Hardly surgical: a view from a window overlooking the Al Yarmook football stadium in north Sana'a, hit by a Saudi air strike on the al-Rawthah neighbourhood yesterday. Demotix / Alhussain Albukhaiti. All rights reserved.
It’s difficult to envisage an end-game
to the conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, where on 25 March a
coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia began air strikes which have killed dozens
so far, including unnumbered civilians.
The targets are Houthi tribesmen,
armed Shias who have swept across Yemen from their heartland in Saada, along
the Saudi border, to the southern port city of Aden, taking the capital, Sana’a,
in September and the key Red Sea coastal city of Hodeida, among others.
The Houthis’ remarkable
territorial gains caught Saudi Arabia and its allies by surprise, instilling
fears in the Sunni monarchies that Houthi-supporting Iran was rapidly spreading
its influence across the region. Such fears were compounded by declarations by Iranian lawmakers, following the fall of
Sana’a, that Iran now controlled its fourth Arab capital—after Baghdad, Beirut
Saudi Arabia, which previously
bombed the Houthis in Saada in 2009-10, has reasons to be concerned. The
Houthis’ policies largely align with those of Tehran, which supplies diplomatic,
political and, most likely, military assistance and recently signed an ‘economic
partnership’ agreement. Riyadh does not want an antagonistic, Iranian-supported
group dominating its southern border.
Lebanon’s Hizbullah provides a worrying
reference point. A formidable Iranian proxy, the group has an arsenal comparable
to the armies of nation-states and is a worthy adversary for the Israel Defence
Forces, one of the most powerful armies on the planet. Riyadh does not want the
Houthis to be a thorn in its side the way Hizbullah has been to Jerusalem; Hizbullah’s
mere presence influences Israeli foreign policy and arguably acts as a
deterrent against a strike on Iran.
But the Houthis are not, nor are
likely to be, akin to Hizbullah. Houthi policy is not directed by Tehran, they
do not subscribe to Wilayat al-Faqih
(the doctrine that Islamic jurists should rule) and they differ ideologically
with the Iranian mullahs (who follower the Twelver form of Shia, whereas the
Houthis are Zaydis)—they are supported by Iran but not a proxy. Yet a pro-Iranian
group controlling Yemen crosses a red line for Riyadh, with the nightmare
scenario of Iranian long-range missiles being installed, targeted at key installations
in the kingdom.
The Saudis calculate that without
their intervention the Houthis would have even less incentive to halt their
advance. The latter have systematically ignored Security Council calls for a
cessation of violence and adherence to the UN-supervised political transition,
and rejected calls for negotiations.
Yet extraction from a conflict is
extremely difficult and very costly, as US-led coalitions in the Middle East in
the past decade have palpably demonstrated. And whereas hitherto in Yemen, regional
powers supported local allies remotely, in an active war Saudi Arabia’s
reputation, in particular, comes on the line: the coalition cannot end its
operation without a clear ‘win’ of some sort.
But right now a ‘win’ for Saudi
Arabia looks highly unlikely. Since the air strikes began, the Houthis have
pushed on into Aden, where they are embroiled in street battles with resistance
fighters. The prospect of their securing control over Yemen’s second city (and
capital of former Southern Yemen) is fuelling speculation that Saudi Arabia or
others in the coalition will commit ground troops.
But the Houthis are not, nor are likely to be, akin to Hizbullah.
This, of course, would be highly
risky. In unfamiliar territory against battle-hardened Houthis, Saudi or
coalition forces would almost certainly suffer casualties. This would raise the
stakes even further and make withdrawal very difficult.
Meanwhile, Iran has upped the ante in recent days, by sending two military
vessels off the Yemeni coast, purportedly to "safeguard naval routes for
vessels in the region", and through the cutting words of its supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who called the Saudi-led intervention a “genocide” akin
to Israeli strikes on Gaza.
The stated aim of the Saudi-led
operation is to bring the Houthis back to the negotiating table and restore the
transition process, halted when they overran Sana’a. Leave aside the improbability
of early success. What next? Who would the Saudis support to hold the loose
reigns of power in Yemen?
Having committed its forces,
Riyadh almost certainly intends retaining leverage in Sana’a and, ideally, keeping
the country within its sphere of influence. Indeed the Saudi defence minister and
son of the king, Mohammed Bin Salman, was quoted by the state-owned TV, Al
Arabiya, as favouring the reinstatement of the president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour
Hadi, effectively ousted by the Houthis. But they have said they will not
accept Hadi’s return and any peace initiative lacking Houthi support looks
doomed to fail.
Other options also appear
unpalatable. Ahmed Saleh, son of Yemen’s wily former president (Ali Abdullah)
and now an unlikely ally of the Houthis, will not get the coalition’s backing,
while Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate whose relations with Saudi
Arabia appear to be thawing since Salman took over as king, are bitter Houthi enemies.
Ali Nasir Muhammed, former president of South Yemen before unification in 1990,
has been lobbying in Riyadh but without any sign of success.
Even though the Houthis reportedly claim to be ‘ready’ to return to the negotiating
table, on condition that air strikes are ceased and negotiations are overseen
by ‘non-aggressive’ parties, there is no evidence that a ceasefire looms. This
not only means that the dire humanitarian situation will worsen for millions—particularly
as the coalition air and naval blockade continues to prevent or slow food
imports (Yemen imports 90% of its foodstuffs)—but it plays into the hands of
al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The group, deemed al-Qaeda’s most
dangerous branch by the United States, has already taken advantage of the
conflict. In the past week it took control of the port town of Mukallah,
securing the release of almost 300 inmates from a jail which housed the leading
AQAP operative Khalid Batarfi.
Another tragic outcome of this
war is the entrenchment of old divides and the emergence of new ones. Divisions
between northerners and southerners—the country was partitioned for over 22
years—are growing, making a stable, unified state less likely. Sectarianism,
never seriously present in Yemen, is fast becoming a reality, as in Syria and
Iraq. And with the militarisation of children as a consequence of the conflict—the
UN estimates that almost a third of fighters are children—the repercussions are
likely to be felt for decades to come.
Many fear the time for dialogue
has passed, yet it must be pursued. Iran, the US and other coalition members certainly
have key roles to play, but Saudi Arabia is best placed to take steps that can
bring the Houthis to the table.
A halt to air strikes, on
condition the Houthis agree to a ceasefire, is an obvious first step. Riyadh
should also agree to drop demands for Hadi to return to power—not only have the
Houthis utterly rejected this but he has proven an ineffective leader and does
not enjoy widespread support. And it must accept that the Houthis will become major
political players in Yemen and be granted more power than they were accorded
through the National Dialogue.
However difficult these compromises
might seem to the Saudis, this is the only possible route back to relative
stability. They might not score the ‘win’ they hope for, but it is much better
than the alternative.
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