Yemen War: An Agonising Catch-22

The Yemen war shows no sign of ending despite witnessing a humanitarian crisis that could be described as one of the worst in modern times, as well as widespread destruction of basic infrastructure, compounded by the absence of an environment conducive to a genuine peace process.

Moreover, instead of a traditional war of two sides, the already fractured social fabric has been blown apart, creating a host of different armed entities from Houthi, the Southern Transitional Council, the Salafists, Islah, the Nasserists, all with vendettas against one another and throwing up a very simple question that it seems there is no real consensus on:

What exactly do we want in Yemen?

The facts of the conflict are well-established even if perspectives differ. People protested against rising prices, standard of living, and government incompetence and took to the streets in their thousands. Houthi declared himself a supporter of this movement, marched out of Saada in the North, attacked the Islah strongholds of Jawf and Amran under the pretext of fighting terrorism, before allying with former enemy and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize the capital Sanaa.

Emboldened by a lack of clear condemnation or initiatives from the international community, Houthi marched to Hodeida and Ma’rib next, then Taiz, Lhaj and Dhaali’ in the South, before arriving at Aden’s walls, provoking Saudi Arabia into a violent reaction in the form of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’.

The aims of Houthi are clear. In the eyes of their supporters, they are seeking reform and change. In a perhaps more objective light, Houthi’s actions, whatever the reasons, amount to a coup in the very definition of the word.

The aims of those fighting Houthi are less clear. Do these parties, which include Islah, the Southern Separatists, the Jihadists, the Nasserists, the other tribal forces and even those in Hadramout, do they seek to restore the national dialogue agreement that brought about President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi and which was agreed upon by all the political parties including the Houthis?

Should the aims move away from politics and centre on ending the war at any cost? Even if it means turning a blind eye or semi-legitimising Houthi’s coup and allowing the Separatists to keep Aden as a Southern ‘capital’, paving the way for a de facto split?

Or should there be a hybrid of the above? A new national dialogue in which Houthi is the de facto supreme power who pulls the strings behind some sort of picture of a united functioning government?

Which is more important? The restoration of a democratic institution (however flawed) in the form of President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi? Or the lives of the current generation of Yemenis?


This final question is the crux of the problems surrounding the war in Yemen. The former, by its very nature, demands the ousting of Houthi from Sanaa. This removes Houthi’s overwhelming political leverage, relegates him back to an equal status to the rest of the domestic political parties, and forces him into survival mode which makes him more receptive, and more cooperative, to a peace agreement that established a more credible political balance.

The latter however requires a more pragmatic solution that in reality is more similar to applying a temporary plaster to a gaping wound than efficient long-term treatment. In essence, it involves accepting Houthi’s political and military gains, appeasing Southern appetite for independence, and forcing the other weaker parties into some sort of ostensible negotiations whereby Yemen’s key institutions is carved up based on power and influence. This is a stop-gap solution. Other parties will take note of Houthi’s methods of seizing power, biding their time, gathering arms, and prepare to gamble knowing that as long as they seize a few cities and the capital and hold on long enough, the international community will recognise them, force a new national dialogue, and cede international recognition as a legitimate authority. This precedent essentially plunges Yemen into an endless cycle of war.

It is for this reason that human rights organisations find themselves in a peculiar dilemma in Yemen. To lambast Saudi Arabia means to pressure them to negotiate with Houthis. To negotiate with the Houthis while they remain in Sanaa means essentially to legitimising coup. Legitimising the coup means the national dialogue post-Arabi Spring becomes obsolete and Houthi becomes the main political power.

However, Saudi demolition of Yemen is impossible to ignore even if its aims coincide with restoration of democratic agreement made by political parties. Saudi Arabia has no particular concern for the welfare of the Yemeni people and its interest extends only in so far as to prevent Houthi handing Yemen over to Iranian influence. However, it is undeniable that but for Saudi intervention, Houthi may well have succeeded in entering Aden, completing his coup, and negotiating himself into a partnership with the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Eastern areas of Yemen.

The Cruel Choice

The war can go one of two ways; a negotiated settlement acknowledging the new power dynamics in the post-Saleh era whereby the North is run by Houthi, while the semi-united Southerners scramble for control of the South, or a prolonged conflict and war of attrition that forces Houthi to withdraw from Sanaa, come to the table as an equal party without the ability to coerce the other parties, and restore the National Dialogue in a symbolic demonstration of the emergence of a genuine democratic institution (however flawed).

In other words, is democracy and the development of a new sustainable system of governance, however difficult that may be, worth the agonising deaths and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis? Or has the death toll become so great, that we should resign Yemen to a new tribal dictatorship?

The choice is unpopular. Yet politics, though founded on idealism, is forged in the fire of realpolitik.