Yemen peace elusive as war expands

In the last week of November, Yemeni “rebels” once again succeeded in moving inside Saudi Arabia and consequently captured certain military bases and outposts. The Yemeni “rebels” were reported to have seized Malhama, al-Radif and al-Mamoud military bases in Jizan, al-Rabou’a military base in Asir and Nahouqa military base in Najran province in southern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi military was reported to have retaliated by massive bombing inside its own territory as well as in Yemen’s Hajjah province.

Yemen's army and Ansarullah fighters sink Saudi warship in Ta'iz province on Saturday, the seventh Saudi vessel sinking in waters offshore Yemen in the last three months

Yemen’s army and Ansarullah fighters sink a Saudi warship in Ta’iz province on Dec. 5 in waters off Yemen

The latest episode is only a tip of the iceberg as the war in Yemen, which has now very well spilled over in Saudi Arabia, continues to drag on. It is, as reports indicate, no longer confined to the fight between Saudi-led coalition forces and the Houthi “rebels.”  Yemen`s powerful branch of Al Qaeda, for years the target of CIA’s drone war, has emerged with control of swathes of territory, including the port city of Mukalla, capital of eastern Hadramout province.

The Saudi-led forces have informally cooperated with Al Qaeda fighters against the common Houthi foe. Some Al Qaeda fighters, meanwhile, have rallied behind a newly opened Yemeni branch of Islamic State (IS) group which has taken on all sides, blowing up Houthi mosques in Sanaa and targets from Hadi`s government and his Arab allies in Aden.

While the presence of IS is a clear indication of territorial expansion of the conflict from Iraq and Syria to Yemen, it also shows ‘peace’ cannot simply be established through a settlement between the Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iran-backed Houthis.

As it stands, Al-Qaeda and IS in Yemen are pursuing their larger objectives i.e., establishment of the so-called “Caliphate.”  Although they strongly differ and have been opposing each other in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the fact that they are on the ground in Yemen and have captured significant swathes of territory speaks volumes about the intensity and complexity of the conflict.

The Houthis, on the other hand, have, as was expected of them, formed a potent alliance with Hadi`s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, their former enemy who ruled for more than three decades until he gave way to Hadi in 2012 in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring” protests. The war has restored Saleh`s popularity with a large segment of the population, and he is seen as likely to push for a role for his former ruling party in any settlement.

In this context, the important question that needs to be asked in this: can the UN-led peace initiative lead to any meaningful breakthrough? The answer, as the explosive situation shows, is in the negative.

As a matter of fact, the UN-backed diplomats have already been expressing their frustration at the hands of both Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni (so-called) President, Hadi. A diplomat directly engaged in peace talks was reported to have told on the condition of anonymity that Hadi has been trying to block any kind of talks because he knows that any settlement will be the end of his political career. Neither has he been popular enough to be able to win enough public support, the diplomat added, nor has he been a serious candidate in political games.

That any political settlement means political loss for Hadi as well as Saudia-led Arab coalition explains why Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to pursue total victory in both political and military terms. This is evident from the fact that although Saudi officials have, no more than one occasion, expressed their willingness to rally behind the UNO for peace, the Saudi State has not ceased its relentless military campaign any time during the on-and-off periods of dialogue.

On the contrary, it is this very prospect of Hadi’s political ‘death’ that seems to have created some willingness among the Houthis to engage in peace talks. Another diplomat engaged in peace talks said that while Hadi`s government accuses the Houthis of obstructing talks, the Houthis have, by and large, appeared more willing than Hadi.

While the various actors involved in the conflict continue their fight for achieving their respective objectives, people’s sufferings, too, continue to increase and intensify into what a recent UNO report has described as “famine.”

The war has done severe damage to the supply of enough food to the war-torn areas. The United Nations food agency has warned that food supplies in Yemen are deteriorating quickly and the country is at risk of slipping into famine. Ten out of Yemen’s 22 governorates were now classified as facing food insecurity at “emergency” levels, which is one step below famine, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.

While Saudi Arabia seems, at the moment, far from accepting any settlement that does not accommodate its interests to the extent it seems to aim to achieve through military campaign, its rapidly falling economic condition may force it to accept the Houthis as an ‘inevitable political nuisance.’

A glimpse of the “Oil Kingdom’s” increasingly ‘drying’ economy can be had from the fact that in September, Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf acknowledged that many domestic projects will have to be abandoned. A case in point was the halt placed on construction of a world-class shipyard. This is a glaring reflection of Saudia’s growing budgetary deficit. According to official statistics, the deficit this year will be about $39 billion. However, these data contradict IMF estimates, which say the number could reach $130 billion.

Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia’s internal economic situation or the imminent famine in Yemen, the war continues to be fought. For many weeks now, battles have been going on in and around Taiz as forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – supported by coalition air strikes – clash with Iran-backed Houthi rebels for control of the strategically located city, seen as a gateway between south Yemen and the capital.

While it cannot be gainsaid that the conflict in Yemen in an instance of “Sunni-Shia” rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an overemphasis on it will sound too simplistic an argument. By simply reducing the conflict to two actors only, we will be overlooking the role some extra-regional powers have historically been and are still playing in the Middle East.

As such, while Western and regional officials have voiced support for Hadi`s prime minister and vice president, Khaled Bahah, Russia seems to have tilted towards the Houthi rebels. For instance, in a recent interview, Russian ambassador to Yemen said that the Shiite movement Ansar Allah, known as the Houthis, is the only force in Yemen fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Therefore, there is a serious risk that if the Ansar Allah recedes from their positions, they will be occupied by the terrorists,” the ambassador stressed.

While extra-regional actors’ engagement in Yemen has not yet reached the scale it already has in Syria and Iraq, there is no denying that their own strategic interests are certain to significantly shape, if not completely determine, the outcome of “peace talks.” Their role is expected to increase in proportion to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s military and economic fatigue as well as the Houthi’s success.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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