Getting to an end game in Yemen
WASHINGTON - The humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen offered an opportunity to pause and think about a possible end game to that bloody conflict — and how to achieve it.
First, it is necessary to assess the motivations of the various players inside and outside of Yemen.
Last September, the Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and receive some, but probably not a great deal of, Iranian assistance, moved south into the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, effectively taking it over. They were aided by forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaidi.
But Saleh was not motivated by religious ideology. Instead, Saleh was seeking revenge against Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, his former vice-president who became president with the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States and other powers in the wake of demonstrations that rocked Yemen in 2012.
Saleh’s allies, the Houthis, have different motivations. Although they have taken over large parts of Yemen, they probably do not want the entire country, which would be a huge political headache for them, especially since most of the country follows Sunni Islam and would resist Houthi domination.
Instead, they seem to want broad autonomy for their home base in the north, an end to Sunni Muslim preachers proselytising in their region and a share of the national government. These are not unreasonable demands, provided the Houthis retreat to their northern province as part of a deal.
The forces arrayed against the Houthis inside Yemen are various Sunni militias in and around the southern city of Aden, Sunni tribes, militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and some southern separatist forces.
Within the regional context, Saudi Arabia is the most alarmed of the countries arrayed against the Houthis. The Saudis have given sanctuary to Hadi, unleashed an intensive air campaign against Houthi positions and have elicited the support of other members of the Arab League to form an anti- Houthi coalition.
Saudi motivations are complex: First and foremost, they want the Houthis defeated to diminish Iran’s influence in the kingdom’s backyard. They also want a pliant Yemen and know that as long as the Houthis are in charge they will not get one. While some Arab coalition partners, such as Egypt, have participated in air strikes and have put warships off the Yemeni coast, their level of hostility towards the Houthis is below that of the Saudis.
As for the United States, it continues to call Hadi the legitimate president of Yemen and contributed intelligence support and military supplies to the Saudis and has warned Iran against supplying the Houthis with military material. The United States has leaned on the Saudis to accept the ceasefire so humanitarian supplies could reach the Yemeni people and Washington appears to want a solution to end the crisis.
The Saudi military campaign has not worked. It has prevented the Houthis from taking Aden but it has not led to a major shift on the ground. Led by their new king and defence minister, the Saudis are flexing their muscles and are in no mood for compromise.
The United States and other Arab countries should seize the moment to encourage the Saudis to seek a political solution. The process of achieving a political solution could start by convening a meeting of the various Yemeni factions (excluding the troublesome Saleh and the terrorist AQAP) outside Yemen, perhaps in neighbouring Oman, where a new power-sharing arrangement and reasonable Houthi demands could be discussed.
The United States can use its improved ties with Iran to have Tehran quietly encourage the Houthis to approach the negotiating table. And, although many Arab countries would be reluctant to press the Saudis to moderate their position on Yemen, it is no one’s interests — except AQAP — for the Yemeni conflict to spiral out of control. But without a serious effort to find a political solution, however, it just might.