Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Yemeni mirages

The conflict in Yemen has entered a new fine-tuned phase, in which shifting balances between complex alliances may leave real peace more elusive than ever, writes Hossam Radman


Yemeni mirages
Yemeni mirages

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Political developments in Yemen had inspired hope in some observers, if not for a breakthrough that would end three years of military conflict then at least for a new window of opportunity for bilateral talks capable of creating some common ground on which to build. There did, indeed, seem to be cause for optimism. Saudi overtures to Baghdad, which occasioned the visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to Riyadh, offered a promising sign. Some read it as a prelude to Saudi-Iranian understandings that would help overcome many impasses in the region’s intractable crises. Such views were reiterated after similar meetings in Kuwait and Muscat, some revolving around the Middle East as a whole and others concerning Yemen in particular.

King Salman’s visit to Moscow reinforced the optimism, all the more so as that visit coincided with the dispatch of a Russian medical team, with Saudi approval, to Sanaa to treat former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh who subsequently announced that Moscow had invited him to take part in an international conference on the fight against terrorism and that he was considering the option of travelling abroad to attend it.

Many analysts interpreted these developments, firstly, as a rapprochement between Riyadh and Saleh, and secondly as a bid by Russia to play a mediating role, an effort that met with Saudi approval, US satisfaction and European encouragement. The US ambassador to Yemen’s remarks regarding the need to resume political dialogue seemed to confirm this analysis.

Nevertheless, optimists always tend to find their proof between the lines of the dramatic news bombs that give off a lot of smoke, as was the case with the story about Saleh’s medical treatment. Unfortunately, the general context of events, despite the significance of a number of developments, offers no suggestion of any real breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The Yemeni predicament is that the regional conflicts with which it is so closely intertwined work to exacerbate the Yemeni crisis while, despite this heavy regional dimension, the crisis is isolated in terms of the dynamics of a solution. In other words, the propensity of the regional climate towards conflict aggravates the factors of discord and division in Yemen, but the question of a solution — up to now at least — resides primarily in the hands of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh holds the keys to the crisis. It has the power to attract all the central players, including those that differ with it in their political agendas and ideologies and that are accused of being proxies for Iran. The meeting in Zahran between Saudi and Houthi officials is a case in point. This quality is unavailable to any other regional party and it applies in the Syrian crisis as well.

Therefore, if Riyadh really wants to work out a solution, it needs no international mediation. Nor does it have to do some balancing act in its relations with Moscow and Washington (the actions it is taking in this regard have to do with the map of influence in the world and the Middle East and it is foolhardy to reduce its many dynamics and motives, so as to project them solely onto the Yemeni situation). All Riyadh has to do is to climb down a bit from its high horse, relinquish its goal of “liberating Sanaa” and destroying the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Then all adversarial parties would return to it, just as occurred in 2011 when the Gulf Initiative was signed, ending the crisis at the time and introducing the transfer of power arrangements.

Is something of this sort to be read in flirtations between Riyadh and Saleh? Certainly, the mutual courtship has ramifications, but the ultimate end is not to open new lines of communication that can be built on to open the path to peace in the future. Rather, the purpose is to drive a wedge further between the two “allies of necessity” in Sanaa, taking advantage of mutual mistrust that has led to clashes between the Houthis and Saleh on many occasions and in many ways.

That opportunities are narrowing, can also be deduced from the performance of UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed who has resumed his diplomatic shuttling. UN sources believe that Ould Cheikh will soon be meeting with the “4 plus 1” group on Yemen (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, US, Britain and Oman). He had recently met with Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other officials of the internationally recognised government of Yemen in their temporary headquarters in Riyadh, as well as with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. However, after his efforts in previous consultations to formulate practical visions for a comprehensive political solution, he is now discussing subsidiary issues with his interlocutors, such as the Hodeida Port and Sanaa Airport initiatives, prisoner exchanges and payment of salaries to government employees.

Ould Cheikh has so far been unable to formulate a way out of the crisis that would satisfy the ambitions of all stakeholders. This is indicative of the gravity of the political gulfs that keep broadening by the day since the breakdown of the Kuwait talks over a year ago. However, the political and military standstill does not apply to political alliances and alignments that the war produced over the period from the peak of its ferocity to the peak of its tedium. This protracted tedium is what led the various players to turn to political stratagems and ruses, such as playing on internal contradictions and tensions in the ranks of the adversary. As each party manoeuvred to enhance its political and military position, a new layer of political alignments has arisen beneath the surface of the official map of the conflict, which is demarcated by the line between the forces of “legitimacy” and the forces of “the coup”.

On the “legitimacy” front, internal conflicts have erupted between the forces of the Southern Movement, as represented by the interim “Southern Council” formed by former governor of Aden Major General Aidarus Al-Zoubaidi in May. Al-Zoubaidi has continued to develop his political entity since then. On 14 October, he announced the creation of the “Constituent Assembly” which is to serve as the legislative authority in the council which claims to represent southerners and their independence demands.

Open warfare has erupted between this “Southern Council” and the forces of “legitimacy” as represented in Yemen by Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, who has returned to Aden to resume his responsibilities from there. The Southern Movement leadership accuses of Bin Daghr of trying to revive “the northern forces occupation” policy, referring to the era of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule and the “war of reform”.

While such accusations may have little objective grounds to stand on, Bin Daghr is, in fact, trying to alter the balances of power in Yemen’s temporary capital, Aden. The balances leaned in favour of the Southern Movement with its military formations that enjoy UAE support. But when the Yemeni government engaged forces it called the “Presidential Guard”, the scale tipped towards parity although it is still inclined towards the Southern Council thanks to UAE air support that prevents the ground forces of the “legitimacy” side from launching any adventures in Aden.

Tensions between the Southern Council and the government have intensified further since Al-Zoubaidi’s visit to the governorates of Shawbah, Hadramawt and Al-Mahrah to the east of Aden and his declaration of opposition to the six-region federal project espoused by President Hadi and supported by the Congregation for Reform (Islah) Party.

Internal rifts in the south reached a new peak with the wave of arrests of members of the rank and file of the Islamist Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s chapter in Yemen) by Aden security forces. To a large measure, this development reflects the heated conflict between the UAE and Qatar, which supports the Islah Party as a local ally in Yemen.

To the north, on the other side of the “official map”, tensions continue to prevail between the Houthi and Saleh camps in spite of the efforts of their leaderships to restore calm. In the latest episode of internal horn-butting, journalists affiliated with Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) reneged on the media de-escalation accord between the GPC and the Houthis.

Until now, the Houthis still control and infiltrate all government institutions and they have been able to maintain a strong political and military upper hand over the forces and officials affiliated with Saleh and the GPC. Saleh, for his part, is keen to avert any large-scale clashes as he would be unable to sustain the costs. But, from time to time he sends worrying messages to the Houthis such as that in which he indicated that he was contemplating the option to travel abroad. This is a means to pressure his Houthi allies and compel them to commit to understandings intended to regulate and sustain the rocky relationship between the two allies in Sanaa.

On the whole, the Yemeni crisis has entered a new phase involving new and more subtle tactics and more complicated calculations on the part of all players. Because of the ambiguities surrounding them, these tactics may produce surprises, particularly for those who thirst for peace.

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