Council on Foreign Relations-Full article

UN-brokered peace talks between allied Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Yemeni government stalled in the summer of 2016. In late July, the Houthis and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government and announced the formation of a “political council” to govern Sanaa, Yemen’s capital and largest city, and much of north Yemen. Fighting continues between rebels and the Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues to take a heavy toll on Yemeni civilians. All sides of the conflict are reported to have violated human rights and international humanitarian law, and the UN estimates that the civilian causalty toll is approaching 10,000 killed or injured. The internationally-recognized government is calling oninternational financial institutions to isolate the Central Bank of Yemen, threatening the further economic deterioration of the country.

In October, the White House began a review of its support for the Saudi-led coalition after an air strike at a funeral in Sanaa killed more than 140 people and injured 525. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also called on Saudi Arabia to immediately cease hostilities.


Internal political instability, backlash against U.S. counterterrorism operations, and interference by neighboring states has contributed to rising violence and fracturing in Yemen. The country faces an insurgency led by the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group with links to Iran and a history of rising up against the Sunni government. In September 2014, Houthi insurgents took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, demanding lower fuel prices and a new government. Following failed negotiations, the rebels seized the presidential palace in January 2015, leading President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government to resign. Beginning in March 2015, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthi insurgent group with U.S. logistical and intelligence support. Hadi rescinded his resignation and returned to Yemen in September 2015.

UN-mediated talks between Houthi militants and the ousted Yemeni government have failed to reach a resolution. The intervention of regional powers, including Iran and Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, in Yemen’s conflict threatens to draw the country into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Iran has armed Houthi rebels through shipments in the Gulf of Aden. However, numerous weapons shipments from Iran to Houthi rebels have been intercepted by a Saudi naval blockade in place since April 2015. In response, Iran has dispatched its own naval convoy, which further risks military escalation between the two countries.

In April 2016, the United States deployed a small team of forces to advise and assist troops from the Arab-led mission to retake territory from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Ongoing political turmoil in Yemen has created a vacuum in which AQAP and other terrorist and insurgent groups can freely operate. AQAP, which formed in 2009 when the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged, is considered one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates to U.S. national security. It has used this opportunity to expand its territory and seize critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, the self-declared Islamic State has also begun operations in Yemen, carrying out attacks in Sanaa targeting Shiites and Houthi headquarters. In July 2015, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey stated that the Islamic State now poses a bigger threat to the United States than AQAP, particularly due to the greater threat of homeland attacks.

The UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, attempted to lead an international inquiry in the human rights abuses in Yemen.

The United States is deeply invested in combating terrorism and violent extremism in Yemen. It has collaborated with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, beginning drone strikes there in 2002. However, the overall U.S. strategy for counterterrorism in Yemen relies heavily on Yemeni ground forces, a relationship currently suspended due to government’s loss of legitimacy. The Houthi insurgency—and growing chaos within Yemen—increases the risks posed by Yemeni terrorism, while simultaneously threatening the United States’ ability to deal with it.