Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Peace prospects fading

Regional intrigue centred on Yemen continues as hopes for a political solution receded this week, proposed talks in Geneva between the warring parties delayed indefinitely, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Don’t spit in the well you may have to drink from.” It is an old saying and one that Yemeni President Mansour Hadi seemed determined to ignore when he spurned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call for dialogue with the Houthis scheduled in Geneva this week.

Justifying his stance, Hadi insisted that the Houthis had to withdraw from Yemen’s cities and hand over their weapons, in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution on Yemen. In his meeting in Riyadh with UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Hadi called on the UN “to exert greater efforts to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as it is the chief frame of reference regulating the process of peaceful transition in Yemen”.

Resolution 2216 calls on the Houthis to withdraw from the territories over which they have taken control and to return weapons they seized from the army and government. The question, especially in light of the balance of forces on the ground, is whether these demands are a prerequisite for negotiations or a result that negotiations should accomplish.

Is it the Yemeni government that abandoned the path of negotiations and a political solution or did this government bow to the conditions of its host country, where the Yemeni president exercises his duties from the Yemeni embassy in Riyadh, ordering the prosecution of certain officials, appointing a vice-president, and stating stances and setting conditions for negotiations? Was it not the Yemeni president himself who, according to the statement issued by the command of Operation Decisive Storm, called for an end to the war as it had accomplished its objectives?

One also wonders whether the Yemeni government has resolved not to drink from that well again. Or has it put its money on another round of aerial bombardment, civil war and logistical support for anti-Houthi forces in order to alter the balance of forces on the ground before entering negotiations?

Meanwhile, the Houthis must be asking themselves a number of questions, such as: What would happen if we handed over the weapons? Would we go to Geneva or end up in prison? In the event of the former, would we be assured the piece of the Yemeni cake we aspire to, or would our share be laced with poison?

A third view was aired by the Yemeni researcher and political analyst Ali Al-Bakali to AFP. He fears a conference aimed at producing some formula for “sectarian power-sharing” along Lebanese lines. “The purpose of the Geneva conference could be to promote a formula for the geo-sectarian division of the state and power,” he said. He then asked: “What did the Geneva conference do for Syria? We have yet to hear a solution to the Syrian crisis from Geneva and the war in Syria has been dragging on for years.”

One of the problems with the war in Yemen is that it is brimming with uncertainties and illusions. It is not difficult to imagine it leading to the coining of a new term: the “Yemen complex”, in the manner of the “Vietnam complex” that plagued US policy for decades and only began to fade with Desert Storm in 1991.

In all events, temporarily, or until further notice, the path to negotiations has been closed and hopes for a political settlement have receded. Meanwhile, prospects for a military solution are still out of reach.

Perhaps Riyadh, the refugee president’s source of inspiration, had reasons to be angry and suggested to Hadi that he should boycott Geneva. Saudi Arabia had proposed Riyadh as a venue for negotiations, but the Houthis rejected this. Ban Ki-moon responded and proposed Geneva as a location.

Observers explain another likely source of Saudi anger. It is to be found in reports of a high-level Houthi delegation arriving at the Omani capital of Muscat for talks with US and British officials on the Yemeni situation. Riyadh was not consulted in advance. It must have seemed like a replay of Muscat’s hosting, over six months, secret US-Iranian talks on the Iranian nuclear programme.

This moreover comes on top of the recent US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Camp David Summit, which was disappointing to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. Washington and the GCC states have different perspectives on the Iranian threat and the latter feel that their demands for a formal defence treaty, a missile shield and support for a Gulf nuclear programme for peaceful purposes were not given serious attention.

The sources of Saudi anger may extend further yet. They suspect that US naval patrols in the Gulf allowed Iran to deliver supplies to the Houthis. Al-Ahram cited a Financial Times report on Iranian cargo ships that left Bandar Abbas Port and then mysteriously “vanished” mid-ocean. According to the report, Iranian vessels have been secretly altering their course at sea since the Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Since emerging as a major player in the Yemeni political arena, the Houthis have received unlimited Iranian support, which has altered the course of the political process in Yemen. The disputes between political forces in Sanaa and the weakness of central authority in Yemen are among the factors that Iran has exploited to equip the Houthis to take control.

Iran has devised some convoluted means to deliver arms shipments to its allies in Sanaa, according to The Financial Times. The FT writes that ships leaving Bandar Abbas, “changed their ensigns, turned off their tracking devices at key points during their voyages, registered false information in international shipping logs and met unidentified craft mid-ocean.” The report continues: “Maritime data obtained by The Financial Times show that at least four large cargo ships, with a combined capacity of more than 15,000 tons, made a series of highly unusual and undeclared trips between Iran and Yemeni ports controlled by the Houthis in the first few months of this year.”

One of the ships  “a 7,000 ton vessel more than 100 metres in length”  left Southeast Asia in late December 2014, this vessel’s “sole historical area of operation”, and “arrived in Karachi, Pakistan in mid-January, departing at the end of the month. It disappeared at sea for nine days after turning off its satellite tracking equipment but reappeared in Iran’s Bandar Abbas in mid-February, where it was fully loaded. It left the same day and reappeared off the Yemeni coast, outside the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida on 23 February.”

These details were supplied by Windward, a maritime intelligence service. Curiously, The Financial Times notes, quoting the chief executive of Windward, “all... this has been going on under the noses of NATO patrols in the Gulf”.

Perhaps these developments help explain why Riyadh has changed its mind on the Egyptian proposal to create a joint Arab force. Earlier, in Sharm El-Sheikh, the new Saudi monarch ignored the proposal. The meeting this week of the chiefs of staffs of Arab armies in Cairo brought a shift in the Saudi position, strengthened by the realisation that this force will be in the nature of a broad umbrella for the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force.

Meanwhile, reports relate that popular resistance forces have seized control of the 33rd Armoured Brigade camp in central Al-Dalie in southern Yemen. These forces have also captured a quantity of heavy weapons, including more than 20 tanks, and regained other locations in Al-Dalie that had fallen to the Houthis, such as Al-Khazan, Al-Qashaa, Al-Mazloum, Al-Jarbaa and Bardan. In addition, Al-Jazeera reports that seven Houthis were killed and four more captured in an attack by the resistance, and that the resistance announced that it would continue to pursue Houthi militiamen until it regains full control over the governorate. This announcement was made after a series of sweeping offences by the resistance. It thus appears that the popular resistance has regained control over the governorate of Al-Dalie in general. Only Sawdaa and a number of small pockets remain out of its control.

The Al-Jazeera reporter also said that the popular resistance had taken control of Jebel Al-Zunouk after battling the Houthis in the southern governorate of Taiz. In addition, the resistance fended off an attack from all sides by the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh against Jebel Jarrah, a strategic vantage point that still remains under the control of resistance forces.

Hamdi Al-Bakari, the Al-Jazeera reporter who has been monitoring developments in Taiz, said that the resistance “blocked a large offensive by the Houthis and their supporters and forced them to retreat”.

Residents in the area relate that Houthi and Saleh forces had been bombarding residential quarters using tanks and mortars since the early morning hours.

Bassam Al-Qadi, a resident on Al-Mughtarebin Street, said: “People have been killed and wounded in the bombardment which has caused massive destruction of buildings.” He added: “What is happening in Taiz is a massacre against the people of this city who had formed the kernel of the uprising that had overthrown the government of Saleh, who today, together with the Houthis, is taking revenge on the city.”

According to Al-Qadi, the Houthis and Saleh’s forces fired some 300 tank and artillery rounds at residential quarters that were controlled by popular resistance forces in an attempt to invade and seize control of these areas. However, they failed to accomplish their objective.

In Lahej, which is adjacent to both Al-Dalie and Taiz, reports mention that popular resistance forces are advancing from three sides against the Al-Ind triangle.

In Aden, coalition forces waged aerial assaults against Houthi locations in Mumdara in the northern part of the city.

Sources relate that 10 members of the Houthi militia and Saleh forces were killed in confrontations with the resistance. They add that fighting between the two sides continues in various areas, including Taiz, Aden and Al-Dalie, months after the Houthis captured Sanaa and advanced towards Aden.

As for the question of action on the ground by coalition forces, news reports continue to speak of Saudi preparations to launch a land offensive via Hadramawt, which borders the kingdom to the south. Other reports speak of Iranian plans to mobilise its Revolutionary Guards via Iraq to launch a land offensive against Saudi Arabia from the north.

The repercussions of the war continue without end. Against the backdrop of escalating sectarian tensions, the Islamic State has found a perfect opportunity to declare its presence in Saudi Arabia, where it launched a suicide bomb attack against a Shia mosque in Al-Qadih village. The incident could have led to implosion in Saudi Arabia were it not for a media and political discourse that transformed the victims from “rejectionists” to “martyrs” and that stressed the values of equality, national unity, peaceful coexistence and brotherhood.

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