After years of war, Yemen is living through a watershed moment. Since April 2022, a national truce mediated by the United Nations is in effect and an inclusive, although politically fragmented, leadership structure, the Presidential Leadership Council, has replaced the interim president. A military coordination committee between warring parties has been convened for the technical implementation of the truce, which also facilitates communication and confidence-building. Moreover, the Presidential Leadership Council has established a 59-member Joint Military Committee to restructure and unify the armed and security forces belonging to the ‘anti-Houthi camp’, as well as intelligence units. Against this backdrop, Eleonora Ardemagni argues that time is ripe to reassess options for armed groups’ integration in the security sector.
In Yemen, the establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council in April 2022 formalized the country’s post-hybrid reality. When officials and ‘rebels’ become members of the same institution, as in the case of the new Presidential Leadership Council, ‘armies’ and ‘militias’, ‘state’ and ‘counterstate’ governance cannot be categorized as opposite poles of an imaginary continuum any longer. For this reason, the hybrid model – key to understanding the complex forms of security delivery that were enhanced after 2011 – now reveals its limits, as reality changes on the ground. The boundaries between formal and informal forces, previously challenged and diminished by hybridization, tend to extinguish altogether.
The game-changer now is the top–down political acknowledgement provided by weakened but still recognized institutions, through formal co-optation, to the ‘hybrid sovereignties’ who de facto rule the territory. On the one hand, regular security forces and recognized institutions co-opt non-state forces and would-be institutional entities (e.g. the Southern Transitional Council, STC), maximizing amalgamation, but without real integration. On the other, most of the non-state forces and would-be institutional entities are now part of regular security forces and recognized institutions, thus acquiring a legal status which reinforces their legitimacy. But the gradual recognition of armed groups and self-proclaimed entities, while prolonged conflict and multiple power centres continue to erode institutional sovereignty, forges a new reality which overcomes hybridity. Who is a ‘formal’ actor and who is an ‘informal’ player in Yemen today? Do these labels still matter when it comes to designing locally oriented pathways of integration?
Rivals around the same security table
In the Presidential Leadership Council, the leaders of the most powerful armed groups, with varied degrees of hybridization with regular forces, now sit side-by-side (except for the Houthis) with people from internationally recognized institutions. For instance, Aydarous Al Zubaidi, the President of the STC, a self-proclaimed entity with affiliated armed groups claiming autonomy/independence for the Southern regions, is a member of the Council. However, the STC is also formally part of the recognized government based in Aden since late 2019, as part of the ‘Riyadh Agreement’.
Moreover, coalition-building attempts between armed groups, as well as effective integration by recognized institutions, have substantially failed so far, due to power rivalries and different agendas. For instance, two leaders of the West Coast Forces, the National Resistance Forces’ head Tareq Saleh and the Giants Brigades’ commander Abu Zaara, are both on the board of the Council, despite being formally part of the joint Saleh-led military umbrella.
This also has implications for the armed groups’ integration into the security sector. Generally, the regular security sector is considered substantially different from the groups aspiring to integration. However, this isn’t the case in post-hybrid landscapes such as Yemen. So, what about armed groups’ integration in a post-hybrid setting, especially if a shared centre of institutional power is still missing? Integration cannot follow fixed formats; however, a national vision is needed to limit further fragmentation and to support national unity. Integration should move along three axes: it should be locally oriented, task-oriented, with steps for incremental implementation.
Stabilisation options for integrated, regionally based security
My policy paper ‘Integrating Yemen’s Armed Groups: Pathways of Decentralisation’ provides ‘work in progress’ stabilisation options, thus focusing on a specific side of security sector reform/governance (SSR/G) while also offering integration packages. However, these are flexible, adjustable during implementation and developing from two perspectives of centre–periphery relations that also leave room for incremental choices. The paper elaborates on integration options into existing agencies: the police forces and the Yemen Coast Guard (YCG). It also provides integration options into new, purpose-built agencies: the Yemen Regional Guard (YRG) and the Yemen National Guard (YNG), both developing within the vision of a united and federal Yemen, as per the 2014 National Dialogue Conference outcome document.
The YRG policy option portrays a context of marked decentralisation in centre–periphery relations, with many powers assigned to governorates and local authorities. This option mirrors the current state on the ground, in which a de facto federalisation of the country has been achieved, although ungoverned through institutional means. The YRG option would institutionalise this reality, with many powers devolved from national institutions to governorates and local authorities. The YNG policy option depicts a context of limited decentralisation in centre–periphery relations, with some powers devolved from national institutions to governorates and local authorities.
With regard to sequencing, the YRG option can be calibrated and adjusted depending on the evolution of the political-institutional context, thus confirming or reducing the practical translation on the ground of the federal principle. In this way, the YNG policy option can be considered an alternative option to the YRG to build a less decentralised Yemen. But the YNG option could be also considered the ‘phase two’ of the YRG, in case a national-level political agreement is finally achieved.
Locally tailored solutions for sustainable integration
My research outlines the physiognomy of the would-be regionally based Guard. In this framework, the Yemeni forces organized and backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE, e.g. the Hadhrami Elite Forces; the former Shabwani Elite Forces, now Shabwa Defense Forces; to a lesser extent the Security Belt Forces) represent concrete examples of how the ′proto-units` of the possible YRG/YNG could be. In fact, the UAE-supported forces combine local recruitment, local operative radius, and the developing of specific expertise, most of all related to counter-insurgency skills.
The main issue remains how to engage the Houthis. The Saada-based movement has been able to consolidate power, rather than disperse it, in the war landscape, combining cooperative, competitive, and then coercive consolidation. This is exactly the opposite of what happened to the anti-Houthi camp, weakened by rival identities at regional level, ideological fragmentation, and infighting. Also, in the case of the Houthis, integration efforts could focus on the most external units/combatants, especially those coming from the Houthis’ geographical periphery or former president Saleh’s bloc loyalists.
Unpacking force integration packages is the way to identify starting points towards stabilisation (e.g. a YRG unit to be established somewhere on a specific task). The stabilisation of the armed groups and/or combatants has to find not only alternative agencies of integration (e.g. police, the YCG, the YNG, the YRG) but also has to identify small-scale, incremental steps to implement integration starting, for instance, from the sub-governorate/municipality level.
On timing and sequencing, some integration options could be designed and implemented before a political agreement is reached, maybe capitalizing on hypothetical de-escalation zones (e.g. a YCG port special unit for Mokha in Taiz governorate; a YRG/YNG demining unit in al-Khawkha, Taiz governorate; a YRG/YNG counter-terrorism unit in Shabwa, especially now that attacks likely performed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are resurfacing). Governorate-level integration could be pursued later (e.g. the YRG/YNG division in Taiz; the YRG/YNG division in Shabwa), as a second step in SSG/SSR.
In any case, this approach cannot be guided by homogenous lines since it tries to provide locally tailored answers in order to be effective and sustainable. However, a national vision for force integration is needed to limit fragmentation and support federal unity.
This article is a slightly revised extract of the author’s Policy Brief ‘Integrating Yemen’s Armed Groups: Pathways of Decentralisation’, published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), July 2022.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at ISPI, a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and Adjunct Professor at ASERI (Graduate School of Economics and International Relations). She is the author of ‘The Huthis: Adaptable Players in Yemen’s Multiple Geographies’, CRiSSMA Educatt, 2019 and has just published the chapter ‘The Yemeni-Saudi Border: The Huthis and the Evolution of Hybrid Security Governance’, in Abdullah Hamidaddin (ed.), ‘The Huthi Movement in Yemen: Ideology, Ambition and Security in the Arab Gulf’, I.B. Tauris, Bloomsbury, 2022.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or other institutions’ positions.
Soldiers fighting in the ranks of the internationally recognized government’s army against Houthi militia in Taiz City, Yemen, 8 May 2016. Photo: Akram Alrasny.