The War in Yemen: Hard Choices in a Hard War

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The Middle East is filled with grim wars in failed states—Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—none of which have good options for a lasting peace. The situation in Yemen, however, has moved beyond crisis, to the point of humanitarian nightmare. It has become a stalemate where the casualties from actual combat are limited, but where the fighting has produced a stalemate that has left the entire country without meaningful governance and security, and has crippled an already desperately poor economy.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has released a new report on the war in Yemen, entitled “The War in Yemen: Hard Choices in a Hard War.” The report is available on the CSIS web site at:


At present, Yemen remains divided between two major factions: a mix of Houthi Shi’ite rebels and military supporters of its former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Saudi and UAE-backed faction that supports a government led by his replacement in a one candidate election: Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Some two years of fighting have reached a near stalemate in which the Houthi-Saleh faction controls the capital and much of the populated northwest, and the Saudi-UAE-Hadi faction have taken Aden and other cities, and has a decisive edge in air power, but lack the ground forces to drive the Houthi-Saleh faction out of the areas it now controls. At the same time, other warring factions like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and various tribal groups add to the fighting and instability in much of the rest of the country.

The result has become a massive humanitarian crisis that will continue to grow until the fighting ends. It has already inflicted a level of economic damage so serious that Yemen may take a take a decade or more to fully recover—even if the fighting does not resume and some form of effective national unity and governance is established.

Like Syria and Somalia, Yemen is a nation that lacks the resources to quickly recover. Worse, it has become a nation that will then find it difficult to move towards some form of sustained post-war development. No one can help Yemen unless it can acquire a level of unity and quality of governance that will allow it to help itself, but even then, it will have no clear prospect of growth and stability without massive outside aid.

This presents major problems in terms of conflict termination, and in finding some kind of U.S. policy option that can help give Yemen a meaningful future. Putting an end to the conflict can only be a first step in easing Yemen’s growing agony. No ceasefire or settlement that leaves a weak, ineffective, and divided government in power can end Yemen’s humanitarian crisis or allow it to move forward.

Real peace and stability can only come if Yemen can reach a level of unity it has lacked in the past, create a modern enough central government to actually focus on recovery and development, and attract major levels of outside aid. Simply ending the fighting may reduce its level of suffering in the short term, but will inevitably prolong it and may well be a prelude to new levels of conflict.

This presents the problem that the United States must seek some solution that will either fully defeat the Houthi and Saleh faction, or find some kind of compromise that will lead the Houthi-Saleh faction to accept an effective central government. At the same time, even the most decisive military victory by the Saudi and UAE-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi offers little hope of effective leadership. The Hadi government may be more secular and free of Iranian influence, but it is far from clear it can lead or govern effectively.

Like America’s role in its other “failed state wars,” winning a war will only be meaningful if it is the prelude to winning a peace. Like it or not, this means giving nation building the same priority as winning some form of military victory. If anything, this may well be the greater challenge.

Read the entire report at

Photo credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images