YEMEN, A FORGOTTEN CONFLICT
ten thousand victims, 32 thousand wounded, three million IDPs and
an impressive series of systematic human rights violations. Yemen
is presently a country split in three parts, each ruled by a
different entity: the Houthi rebels supported by ousted president
Ali Abdullah Saleh, a so-called “legitimate” president in exile,
Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and AQIP, Al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula. Caught in the middle, the civilian population is
suffering under the blows of the warring parties.
The Saudis bomb civilian targets (refugee camps, hospitals and schools included) and employ cluster bombs (banned under international treaties) indiscriminately. They also adopt a perverse tactic: they bomb a target, wait for rescue teams to reach the location, and then bomb again. The Houthi rebellion isn’t any better: they use human shields and forcibly recruit child soldiers, that represent an estimated 30% of the fighters on the ground. A similar behaviour can be found in the loyalist troops of president Hadi.
A homeless population, forced to flee from one combat zone to the next, without any health support as hospitals have become a primary targets. Over 14 million people have no access to drinking water and are at risk of famine because of the international embargo on Yemen and of the Saudi bombing of transport infrastructures and roads. The civilians are basically caught in a trap: the Saudi desert to the north and an international naval blockade to the south.
In the meantime, the poorest country in the Middle East is on the verge of collapsing: almost half of all businesses have shut down, the GDP has fallen 35-40% since the outbreak of the war. However, international public opinion does not pay any attention to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, its attention grabbed by other crisis in the region: the civil war in Syria, the fight against the ISIS, the Kurdish struggle, the US-Russia competition.
The conflict in Yemen has been fueled by a number of actors. The main one is Saudi Arabia. The kingdom started the conflict to hamper the growing Iranian influence in the country after Teheran sided with the Houthi rebellion. The struggle for regional dominance isn’t the only motivation that pushed the Saudis to intervene. The new king Salman and especially the ruler’s son, Mohammed, that aspires to become the heir apparent to the throne, have pushed their country in the spotlight through an aggressive foreign policy. However, since Saudi Arabia’s direct intervention in the conflict in March 2015, the military success Riyadh was yearning for has not materialized. In fact, the Saudis have launched a war on Yemen a month after the Houthi rebels and president Hadi had signed a peace agreement. The deal called for the withdrawal of the Houthis from parts of Sana’a and the formation of a government of national unity.
The US, UK and France are all supportive of the Saudi military initiative. British and American officers station in the military command centers that choose the targets to bomb. While the French are flooding both the Saudis and the UAE with their weapons. The US support is the price to pay for the “betrayal” of the traditional Saudi ally in favor of a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. The anglo-american influence has not prevented the war from going astray. They simply looked the other way when international NGOs condemned the systematic human rights violations. The fresh British Secretary of State, Boris Johnson, has done even better than American mutism: he denied that abuses ever took place. The Saudi’s lack of familiarity with the concept of human rights completed the bleak picture.
Negotiations without a solution
There have been a series of talks to put an end to the conflict. The latest round was held in Kuwait and failed miserably in August after three months of futile discussions. Immediately after their collapse the bombings resumed. During the latest visit by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Riyadh a new proposal emerged: cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of the Houthis from the Yemeni capital, which they conquered in September 2014, and the handing over of all their artillery and weapons. In other words: you must surrender. This is not a proposition, it’s a joke.
With the support of once president Saleh, the Houthis have set up a “Supreme political council” to rule the country; on the other end, the “legitimate” president Hadi, whose government is in exile, claims that he can rule the country thanks to the abundant oil revenues. None of the parties seems ready for or willing to compromise. The rebels are using the Parliament, whose mandate expired in 2009, to seek legitimacy, whilst Hadi is struggling to make his way back to the capital with Saudi military muscle. In the meantime, the AQAP terrorists are exploiting the civil war to strengthen and to exercise their control over some areas in Yemen, and especially in Hadhramaut on the border with Oman.
The conflict in Yemen has also taken its toll on Saudi finances. The growing budget deficit and the collapse of oil prices has led to a 20% cut to the salaries of Saudi public employees. On the opposite front, the Yemenis are used to living in poverty and know how to manage their subsistence economy and supply themselves on the black market. In fact, the Houthis are even financing their war though the levies they are imposing on the population. Oil exports, which used to represent roughly 50% of the country’s State income, have now been blocked. While billions of dollars will be necessary to rebuild a country torn apart by the conflict. That is, when a peace deal is signed.
Yet, there seems to be no end in sight for this conflict. Military operations have stalled. The Saudi army and its over 100 thousand troops benefit from US logistical support and are assisted by units coming from several other countries: a thousand Egyptians, 800/900 Sudanese, a thousand from Qatar, a brigade provided by the UAE, plus a couple of thousand Colombian mercenaries, an artillery battalion from Kuwait, 300 from Bahrein and 2.100 soldiers from Senegal. These figures don’t account for the Yemeni army soldiers loyal to Hadi. And these are just the troops on the ground, to which we have to add around 100 Saudi fighter jets, plus airplanes from other nations (Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Bahrein, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait and Qatar). This massive display of force has not been capable of defeating about 100 thousand Houthi rebels and the remnants of troops loyal to former president Saleh. What is even worse: the conflict has now spilled over into Saudi Arabia with the sporadic raids by the Ansar Allah militias and the launch of missiles.
We all know that the Houthis are receiving support from Iran and are being trained by Hezbollah. A delegation of rebels has recently visited Baghdad to seek, at least officially, humanitarian support from the Iraqi Shia-dominated government. This initiative can only further fuel the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that has spread across the Middle East. It’s not a coincidence that it was also one of the main causes for the outbreak of the war in Yemen.
The United States are trying, via the UN, to form a government of national unity. The initiative is theoretically supported by both the “legitimate” president and the rebels. However, the disagreement is over the details of the deal. The Houthis will never withdraw from Sana’a nor hand over their weapons without anything in return. They want a federal system, greater territorial autonomy, regardless of who is at the helm in the capital. A regional structure was part of the negotiations that failed in February 2014 and that eventually led to the Houthis taking over Sana’a in September. Everyone was in favor of a federalist Yemen. The rebels were because it allowed them to maintain the control over the north of the country – and this is basically what they are still demanding – and for similar reasons the idea was also appreciated by the secessionists in the south.
Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi
An irreconcilable rift
This seems the only viable exit strategy for Yemen whom, since the reunification in 1990, still bleeds from the wounds of a lengthy North vs South conflict. The war has also highlighted once more the role of the tribes. They are the true power-brokers in Yemen, regardless of who the government is. This is why it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “legitimate” or “illegitimate” rulers.
Take Ali Abdullah Saleh, for instance. He ruled North Yemen since 1978 and then unified Yemen until 2012, when he was forced to relinquish power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. It is of no importance that Saleh waged a war against the Houthis from 2004 until 2011 with Saudi support. After all, UN Resolution 2216 of April 2015 – sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia and with US blessing – claims Hadi is the “legitimate” president of a country that has never stumbled upon democracy. This is why taking the UN Resolution as the basis for any future negotiation will lead nowhere.
Saudi Arabia represents the main obstacle to peace, as it is against any compromise between the Yemenis. Any concession to the Houthis would also mean the enemy would control its southern borders. The Saudis would also lose their face: the war in Yemen has put the military credibility of the kingdom and the ambitions of the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, at stake. Without a fair deal both parties would end up as losers. The Houthis face similar issues. The conflict has given them far more influence and power than they ever dreamt of. They basically now rule over a third of the country. And they have finally access to the State’s finances, or what is left of them.
A solution must be found because, in the long term, no one will benefit from this war. Not the US, who see their ally squander resources in a useless conflict. Not Saudi Arabia, who’s actually bleeding 6 billion dollars a month. Not the rebels, who don’t have the capability to control such a vast extent of territory. Not the civilian population, whom the UN High Commission for Refugees has labeled as on the verge of a “humanitarian catastrophe”.