Seeing the big picture in Yemen

The necessity of separating the south from the north in Yemen is no longer just related to southern Yemenis’ right to sovereignty as it is to the existential issue of Arab national security.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Houthi fighters ride on the back of a truck in the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, last December. (Reuters)
Stalling tactics. Houthi fighters ride on the back of a truck in the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, last December. (Reuters)

Given its war and its political deadlock, the Yemeni crisis does not look like it is breaking out of the cycle of war and its political, military and economic quagmire.

The internationalisation of the crisis is still in its early stages. Things changed after an agreement was reached in Sweden. It looks like the Houthis succeeded in trading political attrition for media exposure while the intentionally recognised government camp looked bland and insipid, repeating over and over again the expression “the three reference documents” when many things have changed that knocked out UN Security Council Resolutions 2451 and 2452.

To understand what is going on in Yemen, look at Lebanon. The contexts can hardly be separated.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah insists on disrupting the formation of a new government and the March 14 Alliance appears unable to produce any effect on the political scene. It is clear that Hezbollah and its allies have full control of the state apparatus.

In this context, there were calls for a constitutional conference to restructure the political formula in Lebanon and kill the Taif Agreement. Hezbollah is using the country’s profound economic crisis as one more trump card in its hand. The party is not interested in alleviating the economic pressure on the Lebanese. On the contrary, it wants to exacerbate it to do away with the Taif Agreement and draft a new political agreement in accordance with the political gains of the so-called Axis of Resistance.

The same manoeuvre is taking place in Yemen. The Houthis were dragged to the Sweden negotiations by the United States’ big stick. From the outset, however, the Houthis set specific goals that have not changed since 2015: restructure the political and power structure in Yemen in accordance with the changes that resulted from their September 21 coup.

The Houthis realise that it is difficult to overcome the political process based on the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, just like Hezbollah in Lebanon which is aware of the difficulty of overcoming the Taif Agreement. Therefore, the fundamental content of the crisis must remain centred on changing the political contract in the country regardless of the political and economic costs for Yemen or Lebanon.

What remains to be seen then are the Houthis’ chances of achieving their goals.

Consider the international scene in which the United States appears to have no political vision for all of the Middle East and not even in its declared strategy against Iran. The confusion inside the US administration and its growing internal problems are undermining the White House’s capacity to have a political role that could influence the Yemeni scene.

Look to the days preceding the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2451, when Russia threatened to veto the British draft resolution condemning Iran. The United States backed down and decided not to support the resolution, which could have stopped military operations in Hodeidah.

Likewise, Europe has no ability to influence developments in Yemen. The Europeans are experiencing their politically weakest era since the end of World War II. Major European capitals are subjected to unprecedented political crises. This situation has deprived Europe of political influence in the Middle East. Even the British, who were determined to resolve the Yemeni crisis, have lost the drive to do it due to the Brexit crisis.

There is a need for a critical review of the years of war in Yemen at the regional level. This review must start with the recognition that the Arab project of moderation has achieved important gains that need to be preserved. Furthermore, the Arab alliance must recognise that it lost the advantages of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 after the adoption of Resolutions 2451 and 2452. That loss was only partial but significant.

The military front that could have had a good chance of changing the balance of power was the one that existed in Hodeidah before the adoption of Resolution 2451. With that resolution, the pro-government camp and their allies lost the capacity to reverse things and that reverberated across Yemen.

The Marib Front has not progressed forward and will not move towards even putting pressure on Sana’a. In any case, this front remains outside any plan for the area and is dependent on the plans of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is searching for a share in the political scene, a share that is likely to be guaranteed by the Houthis in a final settlement.

The Houthis are aiming for negotiations about the political framework, which is part of UN Resolution 2451. This is why they are trying to drain the efforts of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths.

They are also draining the efforts and patience of the international community because they know it will enable them to reach that round. For that purpose, they were willing to make concessions concerning prisoners or Taiz, while the opposite camp was busy making media declarations about references and instruments that were no longer valid.

The pro-legitimacy camp has yet to accept that the changes at the end of 2018 are here to stay and that it is unproductive to insist on referring and appealing to political instruments that failed politically, militarily and economically. The Houthis have not lost the advantage presented by the rigid attitude of the pro-legitimacy camp, even after the recent handover by Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar of the leadership of the pro-legitimacy camp. The old general has been clinging to failure since 2016.

Sana’a, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad are Iran’s pawns on the chessboard and Iran is moving to manufacture a different face to Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Shia crescent seems to have adopted a more rigid stance and Sana’a will soon join in unless the risk is addressed by moving to protect Aden and its coastline all the way to al-Mahrah.

The necessity of separating the south from the north in Yemen is no longer just related to southern Yemenis’ right to sovereignty as it is to the existential issue of Arab national security.