Yemen: war without end?
6 Dec 2017|

On 4 December, Houthi rebels in Yemen killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. A few days earlier, Saleh had ended his three-year-old alliance with the Houthis and sought to re-establish relations with Saudi Arabia.

Saleh’s death is bound to complicate the ongoing crisis in Yemen. The country is already experiencing the ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world’ with an estimated 7 million people facing severe food shortages and starvation. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, will probably take over as leader of the General People’s Congress political party. He’s unlikely to seek a ceasefire, though. Instead, it’s more likely that he’ll try to form an alliance with President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his father’s successor and former vice-president. Hadi had said prior to Saleh’s death that he would support ‘any party confronting Houthi terrorist gangs’.

The political scientist William Zartman has argued that parties to a dispute opt to negotiate only when they are ready to do so. This moment of ‘ripeness’ may be brought on by a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ in which all parties recognise that they’re locked in a conflict they can’t win. A negotiated peace becomes the only way out.

Unfortunately, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia—the primary protagonists—has a clear path to victory. They remain unaffected by the conflict in Yemen. Each believes that it’s pursuing its own national interest. The suffering of Yemen’s population matters little to them.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, has noted that ‘Riyadh does not have a strategy to win the war’. It has opted for a strategy of attrition, disease and famine to wear down its opponents.

However, Iran is well versed in attrition warfare. It’s happy to support its Houthi allies for as long as necessary because it recognises the value of having a pro-Tehran government in Sana’a. And with the conflict in Syria effectively over, Tehran can now focus more on Yemen. Iran has been accused of ‘stepping up arms supplies and other support’ to its Houthi allies.

The Houthi rebels have their own grievances. The group, which emerged in the early 1990s as a theological movement that preached peace and tolerance, is linked to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam. Zaydi imams ruled the northern province of Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold, for 1,000 years until Yemen’s 1962 military coup. The coup precipitated the first Yemenite civil war between the north and south.

Saleh participated in the coup, then showed great political acumen in climbing North Yemen’s military and political ladder. He became president of North Yemen in 1978 (North Yemen united with South Yemen in 1990 to form the current Republic of Yemen) after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi.

Saleh saw the Houthis as a threat to his rule. In 2004, he sent troops to Saada to arrest the group’s founder, Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi. Hussein was killed, sparking the insurgency that has continued ever since.

The conflict escalated after the Houthis bombarded the Dar al-Hadith seminary in Dammaj village in 2013, killing around 100 people. For the Houthis, the seminary was a Salafi proselytising entity advocating anti-Zaydism. Funded largely with Saudi money, the seminary had attracted an estimated 7,000 Salafists from across the world to study.

The Houthis’ latest foray into Sana’a demonstrates not only that they’re well organised and armed, but that they’re now united under a single command. Their opponents are fragmented, drawing support from different foreign backers (as seen, for example, with the UAE-backed  al-Hirak Movement, which is composed of nine factions, some of which want to secede from Yemen).

Complicating the situation further is the presence of a melange of Salafi-jihadi groups—some affiliated with Islamic State, others with al-Qaeda—and indigenous groups, with differing views about how Yemen should be governed. Giorgio Cafiero points out that Salafi-jihadi groups see Yemen as a safe haven from which they can launch attacks against Gulf Cooperation Council members and Western powers. The Trump administration has engaged in a bitter drone campaign against these entities, particularly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). President Donald Trump authorised 40 airstrikes against AQAP inside Yemen in March 2017.

With so many actors pursuing so many agendas, the opportune moment for peace negotiations remains elusive. Until Tehran and Riyadh settle their competition for supremacy in the Middle East, it’s unlikely that the conflict in Yemen will end. That means that the burden of suffering will continue to fall on the shoulders of ordinary Yemenites.