San'a's isolation: Implications for peacebuilding

In a new publication from the International Crisis Group, the organization’s Arabian Peninsula Senior Analyst, April Longley Alley, discusses realities on the ground in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, San’a. She focuses on the isolation of San’a from the rest of Yemen and its impact on locals; although food products are available in stores in San’a, the money to purchase them is dwindling for many families. Furthermore, the author emphasizes that the high numbers of civilian casualties that accompany Saudi attacks have turned public opinion against the Saudi-led coalition. Many feel a sense of solidarity with the Houthis as a result of both isolation from the rest of Yemen and indiscriminate coalition bombings; these combine to create an “us and them” mentality that pits San’a against Saudi Arabia, and locals feel angry toward both the Saudi-led coalition and the United States over the high number of civilian deaths.

“That the coalition is targeting the Huthi/Saleh alliance is little solace to the Yemenis I meet. Strikes on the homes of GPC officials in particular are often in densely populated neighbourhoods, making collateral damage inevitable. In each place, I hear about casualties: a next-door family of six being wiped out, a young girl killed, a mother burned to death. People speak of many ‘double taps’, when rescuers rush in to help after a first bombing, and then coalition planes drop a second wave of bombs, killing rescuers and anyone else who happens to be nearby. Not once do I hear of a high-ranking GPC or Huthi official being killed in these bombings.”

There is also a strong resistance to Saudi Arabia’s military presence in Yemen due to a sense of pride and independence among many Yemenis; the author highlights that resistance to foreign aggression is a common theme among Yemenis regardless of who they support in the conflict. In San’a, many perceive Saudi Arabia and the US as foreign aggressors, while in Aden and many parts of southern Yemen, the Houthis are viewed in a similar light. The author also discusses the level of isolation that separates San’a from the rest of Yemen; physically, the city’s airport is closed and the only way to leave is through a long and dangerous trip to Aden, across the front lines of the conflict. San’a faces political isolation as well, as the foreign minister is unrecognized internationally and there is no diplomatic presence in the city other than from Russia and Iran.

“It is hard to overstate the impact of this isolation of the Huthi/Saleh alliance, and how much of an echo chamber Sanaa has become as a result. There is no doubt that this alliance has significant popular support in the city and other areas under its control. Yet with minimal UN or diplomatic contact, there are few bridges between the effective rulers of north Yemen and the outside world. The Huthis have reinforced their isolation by detaining foreigners, especially Americans, and both the Huthis and Saleh’s forces have at times refused to meet with and/or denied entry to UN negotiators.”

Longley Alley emphasizes that this isolation is a major obstacle to negotiation. While Yemenis desire an end to the conflict, she notes the complex conditions that must be met for a peace process to succeed, including but not limited to the importance of a compromise that satisfies both the honor of Yemenis and Saudi desires for security. These two factors are increasingly at odds due to the continued civilian casualties of Saudi attacks. Peacebuilding efforts must also balance the various power centers within Yemen, a related but separate challenge. In closing, the author reminds readers that a lasting peace is a common desire among Yemenis; engaging local actors on the ground will be crucial to transforming this shared desire into a reality.