Whatever hypothesis of establishment of a Yemeni National Guard (YNG) has to face a broader dilemma: would the YNG be functional to a federal re-composition of Yemen’s unified state, or it would push further, and maybe institutionalize, its on-going feudalization process? Surely, a YNG should be part of an agreed political compromise for a federal state, as well as of a widen Security Sector Reform (SSR) effort. While Yemen is still recognized as a unified country, it no longer has a single centre of authority: police forces are rarely disseminated on the territory and national armed forces crumbled, replaced by fluid and rival hybrid military umbrellas monopolized by militias with conflicting political identities, regional belongings and external backers. A YNG could represent a decisive tool for the rebuilding of security governance through "localized security" bringing, as added value, deep knowledge and ties with operative theatres, the formation of regionally-tailored skills to cope with issues of local concern, thus complementing -and not counter-balancing- the army (which needs to be re-constituted too). Most of all, a YNG could help to connect local security to economic decentralization and development, sewing Yemen’s current patchwork sovereignty into a new perception of shared community.*
Background: National Guards in Highly-Divided Arab States. Snapshots from Iraq and Libya
If we adopt a comparative approach, recent attempts to build National Guards in fractured Arab states have failed so far, as in the cases of Iraq and Libya. In both countries, these were perceived as biased projects by local and external actors, and they were never implemented, notwithstanding several attempts. In Iraq, the creation of a National Guard aimed to include the disenfranchised Arab Sunni community, engaging Sunnis in central institutions in the footsteps of the Sahwa movement (the “Awakening” or Sons of Iraq), with the purpose also to limit jihadists’ recruitment. But this was stopped firstly by Nuri Al-Maliki’s sectarian policies and then by Iraqi lawmakers, especially Shia ones. In Libya, the project of a National Guard, such as the Libya Shield, was antagonized by secular factions as well as by officers of the divided regular army: both feared the rise of Islamist forces in the military. Post-2011 geopolitical rivalries also contributed to prevent the creation of National Guards, often seen as proxy or externally-driven military actors: for instance, at the eyes of Shia Iraqi groups and Iran, this would have been a channel for Gulf monarchies and United States’ leverage in Baghdad. As for Yemen, Iraq and Libya have rooted and wide tribal structures, together with strong centrifugal forces along confessional and regional lines. In all three cases, informal and/or institutionalized military actors play a prominent role in the security domain, and a growing one in social and economic affairs, although Iraq still presents, differently from Libya and Yemen, a quite-functioning national army. As a result, a YNG should firstly be wary of defence sectarianization patterns and external penetration attempts by external powers, thus focusing on community-oriented practices and goals vis-à-vis locals.
From Here We Start: Yemen’s Patchwork Security Sector
From 2015 onwards, the civil war has accelerated the erosion of Yemen’s state sovereignty, fostering the emergence of adjacent ´feuds` referring to competing warlords and forging territorial networks of power, often with rival external backing. These micro-security orders fill now the vacuum left by the central state, in a framework marked by “patchwork security”. In Yemen as in many other fractured states, locally-based security agreements replace and/or prevail on overall, national frameworks, since competing security providers multiply on the territory, as the cases of coexistence/cooperation between armies and armed non-state actors, leaving room for hybrid security experiences of combat and, later, governance. As a matter of fact, three ´governments` exist within Yemen’s territorial boundaries. The internationally recognized executive led by interim president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, based in Aden after the 2015 Huthis’ coup in Sana’a, where the Northern Shia insurgents established a parallel government, given the tactical alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. After the killing of Saleh in December 2017 by Huthis’ militants, his loyalists opted for realignment with the recognized government, although maintaining a certain degree of autonomy. In 2017, the Southern secessionists self-proclaimed the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden, although still recognizing the legitimacy of president Hadi: allied with the internationally-recognized government against the Huthis (who are supported by Iran), the STC can rely on its own defence sector, predominantly constituted by militias backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and then institutionalized by Hadi in 2016, thus turning them into state-legitimized forces. Other micro-authorities must be added to this tripartite scenario, as the quasi self-governing tribes of the Eastern Mahra governorate or those with uncertain allegiance as in Wadi Hadhramawt. The reconfiguration of power relations in Yemen has resulted in a hybridized military marked by three emerging trends. First, a growing hybridization between formal and informal military actors, generating loose and unstable alignments or alliances. Two simultaneous processes can be isolated in security governance: remnants of the former regular armed forces confer legitimacy upon non-state militias, turning them into regular security actors; on the other hand, segments of the former official armed forces act as auxiliary forces of the militias. Second, Yemen’s defence sector has shifted from a national system based on the neo-patrimonial army to a pattern characterized by multiple and competing "state" umbrellas with militias at the centre of military hybrid structures. Third, hybridity and patronage still remain salient dynamics of the Yemeni defence sector, but they perform through different mechanisms with respect to the past: military commanders become local intermediaries between communities and domestic and/or foreign patrons. Beyond military actors, police forces are rarely disseminated on the territory, with the exceptions of Aden, Hadhramawt, Mareb and the Huthi-controlled cities; in urban centres, military actors often perform police tasks.
Imaging A National Guard For Federal Yemen: Ideas
A YNG, doing what, for whom? Tasks, goals, specific training and equipment of the YNG should be precisely planned in order to limit competition and overlapping with other regular security agencies, especially the army. Given its deep knowledge of the social fabric and local issues, plus its constant interaction with the population (differently from army’s rotation plans), the YNG would represent the ´proximity agent` of the Yemeni federal state, addressing broader security matters from a local perspective and not only strictly military ones, with a community-centred approach.
A locally-oriented YNG, but with national command and control structure for wide-scale emergencies. The YNG needs to be regionally-oriented and tailored, but acting, if necessary, as a complementary force of the regular army: this is the reason why it should develop like a gendarmerie-type force, technically part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The central government would have the possibility to place under its command the YNG in case of national emergencies (as armed insurgency against central institutions, foreign interventions not coordinated with central authorities, natural calamities); governors would deploy the YNG within their own regional borders if necessary, with the duty to previously inform the central institutions (not to gain the authorization), in order to avoid misunderstandings and promote cross-level military coordination. The Emirati-supported Security Belt Forces (SBF, in Aden, Abyan and Lahj), currently under the Ministry of Interior’s authority, could join the YNG. The YNG can be also a security tool for the military and social inclusion of low-level fighters who joined the Huthis’ ranks after 2015 (especially those with a tribal lineage and previously loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s network), with the purpose to create new security sentinels in Northern governorates.
A YNG involving local authorities to identify security priorities and resources allocation. Local authorities have great knowledge of inter and intra-tribal balances and they often mediate between armed groups for local ceasefires and prisoner exchanges. Therefore, governors and local councils need to be fully involved in two fundamental processes, in coordination with central institutions. Firstly, the mapping of areas and issues of local concerns, with the purpose to outline security priorities on a regional basis. The civil war has already ´localized security` in Yemen, given the plurality of war experiences, threat perceptions and the localization of responses to the war. Secondly, the allocation of financial and human resources, as the amount of budget and the number of personnel to be assigned for a specific operation (for instance, protecting an oil infrastructure or demining a city district).
A YNG consulting local authorities for appointments and recruitment. Regional commanders of the YNG would be appointed by governors in consultation with local councils (since governors are de facto appointed by central institutions, selection for apical positions has to be intended as agreed/not in conflict with these ones). Reintegration of single combatants, and not of pre-existent militias or state-sponsored armed groups as blocks, should help building cohesion and sense of belonging to the YNG.
A YNG paid by central institutions, funded by external donors and monitored by an international body, and with Parliamentary oversight. Yemen’s central institutions would pay salaries for YNG’s militaries and staff personnel through the Minister of Defence. External donors, first of all Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would mainly contribute in funding the YNG. The YNG funds should be managed directly by Yemen’s central institutions to stress the Yemeni ownership of the SSR process, with particular regard to the delivery of payments. An international monitoring body representing donors should supervise aid absorption and allocation phases with the MoD (encompassing the UN as technical advisor), also to reduce risks of cronyism and “ghost soldiers” in the YNG. This would limit selective and competitive patronage by external powers vis-à-vis regional units of the YNG. In this framework, local authorities should be represented in the aforementioned monitoring body: the House of Representatives (Majlis al-Nuwab, with elected proceeding from different constituencies) should also have some sort of oversight on YNG’s budget.
A YNG co-financed thanks to the partial reinvestment of local taxes, fees and energy revenues. In the post-conflict reconstruction phase, linking economic decentralization and the promotion of local security could trigger a positive ground-up effect for Yemen’s federal architecture. The cooperation of tribal chiefs (shuyyukh) in SSR is a fundamental step to re-establish periphery-centre ties, bind loyalty and, at the same time, fostering enduring tribal leaders’ leverage on tribesmen (to limit jihadi groups’ penetration on the territory): in most cases, they are also military leaders. Each governorate would partially contribute to its own security, co-financing its division of the YNG thanks to the re-investment of a variable share proceeding from the regional budget (local taxes, fees and energy revenues): the largest share of budget would be covered by external donors through central institutions, especially for lesser wealthy regions. Some governorates, as Mareb and Hadhramawt, have already developed mechanisms to reinvest locally about 20% of oil revenues. This trade-off (“local budget for local security towards local development”) would partially keep local wealth on the territory, thus incentivizing members of militias or state-sponsored armed groups to engage part-time in the regular security sector, while performing a civilian job. In the current war economy context, soldiers of state-sponsored armed groups receive higher salaries than regular army’s ones, and on a constant basis.
A YNG trained at a national level to build regionally-tailored expertise. Given past historical trajectories and different training experiences (the Yemeni Arab Republic trained by Turkish, then Egyptian and Iraqi officers, People Democratic Republic of Yemen trained by British and Soviet experts, re-unified Yemen mainly by the Jordanians), Yemen’s army still lacks a military doctrine. The YNG would strive to harmonize training methods and technical know-how, in order to develop interoperability among neighbouring, regional-based units and also with the regular army (in case of necessity), acquiring a basic but common level of capabilities. However, as previously noted, YNG and the army would must differ in terms of specific training and equipment, in a complementary scheme. Training for YNG would secondly focus on regionally-tailored issues, such as border security and anti-smuggling activities (ex. Hajja, Saada, Mahra), counter-terrorism (ex. Abyan, Al-Bayda, Hadhramawt), the protection of energy and/or logistical infrastructures (ex. Mareb, Shabwa, Hodeida), demining (Hodeida, Taiz). This would build military expertise directly on the territory, to better support, whether necessary, the deployment of regular army’s Special Forces, or joined counter-terrorism operations. This would also function as an “early-warning system” managed by regional governors and so tied to the YNG, signalling to central institutions areas of rising security concern, thus intervening promptly to address them. Joint border patrols between the YNG and neighbours’ border security forces (Saudi Arabia, Oman) could be explored.
A YNG trained by Arab multi-national teams in Yemeni military academies. Arab players would play a pivotal role in training assistance for the YNG, focusing on the transfer of operative capabilities. But this can’t turn into a regional race to secure/enhance/carve out niches of influence in Yemen (ex. Saudi Arabia in North Eastern regions and the UAE in Southern ones), so transforming the YNG in a proxy military actor. For this reason, multi-national teams of military experts could be created to train the YNG (basic common training plus regionally-tailored skills), in the context of new military academies: this might be a turning-point, with regard also to recruits’ socialization, military cohesion and the reintegration of low level, less ideological tribal fighters who joined the Huthis’ ranks in the North, as well as of secessionists who sided with Salafi militias in the South. Jordan, a low-profile actor in the civil war, with a high level of military professionalization, could be involved in the training process, engaging especially the Northerners. Since the 2000s, Amman supported the technical training of Saleh's Republican Guard: Northerners represented the bulk of this élite force.
YNG and the Army, parallel (re)building: Yemen’s national army does not exist anymore. Therefore, army’s reconstruction is a fundamental step in SSR and it should be pursued in parallel with the organization of a YNG: this is critical to emphasize the complementary nature and goals of these two military institutions, while undermining risks of rivalries for financial resources, apical positions, external funding and prestige. For this reason, differentiation in specific training and equipment must be identified before the starting of the SSR process.
YNG and the Army, cooperation, not counter-balancing. The YNG can be a useful tool for the engagement of local and peripheral forces: according to a survey of the Yemeni Polling Center (2018), 74% of Yemenis live in rural areas, often neglected by the official SS and relying only on tribal forces and informal authorities for security governance. However, there’s a risky aspect: the YNG should beware not to become the military force of the geographical and political peripheries of Yemen (ex. northern highlands, disenfranchised southerners, eastern tribes) against remnants of the regular army, which traditionally mirror the ruling, Sana’a-based élite and the power sharing between Saleh’s clan and the Al-Ahmar’s tribe. Therefore, the YNG should not convey the perception of being the “new forces” military against the “old élites” army. The YNG can be a positive security and social vector if it cooperates with the army, complementing army’s tasks and expertise with regionally-tailored duties and know-how, not if it counter-balances the army. A counter-balancing scenario would generate further rivalries, arms race and potential clashes.
Towards a YNG? Policy Recommendations
- Hybridity must be assumed as a permanent feature of the Yemeni system by international organizations and stakeholders: a YNG should be designed coping with this reality, which can be partially constrained but not totally erased. This means to recognize the presence of a persistent "double hybridization" in Yemen’s defence structure: hybridization due to the traditional overlapping of tribal and military roles and loyalties (the multiple identities phenomenon), and hybridization given the vague boundaries between formal and informal security actors, especially since 2015 onwards;
- The establishment of a YNG must be part of an inclusive, comprehensive political agreement to create a federal institutional architecture for unified Yemen. Although Yemen is currently a contested and polycentric territorial entity, its local and external stakeholders need to identify and agree on a single, pivotal political centre. The creation of a YNG must be encompassed in a broader and parallel SSR effort (including the armed forces and the police), as part of the post-conflict reconstruction phase;
- A YNG should complement and not counter-balance the army. The YNG should beware not to become the military force of the geographical and political peripheries of Yemen, nor to convey the perception of being the new forces military against the old one, or to represent a proxy actor of external powers. Such kinds of behaviour would generate frictions and potential clashes with remnants of the regular army, which traditionally mirror the Sana’a-based élite, with its limited power sharing. Also for this reason, a YNG should develop regionally-tailored skills and perform well-detailed duties, differing from the army for specific training and equipment, and its establishment should be pursued contemporarily with the re-organization of the regular army, thus undermining risks of rivalries for financial resources, apical positions, external funding and prestige;
- A YNG should help to connect local security to local decentralization and development, but designing a clear national command and control structure for wide-scale emergencies. Governorates’ budget would co-finance the YNG generating local security, and this should trigger a conducive environment for development. This trade-off can strengthen the community buy-in, incentivizing also members of militias or state-sponsored armed groups to engage in the regular security sector, given the enhanced federal security framework. A community-policing approach could further ease the interaction between security agents and citizens in a conflict-torn country as Yemen;
- A YNG should choose to integrate single combatants and not pre-existent armed groups as blocks, in order to build cohesion and sense of belonging to a military institution, enabling a ´rally around the flag` effect;
- A YNG can be a tool of de-radicalization for low-level, less-ideological fighters who joined the Huthis, as well as Salafi militias in the South. Today Yemen is much more sectarian than before: inter-confessional divides have widened due to the civil war and the majority of Yemeni Salafis abandoned the traditional quietist stance to embrace politicization and, in some cases, militarization. The intertwining of autonomist ambitions, especially in the South, and armed salafism is particularly worrying, since it can bolster support and recruitment for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the local “Islamic State”. A multilevel focus on local empowerment, including also the institution of a YNG, could reduce this phenomenon, fostering community development.
- A YNG should develop interoperability among neighbouring, regional-based units and also with the regular army (in case of necessity), firstly acquiring a basic but common level of capabilities and secondly focusing on regionally-tailored skills. In any case, YNG and the army would differ in specific training and equipment to better stress their complementarity. Military education and basic common training are fundamental drivers of military effectiveness and shared belonging: new Yemeni military academies would represent not only a way to boost technical capabilities but also a venue for recruits’ socialization. From a strategic point of view, Yemen should elaborate its own military doctrine to identify which principles guide national security objectives.
- The full engagement of the external powers which are taking part to the military intervention in Yemen since 2015 (mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait), is fundamental for a reliable SSR and the establishment of a YNG, for instance in the international monitoring body for the YNG. But this must take shape in collective, not bilateral, formats, as well as in organized, technical frameworks of action, not in “ad hoc”, competing initiatives. Oman remains a unique informal diplomacy actor. Notwithstanding past mediation efforts in Yemen (especially with the Huthis), Qatar will not be accepted by the Saudi-Emirati diarchy in post-conflict projects until the Gulf rift remains unresolved. Given its ´liason role` with the Huthis, Iran’s informal outreach vis-à-vis the Northern insurgents should not be preliminary excluded in negotiations, especially in case of a long-term shift in United States’ Middle Eastern policies.
- Yemeni and international actors should underline the political meaning of a YNG, which is building and conveying a sense of common destiny and collective belonging, in a country where national ties have been eroded by decades of oligarchy-style government, economic marginalization and stratified conflicts. But at the same time, they must be aware of huge politicization risks, preventing external penetration and the creation of new informal networks and patron-client relations, also at a transnational level. This would preserve the Yemeni ownership not only of the YNG building process but also of its outcome.