3] in ammunition, military systems, and mercenaries.

The most significant partner of the Saudis is the Emiratis, who have not always seen eye-to-eye in the region. One point of friction is which anti-Houthi militants should be supported.

Most anti-Houthi militants, politicians, and activists are from Salafi groups, whom Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is content to support. The same groups are explicit enemies of the UAE, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, supports groups that have allied with Iran.

Extremism Thrives

The biggest beneficiaries[4] of Saudi support have been al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked militias.

The KSA's strategy is to avoid sending ground troops, engaging mainly its Air Force, supplying anti-Houthi militias on the ground with air-drop weapons, supplies and money. Many of these militias are al-Qaeda affiliated, fighting the Houthis in Yemen’s central provinces of Aden, Abyan, Shabwah, Mareb, and Taiz. Saudi Arabia has also indirectly supported al Qaeda’s efforts by allowing them to consolidate territorial control over other regions.

Has the Stockholm Agreement failed to evolve?

The Stockholm Agreement[5] was signed in December 2018 by the official Yemeni government and the Houthis. Negotiations had started two years earlier in Kuwait, focusing on reaching an agreement on several major issues to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Background of the civil war

The UAE has contributed more than 15,000 soldiers and carried out more than 130,000 sorties. But on February 8th, the UAE announced their complete withdrawal[6] from the coalition.

Sudan deployed 40,000 troops in early 2017. As of January 2020, the number had fallen to 657. Almost two weeks ago 1,018 Sudanese army officers and soldiers entered Saudi Arabia, heading south to support their troops. The optimistic scenario is that they will organise a departure.

Yemeni government forces, with the support of the Arab Coalition, control its stronghold of Marib[7] province, most of the southeastern provinces, and parts of the southwestern governorate of Taiz.

Meanwhile, the Houthis control the capital Sana'a[8], the northern governorates (including al-Jawf along the Saudi border), and the rest of Taiz. The Houthis are also closing in on Marib from three sides: east from Nihem, south from Sarwah, and north from al-Jawf.

The Southern Transitional Council[9] controls the interim capital of Aden and the adjacent governorates, Lahij and Dalea, share control with the national army over the governorate of Abyan, east of Aden.

The fourth force is Tariq Saleh’s National Resistance, whose influence stretches across western Yemen between Mokha and Hodeidah, the latter of which is shared with the Houthis.

 

 

[1] Patrick Wintour (2020). Saudi-led forces launch airstrikes on Yemeni city of Hodeidah. [Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/20/saudi-led-forces-launch-airstrikes-on-yemen-city-hodeidah. [Accessed 29 Sept. 2020].

[2] Middle East Eye Staff (2020). Sudan sending hundreds of troops to Yemen via Saudi Arabia. [Online] Middle East Eye. Available at: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/sudan-yemen-sending-hundreds-troops-saudi-arabia. [Accessed 10 Oct. 2020].

[3] Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Mohamed Abo El Gheit and Laura Smith-Spark (2019). Sold to an ally, lost to an enemy. [Online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/02/middleeast/yemen-lost-us-arms/. [Accessed 10 Oct. 2020].

[4] US Department of State (2019). Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Yemen. [Online] Bureau of Counterterrorism. Available at: https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/yemen/. [Accessed 17 Oct. 2020].

[5] Peter Salisbury (2018). What does the Stockholm agreement mean for Yemen? [Online] CNN. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/12/21/what-does-the-stockholm-agreement-mean-for-yemen/. [Accessed 17 Oct. 2020].

[6] BBC Staff (2020). Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? [Online] BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].

[7] Bethan McKernan (2020). Clashing UAE and Saudi interests are keeping the Yemen conflict alive. [Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/clashing-uae-and-saudi-interests-are-keeping-the-yemen-conflict-alive. [Accessed 15 Sept. 2020].

[8] Reuters Staff (2020). Air strikes hit Houthi-held Yemeni capital Sanaa: witnesses. [Online] Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-idUSKBN21H1GY. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].

[9] Al Jazeera Staff (2020). Yemen: What is the Southern Transitional Council? [Online] Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/4/26/yemen-what-is-the-southern-transitional-council. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].