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Yemen’s Endless Agony

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • June 23, 2015

    As expected, the United Nations-sponsored conference in Geneva, held from June 14 to 18, proved barren. It was an elaborate charade staged by the UN at the urging of the United States. It may be recalled that the US and UN had organized two conferences on Syria in June 2012 and January 2014, neither of which delivered any useful result. One of the reasons for the failure of such conferences is that the UN often conducts pre-conference talks in deluxe hotels without taking into account the ground realities, including the correlation of military forces and the popular support enjoyed by the parties to the conflict.

    Actually, the recent Geneva meeting was a non-conference. The interlocutors from Yemen refused to talk to each other and the UN mediator, Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, did shuttle from table to table. He is from Mauritania and was UNDP Representative in Yemen for years. The participants came with conflicting ideas about the agenda. The Saudi-supported delegation of ousted President Hadi wanted to discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (April 14, 2015), which required the Houthis to “end use of violence”, withdraw from areas seized by them including the capital Sanaa, and ‘relinquish’ weapons seized from the military. The resolution was rather naively worded unless the intention was to create conditions for follow-up military action under Chapter 7 of the Charter by the UN. Russia did not veto it but abstained. It is reasonable to assume that if the resolution had contained words to the effect that “all means” can be used to give effect to the resolution, Russia might have vetoed it. In other words, the Security Council is not in a position to adopt a resolution under Chapter 7 calling for compliance failing which military action might be taken.

    The Houthis came to Geneva, rather reluctantly. The US engaged with them in talks in Oman to persuade them to come to Geneva. The Houthis have put forward a plan for a political solution, which the Western media have more or less ignored. Briefly, they proposed that there should be a 551-member Transitional National Council that will appoint a 5-member presidential council to organize elections after two years. It is not, prima facie, a bad starting point for negotiations.

    Here, a point of clarification on the legal status of Mansur Hadi is called for. Saudi Arabia refers to him as the legitimately elected President and has claimed that the goal of its military action is to restore Hadi to office. Facts do not, however, support the Saudi stand. Hadi was elected to a two-year term starting February 2012. His term got over in February 2014. But he actually resigned on January 22, 2015. Later, he withdrew his resignation on advice from the Saudis. There is no legal provision for withdrawing such a resignation. Hadi is ex-President. And as a matter of fact, he lacks a political base except in Aden although even there his base is shrinking. His support comes mainly from Saudi Arabia. It is most unlikely that Hadi will ever regain the office of the president.

    As of now there is no sign of any end to Yemen’s agony. Dengue fever has broken out; 3000 cases have been detected so far, according to the World Health Organization. The UN has drawn attention to the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Yemen. There is severe shortage of medicines and other essentials owing to the embargo implemented by Saudi Arabia and the US. The latter says that it wants to prevent shipment of arms from Iran to Yemen. In effect, Yemen is being strangled. Economic sanctions not sanctioned by the UN are in place.

    Four-fifths of the 23.8 million Yemenis need assistance. In April 2015, the UN made an appeal for funds to the tune of USD 274 and Saudi Arabia promptly offered to pay the full amount. But so far no payment has been made. The UN’s latest appeal is for USD 1.6 billion and so far only USD 163 million has come in. Obviously, the so-called international community does not care and it is not a community.

    The US has adopted a policy remarkable for its failure to deliver. The first thing it should have done was talk to Saudi Arabia and remove the latter’s paranoia about Iran. Once it was clear that there might be a nuclear deal between the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia started imagining that Iran heading a ‘Shia crescent’ will pose a serious threat to Saudi Arabia’s security. There is no real threat, but an imagined threat can shape policy as much or even more than a real threat. US policy has been too focused on ‘counter-terrorism’, ignoring the political struggle in Yemen. Further, Saudi Arabia has become less receptive to advice from President Obama who is seen as inconsistent in his policy towards the Arab world. Riyadh was profoundly disappointed when Obama went back on his decision to start bombing Syria after it had crossed the ‘red line’ on use of chemical weapons.

    The resignation of Hadi, who as seen above, was overstaying his term, was an internal matter of Yemen. There was no need for Saudi Arabia to adopt Hadi who lacked a base and to start a military operation for his re-instatement. Perhaps, the military operation was undertaken more for reasons to do with succession in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah died in January 2015 and was succeeded by King Salman who appointed his 30-year old son Mohammed to succeed him as Defence Minister. The young Defence Minister was keen to prove that he was capable of acting decisively. Therefore, when the power struggle in Yemen resulted in the flight of Hadi from Sanaa to Aden, Mohammed decided that it was time to take strong action. Hadi, who found that his support in Aden was dwindling fast, was invited to Riyadh and Saudi Arabia started a bombing campaign in late March 2015 to restore him to power.

    Saudi Arabia has military support of varying degrees from the rest of the GCC except Oman as well as from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan and Malaysia. The US, UK, France, Belgium and Turkey are lending ‘non-military’ support. It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for military support, including ground troops, but was refused. Egypt also has declined to send ground troops. Therefore, it is unlikely that ground operations will be undertaken. And it is equally unlikely that continued air raids and naval and air embargo will restore Hadi to office. One might conclude that the Saudi military action was based on flawed assumptions.

    The ground realities in Yemen can be summed up as follows:

    1. Iran has lent some support to the Houthis, but its support is not a decisive factor. The Saudis have for propaganda purposes exaggerated Iran’s role and have in the process made it difficult for themselves to see the reality. Historically, state propaganda meant to fool the rest of the world often fools the state itself first.
    2. The Houthis control 11 of the 21 governorates. A good part of Yemen’s east is with AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
    3. The popular committees in the south that once supported Hadi have lost momentum.
    4. There is a strong but disunited secessionist movement in the south. But a break up will not result in the restoration of South Yemen with its capital in Aden.
    5. The Islamic State has carried out suicide attacks against Shia mosques. The Islamic State stands to gain from a Shia-Sunni confrontation which Saudi Arabia has projected and promoted.
    6. The success of the Houthis in capturing territories and military equipment from the army is mainly due to support from former President Saleh who fought six wars against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010. Saleh has joined them only because he wants his son, Ahmed, to hold a high political office. Ahmed was head of the 80,000-strong Republican Guard under his father.

    It is difficult to foresee what is in store for Yemen, named Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) by the Romans who also referred to the area that now roughly constitutes Saudi Arabia as Arabia Deserta. Two things are certain: The people of Yemen will suffer more and AQAP will get stronger and the Islamic State might get a stronger base. The March of Folly, in Barbara Tuchman’s apt term, appears unstoppable.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India