The Yemen Trap: No End in Sight for a Major Geopolitical Game

An airstrike on Yemen's capital Sana’a by the Saudi-led coalition last Saturday killed more than 140 people and wounded over 500 when it hit a building where a memorial service was being held for the father of a prominent Yemeni politician and minister of internal affairs in the new Yemeni government al-Roweishan. Many prominent figures were killed in the attack, but by pure luck the key leaders of the ruling political associations in Yemen – the General People's Congress (a wing of former president Saleh) and Ansar Allah (Houthis) – survived.

This is not the first time the civilians were bombed during the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm, which began in March 2015. The key targets of the bombing attacks of the early days of the intervention included roads, bridges, rainwater cisterns, power and military facilities, as well as government buildings. The transition to the next phase of the campaign titled "The Return of Hope" announced by the Saudi coalition command in May 2015 did absolutely nothing to change the tactics of the operation. There are still 200 or more sorties per day.

The overall situation on the main fronts of the war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh Alliance in northern Yemen has not changed in any meaningful manner after more than 18 months of war. Most of the largest northern cities, such as Sana'a, Hodeidah and Taiz, remain in the hands of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance, which continues to consolidate politically. The parliament started working in Sana'a and approved a new government. Even though the latter was not recognized by the outside world, it is fairly functional and has all the attributes of power, including an army and police (unlike the Hadi government in Aden). So, the defeat in 2014 of the Al-Islah Party that has friendly relations with Riyadh, and its powerful religious wing – the Wahhabi part of Muslim Brotherhood – was by no means accidental. Clearly, the Saudi military command continues, for some reason, to consider the Al-Islah failure an accident and still supports it.

General Ali Mohsen was appointed as the new vice-president of the "legitimate Hadi government" in the spring of 2016. The image of Ali Mohsen as a leader of the military wing of Al-Islah was formed when he went from Saleh's camp over to the opposition in March 2011. A large portion of the army followed Ali Mohsen to Al-Islah. Ali Mohsen’s appointment to a high position cannot be referred to as a balanced and peaceful act on the part of Riyadh, the goal of which is to reach a compromise with the Houthis, since the general led government forces in the 2004-2010 Saada wars aimed at destroying the Houthis.

The legitimacy of President Hadi, who was elected president in February 2012 and has stayed in Riyadh since the outbreak of the crisis, now seems a minor issue. Since he was elected, the recent vice-president’s main job has been to carry out the UN Security Council resolutions on Yemen as part of implementing the provisions of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) Initiative. His authority was based on the power and the influence of external overseers and sponsors of the peace process in Yemen, primarily, the UN. Saudi Arabia and the United States, which had also established a trusting relationship with Hadi, also reserved for themselves a special role in Yemen.

The lack of his own political power at the moment of replacing Saleh as president made Hadi a more acceptable figure for all major political forces both domestically and internationally. However, intervention, civil war and devastation have fundamentally changed the situation. It’s not an accident that Hadi, who left for Saudi Arabia in March 2015, chose to stay in Riyadh, even after the command of the Saudi-led coalition officially announced a year later that he controls 80 percent of the country. Southern Yemen, torn by separatist sentiments, did not forget that during the civil war of 1994, Hadi, a southerner by birth, was on the side of the North.

The actual structure of the Yemeni crisis looks nothing like a civil war between the legitimate government and the rebels, who allegedly carried out a coup in 2015. The conflict between the clans of the elites which had ruled Yemen for decades resulted in a split between powerful tribal coalitions that had formed the foundation of statehood in northern Yemen since the formation of the Yemen Arab Republic.

The expansion of the proselytizing Wahhabi sect in Yemen, which, following the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, chose Al-Islah as its main avenue of influence, has brought to life a powerful conflict with the two main Islamic communities in Yemen, namely, Zaidi and Shafi'i. In 2004, it manifested in a series of Saada wars, which resulted in the Houthi movement becoming another formidable political force in Yemen.

The separatist forces in the South also created a mass political movement in this part of the country back in 2007 under the umbrella of the Southern Peace Movement (called for short al-Hirak in Arabic, which stands for “movement”). In 2009, former President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen Ali Al-Beidh became its leader. All these poles of conflict inside Yemen have acted as catalysts for the Yemeni revolution of 2011.

Al Qaeda organizations in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS took advantage of the confusion resulting from the intervention and long-standing political crisis in Yemen. In the first days of the war, AQAP seized power in Hadhramaut and almost the entire southern coast almost all the way to Aden. This happened because the groups and organizations close to pro-Saudi Al-Islah have opted to enter into agreements with the leaders of terrorist organizations, who hated Al-Hirak for its relationship with the leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which ruled earlier in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Meanwhile, Riyadh not only bears the enormous cost of the war, but is also faced with discontent inside the country related to the course of the campaign and the mounting loss of life. The residents of the kingdom fear the emergence of deep hostility in a people who rightfully hold a special place in the history of the Arabs and are legendary for holding grudges. Moreover, three Saudi provinces, which historically were part of Yemen until 1934, namely, Asir, Jizan and Najran, have turned into an area of fighting and guerrilla operations by the Saleh-Houthis Alliance against the Saudi military bases. The status of these territories inhabited by tribes that are allied to the Yemeni tribes, may again become debatable as a result of this war.

The unsatisfactory progress of the campaign in Yemen has caused frictions within the coalition, which undermine the leadership of Saudi Arabia and its claim to be the regional superpower. Thus, differences with the United Arab Emirates on strategy and tactics in Yemen have almost led to an open conflict between them just before the Kuwaiti talks in April 2016. Having sorted out the situation, the UAE government strongly opposed the Saudi command’s decision to back Al-Islah and the Wahhabi wing of the Muslim Brothers in Yemen. In early 2016, the UAE military have undertaken a number of independent operations in the south in order to oust Al-Islah and AQAP from their positions not only in Hadhramaut, but also in Aden, where the situation is extremely unstable.

Two superpowers which supported the intervention and have their officers at the headquarters of the coalition – the United States and Great Britain – are also participants in this game. They use the conflict not only to sharply increase the weapons trade with the Gulf countries, which reached several tens of billions of dollars (at least 10 times higher than before the crisis), but also to expand its military presence in the ​​Bab-el-Mandeb area.

Speaking about the role of Iran, it remains a phantom party to the Yemeni crisis and serves only as a bogeyman to justify Riyadh’s policy in Yemen. The war clearly showed that Iran did not and does not play any significant role in Yemen, and the Houthis act as a self-sufficient force independent of Tehran. The blockade of that country from land, air and sea (US warships are present there) precluded any speculation about weapon supplies by Iran or anyone else to Houthis. Interestingly, during the war, Sana’a has repeatedly criticized the Iranian authorities for their provocative political statements, which interfered with the Sahel-Houthis Association’s plans to find a speedy end to the war by reaching a compromise with Riyadh. Nevertheless, the Iranian factor has remained a part of the game and still has some potential for use as a cover to continue the war, which is becoming increasingly meaningless and destructive.

Clearly, the war initiated by Riyadh in Yemen against forces it considered hostile to Saudi Arabia, is at an impasse, and the Yemeni crisis has taken on a completely new dimension. The Yemeni trap has not yet snapped shut, but it has rapidly depleted the resources of all direct participants in the crisis. This trap must be disarmed as quickly as possible. Today, the international community’s top priority is to find a way to bring about a cessation of hostilities in Yemen – hostilities led by the Saudi military command – as soon as possible. Its military operation has become the main driver of all the other axes of conflicts that have long been undermining Yemen and turning that country into a base for international terrorist organizations, such as AQAP and ISIS.

Sergey Serebrov is Senior Researcher, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

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