As the Saudi intervention in the conflict in Yemen enters its second year, there is reason for some optimism that an end to the hostilities may be near. The government in Riyadh and its Houthi adversaries have engaged in direct talks, and a cease-fire and another round of U.N.-sponsored negotiations are scheduled for April 10 and 18, respectively. Yet, because of the wide range of internal dynamics and grievances as well as the number of local and regional actors involved and their respective agendas, Yemen risks seeing the “big war” ended only for the country to be consumed by a series of complex “small wars” that are open to exploitation by both domestic and regional actors. Structuring a peace process that takes these elements into account will be integral to its long-term viability.
In an attempt to identify and understand the multiple, and often competing, forces at work in Yemen, Chatham House commissioned a report scheduled for release in mid-April. In advance of its release, AGSIW was pleased to present the report’s author, Peter Salisbury, and a panel of Yemen experts for a discussion of its findings and recommendations.
Peter Salisbury, Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Katherine Zimmerman, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Mohammad Al-Shami, Independent Policy Analyst from Yemen
Ambassador Stephen A. Seche, Executive Vice President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (Moderator)
Peter Salisbury began by briefly outlining Chatham House’s upcoming report, “Yemen: Corruption, Capital Flight and Global Drivers of Conflict,” to provide audience members with an understanding of the dynamics on the ground. He addressed many of the political issues in Yemen; power is widely dispersed where a variety of national interests, agendas, and grievances clash, leading to a misunderstanding of the current power structure in Yemen. Salisbury explained that a core driver of what occurred after 2011 was not a question of state legitimacy, but a fear of the state collapsing and a civil war between the two main powers, creating a safe haven for groups such as al-Qaeda to operate. Salisbury highlighted the “internationalization of the conflict” – a major shift that has changed realities on the ground. He believes that local autonomy will not be discussed in upcoming peace talks and that it would be a mistake to think that an elite single party agreement will somehow end the war. He outlined the different groups and territories where unrest has formed and continues to be cause for concern. The “big war” will likely end with the formation of “small wars” that are much harder to control and where a multitude of grievances will be brought forth.
Katherine Zimmerman outlined a variety of security issues, discussing the role of extremist groups and their role in restoring stability and support in Yemen. Salafi networks are not fully governed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, AQAP has played a pivotal role in uniting, coordinating, and supporting the fight. It provides training, military and weapons support, as well as asymmetrical attacks and capabilities. Besides adding protection, AQAP has built a narrative of supporting Sunnis against Western influence, aiming to rebuild governance. Because AQAP understands Yemeni customs and culture, the group delivers on pragmatic lines – providing basic services such as electricity and clean water – and not necessarily on ideological lines. Zimmerman briefly discussed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the struggles it has had in gaining strength in Yemen. She believes that a new central government will not do anything to stop groups such as the AQAP; grievances are driving the conflict. Thus, mechanisms need to be put into place to better understand and determine what local grievances are and what local actors aim to achieve.
Mohammad Al-Shami addressed the role of civil society and community engagement in Yemen. Al-Shami explained that most changes in Yemen after 2011 were shifts throughout communities. Youth coalitions were formed and dialogue occurred between civil society and tribes. These shifts were specific to urban areas. However, after 2014 more political factions became apparent along with a rise of sectarianism. AQAP has played a crucial role in engaging communities. Al-Shami argued that political negotiations must continue and that intervention in the communities needs to occur to better understand and identify specific issues concerning Yemeni citizens. As the war ends, local unidentified factions will aim to take control of territory and power, which will be difficult to contain. Besides negotiations on the ground, Yemenis want to see basic services delivered including security, food, and medical aid. A systematic political approach, with the inclusion of civil society and local communities, should be taken into consideration and applied to the country as a whole.
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