«Congressional Research Service 7-5700 R43960 Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention Summary This report provides material on the ...»
Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention
Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
June 16, 2015
Congressional Research Service
Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention
This report provides material on the latest crisis in Yemen and the U.S. policy response. For
further background and analysis on Yemen, see CRS Report RL34170, Yemen: Background and
U.S. Relations, by Jeremy M. Sharp.
Yemen’s internationally backed transition government, which replaced the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, has collapsed. In its place is an alliance comprised of the Houthi movement and loyalists of former president Saleh. Current President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, which launched a major military operation against the Houthi/Saleh alliance on March 25; the stated goal of this operation is to restore President Hadi to power.
To date, after more than two months of fighting that has resulted in as many as 1,400 Yemeni casualties and 500,000 displaced persons, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners continue to conduct military operations against Houthi fighters and their allies. From a military standpoint, the Saudi-led coalition has conducted numerous air strikes in support of tribal allies and Hadi loyalists on the ground and blockaded Yemen’s coastline and closed Yemen’s airspace in order to prevent Iran from resupplying the Houthis.
In order to restore stability to Yemen, the Obama Administration has been supporting a United Nations-led process in Geneva to reach a negotiated settlement between Yemen’s warring factions. The United States reportedly continues to provide unspecified military and intelligence support to the Saudi military efforts. As of mid-June, U.S. and international attempts to begin a political process have accelerated, and United Nations-backed peace talks are now underway in Geneva, Switzerland.
There is a significant terrorist presence in Yemen, and U.S. policymakers are concerned that without a willing counterterrorism partner such as President Hadi, the United States may lack necessary intelligence cooperation on the ground to counter groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that has attempted attacks against the United States on several occasions. Nevertheless, the United States reportedly has been able to act either unilaterally or perhaps in concert with Saudi Arabian intelligence against AQAP and its associated allies. On June 16, AQAP released a video statement acknowledging that a recent U.S. strike had killed Nasser al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s leader and the second-highest-ranking leader of Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network.
As recently as fall 2014, the Obama Administration had expressed cautious optimism about Yemen’s trajectory, though the 2014-2015 takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis, a clan from the Zaydi sect (related to Shia Islam), upended Yemen’s political transition. The State Department reports that the United States committed more than $221.4 million in assistance to Yemen in FY2014, in addition to $316.23 million in FY2013 and more than $353 million in FY2012.
Current annual appropriations language includes a provision that would restrict U.S. funding of Yemen’s military were it to be controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.
Congressional Research Service Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention Contents Latest Developments
U.S. Policy and Peace Negotiations
AQAP Leader Killed
Status of American Government Personnel and U.S. Citizens in Yemen
Other Recent Congressional Action
Background: Government Collapse and Regional War in Yemen
Figures Figure 1. Conflict in Yemen
Contacts Author Contact Information
Latest Developments After more than two months of fighting that has resulted in as many as 1,400 Yemeni casualties and 500,000 displaced persons, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners continue to conduct military operations against Houthi fighters and their allies. Saudi Arabia launched what it refers to as “Operation Decisive Storm” in late March 2015 in order to restore the now-exiled President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to power and push Houthi rebels back from seized territories. The Saudi military changed the name of the operation to Restoring Hope in late April.
From a military standpoint, the Saudi-led coalition has conducted numerous air strikes in support of tribal allies and Hadi loyalists on the ground and blockaded Yemen’s coastline in order to prevent Iran from resupplying the Houthis. As of June 2015, it would appear that Saudi efforts have yet to reverse Houthi gains, though the situation remains fluid and victories by either side would appear tenuous. For example, though the Saudi-led coalition has kept the southern port of Aden from falling to the Houthis entirely, the city remains divided. Moreover, in early June, clashes have continued along the Saudi-Yemeni border, as Saudi Patriot missile batteries intercepted a Scud missile fired by Houthi/Saleh forces into the kingdom.
According to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:
After more than two months of conflict, the rebels have strengthened their grip on most of the country. Only in the far eastern region, in Hadhramaut province, have they failed to advance. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controls Hadhramaut and its capital at Mukalla, Yemen's fifth largest city. This is AQAP's largest-ever stronghold. It is carrying out terror attacks on Houthi targets from its stronghold. Exiled president Abd Rabbu Hadi still has control of parts of Aden, the largest port on the Arabian Sea. But even in Aden, the antiHouthi camp is not united. Some fighters are southern secessionists who want independence for South Yemen, not a restoration of Hadi's government in Sanaa.1 From a political standpoint, President Hadi remains in exile in Saudi Arabia, and though much of the international community considers him the legitimate head of state, the Houthis are in control of what remains of Yemen’s government on the ground. Unless the Houthi movement can be rolled back to its home province of Sada’a in northern Yemen, it would appear that any future governing arrangement would come as the result of a compromise between Hadi and the Houthis.
From a humanitarian standpoint, Yemen, which under normal circumstances is an extremely impoverished country, is experiencing severe shortages of food, water, and fuel for electricity.
Relief organizations estimate that approximately 60% of the population is without access to clean drinking water and sanitation. According to United Nations estimates, 78% of the population is in need of emergency aid. Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has repeatedly bombed Houthi-controlled territory and infrastructure, causing significant collateral damage. The Saudi coalition’s naval and air blockade, designed to thwart Iran’s resupply of the Houthis, also has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by preventing aid shipments from quickly reaching the population.
The Houthis also have intercepted aid shipments intended for civilians. The U.S. State Department has “urged all parties to allow the entry and delivery of urgently needed food, medicine, fuel and other necessary assistance through UN and international humanitarian organization channels to address the urgent needs of civilians impacted by the crisis.”2 U.S. Policy and Peace Negotiations When Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm/Restoring Hope, it initially received U.S.
political and military support. However, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen places the Administration in an apparent quandary. On the one hand, in the context of Saudi unease over the potential nuclear deal with Iran and preexisting U.S.-Saudi cooperation against terrorist groups in Yemen, U.S. officials deemed it important to publicly support Saudi military operations against the Houthis. On the other hand, as the operation has continued over time, Yemen has become increasingly unstable, creating opportunities for extremists such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State to increase their influence. Moreover, the conflict has enflamed Saudi-Iranian tensions, leading to confrontational statements between respective Saudi and Iranian government officials and near maritime clashes between Saudi and Iranian vessels in the Gulf of Aden.3 1 “A Bleeding Wound on the Saudi Border: Why Yemen Peace Talks are unlikely to make Progress,” Brookings Markaz Blog, June 15, 2015.
2 “Saudi-led Naval Blockade leaves 20m Yemenis facing Humanitarian Disaster,” The Guardian, June 5, 2015.
3 “WFP [World Food Programme] says to Deliver Iran Aid Cargo for Yemen after Ship Docks in Djibouti,” Reuters, (continued...)
In order to stabilize the situation, reduce Saudi-Iranian tensions, and possibly provide Saudi Arabia an exit strategy from Yemen, the Administration has been supporting a United Nations-led process in Geneva to reach a negotiated settlement between Yemen’s warring factions. The joint statement issued during the President’s recent summit with various leaders of the GCC states, said that “With regard to Yemen, both the United States and GCC member states underscored the imperative of collective efforts to counter Al-Qa’ida [Qaeda] in the Arabian Peninsula, and emphasized the need to rapidly shift from military operations to a political process...”4 As of mid-June, U.S. and international efforts to begin a political process have accelerated, and United Nations-backed peace talks are now underway in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.S. State Department5 recently acknowledged that Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson and U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller led an American delegation to Oman and Saudi Arabia where they conducted talks with various Yemeni figures, including Houthi leaders, in order to jumpstart a U.N.-led political process.6 Shortly thereafter, the Houthis released American Casey Coombs, a freelance journalist who had been detained by Houthi rebels for two weeks. The United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, also has reportedly been involved in shuttle diplomacy.
Currently, the Houthis and President Hadi have agreed to send delegates to the talks. Previously, President Hadi and his Saudi backers had insisted that they would not participate in peace talks until the Houthis adhered to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which the United States voted in favor of back in April 2015. UNSCR 2216 demands that the “Houthis withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen and fully implement previous Council resolutions.” Terrorism As has been demonstrated in the past, when Yemen is in the throes of domestic conflict and its military occupied, terrorist groups such as AQAP are able to seize territory in outlying provinces.
This has been the case during Operation Decisive Storm. In the early days of the conflict, AQAP militiamen, who already had been active in the eastern province of Hadramawt, attacked government installations, air and sea ports, and hydrocarbon facilities. AQAP seized the city of Al Mukalla in April, and the city’s ruling body has “wrapped al Qaeda into local administration in order to avoid infighting.”7 According to one report, “the residents of Mukalla said AQAP has (...continued) May 22, 2015.
4 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, U.S.- Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement, May 14, 2015.
5 The U.S.State Department has stated that it “welcomes the June 6 announcement that the UN-facilitated consultations among Yemeni stakeholders will begin in Geneva on June 14. We reiterate the call of the Security Council for Yemenis to attend these talks in good faith and without preconditions.... We further condemn the June 6 missile attack on Saudi Arabia, in addition to other recent attacks on Saudi Arabian territory by forces affiliated with the Houthis and former President Saleh. We recognize Saudi Arabia’s right to defend its territory, its borders, and its people.” See, U.S. State Department, “United States Welcomes UN-facilitated Consultations on Yemen,” June 8, 2015.
6 “U.S. Met Secretly With Yemen Rebels,” Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2015.
7 “Al Qaeda seen assuming Policing Role in Eastern Yemen,” Reuters, May 14, 2015.
refrained from imposing strict interpretations of Islamic law, such as banning Arabic music and Western fashions, as the group did when it briefly established an “emirate” in the Yemeni province of Abyan in 2011.”8 It also has renamed itself as the “Sons of Hadhramaut” perhaps in order to identify with the local population.
Despite the apparent end to U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism cooperation as a result of the Houthi takeover of the government, the United States reportedly has been able to act either unilaterally or perhaps in concert with Saudi Arabian intelligence against AQAP and its associated allies. In recent months, the United States has allegedly carried out several strikes against AQAP targets.