Violence in Yemen During the UN-Mediated Truce:
14 October 2022
On 2 October 2022, the UN-mediated truce in Yemen came to an end as the warring sides rejected a proposal presented by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg to extend and expand the agreement (Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, 2 October 2022). The truce had first come into effect on 2 April 2022 and was renewed twice for two-month periods, in June and August. Among other things, it provided for a halt to offensive military operations by both the Houthi and Internationally Recognized Government (IRG)1In this article, the two denominations ‘Internationally Recognized Government (IRG)’ and ‘Presidential Leadership Council (PLC)’ are used interchangeably to refer to the same governmental body. sides. Overall, the six months of truce brought several tangible benefits to the Yemeni population, including improved access to humanitarian aid (ReliefWeb, 31 May 2022), greater economic opportunities (ACAPS, 17 May 2022), and a significant reduction in violence and casualties countrywide. ACLED’s report on the first two months of truce found that April and May 2022 saw the lowest levels of reported fatalities from political violence in Yemen since January 2015. This trend continued for the whole truce period: reported fatalities from political violence between April and September 2022 were consistently lower than any other month since January 2015 (see graph below).
These outstanding achievements should not conceal the fact that political violence continued in Yemen even during the truce. Between April and September 2022, ACLED records an average of more than 200 reported deaths per month from organized political violence across the country. Although much lower than what was recorded before the truce, when the reported fatality average stood at over 1,750 per month from January 2015 until March 2022, this number is still alarmingly high when measured on a global scale. Critically, civilian fatalities accounted for 22% of overall reported fatalities during the truce, a disproportionately high ratio compared to pre-truce trends. Three factors contribute to an explanation for the high incidence of civilian fatalities during the truce: the widespread presence of explosive remnants of war, including mines on land and at sea, improvised explosive devices, and unexploded ordnance; increased civilian mobility in former conflict areas; and continued violence in key conflict areas, such as the city of Taizz.
This report interrogates why the conflict in Yemen, despite a months-long truce, has continued to claim the lives of hundreds of civilians and combatants, highlighting how ongoing political violence can constitute a challenge for achieving sustainable peace in the near future. The report identifies four main drivers of protracted political violence during the truce: continued fighting between Houthi and IRG forces; competition within the anti-Houthi camp; a resurgence in activity from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and an increase in tribal violence. While political negotiations continue behind the curtains, a thorough understanding of these dynamics will help identify the underlying factors that might continue to fuel political violence in case of a renewal of the truce.
Continued Violence Between Houthi and IRG Forces
Continued violence between Houthi and IRG forces accounts for more than 65% of all political violence events recorded during the truce. Out of approximately 1,300 reported fatalities recorded between April and October, an estimated 35% can be attributed to the conflict between the Houthis and the IRG. Shelling has continued to rock the frontlines of Hajjah, Hodeidah, Marib, Sadah, and Taizz (in grey on map below). Albeit rarer, armed clashes have also taken place in Hodeidah, Marib, and Taizz (in teal on map below). Occasionally, Houthi drones have targeted IRG forces in Ad Dali, Hodeidah, Marib, and Taizz (in burnt orange on map below). Yet, the nature of violence has changed compared to the pre-truce period, being consistently less lethal. Arguably, this change indicates a shift towards deterrence.
This is best exemplified by shelling activity, which increased eightfold between April and October compared to the previous six months, while the reported fatalities from these events decreased by 97% during the same period. Most of the reported fatalities from violence between Houthi and IRG forces came from armed clashes, with more than half of those taking place in Marib and Taizz governorates. In late August, an attempted Houthi offensive in the west of Taizz city, which resulted in a reported 23 Houthi and 10 IRG fatalities, constituted the truce’s deadliest episode. The incident led the IRG to pull out from a military coordination committee set up by UN Special Envoy Grundberg to facilitate the reopening of roads around Taizz mandated by the truce.
Aerial warfare has also subsided significantly. Houthi drone strikes accounted for a fraction of all reported fatalities caused by violence between Houthi and IRG forces during the truce (2%, corresponding to eight reported fatalities). Equally, despite de facto Houthi authorities denouncing the use by the Saudi-led coalition of attack and reconnaissance drones as a major truce violation (Yemen News Agency – Houthi, 1 October 2022), coalition drones resulted in eight reported fatalities, mostly civilians. Meanwhile, no strikes from coalition fighter jets were recorded during the truce.
While the low lethality of shelling events suggests that most of this violence was intended to mark continued military presence at the frontlines rather than inflict fatalities, the continued violence shows enduring tensions between the two sides. At the time of writing, both sides have shown relative restraint despite the expiration of the truce, but the potential for re-escalation remains latent. Were the truce to be renewed, the need for confidence-building measures and de-escalation mechanisms, which had been initiated by UN Special Envoy Grundberg during the truce, would be of the utmost importance.
Competition Within the Anti-Houthi Camp
Beyond the conflict between Houthi and IRG forces, tensions also run deep within the anti-Houthi camp. Most notable are the tensions in southern Yemen between the UAE-backed secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and pro-unity politicians and forces, often affiliated with the Islah party. Before the truce, in December 2021, these tensions had led to the dismissal of the Islah-affiliated Shabwah Governor Muhammad bin Adyu, and his replacement by the UAE-backed tribal leader Awad Al Awlaki. This was followed by the deployment of UAE-backed Giants Brigade forces from the western coast into Shabwah governorate, which ousted Houthi forces from the governorate’s northwestern districts in January 2022.
Despite an attempt to foster a united anti-Houthi front with the creation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) only a few days after the start of the truce, tensions between UAE-backed and Islah-affiliated forces escalated during the truce. Shabwah became the stage of internecine fighting pitting the UAE-backed Giants Brigades and Shabwani Defense forces – the latter also being affiliated with the STC – against Islah-affiliated units from the Special Security Forces and the Ataq Military Axis. Violence surged in August after Governor Al Awlaki sacked the head of the Special Security, Abdrabu Laakab, and other military commanders to appoint individuals linked with the secessionist STC (Al Ayyam, 7 August 2022). Following days of clashes, UAE-backed forces ousted Islah-affiliated forces from Ataq and other regions in northern Shabwah. According to some sources, the UAE launched drone strikes in support of the Giants Brigades and the Shabwani Defense Forces (Al Masdar, 10 August 2022). Overall, the battle for Shabwah coincided with the deadliest week of the truce and one of the deadliest bouts of violence among anti-Houthi forces since the start of the conflict (see graph below). According to some observers, it also constituted a watershed event in the conflict opposing these constituent members of the anti-Houthi camp.
Although the PLC was supposed to unify the different anti-Houthi factions, divisions continue to plague the anti-Houthi camp. Some of its members turned the truce into an opportunity to consolidate and expand their power across southern Yemen. Following the ouster of Islah-affiliated forces from Shabwah, calls for the departure of Islah-affiliated forces from the north of the neighboring Hadramawt governorate have also gained in intensity, with an increase in demonstrations showing support for the STC. Regular reports have emerged over a forthcoming Islah mobilization in the governorate in anticipation of a possible offensive from UAE-backed forces (Yemen News Portal, 27 September 2022).
Resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
As STC-affiliated forces extended their territorial control in southern Yemen, clashes broke out with pockets of militants linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Since the start of the conflict, UAE-backed forces have spearheaded the fight against jihadist militants in southern Yemen (for more, see ACLED’s report on the activity of UAE-backed forces in southern Yemen). After the STC deployed forces in the northern parts of Shabwah, STC President and PLC member Aydarus Al Zubaydi announced the launch of Operation ‘Arrows of the East’ in neighboring Abyan governorate to “combat terrorist organizations” (Masa Press, 22 August 2022). This led to a dramatic spike in AQAP activity, with the subsequent violence involving AQAP accounting for over 10% of all reported fatalities during the truce.
The initial deployment of STC-affiliated forces in Abyan unfolded peacefully. Unlike in Shabwah, there were no clashes with Islah-affiliated forces, as several commanders in Abyan agreed to cooperate with STC forces. In August 2022, STC-affiliated forces announced the takeover of the majority of Abyan after reaching agreements with other IRG-affiliated forces present in the governorate (AIC, 23 August 2022). As they continued to deploy in Abyan, however, they faced resistance from AQAP militants that had found shelter in the mountainous areas of the governorate. The deadliest event took place on 6 September, when AQAP launched an attack on an STC-affiliated Security Belt forces checkpoint in Ahwar district, resulting in the reported deaths of at least 20 Security Belt fighters and seven militants. On 13 September, AQAP then announced the launch of its own operation dubbed ‘Arrows of Righteousness’ to counter “the Emirati-Zionist project” (Al Mukalla TV, 14 September 2022). Several days of confrontations followed in Mudiyah and Lawdar districts, with STC-affiliated forces announcing the takeover of key AQAP camps in Wadi Umaran in Mudiyah district on 18 September (South24, 18 September 2022). Meanwhile, on 10 September, STC-affiliated forces also announced Operation ‘Arrows of the South’ to “combat terrorist organizations” in Shabwah (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 10 September 2022).
As a result of these security operations, September 2022 was the month with the highest AQAP activity recorded by ACLED since July 2018 (see graph below). Likewise, AQAP experts noted that the organization’s official wire had not been so active since 2017, when AQAP militants repeatedly clashed with Houthi-Saleh forces in Al Bayda governorate (Twitter @DR_E_Kendall, 23 September 2022).
At the time of writing, violence between STC-affiliated forces and AQAP militants has subsided. It is unclear whether this is the result of the successful ouster of AQAP militants from their areas of operations or rather a tactical pause by both parties. In any case, these clashes are a testament to the organization’s operational capabilities, despite a relative decline in its ability to operate across large swaths of territory compared to the beginning of the conflict (for more, see ACLED’s report on AQAP’s activity in Yemen over 2015 – 2020). Further deployment of STC-affiliated forces in areas of AQAP presence in southern Yemen could lead to renewed outbreaks of violence. At the same time, failing to renew the truce might give the organization a chance to regroup, consolidate, and set up new bases, especially if fighting picks up elsewhere between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces.
Increase in Tribal Violence
During the truce, tribal violence events grew by 59% compared to the six months prior, outnumbered by a 64% spike in the number of reported fatalities associated with these events. Overall, tribal violence proved to be disproportionately lethal, accounting for around 11% of the total reported fatalities during the truce period. This sharp increase in tribal violence was mainly underpinned by intra-tribal clashes triggered by land disputes and blood feuds. While these local struggles are seemingly detached from national political dynamics, they swept across the country, cutting across territories controlled by Houthi and anti-Houthi forces, with peaks in Shabwah, Marib, Ibb, Amran, and Al Bayda (see map below). Meanwhile, a comparison between the truce period and the six months prior also highlights new patterns of political violence between state forces and tribal militias. Whereas these confrontations sharply decreased in IRG-controlled territories, infighting and repression remained a major source of instability in Houthi-controlled areas (for more, see ACLED’s report on tribal infighting and repression in Houthi-controlled territories).
In Houthi-controlled territories, ACLED records the highest level of tribal violence during the truce in northwestern Al Bayda. The governorate experienced a spike in confrontations between Houthi state forces and local tribes in July 2022, after Houthi security forces accused a man from Khubzah village in Al Quraishyah district – an area known for its opposition to Houthi presence – of murdering a Houthi loyalist. Despite villagers denying the allegations (Jusoor Post, 21 July 2022), Houthi forces besieged Khubzah and engaged in clashes with a local tribal militia that reportedly resulted in at least 18 civilian casualties. The fighting pitted prominent local shaykhs – including long-time Houthi affiliates, such as Ahmad Al Dhahab – against the Houthis, preluding the appointment of Abdullah Idris as the new governor of Al Bayda (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 24 July 2022). Idris is a Houthi loyalist from Radaa city, whose reputation as a renowned mediator might contribute to quell mounting tribal tensions.
Skirmishes between pro-Houthi forces and local tribes also re-emerged in Al Jawf governorate, where tensions predated the current truce. Hostilities between the Houthis and the local Dhu Husayn and Bani Nawf tribes emerged first over contested military and political developments in 2020,2In December 2019, the Houthis replaced Al Jawf Governor Salih Darman — a member of the Dhu Husayn tribe — with Ahmad al-Marrani, a loyalist from Saada (Ansarollah, 6 October 2019; Al Islah, 16 February 2020). Additionally, clashes erupted for the control of Hazm city with the Bani Nawf tribes. and later culminated with a full-blown tribal mobilization in July 2021.3On 30 June 2021, Houthi forces arrested the head of the Al Jawf branch of the Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Houthi-controlled humanitarian agency. The official, Khalid Al Shanani, hails from the local Dhu Husayn tribe. The tribes reacted to the arrest, organizing sit-ins, blocking the road between Al Jawf and Amran, and eventually clashing with Houthi forces. These pre-existing frictions surfaced again at the beginning of 2022 when the Houthis attempted to enforce a rigid control of the black market by confiscating oil trucks from Bani Nawf tribesmen, triggering a spiral of violence that skyrocketed during the truce (Al Montasaf, 28 April 2022).
The northern governorate of Amran recorded unprecedented levels of tribal violence in 2022.4Between 2015 and 2021, ACLED records 30 organized political violence events involving the tribes in Amran. In 2022 alone, 32 events of the same type have already been recorded. Intra-tribal clashes peaked in July and August, cutting across several districts, including As Sudah, Raydah, and Huth, while reported fatalities increased by 650% compared to the same period before the truce. Most clashes revolved around ‘traditional’ land disputes to demarcate territorial borders and gain access to water resources, at times exacerbated by the affiliation of specific tribal groups with the Houthis. In Iyal Surayh district, several clashes opposed pro-Houthi forces and local tribesmen in July, continuing a conflict started in December 2021 over land grabbing (Al Sahil, 10 December 2021). Similar dynamics also extended to Ibb governorate, where intra-tribal conflict over land disputes and revenge killings accounted for most fatalities in the region. Notably, infighting between Houthi-affiliated groups continued to fuel local tensions, as lethal clashes erupted in As Sayyani district between Al Ghanimi tribesmen and the Houthi Preventive Security (for more, see ACLED’s report on Houthi infighting in Ibb).
Yet, tribal violence also broke out in IRG-controlled areas, largely clustering in Shabwah and Marib. Shabwah saw a twofold increase in intra-tribal clashes in June and July 2022, spreading from the north to the south of the governorate. Violence surfaced over tribal revenge killings and land disputes, yet it suddenly ceased as infighting between Islah-affiliated and STC-affiliated forces erupted in August. In Marib, intra-tribal clashes increased significantly from May 2022. Tribal vengeance and land disputes were among the drivers of violence that broke out in the east and northeast of Marib city. Further clashes erupted in June 2022 between IRG forces and local tribesmen along the main road connecting Marib to Hadramawt, as the tribes attempted to pressure the authorities into sharing oil revenues obtained from the oil fields situated in the north and northeast of the governorate’s capital.
During the truce, tribal violence, and especially intra-tribal clashes over land and blood feuds, broke out in the north and the south of the country, cutting across governorates characterized by different political environments, natural resources, and cultural traditions. Arguably, the common underlying factor that triggered local conflicts was the cessation of hostilities at the national level. The truce allowed for the return of tribesmen to their places of origin, arguably reigniting unresolved disputes. Concurrently, it freed up state resources to be internally directed at security campaigns. The resumption of a countrywide conflict would probably cause a reduction of tribal violence events, as the frontlines would drain resources from local conflicts.
After more than seven years of war, the UN-mediated truce has yielded several positive developments in Yemen. The most evident is perhaps an unprecedented drop in the number of fatalities produced by the conflict. The countrywide halt to offensive military operations brokered by the UN has led to a 90% reduction in the reported fatalities associated with confrontations between the warring parties, compared to the six months prior to the truce. Concurrently, airstrikes from Saudi-led coalition fighter jets – the second deadliest form of violence in Yemen – have completely stopped.
This truce’s arguable success should not conceal the fact that confrontations between Houthi and PLC factions have continued throughout the truce, resulting in over 450 reported fatalities. The mechanism set in place by the UN – a military coordination committee and a joint coordination room – provided important channels of communication to de-escalate the conflict, but it did not tackle the several drivers of violence at the local level. Should the truce be renewed, violations would likely rebound in the absence of trust-building measures aimed at promoting political dialogue between the warring parties.
Furthermore, the conflict between the Houthis and the IRG is just the tip of the iceberg in Yemen. During the past six months, political violence continued to befall the country, adapting to the new political environment produced by the truce. As the warring parties temporarily diverted resources and fighters from the frontlines, local conflicts regained momentum. Concurrently, civilian casualties remained at high levels due to heightened repression and increased mobility in conflict zones. Political violence in Yemen is multifaceted and bound to inherently local dynamics. While broadly successful in temporarily cutting down on conflict, the truce had the side effect of fueling ongoing drivers of future conflict in the country, and obscuring them from the attention of the international community.