20.06.2016 Author: Petr Lvov

Negotiations on an Intra-Yemeni Settlement on the Brink of Collapse

345453453453When the Arab, or more appropriately, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which is keen on suppressing the power of the Shiite-Houthi rebels supported by Iran and allied militias of the former President Ali Abdallah Saleh, deployed its troops into Yemen for the first time, it never imagined that it would be entangled in the Yemen quagmire for such a prolonged period of time. Moreover, it is becoming all the more clear that in actuality, this war will not be won by conducting massive bombing operations over Yemeni cities, nor by carrying out ground operations, where the backbone of the anti-Houthi forces is made up of the mechanized part of the UAE, the KSA and units of the Armed Forces of Egypt and Sudan, as well as remnants of the Yemeni army that are still loyal to the pro-Western and pro-Saudi Yemeni “president”, A.Hadi. The coalition has already lost several hundred killed and over a thousand wounded soldiers. This does not go down well in the minds of the civilian population of the Emirates and the Saudi kingdom first and foremost. In addition, everybody is convinced that despite the fabulous revenues gleaned from oil exports, the KSA army is not capable of dealing with a problem of even a limited regional nature. This weakens the credibility of Riyadh in the Arab world, which was very much negatively affected after defeats by the pro-Saudi armed opposition in Syria.

Nevertheless, the Arab monarchy can no longer just walk away from Yemen, leaving everyone behind to fend for themselves, realizing that it would be a shameful end to their military venture. Moreover, a month ago, despite the willingness of the parties involved in the conflict to extend the Intra-Yemeni truce even in the case of the suspension of the negotiations in Kuwait, Riyadh gave the green light for the coalition forces to launch an offensive on Taiz, which was to begin in early June this year. This is the third attempt since the intervention in Yemen to break through to the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. In the South, there is still the need to keep fighting against local clans and tribes, which formally joined the “Al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula”, as well as against various Sunni “partisan” groups in the East and in the West of Southern Yemen neither of whom are willing to come under the authority of the Houthis, nor are they ready to form a coalition with A.Hadi. The Saudis apparently coerced the “president” of the country, A.Hadi, to agree with the decision to launch a new campaign against Taiz, although since March of this year, he has categorically opposed this option, which the former Prime Minister of South Yemen, H.Attas, actively pushed for. According to A.Hadi and many other leaders in his immediate environment, the “liberation” of Taiz from Houthis would mean the collapse of Yemen in the Southern and Northern provinces.

Since then, that is, for the past 2 months after another attempt to take Taiz, nothing really new has happened, save for the stalling of the negotiations on the Intra-Yemeni settlement in Kuwait. However, this was clear from the outset, as the Houthis were not showing any signs that they were going to lay down their arms and abandon their positions in Sana’a and become incorporated into the new political structure of the country on A.Hadi’s terms and under the leadership of the Arab coalition. The KSA has also found it necessary to take forceful action. In addition, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi disagreed over the tactics on further action in the Yemeni direction. The UAE is now tired of this unpopular war and has explicitly considered the actual disintegration of the country into North and South as acceptable, even under the conditions of actual federalization. The KSA is stubbornly adhering to the concept of preservation a unitary state. This is a major point of disagreement within the coalition, and the only common position that still remains within the coalition is in the maximum attenuation of influence within Yemen of the local “Muslim Brotherhood” represented by al-Islah. This is in spite of the fact that the recent appointment of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, half-brother of former President of the country, Ali Abdallah Saleh, the Deputy Minister of Defense, clearly falls outside the logic of this approach. Nevertheless, it could influence the decision on a new campaign on Taiz.

The third largest city in Yemen, Taiz’s location acts as a gateway between Northern and Southern Yemen and it is clear that it would be most appropriate in military terms to advance on Sana-a through it. As did former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, in his time, when over a few days, his forces quickly seized Aden and A.Hadi barely managed to escape from there by motorboat. After returning Aden, the Arab coalition tried to go onto Taiz, but failed due to an offensive action by the Houthis on the eastern and western frontiers of the city, as well as a counter-offensive along the coast of the Red Sea from the south by Hodeidah. As a result, the coalition was only able to hold the archipelago and several islands near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The KSA didn’t attempt this option a second time because of the extremely negative attitude by the Intra-Yemeni and inhabitants of Taiz to the storming of the city. Instead, the Saudis tried to launch an attack on Yemen’s capital through Ma’rib and thereby encourage the onset of the Hashid tribal alliance. However, this did not happen, and the Saudis then returned to the Taiz option, even with the risk of causing serious discontent amongst the Intra-Yemeni tribes.

Meanwhile, the situation in the city is very difficult. The militias that include supporters of the Islah party, the Salafis and the local territorial defence forces are in control of the city itself. However, supporters of Ali Abdallah Saleh are in control of the main supply road and a large part of the perimeter of the city. Therefore, arms and ammunition were airdropped from planes onto the militia positions once again, only this time, by the military of the UAE instead of the KSA as in the first phase the city’s defence. For this very purpose, the UAE are actively purchasing weapons of “Soviet origin” that are familiar to Yemenis. It is no coincidence that recently, a UAE military delegation headed by Ahmed Khalfan al-Qubaisi visited Minsk and negotiated the purchase in Belarus of the major components of small arms, ammunition, anti-tank combat systems, and even tanks. The lion’s share of this is intended for the forces of the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar and another part for the militias loyal to the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. In particular, those in the southern part of the country and in Taiz.

The planning of the offensive on Taiz was preceded by a secret visit to Riyadh by the head of the local militia – Hamoud al-Mekhlafi, who was chief of the Taiz security apparatus under President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At that time he was a member of the ruling General People’s Congress, but after the beginning of the “revolution”, he transferred to Islah. When Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power, he acted as his confidant in the province, and in particular was responsible for illegal trade in alcohol, which was organized by the former president, as well as the use of police and security services vehicles. It is due to his former post and the big money he made from the alcohol trade that he was able to become a leader of a “popular uprising” in Taiz. After a month’s stay in the KSA, Hamoud al-Mekhlafi, went to Turkey with his family, where he bought a very expensive mansion. Apparently, the transaction took place between Riyadh and Hamoud al-Mekhlafi with the aim to bring down the leader the militia movement and then hand himover to the local Salafis. Therefore, if the offensive by the Arab coalition on Taiz succeeds, then this key province could fall under the control of the Salafi wing in order to minimize the influence of the “Muslim Brotherhood” from “Islah”. However, no one can guarantee that this approach will be successful. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s position amongst local tribes is strong, but the local al-Islah members are certainly not ready to just give up their zone of influence.

Moreover, it was not possible to achieve any positive results in spite of all the efforts in the framework of the negotiation process on the Intra-Yemeni settlement in Kuwait. Furthermore, the parties have not even been able to at least establish any positive trends. This result was quite predictable, because there are two sides to these negotiations – the actual “representatives” of the President of Yemen, A.Hadi, and the Houthi rebels. This format was originally flawed because it excluded two other very powerful forces – the Intra-Yemenis and supporters of former President of the country, Ali Abdullah Saleh. At the same time, with the participation of the “Southerners”, this is not so simple, given the presence in the South of a few of the so-called “movements”, which are associated with various former heads of Southern Yemen, including the very A.Hadi himself, who at one time was the Deputy Secretary General of the Yemen socialist party together with Ali Nasser Mohammed, with whom he collaborated in the coup attempt. As for Ali Abdullah Saleh, his parts of the former Republican Guard are some of the most powerful forces of the Arab coalition opposition forces, and are unlikely to survive without his participation. During the current civil war, he demonstrated wonders in his resourcefulness and political skills, albeit with significant financial resources, which the former president of Yemen was able to transfer in time from the accounts of banks in the UAE, and then make a profit from the sale of assets in the United States. Thus, he has almost completely levelled out the possible negative consequences of Washington’s sanctions on him. What is noteworthy is that when the Arab coalition unsuccessfully tried to eliminate him by conducting air strikes on his numerous palaces and residences and razing his native village to the ground, at that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh himself was in the basement of the US Embassy in Sana’a, whose staff at the time had already been evacuated. He correctly figured out Saudi logic in advance: The KSA Air Force will not bomb any US diplomatic mission, even when the diplomats have long abandoned it. The decision by the House of Saud to exclude him from the negotiations was a fatal mistake. What’s more, Riyadh as well as Washington for some reason considered the information they obtained that A.A.Saleh was at loggerheads with the Houthis as credible, and the latter now considers it proper to act without paying regard to its main ally’s opinion.

The entire course of the military action in Yemen during the peace negotiations has not led to any positive trends. Conflict in the Eastern and Southeastern parts of Sana’a has even increased over the past few weeks. This has also been the case in the areas that border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are local clashes here and there in Najran. This is notwithstanding that Riyuadh has established that guaranteeing the security of their territories near the border with Yemen as the main task for the current round of peace talks. There has been some notable reduced activity of combat aircraft of the Arab coalition after allegations were made of it using cluster bombs. Against this background, the Houthis are trying to maximize control over various regions of the country, having been able to make significant progress in the Northwest province of Shabwah and partially dislodge the Arab coalition forces from the Usaylan district. The announced attack by the coalition forces on Taiz is dragging on slowly. This is also the case with the aggravation of the situation in the south of the country. There, part of the units of the “movements” attacked the Arab coalition forces in Aden that were guarding the security control building. The attack was caused by the discontent among a large part of the South Yemeni leaders over the policy of assigning officials under the UAE’s direct orders to the power structures. This also led to the constant terrorist attacks and the assassination attempt of the newly-appointed security officials in southern Yemen. The same is happening in the area that was newly “liberated” from the supporters of the local “Al-Qaeda” in Mukalla. It is here that the military attacks against the United Arab Emirates and units loyal to A.Hadi began.

If the negotiations continue to yield no substantial progress, the Houthis might proceed and take unilateral measures to form a transitional government. Indeed, they have already taken the first step, because on June 14 this year, during negotiations with Yemeni government representatives in Kuwait, the head of the Houthis delegation, Mohamed Abdel Salam, made a statement, saying that they would reject any UN proposal to resolve the crisis that did not consider their demands. “The UN representatives have told us that they are preparing the document. Our position is that we shall reject any proposal if it does not consider our demands. The main thrust of these demands lies in the establishment of a joint governmental regulatory authority consisting of the head of state, a national consensus government and a military committee, which will be supervised by a jointly-appointed body,” he said. So without any immediate prospects for settlement, the situation in Yemen has once again been exacerbated. There is no light at the end of the immediate tunnel.

Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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