10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2022

Yemen

Diplomatic efforts fail to subdue the conflict

In March 2021, Yemen entered the seventh year of war since the launch of the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, after the latter took over the country’s capital. The war in Yemen is multilayered and has resulted in the country’s deep fragmentation at all levels, leading some to conclude that “a unified Yemeni state no longer exists” (Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, 8 October 2021). The internationally recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, resides in Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis control Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The temporary capital of the Hadi government, Aden, is in the hands of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC). 

On the ground, Houthi forces are fighting against a mix of military and tribal pro-Hadi forces in northern and central governorates, National Resistance Forces (NRF) on the western coast (for more on the NRF, see ACLED’s report: Who are the UAE-backed Forces Fighting  on the Western Front in Yemen?), and forces affiliated with the STC in the southern governorates. In the south, control is split between Hadi and STC loyalists under the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement.1The Riyadh Agreement was signed in November 2019 under the auspices of Saudi Arabia to resolve the conflict between the Hadi government and the STC after intense clashes erupted between the two camps in August 2019 (ACLED, 18 December 2019). While Islamist insurgencies, led by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS), have also plagued the country, both groups appear considerably weakened today (for more, see ACLED’s report: Wartime Transformation of AQAP in Yemen).

Despite the country’s continued fragmentation, overall levels of political violence fell in 2021. ACLED records less political violence in Yemen in 2021 — fewer than 7,400 events — than in any year since the beginning of ACLED coverage in 2015. This sharp decrease in 2021 — a drop of 27% compared to 2020 — can be explained by the relative freezing of a number of fronts between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces. Battle events, for instance, decreased by 66% in Ad Dali governorate, 53% in Sadah governorate, and 49% in Al Jawf governorate between 2020 and 2021. 

The overall decrease in political violence levels, however, belied the deadly state of conflict in 2021. Although reported fatalities decreased for the third consecutive year in 2021, the lethality of the conflict — the number of reported fatalities per event — increased sharply in 2021 compared to 2020. ACLED now estimates that more than 150,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence, including over 14,500 civilians killed in targeted attacks. In 2021, nearly half of all reported fatalities from political violence stemmed from the Houthi offensive on Marib, launched in February 2021. Political violence in the governorate increased by 34% between 2020 and 2021, with reported fatalities increasing by 75%.2See the latest edition of ACLED Methodology and Coding Decisions around the Yemen Civil War for an explanation on the coding of Houthi fatalities claimed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes since October 2021.

Between January and April 2021, Houthi forces advanced towards Marib city through the western districts of the governorate before their progress stalled for several months. This pause was partially due to an unprecedented engagement of international actors in support of the peace process, which saw renewed Houthi participation in negotiations (Middle East Eye, 10 June 2021). In May and June, political violence in the country dropped to its lowest levels since the Kuwait peace talks in May 2016. However, in another failure of the diplomatic track, Houthi forces renewed their offensive in late June and captured five districts in the south of Marib governorate to reach the outskirts of Marib city in December. This advance was made possible by prior gains in Al Bayda governorate and the northwestern districts of Shabwah governorate, which Houthi forces entered for the first time since 2017. 

Further significant ground developments in 2021 took place in the western coast governorates of Taizz and Hodeidah. In March, pro-Hadi forces made their most significant gains of the year against Houthi forces in Jabal Habashy and Al Maafer districts in Taizz governorate. On the other hand, Houthi forces took over a 100-kilometer coastal strip in Hodeidah governorate in November, after the NRF withdrew from positions held since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018.3 In December 2018, the UN brokered the Stockholm Agreement to stop an offensive against Houthi forces along the west coast, fearing the humanitarian consequences of a battle for Hodeidah city. The agreement included a ceasefire throughout the governorate and the demilitarization of Hodeidah city. This resulted in a complete reshuffling of the frontlines in Hodeidah governorate, with the NRF shifting their focus onto inland areas along the Hodeidah-Taizz border, advancing into Maqbanah district in Taizz (for more on territorial changes, see ACLED’s project: Mapping Territorial Control in Yemen).

In the southern governorates,4Understood for data analysis purposes as Abyan, Aden, Al Mahrah, Hadramawt, Lahij, Shabwah, and Suqutra. political violence decreased by almost 50% in 2021 compared to the previous year. This was driven mainly by a decrease of more than 75% in Abyan governorate, which was the result of the STC and Hadi government forming a power-sharing cabinet in December 2020 (Middle East Institute, 1 February 2021). Yet, both parties continued to work in isolation from each other, and the STC threatened to withdraw from the agreement in November (STC, 9 November 2021). The fragility of the situation in southern Yemen was further exacerbated in 2021 by worsening living conditions amidst an unprecedented currency crisis (Sanaa Center, 10 September 2021). This led to a wave of civil unrest in the second half of the year (ACAPS, 29 November 2021). 

What to watch for in 2022:

Despite the overall decrease in political violence in 2021, developments during the latter part of the year provide rather bleak prospects for the beginning of 2022. The revived diplomatic process in the first half of 2021 faded as the military track was once again favored by the conflict parties. In his last briefing of the year to the Security Council, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg acknowledged that the conflict parties’ focus remained on military options (Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, 14 December 2021).5Swedish diplomat and former EU Ambassador to Yemen Hans Grundberg assumed office as new UN Special Envoy for Yemen in September 2021. British diplomat and former UN envoy Martin Griffiths was appointed as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in May 2021.

If all parties to the conflict persist with favoring the military track, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the war. While overall levels of violence targeting civilians were lower last year than in the three previous years, renewed hostilities in the latter part of 2021 were accompanied by an increase in the number of events targeting civilians and associated fatalities. This is a trend that is likely to continue into 2022. 

Furthermore, conflict parties might feel less restrained in their actions since the UN Human Rights Council rejected the renewal of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen in October 2021. Since 2017, this body had worked on bringing accountability to the conflict by investigating violations of international law by all parties (Amnesty International, 5 October 2021). The result of intense Saudi lobbying, this historic rejection effectively put an end to official international investigations into violations and abuses committed during the war (Reuters, 7 October 2021). 

Shifting frontlines and alliances are also likely to be a defining feature of 2022. In particular, the trajectories of the various components of the NRF after their withdrawal from the coastal areas of Hodeidah governorate will need to be monitored closely. In December 2021, forces from the NRF-affiliated Giants Brigades deployed to Shabwah governorate, where they regained large swaths of territory from Houthi forces and even advanced into Marib governorate in the first weeks 2022. A better coordination of NRF components with pro-Hadi forces in key areas, like Marib, Al Bayda, or Taizz governorates, and subsequent Houthi military defeats, could incentivize the Houthis to return to the negotiating table. On the other hand, alliances between NRF components and forces loyal to the secessionist STC could considerably weaken the pro-Hadi camp. This is all the more relevant as the withdrawal of Saudi-led coalition forces from a number of their bases inside Yemen in late 2021 suggest that coalition-backed Yemeni forces might need to become more self-reliant. 

Regional developments are also likely to impact the trajectory of the Yemen conflict in 2022. Notably, Saudi Arabia and Iran acknowledged in late 2021 that they had been engaging in ‘secret’ talks, where the parties reportedly agreed to reopen consulates in their respective countries (France 24, 11 October 2021). Some suggest the Saudi withdrawal from camps in southern Yemen was a show of goodwill within the context of these talks (South24, 31 October 2021). One reported motivation is that Saudi Arabia would like to stop Houthi drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory and, more largely, to secure its southern border (Middle East Eye, 13 May 2021). Were such guarantees obtained from these talks, Saudi Arabia could potentially engage in a more extensive withdrawal from the country. 

Finally, the stability of the southern governorates will be key to watch in 2022, and will likely be determined by whether or not living and economic conditions improve. As put by former Yemeni Minister of Youth and Sports Rafat Al Akhali, “Yemen’s most pressing problem isn’t war. It’s the economy” (Foreign Policy, 8 October 2021). In that regard, the end of 2021 saw some relatively hopeful developments with reforms to the management of the Aden branch of the Central Bank of Yemen, in a consensus decision between the STC and the Hadi government (South24, 7 December 2021). If the situation does not improve soon, however, a new wave of civil unrest is likely to hit the southern governorates again in 2022, with the potential as well for widespread armed conflict.

  • Demonstrations: This term is used to refer collectively to all events coded with event type protests, as well as all events coded with sub-event type violent demonstration under the riots event type.
  • Disorder: This term is used to refer collectively to both political violence and demonstrations.
  • Event: The fundamental unit of observation in ACLED is the event. Events involve designated actors – e.g. a named rebel group, a militia or state forces. They occur at a specific named location (identified by name and geographic coordinates) and on a specific day. ACLED currently codes for six types of events and 25 types of sub-events, both violent and non-violent.
  • Political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types, as well as the mob violence sub-event type of the riots event type. It excludes the protests event type. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation.
  • Organized political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types. It excludes the protests and riots event types. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation. Mob violence is not included here as it is spontaneous (not organized) in nature.
  • Violence targeting civilians: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians event type and the excessive force against protesters sub-event type of the protests event type, as well as specific explosions/remote violence events and riots events where civilians are directly targeted.

For more methodological information – including definitions for all event and sub-event types – please see the ACLED Codebook.

Emile Roy
Emile Roy is an ACLED Researcher. He has covered political violence and protest in Yemen and has also contributed to the ACLED-Religion pilot project tracking religious repression and disorder in the Middle East and North Africa.

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