Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Conflict continues in Yemen

This week’s Arab Summit meeting in Mauritania to discuss the situation in Yemen is unlikely to resolve the conflict in the country, writes Haitham Nouri in Sanaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Sixteen months since the Arab Coalition went on the offensive in Yemen to reinstate the legitimate government led by president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the capital Sanaa, then held by his Houthi rebel foes, the situation in the country is still unstable both militarily and politically.

The Arab Summit in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 25-26 July was the second held by Arab leaders to discuss the situation in Yemen after the Sharm El-Sheikh Summit in Egypt last year.

Despite support for government forces from the Arab Coalition, Hadi’s government has thus far not returned to Yemen from exile abroad. The Houthis continue to hold most of the major cities in the country and threaten the centres they have lost. Other areas are also not secure due to targeting by the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terror group.

Thousands of people have been killed or injured and nearly two million displaced over the last 16 months, according to estimates from the UN and humanitarian and international organisations. The country’s already poor infrastructure has been further damaged in one of the least developed countries in the world.

No breakthrough has thus far been made  or expected due to a military situation on the ground that has remained unchanged for months.

In mid-July, the Kuwaiti government, sponsoring the talks, announced that it had given the parties 15 days to reach a solution. If they failed to do so, Kuwait would no longer host the delegations, according to Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah.

The Hadi-led government is demanding the application of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for Houthi forces and those of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to withdraw from cities taken over since 2014, among them Sanaa, and to turn over their heavy weaponry.

UN special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said last month that he had given the negotiating delegations a roadmap specifying “the security arrangements provided for in UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and the formation of a national unity government.”

Cheikh Ahmed said that the negotiators had received his proposal “positively,” but “did not agree on a timetable” for implementation.

However, the two sides continue to disagree on priorities. While the government insists that the rebels withdraw from the cities, turn over their heavy weapons, and restore state institutions before a political transition takes place, the Houthis are demanding the formation of a national unity government to oversee the Resolution.

Yemeni writer Hoda Al-Attas, close to the Southern Movement opposed to the Houthis, said that the crisis was not expected to be resolved in the Kuwait talks as in one form or another it had been “underway for nearly two decades.”

“The parties to the conflict are not just Hadi and the Houthis,” Al-Attas, a former sociology professor at Aden University, said. “There is the Southern Movement, whose main demand is for autonomous rule in the South. The supporters of former president Saleh are an additional factor in the conflict.”

The conflict is between two principal camps: the internationally recognised government led by Hadi and supported by the Al-Islah Party (the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood) and the Southern Movement, which is said to harbour separatist aspirations due to unresolved issues emerging from unification in 1994. This camp is dominated by Sunnis supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

On the other side are the Zaidi Shia Houthis and the General People’s Congress Party, led by Saleh and including many civil servants, armed forces, and police, as well as northern tribes loyal to Saleh, most of whom are Shia supported by Iran.

“The worst part of the crisis in Yemen is that Al-Qaeda now controls a not insubstantial area of the southern part of the country,” Al-Attas said.

The US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a research centre close to the US State Department, has said that the sectarian conflict in Yemen has led many Sunni tribes to support Al-Qaeda against their common enemy, the Shia.

Al-Qaeda has held the coastal city of Mukalla in Hadramawt Province since April 2015 and poses a threat to Aden, the temporary capital of the Hadi government. It has carried out attacks claiming dozens of lives and has impeded government efforts to return from exile in Saudi Arabia.

The CFR described the territory held by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as “a mini-state.” It controls 350 miles along the coast overlooking the Gulf of Aden and has access to oil fields in the South.

US drones have carried out strikes against the organisation for more than a decade in Yemen, benefitting the former Saleh government. After Al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole docked in Aden in 2004, Saleh received some $1.2 billion in military and security assistance for his regime, as well as international legitimacy, until 2010.

He also waged six rounds of war against the Houthis. And because Saleh’s enemies are also the enemies of each other, Yemen did not find peace even when Saleh was overthrown in a popular revolution in early 2011. Al-Qaeda is fighting Shia of all confessions, while southerners in Yemen, who lean toward socialism in politics and Sufism in religion, accept neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Al-Qaeda.

The Houthis are the heirs of the former imamate in Yemen and see themselves as the most legitimate rulers of a united Yemen. Meanwhile, Saleh and his supporters, those who finally succeeded in unifying the North and South of the country after decades of division, have the most experience of ruling it and its complicated affairs.

All these factors militated against the success of the Yemen National Dialogue of 2013, which included 565 delegates and was sponsored by the UN and the Gulf Initiative supported by the Arab Gulf states. The Dialogue concluded without reaching a framework that would guarantee all groups’ participation in governance.

In July 2014, under pressure from the IMF the Hadi government lifted fuel subsidies in the country, sparking widespread protests that the Houthis exploited to launch the long process of taking the capital. They finally took Sanaa in late 2014, and in January 2015 Hadi resigned and was placed under house arrest until he managed to flee to Aden.

As they advanced on the South, the Houthis sparred with Muslim Brotherhood militias, but beat them together with pro-Hadi forces. It did not take long for the Yemeni army to split along confessional and tribal lines, though the majority remained loyal to Saleh. They turned their weaponry on their foes, and some officers turned over their weapons to the Houthis.

“The futility of the air strikes, the fact that the government is outside the country, the horrifying human casualties, and the presence of the Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in Hadi’s government all make it difficult to fight the Houthis and Saleh,” Al-Attas said.

Saleh does not only benefit from this situation either. Instability in Turkey works to his advantage, and last year’s western deal with Iran bolsters his power. Recent drops in international oil prices have also hurt his Gulf neighbours, and all of this will likely prolong the war in Yemen in the absence of strong international pressure on all sides.

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