Today it has been reported that the Saudi-led coalition has managed to take a military base near Lahj in southwest Yemen, and the few flights that were landing in Sana’a airport have been diverted to Aden. All ships heading for Hodeida port have been diverted to Aden port, now under the control of the Saudi-led coalition and local militias. Meanwhile, the Yemeni economy has collapsed under the effect of a Saudi-led blockade that has also caused severe life-threatening shortages of food, fuel, medicines and water. The Houthis have called for peace negotiations, and although the Houthi militias still are present in the southwest area, they have been placed on the back foot by the anti-Houthi coalition that appears to be gaining ground.
As we hear of these significant changes, reactions from Yemenis seem to vary from elation from those who were under siege in the southwest and also those who supported the Saudi coalition’s air strikes, to denial by those who support the Houthis. Those in the northwest, especially the Zaidis, will be feeling very apprehensive if they hear the news that the Houthis are losing ground in the southwest. But the majority, who desperately suffered under multiple wars and a devastating blockade, are hoping that this news means that peace is a little bit nearer. But during this war, many have witnessed deaths of family and friends, and lost homes, jobs, savings, and health; it has heightened the differences between Yemenis and caused many to develop a deep hatred of ‘the Other’.
Although the Houthis are calling for peace negotiations and asking for internationals to act as mediators, the Saudis are only likely to accept a full surrender. The Yemen government, now beholden to Riyadh and still in Saudi Arabia, has always demanded full compliance with UNSC resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis to leave all the areas it now controls in Yemen. Hadi, the disputed President of Yemen, remains very unpopular, particularly amongst the groups that suffered most in the Saudi-led air assaults, widely reported to be at Hadi’s behest. It is unlikely that Yemenis could all unite around him.
Additionally, new militias have formed during the four months of war, and others have strengthened their position, both in terms of recruitment and control of territory. Al Qaeda, Da’esh and Islah all fought the Houthis, linked by a common bond of anti-Shiism. These militias were also fighting alongside the secessionist militias from Aden and the south, who do not share their religious intolerance, but have a strong anti-North Yemen sentiment. This group of disparate ‘victors’ already had significant differences before the war; it is hard to imagine these will have faded and they will now live in peace together.
Over a million people have been displaced in Yemen during the war; many of these have had their homes destroyed, making it impossible for them to return. But there is also likely to be forced displacement caused by heightened intolerances, based on religious differences or the North/South divide. Many people from the old North Yemen lived and worked in Aden; they may find this impossible in the post-war situation. In large cities like Sana’a, Shia and Sunni lived, worked and worshipped alongside each other; but the effect of war will make them now view their former neighbours with suspicion.
The destruction of the economy and infrastructure will have serious impact on work opportunities, already limited in Yemen prior to war. With no work and little to do, more men will be drawn to militias for employment. There have already been a number of bombs and other attacks by militias in Yemen in the last few months. Unless there is a comprehensive negotiated peace agreement that addresses the real grievances of all Yemenis, but especially addressing the Southern question and the Houthis concerns, and also tackles the reasons behind the growth of extremist Sunni militias, then these sporadic attacks are likely to continue. The Houthis homeland, the area around Saada, has been decimated; if they are forced to retreat, they have nothing to lose. That will make them extremely dangerous as guerrilla fighters, hiding in the mountain areas that they are familiar with, able to make sporadic attacks on those that they believe to be their enemy.
The South, meanwhile, wants an independent homeland. That is the area that contains most of the oil and gas reserves in Yemen. It is unlikely that the North will willingly agree to give them up. And it is even less likely that Saudi Arabia would agree to a tolerant, democratic society developing on its southern border, but perhaps a democratic system is the only thing that could hold Yemen together. It is too early to celebrate victory; the path to peace still has a long way to go. But at least the first stage of the war is over.