Civil war in Yemen has dragged on for approximately three years with no end in sight. Forces loyal to Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have essentially fought the Iranian-backed Houthi opposition to a stalemate, while a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the country is ongoing. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations (ADDO) at the CIA who was stationed in Yemen for two years, to discuss battlefield dynamics in Yemen as well as prospects for peace.
The Cipher Brief: What is the current status of the battle between Houthi forces and government forces loyal to Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi?
Rob Richer: As background, my first assignment was in Yemen from 1985-1987 where the U.S. was supporting north Yemen against the communist government in the south. So I spent a lot of time in and out of Yemen over the years as the CIA’s Chief of the Middle East.
The situation today is basically a stalemate. Neither side has the ability to gain the upper hand, and there really is no popular leader. There are popular tribal leaders and there are popular people who represent movements such as the Houthis or the more conservative tribes, but for the most part, the war is bogged down. It’s become not so much a guerilla operation, but it’s been stymied by the lack of a popular internal presence that can actually galvanize popular support and hold ground.
If you look at the battle lines of today and compare them to six months ago, there is almost no change, because there are so many conflicting interests of the people involved – the Iranians are supporting people in the south and in other pockets of the country, al Qaeda has a pretty strong safe haven, elements of the Islamic front have a safe haven there as well, and there are also remnants of old Palestinian groups, which are no longer a threat but still maintain influence down there. It’s completely dysfunctional.
The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, thought he could go into Yemen with support from a small coalition and change the situation in a short period of time. But we’re now several years into that, and while there are still Saudi air strikes, Special Operations missions, and militia clashes, there has been no real change on the ground in the last six months. There is also no popular movement or coalition effort to try to either reach a political solution or a more overall military solution.
TCB: How much territory do each of these sides control?
Richer: They’ll all claim that they control more territory than they actually do. The best figures I have seen is that 25-30 percent of the country is lawlessness, which can be defined as being held by al Qaeda and other extremist groups who have no political affiliation except to their own agenda.
The Houthis will tell you that they own close to half of the country. Overall, I would say that it is probably closer to 25 percent of the territory is undecided, 25 percent belongs to radical groups, and a 30 percent/20 percent split between the Houthis and the legitimate government, with the Houthi opposition forces probably controlling slightly more.
But it’s important to understand how tribal loyalties work. One day a tribe is supporting one movement, but then they get paid off and support another movement. It’s been that way since the 1980s when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former de facto ruler of the country, controlled the capital Sana’a and nothing outside of it. So the current situation is in character with Yemen, where there basically has never been a strong central government that has been able to exert countrywide control. We are at that point today where there are four or five competing central governments.
TCB: We saw the country fall into civil war after Saleh left his post as leader of Yemen in 2012. Was there a certain level of unity when Saleh was in power?
Richer: Saleh’s forceful personality and interests helped unify Yemen in many people’s eyes and in many Yemenis’ eyes. His strong representation helped the military, which was good by third world standards. Once he acquired the south, he initially tried to rebuild the south. The south was less conservative then the north, and the Port of Eden was a great place that was starting to bring in tourism. So there was a period of time after reconciliation in 1990 when the central government was better positioned and actually probably had significant control of the country.
But that changed once the competing forces became involved. Historically, Yemen’s experienced outside forces dictated its behavior for years, whether it was the Egyptians at one point, or the Saudis. And the Saudis have always tried, particularly with the tribes in the north, to make Yemen a province or a territory of Saudi Arabia. They worry that Yemen is a soft underbelly for them along their border. The city of Sadah, which is in the northern part of Yemen, has been a major arms center for years, and the Saudis have been concerned that it would be a problem for them. Yemenis also represent a sizeable workforce in lower tier labor jobs in the Kingdom, and the Saudi leadership has always feared that they could be a threat to them if there was a government in Yemen that was contrary to their beliefs.
So there was a period of time where there was reconciliation under Saleh, and it looked like some progress was being made, tourism was picking up, U.S. and British interests were expanding, and shipping was coming in, but then competing interests and the usual tribal warfare broke the country down.
TCB: Is Iran providing weapons to the Houthis?
Richer: There have been ships and shipments of weapons that have been captured that have Iranian markings on them or that are of Iranian origin, so I would say that it is pretty conclusive that Iranian support is there.
TCB: Is there evidence indicating that Iranian soldiers are fighting directly alongside the Houthis?
Richer: There were reports of either Iranian surrogates or Iranians being killed in some of the fighting early on, but that has not been the case in the last year and a half. The Saudis, who of course see Iran as a problem no matter where, will say that the Iranians are on the ground providing support. However, I have not seen any hard evidence presented to an international body such as the UN that could make that determination. It’s hard to differentiate between what is true in that regard and what the Saudis use for propaganda purposes, because it’s important for them for everyone to see Iran as the biggest issue in the area.
TCB: How would you describe the humanitarian crisis on the ground?
Richer: At the best of times in Yemen, there is abject poverty, food shortages, almost no infrastructure, no electricity in many parts of the country, and a well-driven water supply. Now combine that with the fact that you don’t know who is in charge, since there is no central government, and assets are being allocated based on affiliation – mainly who is in charge and if you are seen as supporting who is in charge – and you have a very difficult situation.
It’s almost like what happened in Iraq when ISIS took over some of the city areas where if you weren’t supporting them, you were killed or you didn’t receive anything. In this case, it’s the same thing. The hospitals at the best of times were minimal, even in major cities. Now they’re destroyed, or they can’t get the supplies they need.
In many ways, it’s a disaster of epic levels by comparison to some of the things going on in the world. However, because it’s been going on for so long, it’s almost become a way of life.
There is disease, schools are closed, education is minimal, propagandists are having their way because when you are influencing people who have nothing, they will believe anyone who tells them they will give them something. So there is a population that is becoming more and more ideologically charged, looking for some answer to save them.
And people in Yemen can’t take care of their families. Yemenis have large families, much larger than some of the other Arab countries. Kids are dying young, and shipments are not going in there since there is no government that can pay for food and other supplies to come into the country accept on rare occasion.
So it’s a disaster of which not a whole lot is being reported on and which has not received a whole lot of focus, possibly because of every other humanitarian disaster in the world—from what’s going on in Burma with the Muslims there to the hurricanes, typhoons, and other disasters.
TCB: Has al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula taken advantage of the war to gain territory and become more prominent in Yemen?
Richer: Yes, and the reason being is that al Qaeda has money and has a proven network to bring stuff in. Al Qaeda understands it needs to do to win hearts and minds – they can do it by terror and intimidation – but they can also do it by providing services, not unlike what Iranians did in the wake of the U.S. ousting former Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein in 2003. The U.S. had no plan of what do after it won the war. Within a month, the Iranians – and I was Chief of the Middle East at the time – were creating hospitals and were helping to build schools in the southern part of Iraq. Because of that, they basically got complete influence from Nasiriyah southward all the way down to Basra in Iraq. The Iranians figured out that what comes next is important. We also need to know what comes next. No one seems to know what comes next in Yemen except that the Saudis want to somehow own Yemen and make it into their own model. That’s a problem.
TCB: Do you see the potential for a peace deal in the near future? What can the U.S. and the international community do to help resolve the crisis in Yemen?
Richer: I don’t see reconciliation coming soon. Knowing the players there and knowing the history of Yemen – they respect a strongman as a leader– there is currently no individual who can fill that role and put everyone else behind him.
Number two, I don’t believe the Saudis have any intention of allowing an independent and cohesive Yemen. Unless they can put their person under their thumbprint, I don’t believe their interests align with an independent and cohesive Yemen.
Third, the U.S., except for its Special Operations considerations and targeting terrorists, doesn’t really care about the situation in Yemen, particularly with this administration.
Unfortunately, Yemen has been the bastard stepchild of the Middle East for the last 50 years. It’s a country that is remote, and no one is really interested in it. When was the last time you heard this administration, the UK, or Saudi internal dialogue talk about Yemen?
If the Saudis really thought that they needed to go into Yemen and make a huge change, why haven’t they committed real ground forces there? Why hasn’t the United Arab Emirates committed real ground forces? It’s been proven by history that change doesn’t work by the Green Beret type efforts. So what’s their intent? If the Saudis are talking about the need to bring the country together and defeat Iran, terrorists, and whoever else, why are they doing it in basically a milquetoast manner? Why aren’t they putting their assets behind their words? And I don’t see the Saudis beating drums anywhere for a stronger coalition, and I don’t see anyone else interested in that coalition.