Unraveling the Yemen Matrix

Houthis Taking Part in a Protest in Sana’a. Photo Credit: Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters

On October 7th, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a conversation entitled: The Yemen Matrix: Untangling the Relationships that Drive the War. The conversation featured Stephen Seche, former ambassador to Yemen, and Elana DeLozier, Rubin Family Fellow on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute and adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. During the event, DeLozier presented her project called “The Yemen Matrix.” The matrix is intended to help analysts and policymakers understand the complex relationships between various actors in the Yemeni Civil War.

Ambassador Seche began the conversation, describing how Yemen has come to the forefront in recent years because of the civil war and the related participation of several regional actors. The importance of the talk, according to the Ambassador, was to help those interested in Yemen dissect the complexity of the war and better understand who the actors are.

Next, DeLozier delved into the matrix. The matrix was an idea she had been considering for many years. It was born out of two questions: “How can I get people up to speed on the complexity of Yemen?” and “How do I do this while staying true to the story of Yemen?” “The story of Yemen,” DeLozier states, “is not a single story – it’s a complex web of stories.” She compared the complexity of the war to that of a Turkish mulsalal, the Arabic word for “soap opera.” The war is defined by many characters and unanticipated partnerships. At the same time, one should not avoid studying the conflict because of its complexity; Yemen’s stability affects the entire Gulf region, so it is in our interest to study it.

DeLozier explains the various relationships within the matrix using story lines. For DeLozier, story lines effectively explain the basics and help humanize an experience. Accordingly, the matrix focuses on three pieces of info: actors, events and relationships. Personalities drive events more than institutions; therefore, actors matter. Yemen is also “a country with an acute memory” and a painful history of war. Indeed, the actors in Yemen today remember who fought with and against them in previous wars. Thus, events are central. Perspective also drives behavior, so understanding the relationships between actors and their motives is essential.

DeLozier chose 12 actors to focus on in the matrix. The Old Guard (Ali Mohsen, the Saleh family), the main combatants (Hadi government, Houthis), the political parties (GPC – Sana’a, Islah – Riyadh), other local groups (STP, Mahri protestors), and regional countries (Saudi, UAE, Oman, Iran). She does not include military forces, tribes or terrorist organizations. Each actor has a profile in the matrix with a list of relevant people under each actor. DeLozier emphasizes groups involved in Yemen are not monoliths, and even members within groups disagree at times. For example, not every Houthi likes Iran.

DeLozier also considers 10 events in the matrix, choosing key historical events that relate to relationships in the project. Selected events are ones that living Yemenis remember and that underpin the relationships the project highlights. These pivotal events all occurred within the lifetime of Yemenis today. Finally, DeLozier uses a five-tier spectrum to define the various relationships between actors. This spectrum is based on her own perspective of the actors, and she acknowledges that no two people would choose the same box for every relationship. The spectrum ranges from “Allies” to “Adversary” to “Complicated.” This spectrum does not capture the day-to-day nature of variations in relationships, but rather the tone of the relationship over the course of the past few years of the war. All together, these relationships, actors and events are tied together in the matrix which can be found here.  

Ambassador Seche and DeLozier then began Q&A. Seche first asked DeLozier what her main takeaways from the project were. DeLozier stated that she had two takeaways. The first was that “grievance is at the heart of relationships in Yemen.” Grievances are not based on ancient hatreds; these grievances have developed during the actors’ lifetimes. The Yemenis in the north and the south have lost relatives in previous wars, and they hold one another responsible for those losses. These wars have created the adversaries we observe in the conflict today. The other takeaway was that “most of the ally relationships are with a foreign power.” The STC has a strong relationship with the UAE, the Mahri protestors have a strong relationship with Oman, for example. The majority of the closest alliances in Yemen are with foreign powers, which is ironic because most Yemenis vehemently oppose foreign intervention.

Ambassador Seche then pointed out the absence of women in the matrix, as he described them as the backbone of society. DeLozier explained that when she carried out the project, she looked at the most outspoken actors on social media and the news, which were all men. She highlighted that we need to be careful and not think of women and youth as monoliths with specific sets of interests, like we would a political party. She agreed with Ambassador Seche that women should be in just as many positions of power as men and that their absence was notable in the project. She goes on to say that bringing women into the joint declaration would be beneficial. Women should be woven into the system as opposed to being seen as a monolithic entity.    

Ambassador Seche then asked DeLozier about the role of external actors and to what extent they are an impediment to finding a solution for Yemenis, and how we can use them to help Yemenis move forward. DeLozier believes there is no one answer to that question. The four foreign actors involved (Saudi, UAE, Oman and Iran) have various levels of involvement. She does suggest, though, that regional actors coordinate their involvement. Foreign support gives the external actors leverage in the conflict, which means that they control incentives and disincentives. Foreign support creates incentives for domestic actors, and she hopes that foreign actors are thoughtful in their support. Specifically, DeLozier hopes external actors consider the broader picture and act not only for short-term personal gain. Yemenis are tired of foreign intervention because it has occurred throughout much of their recent history.            

The discussion ended with a final question from Ambassador Seche. He asked DeLozier if there was an upcoming inflection point in the war, and, if so, whether we can capitalize on it to build positive momentum towards a negotiated settlement. He explicitly references the battle for Ma’rib Governorate in north-central Yemen between the legitimate government and the Houthi rebels. DeLozier believes that Ma’rib is itself an inflection point, but is not sure what the result will be. Whether the Houthis win or lose the battle for Ma’rib are both inflection points. If they win Ma’rib, then the last government stronghold will be under Houthi control; if they lose, then their reputation on the battlefield will deteriorate. If the Houthis lose, there may be an opportunity for peace talks. DeLozier is concerned, however, that parties only want to approach the negotiating table when they have the upper hand, yet at no point do both parties simultaneously have the upper hand. The answer to this problem comes down to political will. There must be strong leadership on both sides of the conflict and regional actors must be involved in the push for negotiations. DeLozier concluded by noting the upcoming U.S. elections are another inflection point. Vice President Biden, should he be elected, “will have a very different policy in Yemen than President Trump.”

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