Recent gains by the Saudi-led military campaign to restore control of Yemen to the government of President Abed-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have opened a new chapter in that country’s ruinous civil war, but whether the new balance of forces leads to a political solution or a hard partition of the long-suffering country depends on the choices of leaders on both sides.
Almost 100 days after it began, the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm claimed an important breakthrough last week, forcing the alliance between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to withdraw from a number of key sites — most important among them, the port city of Aden.
That has allowed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to move his office from Riyadh to Aden, placing the Yemeni government on the ground among its supporters and no longer trying to rule from exile. The Saudi-led coalition has already started landing at Aden’s airport, and supplying heavier weaponry to Hadi’s forces to strengthen their grip on the city.
At the same time, Houthi-Saleh forces are in retreat elsewhere in the South, losing control of the provinces of Lahaj, Abyan and most of Shabwa. With the major Southern city of Ibb now under siege, the Houthi-Saleh alliance could lose control of most of southern Yemen in the not too distant future.
Even then, that’s no reason to expect that a collapse of the Houthi-Saleh forces is imminent. The Houthis do not enjoy public support in the South, and some of the movement’s leaders have begun to recognize that seizing military control there was a strategic mistake. But retreating to the north would once again base the Houthi forces among their supporters, and they would not face the same logistical challenges as they do in the south. For Saleh, the battle will be an existential one, and the north would be his last stand.
Driving the Houthis and Saleh’s forces from their entrenched positions in the capital, Sanaa, would represent a major challenge for the Saudi-led coalition — and would risk a massive civilian casualty toll. Saleh’s security units have been present there for decades, and the Houthis invested heavily in cementing their grip on the capital after the 2011 revolution.
So, despite its remarkable progress on the ground, Hadi’s camp remains no more capable than its Saleh-Houthi adversary is of delivering a decisive military solution. Still, the Houthi-Saleh forces’ ouster from Aden has considerably shifted the power equation on the ground. With Houthi control of key cities and sites in the south having been reversed, the new balance of forces presents both sides with a new opportunity to broker a political settlement.
The new military situation has created a balance of power missing since the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014 without resistance. Their dominance of the political scene—with a foe on the run in Riyadh—left no incentive for the Houthis to seriously negotiate, much less to compromise. It was no surprise that the Houthi commander, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, publicly announced after the recent loss of Aden that he is open to a political solution to crisis. He said it was “within reach and possible” and that “any efforts or attempts in this regard from any non-biased Arab or international sides” were welcome.
Yemen has a history of achieving political settlements to military conflicts when power is balanced. What prevented the 2011 rebellion against Saleh from sliding into violence and a crackdown against protestors was the fact that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar—commander of the northwestern military district and the 1st Armored Division—defected and joined the revolution, forming a serious counterbalance to Saleh’s security units, such as the Republican Guards. Both Saleh and al-Ahmar feared a major military confrontation with an unpredictable outcome. Eventually, the resulting 11-month stalemate led to a political settlement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that became the framework for Yemen’s entire political transition.
As long as they were in Riyadh with little leverage on the ground, Hadi and his folks were not in a position to extract concessions from the Houthis at the negotiating table. Now, the stakes are different. Hadi can dictate an outcome in the south, while the Houthis are no longer able to impose their will by force. Such an equilibrium establishes a foundation for a political settlement — if there’s political will on both sides to avoid another long-term partition or a Libya-style descent into chaos.
Hadi’s forces may not be able to defeat the Houthis in their northern strongholds, while the Houthis may find that cities from which they were driven in battle—such as Aden—have become permanently hostile to their presence. (They can reconcile with cities they withdraw from voluntarily or through a political settlement, but to retreat under fire will cost them dearly now and in the future.) For the Houthis, there’s also a danger of a far wider military setbacks, particularly if Saleh makes a deal of some sort—always a possibility—and leaves them isolated.
The prospect of a political settlement potentially offers an honorable exit to both Hadi and the Houthis, now that they’ve reached a point of power symmetry. And Hadi’s ability to rebuild and govern Yemen may depend on his ability to draw the Houthis into a new political compact. That’s a possibility that has arisen from recent developments on the battlefield, but it might be short-lived if either side remains convinced it can prevail through arms.