Yemen: Tell Me How This Ends

by James Spencer

“Tell me how this ends,” then-Major General Petraeus reportedly asked during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was a surprising question, since none other than former Secretary of Defense and then-Vice President Dick Cheney had foreseen the likely chaos and potential for sectarian violence 10 years earlier. Many Saudis learned the lessons of Iraq (and indeed, of their own bloody  history in Yemen). But the current quagmire in Yemen suggests that not all of them, or their Gulf allies, did so.

As the humanitarian and security situation deteriorates steadily, the UN Security Council should ask the Saudis to “tell [them] how this ends.” In particular, the Security Council should ask what the Saudi-led coalition intends to do in the aftermath of “mission accomplished” to prevent Yemen following Iraq into chaos and potential fragmentation. If there is no credible and coherent plan, the Security Council must urgently draw up a plan to keep the peace, rehabilitate the country, and ensure that Salafi jihadis do not flourish.

A recent Voice of America piece by Barbara Slavin, entitled “Saudis Should Reveal a Political Endgame for Yemen,” assumes that the Saudis have a clear endgame for Yemen. That is not necessarily the case, for party political considerations at both the Yemeni end and at the Saudi end make a coherent—and realistic—Saudi-directed endgame unlikely. Indeed, apart from a hope for a return to the status quo ante (something Heraclitus noted was impossible 2,500 years ago), there seems to be little consensus in Saudi Arabia about what the endgame is. Further complicating the issue is alleged disagreement and “bitter rivalry” within the coalition as to the outcome.

In Saudi Arabia, responsibility for policy towards Yemen (the “Yemen File“) appears to remain divided, and thus presumably opinions about the “solution” are likely to be divided also. This issue is doubtless exacerbated by political machinations internal to Al Saud, with the conflict in Yemen appearing to be a major litmus test as to whether Prince Muhammad bin Salman in particular stands or falls. The ruling Saudi troika seems to have insisted on a maximalist “unconditional application” of UNSCR 2216, which appears to be the standard by which the troika will be judged (by their Al Saud rivals) to have won or lost.

Yet such conflicts are rarely so cut-and-dried. Although noting the need for a political solution to the issues driving the conflict, the UNSC resolution was surprisingly flawed for it represented—and was drafted by—one side in the conflict. As such, though it may form the basis of peace talks, the resolution will not likely be applied unconditionally.

A recent Guardian article claimed—albeit citing a warrant officer, who may not have had genuine knowledge—that one aim of the campaign is to ensure that Yemen remains dependent on Saudi Arabia. Presumably to that end, the terrorist-linked Salafi Abdulwahab al-Homayqani has been installed as Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s presidential advisor. His views echo the uncompromising stance of Saudi Arabia’s ruling faction: “Abdulwahab al-Homayqani said the rebels ‘did not announce their commitment to implement UN Resolution 2216’ demanding their withdrawal.” Such an attitude suggests that Saudi Arabia will not accept any political accommodation to various legitimate grievances. Yet without such political compromise and consensus—as multiple Houthi and Hiraki insurrections have shown before—the entire shooting match will likely start again soon.

Within Yemen, the war has not only brutalized and polarized society but also killed or socially damaged various key actors: the status quo ante no longer exists. To be even more accurate, the status quo under Ali Abdullah Saleh itself canted in favor of the Hashid tribal confederation after the 1960s civil war, and some of the actions ascribed to the Houthis were in fact the Bakil and Madhhaj confederations trying to redress the balance. What is needed now is another holistic Yemeni peace conference, both to agree a settlement of this conflict and to agree how to implement all the National Dialogue Conference outcomes. In many ways, it was the failure by the government to implement key concerns that precipitated the Houthi and Hiraki insurrections.

The experience of the Houthis, the Hirakis, and the Arab street of the counter-revolutionary GCC Initiative, and of the National Dialogue Conference (in particular the underhanded attempts to gerrymander the federal borders) has not been trust-forming. Similarly, the Houthis and Saleh himself have not made matters any easier by making and then breaching agreements. As a result, an impartial guarantor will be needed to ensure that all sides fulfill the terms of any eventual deal. None of the belligerents can play that role. The UN is the obvious candidate, although neutral, Ibadi Oman might be an alternative.

The coalition has begun to rehabilitate some of the infrastructure in those parts of Yemen that it controls but according to its priorities and schedule. Further, the damage done to communications infrastructure has been immense. There is serious doubt as to whether the Saudi-led coalition has the will or the means to reconstruct Yemen in its current straitened situation, while “Yemeni expectations are high and difficult to fulfill, Emirati officers acknowledged.” As for damage to cultural and historical sites, that is irreversible, reducing their attractiveness to tourists.

Equally worrying is the terrorist situation. The Saudi-led intervention has both greatly encouraged and empowered the Salafi jihadis who collaborated with the Saudi-led offensive. Reports of jihadis holding off from fighting and then seizing newly supplied advanced weapons systems are particularly worrying. Although the Saudi-led coalition made much of the threat to the international waterway through Bab al-Mandab, the Houthis did not seem interested in interrupting maritime trade. The same cannot be said of the Salafi jihadis, who mounted boat-borne attacks on the USS The Sullivans, the USS Cole, and MV Limburg. Yet now those same Salafi jihadis control the port of Mukalla, on the flank of the Gulf of Aden shipping lanes, and are pushing into Aden.

Although the UNSC Permanent Five members have thus far deferred to Saudi Arabia over what happens in Yemen, the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh are not a threat to international peace and security. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) most certainly are. Saudi Arabia—in ironic contrast to the Houthis—seems to have come to a modus vivendi with AQAP, although the Saudis do not seem to have managed the same with IS. The Yemeni Armed Forces—whose success against AQAP was mixed—have been divided and heavily degraded by the civil war and will be in no fit state to counter the Salafi jihadis. Further, many will be garrisoned in Huthi areas to “pacify” them. There will thus need to be an impartial and capable force to prevent the Salafi jihadis from expanding any further. Given how far the terrorists have expanded since the Saudi-led coalition arrived, plainly the latter are not sufficient. Given the past and current UN role, some of the forces newly pledged to peacekeeping operations could be sent to Yemen to enforce the peace, enable reconstruction, and prevent Salafi jihadi expansion.

The Saudi-led war has left the political situation and physical infrastructure in Yemen dysfunctional and greatly degraded. Without rapid and impartial intervention, the circumstances are likely to fester. If that happens, further internecine fighting will likely happen, and the Salafi jihadis will increase their presence on the shores of a geostrategic maritime trade route. Hope is still “not a plan.”

Photo: Sanaa after airstrike

James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.

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