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The Stockholm Agreement and Yemen’s Other Wars

Ariel I. Ahram
Sunday, February 3, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Yemen's deadly civil war and associated humanitarian catastrophe have dragged on for years. At the end of 2018, however, the country saw what seemed like a bit of good news: successful negotiations in Stockholm that offered the promise of a peaceful settlement, or at least a lasting ceasefire. These negotiations, however, may not be the solution to Yemen’s problems. Ariel Ahram of the University of Vermont argues that the Stockholm Agreement is at best incomplete and at worst could exacerbate the violence.

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Editor’s Note: Yemen's deadly civil war and associated humanitarian catastrophe have dragged on for years. At the end of 2018, however, the country saw what seemed like a bit of good news: successful negotiations in Stockholm that offered the promise of a peaceful settlement, or at least a lasting ceasefire. These negotiations, however, may not be the solution to Yemen’s problems. Ariel Ahram of the University of Vermont argues that the Stockholm Agreement is at best incomplete and at worst could exacerbate the violence. Ahram contends the international community might be better off trying to build up local orders rather than preserving a fiction of a unified Yemen.

Daniel Byman


The Stockholm Agreement, signed on December 13, 2018, is the first good news regarding Yemen in a long time, even though implementation has been uneven. The UN-brokered agreement provides a conduit for aid through Hodeidah, the demilitarization of Taiz, and an exchange of prisoners. More than a month into the arrangement, the deal is intact despite a “complicated” implementation, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said last week. There is still sporadic fighting around Hodeidah and Taiz and violence continues unabated in areas not covered by the agreement, including Sana’a. In January, UN mediators convened a new set of meetings in Amman to clarify the agreement, boost confidence, and solidify enforcement. Despite this rocky start, it is a significant diplomatic step toward potential conciliation between the internationally-recognized government of Abdarrabah Mansur Hadi and Houthi rebels who have held Sanaa since 2014.

All parties admit that the ceasefire can only succeed if Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran act to restrain their respective proxy forces, which are deeply enmeshed in the conflict. In a wider sense, the agreement represents a de-escalation in what some call the Middle East’s cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Much of this larger regional conflict has been conducted indirectly via proxy militias. In Yemen, however, Riyadh was determined to deny the Houthis and their Iranian allies a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched expeditionary forces to counter the Houthi advances and support the Hadi government. Equipped and supported by the United States, the joint Saudi and Emirati campaign worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has prompted the United States to reconsider its blank check to the Saudis, which may be decisive for diplomatic mediation.

For all of the immediate good that the Stockholm Agreement might do, it also complicates the long-term search for conflict resolution. Yemen is suffering through three separate but interlinked wars: 1) the civil war in the north between the Houthis and the central government, 2) another civil war between the central government and the Southern Movement (SM), a loose coalition of separatists centered around Aden, Shebwa, and Hadramaut, and 3) a nationwide campaign against radical Islamist terrorists groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These conflicts began in the 1990s and 2000s and annealed during the popular uprising, the splintering of the Yemen security services, and the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 and 2012. Neither the Houthis nor the SM were enthusiastic about the Saudi-financed and U.N.-backed regime transition process. The so-called National Dialogue Conferences seemed rigged to ensure that Hadi, Saleh’s vice president who succeeded him in a referendum, would maintain control of the government. Boxed out by Saleh’s rule and eager for the opportunity to assert greater political power, both the Houthis and SM were disappointed in what they saw as a continuation of the old regime.

The Houthis, who had a long but complicated alliance with Iran, struck a new tactical alliance with the deposed Saleh, their former nemesis. Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military advisors and Saleh loyalists from the army and northern tribes helped Houthi forces advance from their stronghold in the far north on Sana’a and the south, driving Hadi and the central government into exile in Riyadh.

The SM leadership, in contrast, aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to counter the northerners’ incursion. The UAE backed the formation of militias in Aden, Hadramaut, Mahra, and Shebwa. Abu Dhabi also encouraged Salafi militias that offset the influence of the older and more secular southern Yemeni leadership. With Emirati support, the Southern Transitional Council, a kind of political front for the SM, became the de facto government in Aden and other southern cities, effectively ignoring the central government. In 2015, STC chairman Aidarous Zubaydi mobilized massive demonstrations in Aden and formally declared independence. The Hadi government deemed the SM’s moves illegal and unconstitutional. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states insisted that Yemen would remain unified. Nevertheless, the UAE continued its operational partnership with the SM, bolstering the separatists’ hold in the south and laying bare a critical divergence between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s objectives in Yemen.

The northern and southern conflicts inflamed Yemen’s long-simmering struggle with extremist groups. AQAP and other radical Wahhabi and Salafi groups joined the military campaign against the Houthis and Iran, whom they deemed heretics, and took advantage of the state’s collapse to seize cities far from the frontlines, like Mukalla and Zinjibar. The UAE and Saudi Arabia belatedly turned their attention to dislodging AQAP and the Islamic State, but the result has been equivocal. Though terrorist groups have retreated from many populated areas, some AQAP forces have merged with local militias that remain part of the Saudi and Emirati proxy networks.

The Stockholm Agreement offers a breakthrough in the northern front, but could hamper efforts to deal with Yemen’s other wars. Although horrendously bloody, the Houthi conflict is in some respects the most tractable of Yemen’s troubles. The Houthis largely concur with the idea of a single, unified Yemeni state, even as they disagree with the Hadi government’s distribution of power and implementation of policy. With Hadi in exile, the Houthis tried to keep the central bank and other key state institutions operational for the whole of Yemen. In this sense, the Houthis’ vision for Yemen accorded with the assumption of the international community, which has ritualistically affirmed its “commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen.” Subsequent negotiations building on the limited progress of the deal reached in December could provide a path to a power-sharing agreement that assures the Houthis political influence and access to the state’s fiscal and financial infrastructure.

In contrast, the SM seeks to sever ties to the Yemeni state entirely. The STC denounced the Stockholm process for ignoring southern issues and reiterated calls for secession. Houthi leaders, in turn, accused the UAE and the SM of trying to scuttle the agreement. Even though the international recognition of South Yemen’s independence is unlikely, the Hadi government lacks the military means to remove SM control over the south, setting the stage for future conflict.

AQAP and other radical groups disagree about whether statehood is even a worthy goal, but they all seek to preserve their areas of safe haven. They have occasionally served as pro-government militias when their interests coincided with the central government. A stronger, more effective Yemeni state, though, is a clear danger to them. Conciliation with the Houthis and Iran will likely alienate the Salafi and Wahhabi groups that the Saudis and the UAE have relied on as local proxies. Their trenchant sectarianism, once an asset to the Gulf allies, makes them potent spoilers.

In Yemen, the international community has followed the customary formula of using state-building to get to peace. Stability comes from a state that is strong, cohesive, and capable. Secession leads to a slippery slope of state fragmentation. Power-sharing can entice recalcitrant groups to submit to state control in return for access to state resources, and will ultimately enhance the state’s legitimacy. Eventually, the state will rebuild administratively and militarily and regain control over previously “ungoverned” territories—or so the conventional wisdom goes. But, state-building is an inherently “wicked problem,” as Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus puts it. Solutions that work once are unlikely to be replicable in another time and place. In the case of Yemen, the approach taken in the Houthi war will likely lead to more stringent resistance in the country’s other conflicts.

An alternative to state-building is to buttress the various forms of local order that have already emerged from the ashes of Yemen’s national implosion. Working from the bottom up, non-state actors can become the foundation of future hybrid stability. The best outcome is for Yemen to resemble Somalia, Moldova, or Cyprus, where weak central states co-exist with territories of consolidated separatist rule. De facto states like Somaliland, Transnistria, or North Cyprus lack formal recognition from the international community, but they are not geopolitical black holes or anarchic zones. Instead, they operate in concert and connection with global flows of capital and ideas. These arrangements are far from perfect; peace is still precarious, and political and economic development often stunted. But these may be better outcomes for Yemenis and the international community than further war.

Ariel I. Ahram is associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public & International Affairs in Alexandria and the author of Break All the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East.

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