War in Yemen grinds on as Oman brokers talks | The World Weekly
The war in Yemen, initiated by a Saudi Arabian-led air campaign on March 26, has taken a massive toll on the already impoverished nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Approximately 2,000 people have been killed since the start of Operation Decisive Storm – later rebranded as Restoring Hope – while the number of malnourished children has risen with food and fuel in short supply, and almost two-thirds of the population do not have access to clean water and sanitation, according to Oxfam. Such conditions increase the risk of life-threatening diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrhoea.
As well as ongoing airstrikes against the Houthis and their allies, fighting on the ground in various parts of the country continues, while Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia from their northern stronghold of Saada, which is being heavily bombed. Meanwhile Human Rights Watch has presented new evidence that banned cluster munitions have wounded civilians, including a child, in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen.
In the midst of all this, there are some signs of hope as Oman hosted talks between the Houthis and US and UK representatives in its capital Muscat. Yemen’s ambassador to the UN, Khaled al-Yamani, said on Wednesday that UN-led talks aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen would begin on June 14. The UN’s Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed meanwhile held talks in Saudi Arabia with the exiled government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Saudi officials to join the planned Geneva talks. But uncertainty about the details remain as the fighting continues.
Who are the key players in this multi-faceted conflict and what are their positions?
Yemen’s exiled government
Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is regarded as Yemen’s legitimate president by the majority of the international community, crucially including the US and Saudi Arabia. While he initially escaped his house arrest in Sanaa - imposed by the Houthis after they gained extended control of the capital in January - to the southern port city of Aden, he later fled to Saudi Arabia where he now resides alongside members of his government.
Before gaining the post of president as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored deal, Mr. Hadi served as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s vice-president for about 18 years. Some question his legitimacy, however, as he was the sole candidate in the presidential election of February 2012. Furthermore, critics see him as having been unable to solve the security crises across the country - chief among them an expanding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - and fix the ailing economy. After the Houthis took partial control of Sanaa in September 2014 and tightened their grip in January, however, some of the president’s decision-making ability was constrained, others point out.
The exiled Yemeni government does not only hold the Houthis responsible for the current situation, but also former President Saleh, who has openly acknowledged his alliance with the Houthis after his compound in Sanaa was bombed. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen rejected a call for peace talks by Mr. Saleh in April, saying: “These calls are unacceptable after all the destruction Ali Abdullah Saleh has caused. There can be no place for Saleh in any future political talks.”
President Hadi has received support from the UN Security Council. The council adopted resolution 2216 on April 14, which reaffirmed “its support for the legitimacy” of Mr. Hadi as Yemen’s president and called on all Yemeni parties, “in particular the Houthis” to “withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized, including the capital Sanaa”. President Hadi has in the past demanded that the Houthis recognise his authority and withdraw from Yemen’s main cities, while his spokesman Rajeh Badi told Bloomberg that Mr. Hadi expects passed UN resolutions and GCC-brokered agreements will form the basis of negotiations.
A previous attempt at UN peace talks failed reportedly because the Hadi government refused to attend unless the Houthis withdraw from the territory they seized over the last months.
However, the anti-Houthi front is not completely united and tensions have arisen, for example between those in exile in Saudi Arabia and the fighters on the ground, as Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Programme, wrote.
Analysts see former Prime Minister and current Vice-President Khaled Bahah as a potentially more reconciliatory figure than President Hadi. A sign of his broader appeal was Mr. Bahah’s acceptance as prime minister by the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, as part of the January 2015 peace and partnership agreement between Mr. Hadi, the Houthis and other key Yemeni political factions.
A recent media report said that President Hadi has agreed to travel to Geneva for peace talks, according to a presidential aide, who added that the decision came after discussions with Yemeni leaders and UN envoy Cheikh Ahmed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia so far has remain steadfast on its position that President Hadi is fully reinstated in power and has, apart from a brief window during last month’s humanitarian ceasefire, continued to bomb Houthi positions and those of their allies in order to diminish their military capabilities. While support has been given to anti-Houthi militias and tribal fighters, the Saudi-led campaign mainly consists of airstrikes.
However, there has been a shift in Saudi priorities, Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, wrote for Al Monitor. On May 7, the Saudi coalition spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri said the outlook on the war had shifted from restoring the legitimacy of President Hadi and safeguarding Yemen’s unity to the defence of Saudi cities, a reference to Houthi attacks on Saudi border areas.
The security of Saudi Arabia is a red line that has been crossed and the Houthis will pay the price.” - Saudi coalition spokesman Ahmed al-Asiri on May 7
Continued attacks against Saudi territory will increase the pressure on the country’s leadership to protect its citizens. Saudi media has strongly supported the campaign and pictures glorifying the country’s three new leaders - King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - have circulated widely on social media. Mr. Baron noted that the campaign, despite a lack of tangible success, “has proven remarkably popular domestically”, which in combination with the exiled Yemeni government’s support for the military campaign has led to a significant easing of pressure to end the campaign from these two camps.
The war in Yemen also took on a regional dimension from early on, as Saudi Arabia was keen on portraying the Houthis as Iranian proxies. Rhetoric from official and unofficial sources in the kingdom and other Arab Gulf states has thus painted the Houthis’ advances as part of Iran’s plan to expand its influence across the region.
Iranian support and influence on the Houthis remains a hotly debated topic. While evidence points to a certain degree of support in the past, it remains unclear whether Iran exerts influence on the Houthis on the ground with many analysts arguing that Iran’s control over the group is limited.
There is no Iranian intervention in Yemen and the Saudis can inspect the missiles (we fire) and see if these are made in Iran, Russia or America... We say that they are purely Yemeni-made." - Mohammed al-Houthi, head of the Revolutionary Committee
The same, however, goes for Saudi Arabia and its partners on the ground. Sources told Reuters in April that Saudi Arabia has been training several hundred anti-Houthi tribal fighters in the kingdom before sending them back to Yemen with a Saudi defence source stating that there is a plan to strengthen local Yemeni forces as they know the terrain better.
However, “aside from their general ties to the Saudi-led coalition, there is little sign of any meaningful coordination between the various anti-Houthi factions. Even “popular committee” fighters in the same regional area often act independently of one another, Mr. Baron wrote.
Saudi Arabia’s ties to various Yemeni tribal and political actors reach back decades, but were damaged after the 2011 uprising, as power dynamics shifted. Equally, the potential build-up of new centres of power as a result of the plan agreed upon in the National Dialogue Conference to establish a six-region federal system “laid the foundations for an unpredictable future along Saudi Arabia’s southern flank”, Yemen analyst Fernando Carvajal wrote for Fair Observer. The Houthis are opposed to such a break-up.
The Houthis first pushed into the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and managed to gather support beyond their community due to a discourse of anti-corruption and a failure of governance. Another reason for their military campaign, which includes ongoing pushes into southern Yemen, was President Hadi’s failure to integrate them into the political system, the group said.
Although the Saudi-led air campaign has managed to degrade their military capabilities, the Houthis continue to hold many positions south of the capital and have managed to gain territory in several areas. The aforementioned lack of coordination among anti-Houthi factions is another factor that slowed down the military campaign against them.
Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi called talks the UN unsuccessfully tried to convene on May 28 the “only solution”, but there was no indication that the group was heeding the demands to withdraw from captured territory at the time.
With regards to the latest talks hosted in Oman, various media reports argued that the Houthis were offering to withdraw from seized territory in exchange for being dropped from the UN sanctions list. Analysts have also said that the Houthis will want political recognition, which they feel they have not been granted by the country’s national dialogue after the 2011 uprising.
A Yemeni official told the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that the Houthis told UN Envoy Cheikh Ahmed that they were prepared to withdraw from the southern city of Aden before the peace talks, expected to start on June 14.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson reportedly met Houthi representatives in Oman. The meeting between the US’ top diplomat for the Near East and the Houthis aimed to “reinforce our view that there can only be a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and that all parties including the Houthis” should participate in “the UN-led political process,” US State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Mohammed al-Houthi told AP on Wednesday that his group was ready to travel to Geneva for UN-brokered talks and accused the exiled Yemeni government of “obstructing” dialogue. Mr. al-Houthi said: “The 69-day assault has pushed the country to disaster… Yemen is facing a real genocide.”
Mr. Badi, a spokesperson for the exiled government, in turn accused the Houthis of “systematically assaulting civilians” through random shelling, besieging cities and kidnapping journalists and activists, which were then used as “human shields”.
Oman is the only member state of the GCC that did not join the Saudi-led coalition and hosted the discussions aimed at peace talks to bring an end to the conflict. This position as a mediator is not entirely new for the country, ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said since 1970. Oman hosted secret talks between the US and Iran, which eventually led to the current rapprochement between the countries in the context of the nuclear talks. It also brokered the release of American hikers in 2011, which were arrested by Iran.
The country, bordering Yemen in the west, maintained trade and diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 revolution, while being a military partner of the US at the same time. Even its refusal to join the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen does not seem to have harmed relations with its northern neighbour, even while earning the country praise from the Houthis.
Oman is not part of that campaign for simple reasons - Oman is a nation of peace." - Yusuf bin Alawi, Omani foreign minister in reference to the Saudi-led campaign
While Sultan Qaboos led Oman out of isolation after seizing power from his father he has implemented a foreign policy of non-intervention, which enabled the country to function as a mediator. As analysts stress, Oman could be a key player in bringing about a negotiated solution to the violent conflict in Yemen.
Earlier this week, one of four Americans, Casey Coombs, held by the Houthis in Yemen was freed and subsequently flown to Oman. US State Department spokeswoman Harf said: “We are grateful to the government of Oman and personally to Sultan Qaboos for assisting with the safe passage of a US citizen to Oman”. A Singaporean citizen was also evacuated from Yemen and flown to Muscat.
The way forward
The fighting in Yemen and resulting lack of state control in wider parts of the country also benefitted another key player, AQAP. The group, seen as al-Qaeda’s most active franchise, took control of the southern port city of al-Mukalla in Hadramawt province in April, thus widening its influence. The US long saw former President Saleh as a key partner in the fight against the group and has targeted it by using drone strikes. The withdrawal of the last US special forces from Yemeni territory earlier this year raised the spectre of a loss of human intelligence and a deterioration in counterterrorism actions.
Hani Muhammad Mujahid, a former al-Qaeda operative and informant to the Yemeni government, told Al Jazeera that Mr. Saleh’s government gave support to and even helped direct AQAP. “Ali Abdullah Saleh turned Al-Qaeda into an organised criminal gang”, Mr. Mujahid alleged.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its steadfast determination to see through the military campaign to weaken the Houthis and their allies and protect Saudi territory, but, as analysts have pointed out, it remains unclear how the Saudi strategy is going to be able to reinstate Mr. Hadi as the president of a unified Yemen.
As the conflict has entered its third month, the humanitarian situation across the country continues to deteriorate and a halt in fighting is urgently needed. While reports about talks in Oman appear promising, any solution that does not address the existing grievances of the key players is likely to fail. Given their current powerful position, including the Houthis to some extent in the political system may in the end be unavoidable.
Vice-President Bahah could be a key player in this regard, but Yemen analyst Adam Simpson points out in Gulf State Analytics: “What support he enjoys is certain to diminish as long as he remains in Riyadh”. Spokesman Badi said that the exiled government would gradually return to “safe zones” in Yemen starting as soon as next week, without elaborating further.