Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Reviving hope

The Saudi initiative to support efforts to confront the Houthi militia is a welcome addition to the fight against Iranian influence in Yemen, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Coalition forces directing aerial strikes against the Houthis and their allies in Yemen declared a sudden end to the operation last week. But while the aerial bombardments have ceased, the naval blockade imposed to prevent military supplies from reaching the Houthis continues.

According to media reports, this was the product of what has been referred to as the “Omani initiative.” The initiative followed a UN Security Council resolution that reflected the demands of the legitimate Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia and its allies.

The time has come to translate military action into political action, into realities on the ground. Otherwise put, politics has become a continuation of war by other means, as though von Clausewitz has risen again, in the Middle East this time.

Unfortunately, the surprise end of the aerial bombardment was not given much time to sink in due to another surprise. The Houthis have continued their military operations, attacking the base of the 35th Regiment, which is loyal to the legitimate authorities, and carrying out assaults against Aden, Taiz and many other areas.

It would not have been possible to bring a halt to the aerial bombardment had not certain understandings been reached regarding application of the Security Council resolution. The Omani initiative, which translated the resolution into clear steps, affirms that the Saudi-led operation was not motivated by greed for Yemeni territory, by a desire to increase the influence of one regional power over another regional power, or by the thirst to bring about a Shia defeat at the hands of Sunnis.

Rather, the war aimed, quite simply, to restore legitimacy and to provide Yemen a transitional period to rule itself free of the coercion of a militia group, namely the Houthis. Moreover, as a prelude, Saudi Arabia made a generous offer of humanitarian relief and other activities needed to contend with the results of the military operation and to alleviate the strains on the Yemeni people.

I find it difficult to explain the second surprise, at least at the time of writing this article, because the natural consequence would be a resumption of military operations and aerial assaults. So far I can only see two possibilities.

The first is that the Security Council resolution and the Omani initiative did not provide a mechanism for implementing and overseeing a ceasefire, as would have been expected from the Security Council.

Perhaps such a mechanism would have led to the provision of international observers to monitor the ceasefire, the return of Houthi forces to their positions prior to their invasion of Sanaa and to the return of the weapons they had seized from Yemeni army arsenals. In the absence of such a mechanism, what is taking place is natural: the party on the ground is working to strengthen its negotiating positions.

Even though the Houthis are aware that they will eventually have to relinquish these gains, they can at least use them to score propaganda points and claim that they retreated from a position of strength, rather than one of weakness or defeat.

 The second possibility is that the Houthis are still bent on their expansionist hegemonic project and on giving their Iranian ally a foothold on the territorial frontier with Saudi Arabia and on the Bab Al-Mandab.

If so, then diplomacy, to them, means little more than an opportunity to manoeuvre, gain time and impose de facto realities on the ground with no intent to withdraw. During the 1973 October War, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to Israel on 22 October to convince the Israelis to agree to a ceasefire. Israel at the time had not yet surrounded the Third Army or Suez city.

The Israelis pressured Kissinger into agreeing to delay the timing for a ceasefire in order to give their forces the opportunity to put into effect their plans, which they had already begun, to broaden the “breach”. US President Richard Nixon was adamant that Israel and Egypt implement the Security Council ceasefire resolution at 6:00 pm on 22 October 1973.

Kissinger told the Israelis that the ceasefire in the Vietnam War had not taken place at its scheduled time. It was an obvious hint that the Israelis could do the same, which of course they did. It was not until the nuclear facedown between the US and the USSR and a terrifying moment when had the entire world held its breath that the ceasefire was finally implemented.

Did something of this sort happen in Yemen? Perhaps. But the result is that although hostilities resumed, the Saudi-led coalition is now at an advantage. Nothing has essentially changed on the ground. The aerial offensive resumed from where it left off, while the naval blockade is still in place and ground intervention, if necessary, will occur at its stipulated time.

Meanwhile, the world now sees clearly that the Saudi coalition does not want war for war’s sake. It wants to roll back an aggression and prevent the Houthis and their Iranian backers from obtaining political or strategic advantages.

The Houthi alliance has begun to crumble, with some regiments in the Yemeni army declaring their allegiance to the legitimate government. Yemeni tribes and political groups have begun to leave the Houthi umbrella to take advantage of a regional/international alternative that may yet rescue Yemen.

Clearly, behind the first and second surprises, or behind what has emerged on the stage, lies a considerable amount of political and diplomatic manoeuvring in the wings. Some of this is known, but most of it is secret.

Some of it may have occurred simply in order to establish a diplomatic presence, as occurred when Algeria signalled that it had an initiative of its own. Other aspects are part of the regional war that Iran is waging against Arab capitals, which is why Tehran knew that its initiative would never be accepted by the major players. It went ahead and proposed it anyway because it has no realistic military alternatives.

In all events, what matters now is that Arab eyes remain open and focused on realisation of the main aims of the combat, which were laid out at the beginning of Operation Decisive Storm.

In this regard, the Saudi relief project will provide a humanitarian face to the war, as hard as it is for war to assume a humanitarian aspect, and it will strengthen the resolve of Yemeni society to confront Houthi aggression. To achieve this, it is essential to rally support, both inside Yemen and abroad, for essential Yemeni legitimacy.

Towards this end, it is important to promote Yemeni agreement of a roadmap for the future that involves the promulgation of a constitution and legislative and presidential elections.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is necessary to put into effect what was agreed in the Yemeni national dialogue concerning the federal system, which is key to strengthening unity rather than a route to secession or disintegration.

All this will require efforts to build Yemeni capacities and resources capable of handling the economic and security situation, which is every bit as difficult as the political circumstances that have led to so much bloodshed.

In short, Yemen needs sufficient support to rebuild its strength and shore up its ability to cope with a future that harbours many troubles.

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