Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page iv
If history has left scars, the war aggravated them. The destruction of entire villages and infrastructure by army shelling, air bombardment and indiscriminate military and police violence exacerbated grievances among not only Hashemites generally and Zaydi revivalists in particular but, more broadly, civilians in all northern governorates. The rebels fuel anger by brutal acts, looting and kidnapping. Growing involvement of tribal militias beside government or rebel forces further inflames the conflict and contributes to its endurance. Competing tribes and their leaders vie for positions and resources; as some groups are marginalised, others receive government help in exchange for fighting the insurgents.
The conflict has become self-perpetuating, giving rise to a war economy as tribes, army officers and state officials have seized the opportunity to control the porous border with Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea coastline. Tribal leaders and senior officials have amassed military hardware and profit from illegal sales of army stockpiles. Continued operations have justified increased military budgets without government or independent oversight. As competition over resources intensified, the benefits of war exceeded its drawbacks – at least for the elites involved.
With only some exceptions, the international community has not recognised the Saada conflict’s destabilising potential or pressured the government to shift course. That is partly related to the West’s single-minded focus on Yemen’s struggle with al-Qaeda and the regime’s adroit portrayal of the Huthis as a subset of the so-called war on terror. It also is related to the regime’s denial of access to Saada to many if not most governments and humanitarian agencies.
Fighting ebbed as the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in July 2008. But it is far more likely a pause than an end. Observers and actors alike expect new violence; early months of this year already have witnessed recurrent localised fighting. There is no clear agreement between parties, accumulated grievances remain largely unaddressed, tensions run high, skirmishes persist and few principal belligerents appear willing to compromise. Internal mediation has repeatedly failed, as did Qatar’s well-intentioned endeavour.
But renewed war is not preordained. Local, national and international actors can do much to set the stage for durable peace. There is every reason to proactively intervene before more damage is done and to build on core Yemeni assets: a tradition of compromise between political, social and religious groups and the state’s tendency to coopt ex-foes. International help
should be multilateral, involving Western and regional countries ready to exert diplomatic pressure, mediate and, most importantly, pledge reconstruction assistance as an incentive for peace. In duration and intensity, destruction, casualties, sectarian stigmatisation and regional dimension, the Saada conflict stands apart from other violent episodes in Yemen. It will need more than run-of-the-mill domestic and international efforts to end it.
To the Government of Yemen and rebel leaders:
Take immediate steps to prevent renewed warfare by:
engaging in direct talks;
agreeing to a mediation and reconstruction committee comprising government officials, rebel representatives and international actors (such as donor governments and international organisations);
assisting in the safe return of those displaced during the war; and
granting access to war-affected regions to diplomats, journalists, and humanitarian and human rights organisations.
To the Government of Yemen:
Address population and rebel grievances by:
conducting a damage survey in war-affected areas with the assistance of independent national and international experts to facilitate compensation and reconstruction;
jump-starting development in Saada governorate and other war-affected zones;
halting recruitment and deployment of tribal or other militias; and
releasing persons detained in the context of the war, declaring an amnesty for insurgents and halting summary detentions of journalists, human rights activists and independent researchers.
Reduce sectarian and other social tensions by:
promoting and facilitating inter-sectarian dialogue and exchange, including by fostering Zaydi participation in public debate; and