Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Military nightmare or political solution?

Saudi Arabia is searching for a face-saving solution to end the war in Yemen

What was originally planned as a “military picnic” in Yemen has now become a frightening nightmare for the Saudi military and its allies. The political and military stalemate in the country is making the situation more worrying every day. The Saudis are losing patience, and their allies are asking themselves what is to come. Meanwhile, the Yemenis have been suffering from massive numbers of casualties and huge destruction. As time goes on, the Yemen’s plight deepens. Who will go to the rescue?

From the start, Operation Decisive Storm (ODS) in Yemen lacked vision and an endgame strategy. As I wrote in this newspaper some time ago, “politicians and military leaders know exactly when a war may begin. They decide its start date. However, there is no guarantee that they will be able to decide its end. Operation Decisive Storm is not an exception to this rule.” I also warned of what could become a long war in Yemen in my article entitled “Be prepared – It could be a long war”, which appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly in April 2015.

Two years later, the military campaign in Yemen is a failure, Saudi Arabia’s allies, especially the Emiratis, are questioning the logic of the war, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is more or less politically isolated, and world public opinion is turning strongly against the Saudi air strikes in Yemen that are causing severe humanitarian and physical damage. The war in Yemen should come to a halt. Its continuation carries with it two major risks: dragging the military further into politics and exposing further territories to missile attacks.

The longer the war goes on, the closer it will bring the military to politics. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the militaries are under the strict control of the countries’ royal families, but that will not be the case when army officers start losing their lives on a larger scale and they do not have a say in deciding what they are fighting for. Neither the royal family in Saudi Arabia nor that in the UAE would at all like to see the military get involved in politics.

In the meantime, as the war goes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE will become more exposed to attack. I doubt that anyone in the UAE can imagine the country coming under attack by sea or air. The Saudis are experiencing the price of the war by attacks on their borders with Yemen, and some Saudi cities have been hit by missiles. Unable to defend themselves, the Saudi authorities have requested the help of Pakistani Special Forces to help guard the borders.

Sadly, for the Saudis now is not the right time to stop the war. Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the Saudi defence minister, was dreaming of a victory in Yemen in order to silence his opponents and consolidate his power in Riyadh. Ending the hostilities will deny him such a victory, but continuing them will also cost him dearly. The Saudis are thus searching for a face-saving formula to help them stop the war dignity intact.

Failure of Decisive Storm: The goals of the Saudi Operation Decisive Storm (ODS) were to eject the Yemeni Houthi rebels from the capital Sanaa, reinstate Hadi and his government in power, and keep Iranian influence away from Saudi borders.

Unfortunately, the ODS has failed to achieve any of these goals. There are now two governments in Yemen, one in Sanaa headed by Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour, a former governor of Aden, appointed by the Houthi-Saleh alliance made up of the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh, and the second officially based in Aden headed by Ahmed bin Dagher, who was appointed by Hadi.

The Iranian influence in Yemen has increased to levels never seen before. Moreover, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia is suffering from failure, a lack of credibility, and high levels of tension between UAE and Saudi officials.

On the ground, the government in Sanaa has more power than that in Aden. As a result, Yemenis living in areas under Houthi-Saleh control enjoy more security than those living elsewhere despite the war and economic sanctions. The populations of both Sanaa and Aden are now living with the war as the “new normal”. Civil servants on both sides rarely receive their salaries, but they still generally go to work. Food, medicine, fuel and other basic needs are in short supply, but people manage as best they can. Much of the country’s physical infrastructure has been destroyed, and the country as a whole is on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, as the UN World Food Programme recently warned.

In Aden, Hadi is isolated in the president’s residence. The two strong men in Aden are the governor, Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, and the head of the security services, Shallal Ali Shayia. Both men have been subject to several attempts on their lives, but both have escaped unhurt. But their authority is strongly challenged in Abyan, Shabwah and Hadramout, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local Al-Qaeda franchise, and Islamic State (IS) fighters are the real powers alongside tribal leaders.

More recently, a new player has entered the game in Aden in the shape of Haitham Qassem Taher, a former Yemeni defence minister (1990-1994) and a respected national figure who chose to live in voluntary exile in the UAE after 1994. In 2016, he ended his voluntary exile and went back to Yemen to join forces against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. His appearance made a huge military difference, and UAE and Yemeni troops managed to drive AQAP and IS fighters east of Aden and as far as the port of Al-Mukalla.

It is likely that Al-Zubaidi, Shayia and Taher will form a powerful tripartite structure challenging Hadi’s authority in Aden. Taher is now the military strategist leading the offensive against troops loyal to the Houthi-Saleh alliance around the port of Al-Hodayda and in Taaiz and outside Sanaa. His reputation as a military commander and a politician is without doubt. He is also trusted by the UAE.

Hadi, on the other hand, does not enjoy good relations with UAE military and political coordinators in Yemen. Since he moved from Riyadh to Aden, he has been unable to develop good relations with local political or military leaders in the city, and, feeling isolated, he has been busy reshuffling the military command in order to secure a loyal base in the military. Hadi has also failed to establish his own political platform. His opponents have their own solid political bases. The Houthis have Ansarullah, the Yemeni version of the Lebanese Hizbullah group, and Saleh has his own political party, the General People’s Congress.

Whatever direction the balance of power goes, it should be born in mind that the war in Yemeni is not a “stand-alone” conflict. Instead, it is connected to other conflicts in the region, and as a result swings in the balance of power will not reflect strategic shifts so long as the masters of the game outside the country have not come to an agreement.

Wars by proxy have their own rules. One of these involves the relationship between the strength of local players and the need for major regional or international powers to intervene. As has been shown in the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the stronger the local players, the less is the need for direct intervention by outside powers. The US intervened in Vietnam to save the weaker side and lost. Russia in the shape of the former USSR intervened in Afghanistan to save the weaker side and lost.

Saudi and UAE troops went to Yemen in order to save Hadi and his government. He was (and still is) the weaker side, and he was obliged to flee Sanaa to Aden and then to Riyadh. Iran, on the other hand, has not needed to intervene directly in a fight that its allies have been certain of winning. It is this certainty that is keeping Iran relaxed and allowing it to concentrate on developments in Syria.

In the south of Yemen, a three-way fight is going on involving Hadi’s forces, Houthi-Saleh troops, and AQAP and IS militias. The Saudi-led air strikes and the US drone attacks are adding more misery to an already complicated scene.

A political solution: It is difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel, and a satisfactory solution to the Yemeni conflict still looks far away.

Yemenis suffering from the war in the north and the south of the country have started to live with it as the new normal. The Saudis and their allies are still talking about putting Hadi back in power in Sanaa, which is laughable in the circumstances. In contrast, the other side has been making sound demands, calling for an end to the Saudi air strikes, the lifting of the air and sea blockades, and the start of a humanitarian relief programme. The Houthis and Saleh are looking comfortable in their positions, while the Iranians are keeping an eye on the balance of power on the ground. The UN has not lost hope and is trying to draft an acceptable and workable solution, but success is uncertain.

In order to open a new window of opportunity in Yemen, even with the other conflicts in the region still pending their conclusions, Hadi should be taken out of the political equation. He is a liability in the political process and he will be a spoiler if any proposed settlement does not guarantee him power.

Barbara K Bodine, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said in a recent interview with the American Council on Foreign Relations, a lobby group, that the former Obama administration had been very close to a political breakthrough in Yemen. She said that former US secretary of state John Kerry had “worked assiduously with the UN special envoy [in Yemen] to craft a political settlement, and in the middle of December [2016] he got much closer than was widely reported. But Kerry couldn’t bring it over the line. It was not the Houthis who balked at the peace plan, and it probably wasn’t even the Saudis. It was Hadi,” Bodine said.

But many of the names being presented as alternatives to Hadi do not enjoy the necessary degree of acceptance. The names that have been floated include those of Ali Nasser Mohamed, Ahmed Ali Abdallah Saleh, and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. But these are seen as divisive figures and are accused of being puppets of former president Saleh, with the first one even being his son.

There are other names who may do better, such as those of Ali Salem Al-Beedd, Haidar Abu Bakr Al-Attas and former minister of defence Mahmoud Al-Sobaihi, who is currently under arrest by the Houthis. A new political star could be created and placed in office. Any successful political process must have hope as its driving force, and this hope will come not only with a good plan, but also with a competent and convincing figure to lead the war-torn country to a better future.

But taking Hadi out of the political equation is a necessary first step whatever happens. Building a solid political front that is able to successfully challenge the Houthi-Saleh domination in the north and build a united salvation front across the country is a necessary second step in preparing for a political settlement based on a compromise and not on a “winner takes all” principle.

This solid political front should include all those who oppose the Houthi-Saleh alliance, including political parties, social movements, tribal leaders and publicly respected figures. This means that a lot of house-keeping in the camp opposite the Houthi-Saleh alliance also needs to be done in advance. A humanitarian programme and a physical rebuilding plan should be promoted in order to help create hope and to work as the engine behind an acceptable and workable political settlement. This political settlement needs to be inclusive, national, practicable and sustainable.

All this is easy to say, but very difficult to draft and to implement. Any successful settlement should be inspiring. Taking into account the very complicated situation in Yemen, it may be easier to start with a “step-by-step” strategy based on a “first comes first” approach. The cessation of hostilities coupled with an intensive humanitarian relief programme, the exchange of prisoners, the start of an inclusive political process, a physical rebuilding plan and the start of infrastructure rebuilding programmes would all make a good platform for regaining trust between the different parties.

There are many thorny issues that will need to be discussed, such as disarmament and the collecting of weapons. It may be possible through the political negotiations to reach an agreement on the rebuilding of the Yemeni armed forces on a professional and not a political or sectarian basis. The problem of the heavy weapons in the country can be solved within that context. Small arms owned by individuals are part of the personal pride of Yemenis and cannot be touched.

The Yemeni people deserve help. The first way they can get this is by stopping the war, and after this has happened positive developments will naturally follow with the help of regional and international powers and the engagement of the international community including the UN. It goes without saying that UN efforts, though not successful up until now, have helped the Yemeni people to move forward in their vision of the future.

It is widely accepted that the new Yemen will be based on a federal, pluralistic, democratic and egalitarian political, economic and social system. The alternative is disintegration and chaos. It is time to give the Yemenis hope and to help them to move forward and stop the war.  

The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.

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