Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. Follow him on Twitter @adammbaron.
Four years after a Saudi-led military coalition launched Operation Storm, a military intervention targeting the Houthis—and despite the brokering of an agreement in Stockholm in late 2018 between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi—the conflict continues to rage. The coalition managed to push back the Houthis, while the internationally recognized government has at least largely returned to the declared temporary capital of Aden. That being said, the Houthis appear far from defeated: the group retains control over Sanaa, the port of Hodeidah, and the bulk of the west of the country.
While much of the coverage of the ongoing war in Yemen puts its start date at March 26, 2015, the reality and wider context of the conflict defies such simplistic framings. In many regards, the current situation represents a confluence of longstanding socio-political fissures loosened by the decline of oil and gas revenues and the hollowing out formal and informal institutions. These fissures were brought to the fore by the 2011 uprising, ineffectively smoothed over during Yemen’s post-Arab Spring transition, and torn asunder as the conflict escalated with the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa and the Saudi-led coalition’s eventual direct entry into wider theater of Yemen’s war.
It is a multifaceted conflict, or perhaps more accurately, collection of interconnected conflicts. And while higher level issues—whether the internationalization of the conflict or ongoing efforts to broker a peace deal between representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthis—continue to garner the most attention, on the ground, a slew of local dynamics often seem to have a life of their own. That is not to say that they are wholly distinct: power politics, patronage networks, and partnerships mean that national and international politics seep into things even on the most micro of levels. Still, the days of Sanaa-centric governance seem over, with a collection of power centers emerging across the country.
What does this mean for conflict resolution? In a sense, the discourse over differing start dates for the war is telling. Yemenis do not just have different opinions on the conflict, but often radically different conceptions of—and means of conceiving—what the conflict is. Policy makers ignore the complexity at their own peril.