By Joseph Cozza
This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Riyadh amid renewed criticism of the ongoing Saudi-led military operations against the Al Saud ruler’s adversaries in Yemen and the international community’s failure to resolve the Yemeni Civil War. This meeting will hopefully begin the process of finding a new solution to what has been a devastating political and humanitarian crisis. Thus far, international and local powers have exacerbated the conflict either by pursuing their own geopolitical interests or by remaining on the sidelines without helping the warring factions negotiate a peaceful resolution.
To keep things in perspective, since Yemen was unified in May 1990, stability has been elusive. Civil wars, internal rebellions and insurgencies, and Arab Spring turmoil have all prevented the establishment of effective state institutions or the consolidation of a stable democracy. However, the Yemeni citizens’ hardships are not only due to their country’s own failed institutions, but also to the international system. The ongoing Yemeni Civil War is the outcome of years of the international community mishandling and neglecting the situation in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Yemen factors into the Riyadh-Tehran competition for regional hegemony, which has fueled the impoverished and beleaguered country’s cycle of violence as it does elsewhere, most notably in Syria. As a geopolitical tragedy, the international community appears powerless to bring peace to Yemen. Peace talks in Kuwait are currently suspended and earlier talks held in Oman failed to produce any signs of peace, while the conflict, which has already resulted in over 6,500 deaths and displaced more than three million Yemenis, continues to rage. Ultimately, foreign powers will need to compromise their own positions, sacrificing some degree of self-interest, to find a peaceful solution to the Yemeni crisis.
The Geopolitics of the Yemeni Civil War
In March 2015, shortly after Yemen’s dominant Zaidi Houthi rebel group, Ansar Allah, seized control of the country’s capital, Sana‘a, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with eight other Sunni Arab states that began conducting airstrikes in an effort to crush the rebellion, restore President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government and bring stability to Yemen. Hadi’s exile and the consolidation of Houthi gains in Sana‘a and Aden meant that they effectively controlled the governing bodies in Yemen. Not only was the Houthi takeover illegal, but it also undid the gains of the Arab Spring protesters who ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now aligned with Ansar Allah.
Unquestionably, Saudi Arabia’s intervention had a lot to do with perceptions of ties between the Houthis and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional geopolitical foe. Saudi concerns about Iranian involvement in Yemen predate the Houthi rebellion and the Arab Spring, but took on new weight in light of the unrest and of the successfully concluded nuclear deal between Iran and the international community. The Saudis have long opposed any perceived Iranian encroachment on the Arabian Peninsula, a policy that has been especially evident in Yemen and Bahrain, and Riyadh’s fears that the nuclear deal will empower Iran have only made it more determined to protect what it sees as its geopolitical backyard.
This intervention has been a disaster for both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In August alone, the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes targeting the Houthi rebels hit a school and a hospital, killing scores of civilians and forcing Doctors Without Borders to leave the country. These incidents have also prompted the New York Times and The Guardian to demand a halt to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia last week. Over the weekend, the United States military recalled its advisors to Saudi Arabia who were assisting in the coordination of the Yemen campaign. Meanwhile, the Houthis have continued to make gains, as tens of thousands of Shiite Yemenis rallied in Sana‘a on Saturday in support of the General People’s Congress Party and its new governing council as they announced plans to form a full government.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention has thus deepened and prolonged the crisis by bolstering support for the Houthi forces and their ally, Saleh. It has also diminished their reputation with key allies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and has damaged the credibility of the nation’s Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, a rising star in the Saud family. The tragic failures of the Saudi efforts in Yemen could not come at a worse time for the young royal as falling oil prices and new austerity measures are presenting domestic challenges to the Saudi regime.
The actions of the United States and Iran have also contributed to Yemen’s plethora of problems. Not only has the U.S. supplied arms to the Saudi-led coalition and helped them coordinate their campaign, but it has also failed to push Saudi Arabia to pursue a peaceful solution, seeing the Houthis as an Iran-backed enemy. Distracted by the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq and Syria, the United States has not taken a strong enough role in pushing for renewed Yemeni peace talks. Many have seen the U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention as a means to reassure the kingdom of its alliance in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal. As for Iran, though it denies providing material support to the Houthi rebels, the links between the Iranian regime and their Shiite compatriots in Yemen have been well documented. Since the Gulf Arab-led military campaign began last year, Iran has not put any pressure on the Houthi rebels to lay down their arms and enter into peaceful negotiations aimed at building a future Yemeni state. It is clear that Iran is more concerned with its strategic interest in bogging Riyadh down in a conflict in Yemen, historically known as the kingdom’s soft underbelly, to divert its resources away from the Levant. Reports of an Iranian-led “Liberation Army” being deployed in conflict areas like Yemen have also raised alarms in Saudi Arabia, sowing more distrust and presenting a direct threat of escalation in the Yemen conflict.
What about Russia and China?
Moscow has expressed its support for the Hadi government and has called the Houthi takeover an illegitimate “coup.” However, the Kremlin has also opposed the Saudi-led air campaign and has criticized the role Western governments have played in preventing the implementation of a cease-fire. Instead of military intervention, Moscow has argued for negotiations between all parties that recognize both the legitimacy of the Hadi government and the Houthi role in a future Yemeni state. Consequently, some actors in Yemen have seen Russia’s position on the civil war as bolstering the Houthis. While the delicate balance struck by Russia lends itself to a mediation role between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels, Russia has focused most of its attention in the Middle East on the war in Syria and has not taken a prominent role in negotiating a resolution to the Yemeni crisis.
On August 21, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, reiterated Moscow’s support for the Hadi government and refusal to recognize the “political council” declared last month by the Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as a body to unilaterally govern Yemen. Bogdanov described the political council as merely a means to legitimize a “coup.” Yet that same day, Saleh told Russia 24 that the political council was prepared to grant the Russians access to airports, ports and “all facilities” in the “fight against terrorism.” Observers argue that Russia likely perceives the Yemeni Civil War as far from over, and thus Moscow wants to avoid creating tension with whatever faction may come out on top in the future.
LobeLog has previously analyzed the Kremlin’s stakes in, and subtle approach to, the Yemeni crisis:
In the grander geopolitical context, Russia views the rise of the Houthis as a gain for Iran and a loss for Saudi Arabia—and by extension the U.S. If the Houthis remain in control of Yemen for the longer term, they would likely reach out to non-Western powers—most notably Russia and China—to seek support, particularly given the West’s support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. Furthermore, given the value of Yemen’s location (in the strategically important intersection of the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Horn of Africa, and Indian Ocean), if Russia were to secure access to its ports, the Kremlin could regain greater military influence in the region. (During the Soviet era Moscow had access to a naval base near the Gulf of Aden).
In February , a Houthi delegation visited Moscow and reportedly offered lucrative agricultural and energy deals, including a promise to permit Russian oil firms to explore the Marib province that the Houthis asserted would soon come under their control. According to Saudi sources, when Mohammed bin Salman visited Russia [in June 2015], he sought to secure Moscow’s support for Riyadh’s hardline stance on the Houthis but failed to do so.
For its part, China has been largely silent throughout the conflict. Beijing has advocated for multi-lateral negotiations and has supported the peace efforts of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, but has yet to officially take a side in the Saudi-led military intervention, despite raising humanitarian concerns and calling for a cease-fire.
This is not to say, however, that China does not have its own vested interests in Yemen’s future. Beijing will rely on the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab, the artery separating Yemen from the Horn of Africa by roughly 18 miles at its narrowest point, as China seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road trade route. Yemen’s own energy resources enter the equation too. Although oil-poor compared to neighboring Gulf Arab states, Yemen does have some energy reserves and China, being oil thirsty, has interests in securing energy partnerships with all nations that export oil, even those who do so in relatively low quantities. Indeed, China was the top buyer of Yemeni oil before exports fell amid the civil war.
In recent years, China’s navy has carried out anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and joined the United States, France, Japan and Saudi Arabia in extending its military presence to Djibouti, establishing Beijing’s first overseas military base in the Horn of African country. An optimistic analyst might contend that China’s commitment to promoting security and stability in the bodies of water along the 21st century maritime Silk Road, and to gaining access to new oil markets, could pressure Beijing to step up diplomatic efforts to bring Yemen’s warring factions to a peaceful settlement.
Nevertheless, to date all international efforts to resolve the Yemeni Civil War have proven futile. Protecting their own geopolitical interests, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran have allowed the situation to deteriorate, destroying vital infrastructure, costing countless lives, and diminishing the prospect of a peaceful resolution. Meanwhile, Russia and China have failed to step into mediating roles that could bring the various stakeholders to the table in search of a peaceful solution. Continued instability in Yemen has also created an opening for extremists, such as al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and IS, to push into new territory and has only solidified the Houthis’ control of Sana‘a.
Toward Constructive International Engagement
It is time for the international community to once again pursue a healthy dialogue between all parties in Yemen. The Houthi takeover of the Yemeni state was illegal and unconstitutional and has certainly caused chaos and destruction while also deepening the divisions in the nation. However, no future solution can ignore the legitimate grievances of the Houthis, nor overlook their important role in shaping Yemen’s national fabric. Although the United Nations has taken the lead in conducting peace talks in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran must do more to push all parties to actively engage in meaningful dialogue.
To do so, the April cease-fire must be enforced, with the Saudi-led coalition ending their air campaign and Iran halting any funding or support of the Houthi rebels and pushing for peaceful engagement with other Yemeni parties. No solution can be viable so long as the Gulf Arab states and Iran view the civil war as merely a battleground for their grander geo-sectarian proxy war. This mentality does an immense disservice to the people of Yemen, and creates new security, financial, and logistical challenges for nearby countries in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, where Houthi rockets and scores of Yemeni refugees have landed. Instead, the entire international community must show a commitment to building a peaceful, united, and stable Yemeni state. As for the Houthi rebels, they must allow President Hadi and the legitimate government in exile to return to govern in exchange for a meaningful role in a national reconciliation process.
Any solution in Yemen must include four key provisions: an immediate disarmament of rebel forces; a new and comprehensive national dialogue; a commitment to transitional justice; and substantial institutional and constitutional reform. This process would bring together the Houthi rebels as well as Yemen’s Sunni population and Yemen’s various tribes in an effort to help reconstruct the nation. Yet even if the country manages to resolve the Houthi conflict, the “southern question” remains. Plans to secure peace and unity to the war-torn country must address historical grievances and a sense of marginalization among Yemenis of the southern provinces, which belonged to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from 1967 to 1990, who have lent support to Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Janubi) and stepped up calls for succession.
Such efforts must focus on ending hostilities and disbanding and reintegrating rebel forces, addressing longstanding communal grievances, acknowledging past injustices, compensating for wartime losses, building confidence between the various parties, ensuring appropriate justice in accordance with the rule of law, and designing new governing institutions that ensures all communities (including the Houthis) have a place in a new Yemeni state. It is clear that the original National Dialogue Conference and the 2011 GCC deal have failed to achieve these goals. It is critical that negotiators find an acceptable solution that will allow for the reintegration of the Houthi rebels into the state system. Indeed, a liberal consociational institutional model, which could reintegrate the Houthi rebels into a new Yemeni state structure while addressing the southern question by ensuring adequate power-sharing mechanisms, appears to be the most promising strategy for achieving peace in this beset country.
Outsiders and Local Actors Must Cooperate with Yemenis Taking the Lead
The international community has a role to play by providing the expertise necessary to facilitate such a nuanced and fragile process. Though the people of Yemen must lead this effort, the UN, supported by the U.S., European Union, GCC, Russia, China, and Iran can work with the various parties to develop a reconciliation plan and ensure goals are met and the process proceeds without interruption. It is also critical that this process of national reconciliation and reconstruction is not rushed. Too often, the international community, in an attempt to achieve swift resolution to crises, rushes the transition from conflict to governance without talking the difficult but necessary steps to build national trust. A rushed process, such as occurred in Libya and Egypt, often undermines the viability of the new government. That is why each of the steps mentioned above must be considered at length and why the international community cannot take the lead. It is for the citizens of Yemen to forge their own path towards renewed unity and stability with the knowledge that it will take many years to truly achieve these goals.
Clearly, foreign intervention in Yemen and support for the war-torn country’s various actors have escalated and prolonged the conflict. These actions only serve the geopolitical strategic interests of foreign powers and have prolonged the devastating civil war that has cost the lives of thousands because, with backing from outside powers, the various sides make strategic calculations to continue fighting based on this external support. Secretary Kerry’s meeting in Riyadh this week hopefully demonstrates a willingness on behalf of key international actors to pursue a new path.
Joseph Cozza (@JoeFCozza) is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt). Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi