Last week we looked at the civil war in Yemen, noting its origins, participants and consequences. Here we will look at the prospects for the resolution of the war between the Houthi dominated Supreme Political Council allied to former President Saleh and the Hadi-led government and their allies. This excludes the jihadist organisations AQAP and ISIS.
It is tempting to view Yemen’s war solely as a consequence of the Arab Spring, but this would be misleading as major political strife in what is now Yemen has been ongoing since 1960 (whether as a civil war in North Yemen, South Yemen, or between the two), after unification in 1994, and there has been a Houthi insurgency since 2004 with failed ceasefires up until 2010. Turmoil prior to the 1990 unification was heavily influenced by the Cold War, the 1994 civil war over the socialist South’s wish to secede, while the Houthi insurgency has taken on a distinctly sectarian bent. The revolution in 2011, backed by the Houthi leadership, was followed by a period of minor clashes between Houthi and Sunni tribes and the leadership were involved in debate over the Yemen’s political future. The current civil war began in 2015 after Houthi forces took the capital city of Sana’a, dissolved the parliament and forced the President to flee. From this perspective, the incompatibility between the two sides is over the governance of what used to be North Yemen.
The clear divisions in regional support for the warring Yemeni factions indicate a second incompatibility. Houthi support comes from Iran and Hezbollah, but support for the Hadi government comes from a Saudi led coalition of mainly Sunni states in the form of a major military intervention. This has led to the war in Yemen being called a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and with some justification, even if the coalition intervention means that the weight of external support falls heavily on the side of the Hadi government and the bombs fall on the Houthi rebels. The second incompatibility is the divide between Sunni and Shia, which infuses the politics of the Middle-East. With this comes the de facto opposition of the US, UK and France to Iran and their informal alliance with Saudi Arabia. China, Iran, and Russia oppose military intervention in Yemen, although Iran is believed to have provided direct and indirect support to the Houthis.
Then there are the underlying problems that triggered the 2011 revolution and gave added impetus to the Houthi insurgency and provided the platform for their military success in early 2015. These are common to those in other countries affected by the Arab Spring and Winter: the failure of the ruling bargain and the call for better representation. For Yemen, this has occurred in a country that was young, had weak central governance, and was already damaged by internal conflict. As we have seen, the consequences of the current civil war and coalition airstrikes have turned a political and humanitarian crisis into a fully fledged catastrophe. Without a resolution to the current civil war there can be no political solution to the problems that triggered the revolution.
The UN has appointed an envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and holds talks in an effort to negotiate a solution, the Yemen ‘Quartet’ (US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia) meet to discuss how the international community can help resolve the conflict, and there have been prisoner swaps through tribal mediation. The UN has thus far proved powerless in the face of intransigence from both warring parties as neither has reached the position whereby they consider their war unwinnable. This gives them little will to compromise and so no incentive to enter into negotiations, making mediation extremely difficult. Nor are the Supreme Political Council likely to view the ‘Quartet’ with anything other than suspicion as it includes two countries involved in the war on the Hadi government’s side and another two countries whom have armed and trained them. Any solution put forward by this group is extremely likely to favour Saudi interests over that of the Houthis. The mediation by tribal groups is another matter, for they have a significant influence within Yemen and have survived social and political change within the country. Their roots run far deeper than that of the young nation-state and its twentieth century predecessors.
There are numerous barriers to resolving the conflict in Yemen, but the two incompatibilities above stand out. The first, over governance, is decades old, but has its current roots in the Houthi insurgency of the early twenty-first century at a time when leaders of the Middle-East are being called to account for failing to deliver prosperity. It is an example of repeated mediation and failure to settle the position and status of the Houthis in a country that is attempting to bring in a representative government. If the civil war is placed in the context of the Houthi insurgency, then it dates back to when it began in 2004 and this is important. Civil wars, akin to wars in general, have a lifespan, and while longer than interstate wars, they average out at ten years, meaning that the parties involved are more likely to be reaching the point where they see political opportunities as more fruitful than the military. Also, the less number of parties involved the better, and Yemen only has two when the jihadists are discounted. The question is then as to how the warring parties can be convinced that this is the case and enter into negotiations with UN support.
The second incompatibility, the sectarian between Sunni and Shia, is more difficult as it involves the outside parties and influences their aims and objectives with regards to the first incompatibility over governance. Put simply, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want a Shia influenced government on its southern border to add to its problems with the chaos in Iraq, over its northern border. Iran has a very different perspective: the Houthi and Shia are kin of sorts and a problem for Saudi Arabia is a boon for Iran in their regional rivalry. The support from these countries and their allies is allowing the civil war to be fought at a more intense level and Saudi intervention may have prevented the Houthi from actually winning. The difficulty is that both sides would need to be convinced to end their support, but both have committed resources and both want to see their favourites win. Should the Western powers of the UN Security Council see fit to influence the regional powers in this regard they are faced with the problem that their moral authority is seen as dubious at best and they are aligned with one side and have an adversarial relationship with the other. Yet, there are two factors that could provide leverage and influence both Saudi Arabia and Iran, although it should be noted that these are speculative.
The first is the Jihadists, AQAP and ISIS, whose presence in the Middle-East in general is a major problem for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. For Iran, they are a natural enemy as they are predominantly extremists preaching a fundamentalist Sunni ideology. For Saudi Arabia they are a problem as they challenge its dominance as the leading country of the Sunni faith and have become a major liability politically. The countries of the global west are becoming increasingly pressured by their populations to call Saudi Arabia to account for its role in spreading of fundamentalism. The second is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which cannot be tackled effectively while a war is raging, as humanitarian crises means refugees and instability that spreads abroad. While Saudi Arabia is directly in the way, Africa is close by, and a Houthi refugee crisis would cause alarm to both Iran and Hezbollah, with implications elsewhere for Iran’s aims in the Middle-East. This is not forgetting that a humanitarian crisis is anathema morally, and the leaderships of Saudi Arabia and Iran are still accountable to their people in this respect, despite being powerful theocracies.
It can be seen that there are significant obstacles to achieving peace in Yemen and their being overcome is in the hands of regional powers who are fundamentally opposed to each other. While there are factors that encourage cooperation to end Yemen’s war, namely the presence of the Jihadists and the humanitarian crisis, these are not guaranteed to be sufficient to overcome a powerful regional rivalry and are speculative unless concrete and pragmatic action is taken to influence both the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The withdrawal of external military support is crucial to the de-escalation of Yemen’s war and the influencing of the warring parties towards the abandonment of a military strategy to achieve their goals.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator