Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

From war to words

While Yemen’s main warring parties are due to meet this month for talks in Geneva, only the most hardened optimist could expect a game-changing outcome, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the announcement of UN-sponsored talks on Yemen set for 14 June in Geneva, the parties to the conflict have returned to the diplomatic path. But they show no signs of leaving the military one behind. There has not even been a truce announcement as a gesture of goodwill. In fact, the intensity of strikes has begun to increase in advance of the negotiations, with the point of delivering a barrage of “reminders”.

As with all wars, the diplomatic course in the Yemeni war necessarily means that the guns must fall silent. Conflicts of this sort always consist of that duality: words to war, and war to words. It persists until the will of one side breaks, or until both sides agree to compromise. Or it persists ad infinitum as the crisis enters the international diplomatic deep freeze under the heading “no winners, no losers” and the fighting drags on and regional forces are sapped in subsidiary conflicts.

The return to Geneva had originally been set for 28 May. But the talks had to be postponed a few days before this due to opposition from Saudi Arabia, which had previously pushed for Riyadh to serve as the venue for the talks, as well as opposition from Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who said he refused to speak with the Houthis because “they don’t keep their promises or abide by agreements”.

Soon they tacked back to agreeing to come to Geneva and in tandem a new front was opened in the conflict: the battle over the language and terms to be used in Geneva. Only days before talks, the Yemeni president’s office issued a statement describing that meeting as “consultative” as, according to the statement, its point was not to negotiate but to discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which states that the insurgents must withdraw from the areas over which they seized control in Yemen.

In an interview on Al-Arabiya TV, the internationally recognised Yemeni president said that the purpose of the UN-sponsored meeting in Geneva was not reconciliation. The message was restated by his Vice-President Khaled Bahah, in a press conference held in Riyadh Monday. The priority is to restore the state and then to complete the political process on the basis of agreed-upon and non-negotiable frames-of-reference, he said. “We have completed negotiations [in the past] and we have agreed on the frames-of-reference,” he added, referring to the Gulf Initiative and its executive mechanism, the Yemeni national dialogue and its resolutions, and international resolutions especially Security Council Resolution 2216.

DIPLOMATIC “EXPANSION”: The Houthis for their part have agreed to take part in talks without preconditions, emphasising the need to “halt the aggression against the Yemeni people and to facilitate the arrival of provisions”.

When announcing that the Houthis were ready to take part unconditionally in the UN-sponsored talks on Yemen, Ahmed Al-Bahari, a Houthi official, added: “Our only condition is that the talks take place under the sponsorship of a neutral country.” It is uncertain as to whether that will remain the sole condition or whether others will be added at the “consultative” table. It appears that the Houthi expansion is not restricted to the spread of their control far beyond their traditional stronghold of Saada. There are also indications of a diplomatic “expansion”: Houthi representatives held talks with US officials in Oman, after which a Houthi delegation flew to Moscow for talks with Russian officials before heading off to Geneva.

After succeeding in taking control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on 21 September 2014, the Houthis worked to reorder conditions in Yemen on this basis, eventually promulgating the Constitutional Declaration of 6 February 2015. As they were the strongest party on the ground, they refused to respond to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) call for dialogue in Riyadh on 12 March 2015, favouring instead the national dialogue sponsored by UN envoy Jamal Bin Omar and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In the meantime, as the political struggle continued, certain developments signalled that the Houthis intended to retain power rather than relinquish it in accordance with the Security Council resolution.

For example, after Hadi, from his presidential premises in Saudi Arabia, issued decrees appointing Major Abdo Mohamed Hussein Al-Hadhifi as minister of interior, promoting him to the rank of general, and Abdullah Ali Al-Nasi as governor of the governorate of Shabwa, the Houthis appointed six new governors to a number of governorates that fall under their control.

According to Saba news agency, the “Supreme Revolutionary Committee” (SRC), which had been formed in accordance with the abovementioned constitutional declaration, issued a decree appointing new governors for the governorates of Sanaa, Ibb, Rema, Mareb, Al-Jawf and Al-Bayda.


HOUTHIS WITHIN FIRING RANGE: With regard to military operations, as indicated, in the run-up to the Geneva talks each side is working to erode the will of the other by military means.

Missile fire Monday, 8 June, was concentrated on targets in Saada. In response, Yemeni militias fired three missiles and mortars at some border locations in Zahran in the Saudi province of Asir, killing and wounding a number of Saudi soldiers. The Houthi spokesman omitted mention of reports by the command of Operation Decisive Storm that Patriot missiles succeeded in intercepting Scuds coming from Yemen. Nor did he mention the claim of coalition spokesman Major Ahmed Asiri to the effect that coalition forces succeeded in destroying around 300 Scud missiles in the possession of the Houthi and forces under former president Saleh. “That [the Houthi and the Ali Saleh militias] fired only a single missile after 70 days… indicates that the coalition forces have succeeded in destroying most of their stockpile,” Asiri said.


BATTLE OF WILLS: Still, it appears that neither side is heading to Geneva with a full hand. The Saudi-led coalition, with its air strikes and naval blockade, has had considerable success in stopping the flow of supplies and assistance to Houthi and Saleh forces, in destroying their weapons, and in supporting the people’s committees in their efforts to drive the Houthis out. However, there remain gaps and weaknesses. Relying on aerial strikes alone is insufficient to roll back and rout insurgent groups. Generally, an operation that seeks to accomplish this aim needs three steps: driving the insurgents out of areas they control, preventing them from coming back, and creating a local system of effective defence.

In this regard, the map published by The New York Times, 10 April, illustrates the extent to which the Saudi-led operation has failed to halt the Houthi advance. In fact, the Houthis have gained control of portions of eastern Yemen since the operation began. In other words, not only does this group have the capacity to seize new areas, it also has the capacity to sustain its control for extended periods. In addition, the Houthis have been able to capitalise on the huge civilian toll caused by the aerial bombardment in order to cast themselves as a patriotic force defending Yemeni territory and independence in the face of Saudi arrogance.

Moreover, developments indicate that the Houthis have succeeded in redeploying their forces in a manner that reduces the impact of the aerial strikes, simultaneously creating a counter threat in the form of potential for shifting the battle to the other side of the Saudi border.

Nevertheless, the flexibility that generally categorises guerrilla-like militias does not mean that the Houthis’ presence in areas now under their control is secure. Also it is uncertain how long they can sustain their combat under aerial bombardment and naval blockade. Therefore, it seems that both sides have an interest in reaching an acceptable settlement, albeit one that would have to harmonise with regional and international wills, which could be conflicting.

In reporting the US-GCC Summit at Camp David, Al-Ahram Weekly noted that Obama was unwilling to respond to the GCC demand for a formal defence pact and, to top it off (much to Saudi Arabia’s annoyance), he urged Gulf countries to accept Iran as a partner. Since then, there have been other significant developments in this regard.

For example, following talks with senior officials in Washington, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry categorically ruled out as “unfounded and baseless” the possibility that his country might sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian discomfort at the prospect of an immanent nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 had fed rumours that Islamabad might cater to a Saudi request for a few nuclear bombs from the Pakistani arsenal. Speaking to journalists in Washington, Chaudhry stated explicitly: “Pakistan is not talking to Saudi Arabia on nuclear issues, period.”


SOLUTION AND WARFARE: To reduce the Yemen conflict to a confrontation between the Houthis and the Hadi regime is over-simplistic. It ignores the many other dimensions in what is essentially a hornet’s nest. Not least Al-Qaeda and the cells that have proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State and set up “emirates” in certain areas. Meanwhile, demands for southern secession have regained momentum. Between these two political poles lie the Muslim Brotherhood and the tribes that support it, and that seek a slice of the power cake after the Houthis relinquish control.

It is therefore premature to speculate as to what might emerge from Geneva. The priorities of each side surely differ and it is difficult to imagine the Houthis settling for less than the lion’s share of power. Nonetheless, there will be pressure to achieve something, else the Yemen war drag on and become yet another interminable quagmire in a region that has witnessed too many.

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