With more gunfire and explosions, the Yemeni people have welcomed the New Year 2017. Not with fireworks.
The devastating civil war, which erupted in the autumn of 2014, has continued to engulf the war-torn country. Battles have further multiplied and fighting viciously intensified recently on different frontlines. The internationally recognized government troops have managed to make significant advancements in the governorate of Taiz, they pushed rebel fighters out of the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait and Mocha, a sea port city on the Red Sea. However, the government forces still have a long way to go to forcefully expel the rebels from the regions they continue to control in the north of the country including the capital Sana’a. Even if the government can retake all governorates and drive the rebels out of Sana’a, a political settlement is necessary for a sustainable peace and for national reconciliation.
Unfortunately, the urgently needed political solution to the conflict seems to be out of reach for the time being. A host of factors have combined together to terribly complicate any reasonable solution to Yemen’s dilemma. The national actors’ conflicting interests, regional rivalry and international powers’ different agendas all contribute towards complicating the Yemeni conflict. Let us begin with the key national players.
The government of President Hadi
At the core of the ongoing conflict is a struggle for power. It is a conflict between two main camps: one pro-political transformation and reforms. This side is led by President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government. The other side is against the political transition process, headed by the former President Ali Saleh.
Hadi’s government is strongly advocating the proposal of a Yemeni federal state. A notion that is categorically rejected by Saleh’s alliance and the southern movement. By endorsing the federation proposal, Hadi antagonised the northern elites that aligned with Saleh. And because of his advocacy for Yemen’s unity he alienated himself from the southerners who demand separation. “Northern elites” refer to the population of the governorates of Sana’a, Amran and Sa’ada. The fact is that the majority of the population in the remaining governorates in the centre, west and east of the country strongly advocate the idea of federal state.
The Houthi rebels
The Sa’ada-based radical Shiite group has terribly messed with Yemen’s politics, gravely exacerbated the country’s chronic quandaries and seriously deepened the divisions among Yemeni people. Al-Houthi’s ill-advised alliance with the former president Ali Saleh, under which the group’s militias took over Sana’a, has proved disastrous. It was a reckless adventure that has caused Yemen irremediable damage. They have badly spoiled the political transition process, triggered a devastating civil war and prompted the Saudi military intervention, the last thing Yemen needed.
While the militant group turned out to be well-organized and qualified militarily, it lags far behind politically. It could not develop a reasonable political blueprint that can appeal to a significant portion of the Yemeni people. Rather, it has revealed alarming ethnic and sectarian desires and practices. The Saudi-led Arab coalition military campaign has offered the group a heaven-sent opportunity to recruit thousands of young men, to promote Shiite rhetoric and Jihad culture.
The protracted armed conflict has actually helped the group’s militants to further develop their combat skills. They are now more battle-hardened and more familiar with guerrilla warfare. Besides that, the group has already looted large amounts of weapons and military equipment from the Yemeni military arsenal. The Houthis have taken advantage of their alliance with Saleh to move the most sophisticated weapons and advanced military equipment from the capital Sana’a to the Sa’ada governorate, the group’s main stronghold.
The group also has been desperately seeking to amass as much money as possible and secure sustainable financial resources in the future. Since the beginning of the Saudi-led military operations, the group has frequently made fundraising appeals, collecting billions of Yemeni Rials under the pretext of warfare expenses. Apparently, the group is taking advantage of their current position to prepare itself for more confrontations in the future.
This means that any central government that may decide to fight Shiite extremism will be seriously challenged by the group.
Saleh, blamed for this disaster
When the former President Ali Saleh was forced to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal, under which he stepped down in favour of the vice president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, he actually intended to temporarily delegate his mandates to his loyal deputy, who supposedly would only nominally assume the presidency for roughly two years. As if Saleh wanted to go on a two-year vacation after 33 years of ruling and then come back to power. He publically pretended to have handed over authority, but privately he actually retained great influence and continued to control the state’s security, intelligence and military organizations.
During the two-year transition period Saleh kept on creating troubles that disrupted the transition process and worked out a plot that was designed to bring him back to power, through his son Ahmed Ali. To this end, he thought the unthinkable, forged an illicit alliance with his old foes, the Al-Houthi group, against whom he fought six wars. Here was his grave mistake. Aligning with the Al-Houthi militant group has been self-defeating, because such a move would never have been tolerated by the Saudi leadership. He wrongly thought that he could persuade the Saudi monarch that he could easily deal with the Houthi threat, if he received the necessary support.
He orchestrated a coup d’état carried out by the Houthi militias in January 2015. The Houthis fulfilled their task partially, ousted Hadi’s government and put him under house-arrest, but failed to establish a new government. Besides that, the parliament could not make its decision about Hadi’s resignation. One month later, Hadi managed to escape his house-arrest in Sana’a and arrived in Aden where he withdrew his resignation. Saleh and his allies decided to go after him and forced him to flee the country to Saudi Arabia. On the next day, the Saudi-led Arab coalition military operation in Yemen started with the aim of reinstating Hadi’s government.
Saleh did not expect that Saudi Arabia may intervene militarily and directly – here was his second mistake that practically ended his political career, in disgrace. His failed attempt at coming back to power has resulted in a fiasco, has ended up in empowering his old enemies – the Houthis – and has significantly played into the hands of their alleged Iranians backers.
The cautious Al-Islah Party
The Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah) is one of the most well-established political organizations in Yemen. It is a religious-oriented grouping including Muslim Brotherhoods, Salafists and tribal sheikhs. This party is well organized and funded, with nation-wide political constituency and an unmatchable mobilising machinery.
It is the major rival of Al-Houthi’s group. However, when Al-Houthi forced the Salafists to evacuate Sa’ada and attacked Al-Islah’s affiliates in Amran in 2014, the party’s leadership refrained from reacting. They urged president Hadi to act but he refused to get the military involved in the conflict between the two religious factions. After Al-Houthi had seized power in Sana’a and other regions, some of Al-Islah’s operatives were harassed yet the party leadership exercised unexpected self-restraint and never responded, so that the Al-Islah party was perceived as if it were a charitable association.
Later on, as the Saudi-led military operation began, the Al-Islah party celebrated the event, openly appreciating the operation. Yet they have kept on acting cautiously. The reason for that is that some countries of the Arab coalition are concerned about arming Al-Islah militias. Key Yemeni actors also warned of providing Islamists with advanced weapons. So the party refrained from engaging effectively in the battles. The party leadership proved to act pragmatically, putting partisan interest above Yemen’s, unwilling to make significant sacrifices unless Al-Islah’s interests would be better served by doing so.
The southern movement’s problem
The southern movement gathers dozens of factions with different goals and competing leaders. The problem with the southerners is that they have been unable to develop a practical program and establish a united leadership. So they could not secure significant support to their cause at regional and international levels. They could not overcome their personal disputes and conflicting interests.
They want to break away from the Yemeni single state but they do not have any idea about the next step and the formidable challenges ahead. They simply demand to regain the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. It is a naïve notion, unacceptable theoretically and impossible practically.
Al-Qaeda and IS gaining ground
Al-Qaeda and IS militant groups are the true winners and benefactors of the current civil war and chaotic atmosphere. They are also the most existential threats to the nation’s stability, security and national unity in the short and long-term.
The ongoing civil war has provided the extremist and terrorist groups with ideal recruiting conditions. Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates joined the local resistance committees in the southern governorates. Therefore, they could operate freely, recruiting hundreds of young men, promoting Jihadist views and amassing a great deal of weapons and ammunitions.
Moreover, they developed their fighting skills and capacities. It will take a long time and a high cost for the Yemeni people, both in blood and financially, to fight terrorism in the future.
The counter-productive Saudi policy
The Saudi unfriendly policy toward its southern neighbour has been largely blamed for the serious armed conflicts in Yemen’s recent history. The Saudi regime has frequently played a key role in spoiling the Yemeni’s endeavours to establish good governance that can secure Yemen’s national interests and address the nation’s major challenges. The Saudis have been very keen to keep Yemen as poor, divided and instable as possible.
To this end, the Saudi royal dynasty stood against the Yemeni revolution in 1962, funded 5-year proxy war that resulted in neutralizing the revolutionary momentum, turning it into little more than a moderate reform. In the 1990s they encouraged a failed separation attempt by the southern politicians, creating a wide and deep chasm in the national unity that has continued to grow deeper and broader.
When Yemeni people staged a nation-wide popular uprising in 2011 Saudi Arabia moved immediately and turned the mass-popular upheaval into a political crisis between the regime and a handful of opposition parties.
The Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal designed to thwart the Yemeni endeavour to establish a genuine democratisation that could bring about the needed political change and transformation. Instead they sponsored a nominal transition process. The worst is that they did not deliver on their promise as key sponsors of the transitional plan, rather they unfairly failed the new leadership and stood idly while spoilers were planning and carrying out their counter-revolution scheme. As a result, the Yemeni people and the GCC led by Saudi Arabia have paid a high price for their short-sighted policy toward Yemen.
True, the Saudi-led Arab military intervention has managed to prevent Iran from establishing footholds in Yemen, but this has come at a staggering cost.
Iran, the big winner
The Yemeni civil war has played into the hands of the Iranian regime. The Saudi-led Arab military intervention has come as an unexpected precious gift that Iranians never dreamed of. The timing of getting involved in a protracted war in Yemen could not have been better for the Islamic Republic of Iran and could not have been worse for Saudi Arabia. Yemen is not part of Iran’s deterrence strategy.
So the Iranian regime has invested little in Yemen. However, Iran’s long-term strategy has proved very effective, it efficiently succeeded in dragging Saudi Arabia into prolonging military involvement.
Consequently, there had been a significant reduction of pressure against Iran’s allies in other parts of the region – mainly in Syria and Lebanon. In short, the Saudi involvement in the Yemeni civil war has offered Iranian leadership a valuable card to improve its negotiating position and secure important deals about the needed political settlements in Syria and elsewhere.
Yemen goes beyond failed state status…
Though Yemen has long been a designated failed state, the notorious title has become a reality once the current civil war broke out in 2014. Today, it is not an exaggeration to say that Yemen has gone far beyond a failed state status, so that some can justifiably argue that the present conflict has brought the country into a semi-mini-states stage.
There are two governments now: the internationally recognized government seated officially in Aden, even though merely a handful of its ministers can do their job in the port city, while northern-born ministers are located in Marib city, where the coalition established its command headquarters.
Despite the world-wide support Hadi’s government enjoys, it hardly controls the lands in the southern governorates.
Similarly, the rebels’ newly created government in Sana’a is powerless as the authority is practically maintained by Al-Houthi’s militias.
The ongoing war has already left the country deeply divided, largely radicalized and seriously devastated. This is what Saudi policy always aims to achieve.
For this reason, Yemenis can not expect much of this conflict as long as it is up to the Saudi leadership to decide what the outcome is to be.