The Yemen Quagmire

The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted a program examining the conflict in Yemen, the humanitarian impact of the war, and prospects for a political settlement.
Friday, February 12
12:00 - 1:30 pm
Johns Hopkins SAIS- Kenney Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20036

Event Information

(Washington, D.C.)- The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted a program examining the conflict in Yemen, the humanitarian impact of the war, and prospects for a political settlement.

Panelists Amat Alsoswa (Former Yemeni Cabinet Member), Leslie Campbell (National Democratic Institute), Andrew Plitt (USAID), and Charles Schmitz (MEI) discussed the deepening complexity of the conflict, the growing humanitarian crisis, the challenges of delivering aid to a suffering population, and prospects for peace talks and an end to the fighting. Kate Seelye (MEI) moderated the discussion.

Charles Schmitz explained the conflict’s antagonists and alliances, and reviewed the war’s progression. The two major parties to the conflict are the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition backing exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The country is further divided among the southern resistance, the northern forces, and the remnants of the Yemini military loyal to former-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led the country for three decades. The Saudi-led Hadi coalition, a group of disorganized, often contradictory forces, is united only in its opposition to the Houthis and Saleh’s followers. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is concentrated in the south, consolidating its capabilities by controlling key cities and orchestrating oil smuggling. Schmitz deemphasized Iran’s direct involvement in the conflict while emphasizing Saleh’s continued influence over the Yemeni people. He argued that the parties to the conflict neither have the capacity to end the war nor possess a coherent vision of a post-conflict Yemen. He believes that the fight will ultimately lead to the total defeat of one Yemeni faction or the other. Moreover, the Saudi military campaign did not degrade the Houthis or Saleh’s forces as expected, and as such the United States, in Schmitz’s view, should more critically assess Saudi Arabia’s actions.

Amat Alsoswa emphasized that Yemen had been experiencing a humanitarian crisis before the Saudi-led coalition’s military actions and that the war has exacerbated preexisting conditions. In addition to large scale food insecurity, much of the country lacks electricity and water, and is faced with epidemics that require immediate medical attention. She believes the largest challenge to peace is the humanitarian situation, followed by the country’s lack of economic activity. Oil and gas production, which were central to Yemen’s economy, have come to a full standstill. Alsoswa noted that Yemen is not only being divided between north and south, but within governorates. She argued that a future agreement will hold only if the political solution looks beyond the warring factions to include parties with stakes on the ground. She also emphasized the collective responsibility of the international community in ending the war and the need for increased recognition of the conflict.

Andrew Plitt expanded on Alsoswa’s comments about the humanitarian situation. He explained that each day the conflict drags on, recovery grows increasingly difficult as the economy and essential institutions collapse. Yemen’s situation was dire before the conflict, with several areas undergoing food security crises, yet as a result of the fighting, large portions of the country’s south and west have become full-scale emergency states on the fringes of famine. He emphasized the rising incidence of malnourishment and the state’s inability to address the desperate needs of its citizens. Questions of how and where to start recovery are extremely difficult to address in the face of potential state collapse. Plitt argued that security ultimately poses the biggest challenge to humanitarian actors supporting the needs of the Yemeni people.

Leslie Campbell explained that many of the warring parties’ issues and demands predate the current conflict. Historically, the north sought autonomy, but the region is now more focused on tactical concerns of resource and power-sharing. The south has seen several separatist movements, but given that the region includes some of the most productive and resource-intense areas in the country, the north and center have resisted its secession. Many southerners favor remaining part of Yemen as a loose federation. Resource allocation between north and south is a contentious issue that has existed for decades, but has not been addressed properly in the current conflict. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) failed to address the larger issues of federalism, and the proposal that emerged from the NDC was seen as pandering to the interests of the people in the center while ignoring the needs of the Houthis and the southerners. Campbell argued that peace-building efforts should seek to remedy the fundamental historical issues of the conflict.

The discussion ended with questions from the audience about the potential inaccuracies of media coverage of the Yemeni conflict, Saleh’s role in the future of Yemen, and the impact of the conflict on future economic opportunity.

Summary prepared by Tina Luu.

Panelists Biographies:
Amat Al-Alim Al-Soswa
Former Assistant Secretary General, United Nations and Former Yemeni Cabinet Minister
Amatalalim Alsoswa had a six year tenure at the United Nations, serving as assistant secretary general, UNDP assistant administrator, and regional director of UNDP’s Arab States Bureau. While at the UN she developed strategic frameworks promoting reconciliation and democracy during periods of political transition in the Middle East and guided UNDP’s regional strategy in response to the Arab Spring. As the first female cabinet minister in Yemen’s history, she established and oversaw her country’s human rights ministry from 2003-2006. She was also Yemen’s first female ambassador, accredited to Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands and as permanent representative to the Organization of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. From 1997-1999, she was undersecretary of the Yemeni Ministry of Information and chairperson of the National Women’s Committee. Following the end of the Saleh government, she participated in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) as a member of the state building team charged with developing a constitutional framework for a democratic transition in Yemen.

Leslie Campbell
Senior Associate and Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa Programs, National Democratic Institute
Leslie Campbell has 25 years of experience in international development, parliamentary governance, and political affairs. He joined the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 1994 and has directed the institute's programs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 1996. As NDI's senior associate and regional director, Campbell has overseen a vast expansion of NDI's programs in the region with the establishment of offices and programs that assist political, civic and governance reform throughout the Arab world. He is a frequent guest and commentator on Middle East issues for major news outlets and has written a number of articles and papers on the subject of democracy in the Middle East. Campbell has guest lectured at American University, Princeton University, Georgetown University, and Harvard's Kennedy School as well as having served on task forces and study groups on Middle East democracy at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the United States Institute of Peace.

Andrew Plitt
Director, Office of Iraq and Arabian Peninsula Affairs, U.S. Agency for International Development
Andrew Plitt holds the rank of counselor in the senior foreign service with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and currently serves as the director of the Office of Iraq and Arabian Peninsula Affairs (ME/IAPA) in USAID’s Middle East Bureau in Washington, D.C.  Previous to his appointment as the ME/IAPA Director, he served as the director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Operations (SPO) in USAID’s Asia Bureau, serving the Asia and Middle East regions. Plitt has been with USAID since 1991 and has served overseas in Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Morocco, Jordan, and West Bank/Gaza. He has also served as the director of Financial Policy and Overseas Support in USAID’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer in Washington, DC. Prior to USAID, he worked for Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse.

Charles Schmitz
Professor of Geography, Towson University and Scholar, MEI
Charles Schmitz is a scholar at The Middle East Institute and professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has taught since 1999. He is a specialist on the Middle East and Yemen. He began his academic career as a Fulbright scholar and American Institute for Yemeni Studies fellow in Yemen in the early 1990s. Schmitz's current research interests include the political economy of development in Yemen, international law and the counter terror policy, international governance and failing states, and the sociology of contemporary Yemeni society. He is the author of numerous articles and reports, including Failing States or Failing Politics (Hurst Publishers, 2014), and Building A Better Yemen (The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012). He has also been published in Politico, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs, among others.