A Southern soldier from the South Yemen Independence day celebration in Aden, South Yemen. Nov 30, 2016 (Ahmed Shihab)

Agents, Not Puppets: Debunking the Myth of Proxy Warfare in Yemen


Mon, 31-07-2023 11:30 AM, Aden Time

The proxy war narrative in Yemen is not only reductionist which oversimplifies the conflict's complexity, but it also misrepresents the entire conflict and robs Yemenis of their own agency and undermines their own legitimate concerns.

Ala Mohsen (South24)

The Yemeni civil war, a devastating conflict that has caused immense suffering for millions of Yemenis and torn the country apart, has been frequently labeled as a proxy war in popular media and policy debates. The involvement of Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab of Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Iran on the other, has led many to accept this framing without critically examining its implications. However, the proxy war narrative in Yemen is not only reductionist which oversimplifies the conflict's complexity, but it also misrepresents the entire conflict and robs Yemenis of their own agency and undermines their own legitimate concerns. This proxy war characterization misses an important point: Yemen civil war is fundamentally a multifaceted struggle between local groups vying to impose their own political projects, independent of the involvement of external actors. Before delving into the reasons why this portrayal is not only factually incorrect but also has detrimental effects on the peacebuilding process led by the United Nations (UN) and its current Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg, it is crucial to establish a clear definition of what constitutes a proxy war and its attributes. 

Proxy warfare: Definition and conditions 

The Oxford Dictionary defines a proxy war as “a war started by a major power that does not itself become involved.” The Yemeni conflict does not exhibit these two fundamental characteristics. First, the hostilities and confrontations between local actors preceded the involvement of the Saudi-led coalition. The current civil war commenced in September 2014 with the Houthi rebel takeover of the capital Sanaa. On the other hand, the coalition operations started only in late March 2015. Despite signing the Peace and National Partnership Agreement and forcing a change of government after their capture of the capital city, the Houthis shortly put President Hadi under house arrest. After escaping house arrest, Hadi fled to Aden, attempting to reorganize his government and appealing for international assistance. The Houthis, along with Saleh (before their alliance disintegrated in 2017), responded by sending fighter jets to bomb the presidential palace. They also deployed the Sanaa-loyal central security forces stationed in Aden, under Brigadier General Abdul-Hafez Al-Saqqaf's command, to seize control of Aden Airport. Upon the failure of these two attempts, the Houthis declared a popular mobilization against South to eliminate Hadi's regime and resistance using the pretext of counter-terrorism. Southerners were alarmed and anxious, especially with the significant presence of Sanaa loyalist forces within the military establishment in South, let alone additional reinforcements still pouring from North. 

Second, the Saudi-led coalition is directly engaged in the war through aerial campaigns, initially called the "Decisive Storm" operations. Since then, the coalition has been an active conflict actor, and the Houthis have repeatedly targeted Saudi and Emirati cities as a response. Both countries suffered casualties, with the UAE losing 45 soldiers in a single day in Marib. These incidents serve as concrete evidence of the coalition’s direct involvement in the conflict.  In order to enhance the effectiveness of their military campaigns, the Saudi-led coalition works with the internationally recognized government (IRG), the Southern resistance and other local groups who were already fighting the Houthis on the ground. As a result, a more accurate characterization would be a regionalized conflict, which refers to a civil war in which conflicting neighboring countries become directly involved in localized rebellions.

Defining the relationship: The Saudi-led coalition and local allies

The definition of a proxy war cannot be solely based on the presence of international support for local actors. All local conflicts receive some form of international support for one or a few local actors. However, a proxy war implies that local actors are "proxies" representing the interests of more powerful entities. This designation does not fit local actors. For instance, in the case of the Southern resistance, the relationship with the Saudi-led coalition did not pre-exist the conflict; it was an impromptu alliance to combat a common nemesis. When Houthi and Saleh forces expanded to Southern territories, the Southern resistance formed from pockets of neighborhood fighters were poorly equipped and trained vis-à-vis the state-sponsored Saleh-loyalist regular army backed by dogmatic Houthi fighters. Therefore, training and arms support was welcomed to bolster the resistance capabilities. While the coalition had provided substantial support to IRG forces and other Northern resistance elsewhere, the Southern forces demonstrated the most promising and effective military capabilities against the Houthis. The Southern forces have indeed received military aid from the coalition, especially the UAE, but that does not necessarily make them an UAE proxy, the same way we cannot reduce the Houthis to being an “Iranian puppet”. The term "proxy" is often used by their political rivals to delegitimize each other, but its usage alone does not validate the claim. The truth of the matter should be assessed based on concrete evidence rather than solely relying on how political opponents label each other.

Additionally, the Southern forces and their political representative - the Southern Transitional Council (STC) - are not Saudi or Emiratis proxies for the mere fact that they have their own political project that does not necessarily align with the war objectives of the Saudi-led coalition. While both sides share a common Houthi enemy, they don’t necessarily share the same vision and priorities when it comes to state structure in post-conflict Yemen. The Southerners are confronting the Houthis because the latter have invaded their homeland and are reinforcing the Northern occupation that has been in place since 1994. On the other hand, the Saudis regard the Houthis as a security threat to their border, and their entire campaign has focused on containing this threat either through military pressure or political negotiations. For that reason, the Saudis have prioritized the Houthi problem more than any talks about resolving the Southern problem or stabilizing the liberated territories. After the Saudi restructuring of its foreign policy in Yemen following the agreement with Iran, there is a good chance of a policy clash between the Saudis and the STC, especially if the Saudis attempt to undermine Southern unity and divide South into small spheres of influence at the governorate level. Overall, the Saudi relationship with the Southern STC remains mutually beneficial, signifying a partnership rather than a patron-client dynamic. Yet, it is also poised to evolve in response to the shifting geostrategic priorities in the region.

Catastrophic framework: Repercussions from a peacebuilding perspective 

Framing the regionalized Yemeni civil war as a "proxy war" could have catastrophic repercussions for peacebuilding efforts. While Hans Grunberg's visits to directly involved countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE are understandable, a more effective approach would involve extensive engagement with local conflict actors. Currently, the special envoy is making disproportional visits to foreign countries compared with local actors. For instance, despite Aden being the seat of the IRG and the headquarters of the STC, Hans made less than 5 visits since assuming office in September 2021. More frequent visits and mediations between Aden and Sanaa are needed as they are far more critical than involving countries with limited leverage over local actors, such as China or even the United States. In peacebuilding, resolving conflicts often requires addressing the issues between local stakeholders. However, when we view this conflict merely as a proxy war between regional states like KSA vs. Iran, there is a risk of underestimating local motives and focusing solely on dealing with external powers assumed erroneously to possess the decisive power to end this conflict.

Proxy relationships typically involve a more direct and controlled relationship, where one party serves as a puppet of another, advancing the interests of the external power without significant autonomy. This dynamic is largely absent among the key conflict actors in Yemen. For instance, the STC represents the Southern independence movement that seeks to re-instate the South Yemeni state that pre-existed the current union. While it is true that the UAE has provided support to its anti-Houthi domestic allies, including the STC, the Southern movement maintains its own distinct agenda and has its roots in long-standing grievances and aspirations within the South Yemeni population. If the STC and the Southern forces in Yemen were mere proxies of the UAE, the latter’s decision to exit the Yemeni conflict in 2019 would have had substantial ramifications for the territorial control and conflict dynamics in the Southern region. According to the logic of proxy warfare, the UAE's withdrawal should have resulted in the Southern forces aligning their actions with the UAE's interests and possibly giving up their fight against the Houthis. However, this scenario did not unfold as dictated by that logic. Instead, we saw the commitment of the STC to the Southern cause more than any other consideration. For this reason, we would be barking up the wrong tree if we insist on calling the Yemeni civil war a proxy war. Though some external powers, like Saudi Arabia, continue to be involved as conflict actors, our primary focus must shift to the local level. The root cause of this war lies within Yemen itself, with internal factors triggering the conflict before external actors intervened.

Concluding thoughts 

In conclusion, labeling the Yemeni civil war as a proxy war oversimplifies its complexity and ignores the genuine grievances and aspirations of local Yemeni actors and the populations they represent. The conflict involves multiple domestic groups with distinct political projects and historical grievances. While external powers may provide support to various factions, reducing the conflict to a mere proxy war does a disservice to the suffering people of Yemen. To end the conflict and bring peace to the country, it is crucial to move beyond the proxy war narrative and gain a more nuanced understanding of the local drivers of the conflict. 

The problematization of the proxy war narrative does not negate the significance of foreign actors, such as Saudi Arabia, who remain an important stakeholder in this conflict.  Such a country should be reconceptualized as a conflict actor rather than a mere puppeteer controlling the dynamics in the country through local mercenaries. The Saudi interests may be secured through security guarantees or backdoor agreements with the Houthi group. Meanwhile, for Yemenis, including Southerners, the struggle is about preserving fundamental rights and freedoms against a regressive rogue regime in Sanaa. As long as the conditions for war and conflict persist, the war is not likely to end, regardless of the involvement of regional countries. Debunking the proxy war framing allows us to properly shift the focus onto the actors that matter the most for the peace process. Until we acknowledge the agency and genuine concerns of the local actors, achieving durable peace in Yemen will remain an insurmountable challenge.

Ala Mohsen 

Ph.D. researcher at the University of Utah specializing in Middle East politics, focusing on Yemen, Gulf states, and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter (@algahafy)

South YemenYemenYemeni conflictState actorsProxy warSTCUNHouthisYemeni governmentSaudi ArabiaUAEIran