Why there is little cause for hope in Yemen

September 11, 2016
Armed children taking part in rally held by Houthi movement in Sana’a

Since the peace talks in Kuwait ended in August, the situation in Yemen has stalled. The negotiations in Kuwait had been an opportu­nity, albeit a small one, out of the conflict. This, however, is something that can only be achieved if both sides believe that their interests would be served by change, rather than the continuation of the status quo.
Given the balance of power in Yemen, it is hard to imagine that either side will change its position in the near future. The “legitimate” side, as represented by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr has its own particular strengths, not least its domestic and international political “legitimacy” and the support it is receiving from the Saudi-led Gulf alliance.
As for the alliance between former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, it is receiving support from Iran and seems to believe it can hold on to strategic regions of Yemen, including Sana’a and its environs as well as the strategic port of Hodeida. They are claiming to be defending “Yemeni unity”. However, their actions will only lead to division and fragmentation.
With every day that passes, Yemen’s legitimate forces advance. They have been besieging the Houthis in Taiz for months, while liberating areas around Sana’a. A breakthrough does not look imminent though and ultimately there is no indication that Yemen’s legitimate government will be able to return to the capital without a political agreement.
The issue goes beyond the fact that the Houthis are in physical control of Sana’a’s streets — the political balance in the country has changed. Yemen’s north is divided between two warring sides — and divisions between the northerners and southerners have existed in Yemen for decades.
There is a complete lack of political vision in Yemen. Saleh and the Houthis have carved out a small area of control and they are only interested in maintaining their power. This is a power that is based on force of arms, not the will of the Yemeni people or the acquiescence of the regional and international community. So will the support that is being provided by Tehran be enough for this?
Likely not, particularly given that regional and international forces have cut off the Houthis from their Iranian benefactors. US Navy ships have seized significant arms and ammunition bound for the Houthis over the past year. Without this supply of arms, the Houthis’ hold will crumble. The Saleh-Houthi alliance is not a stable political project but one born out of opportunism. Thus, when the going gets tough, most observers expect them to turn on each other.
Despite this, the situation on the ground remains the same. The Houthis may be under siege and in retreat but as long as they have fighters and arms — which they have for the moment — they remain a force. The conflict will either continue until one side — Yemen’s legitimate forces backed by the Arab alliance — is able to impose a real change in the balance of power on the ground, something that will likely cost a huge amount of lives and destruction, or the two sides will be forced to come to an agreement.
However this conflict resolves itself, the Houthis — unless they are destroyed — will want to be a real partner in any future Yemeni government. This, of course, is their right but they do not have any right to try to enforce their demands through the use of arms, sectarian militias and an alliance with a foreign country.
As for things as they stand though, there can be no attempt to establish a strong central government or create a federal government, whether based on six regions or more, until the conflict ends.
There is little cause for hope in Yemen and much cause for concern, given the ongoing conflict, the breakdown of negotiations and rising international concerns about the humanitarian situation in the country. Adding to the troubles is the reality al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has used this period of chaos and uncertainty to bolster its presence, particularly in central and southern Yemen.