The Battle Lines of Yemen’s Endgame

With time and patience running out, failure to meet peace expectations can become ever more dangerous for Yemen.
Munir Saeed Yemen, Yemen Civil War, Yemen peace negotiations, the outcome of the war in Yemen, Ansar Allah Yemen, UAE role in Yemen war, Saudi role in Yemen war, break up of Yemen, south-north Yemen divide, Yemen peace process

Taiz, Yemen, 12/23/2018 © akramalrasny / Shutterstock

An endgame, traditionally, brings both bad and good news. An endgame is always tense because those involved know things are coming to a head. We can see this in the battle theaters in Yemen over the past weeks. What we don’t see is the reality of how those battles are actually progressing and who will be the last man standing: Ansar Allah, aka Houthis, or the Hadi faction, aka Yemen’s legitimate government. Although from the experience of past battles and the progressive loss of ground President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had suffered, we can make a good guess. 

The battlegrounds are the oil-rich Mareb, the 3,000-year-old capital city of the queen of Sheba, with its famous Mareb Dam, and the north-south large buffer city, Taiz, whose 2.5 million people suffered heavily over the past six years. These are the two regions where Hadi has some but not full control, and where tribal and political loyalties are as clear as the sun on a very foggy, snowy day. These two battlegrounds will not only determine the future of Hadi and his circle, who for the past six years served as the Saudi coalition’s pretext for its destructive military intervention, but also the future make-up of postwar Yemen and, most probably, the region’s new alliances. 


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Ansar Allah’s efforts are centered around eliminating the Hadi faction permanently from the equation by driving its forces from its last two strategic positions. The meeting last month in Muscat, Oman, between the US and Ansar Allah might have a lot to do with wrapping up the fighting and discussing postwar scenarios. The battles cannot be allowed to continue for long, especially with other pressing regional issues demanding resolution. That is why, compared to all their battles so far, the Hadi faction is determined to continue fighting. Its survival depends on these two key positions, as does Ansar Allah’s ultimate prize — to retain its hard-won title as the driving force in Yemen’s political future, possibly as king, or at least as kingmaker.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which had already dealt its own decisive blow to Hadi, now relishes its turn to watch the events unfold, clearly hoping for an Ansar Allah victory. This would help to terminate the president’s influence completely from the STC’s own stronghold, Aden, where the Hadi group exists ceremoniously as a government only with the STC’s permission.   

First Scenario

There are three possible scenarios for an endgame in this conflict. First is a total defeat and subsequent elimination of the Hadi faction from Yemen’s political future. That entails the elimination of the General People’s Congress (GPC), the ruling party founded by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Islah, Yemen’s brand of Muslim Brotherhood also created by Saleh as a religious party opposing the south’s Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). Ironically, Islah evolved into a strong opposition to Saleh’s own rule and allied with a weak YSP.

The GPC and Islah, once the stalwarts of Yemen’s post-union political landscape, have now become spent forces. The GPC managed in totalitarian fashion by its founder virtually died with him, as is always the case with one-man shows. Islah, defeated, then banished from Yemen by its ideological and political arch-rival Ansar Allah now exists largely in Saudi Arabia, where it is at once viewed as a terrorist organization and an ally by the Saudi regime. The UAE also rejects Islah, like it does the rest of the Muslim Brothers. These two spent forces are the bulwarks of the Hadi bloc.

Eliminating the two political parties in every way but in name will not be unprecedented in Yemen. Following the two-month war in 1994 to defeat southern secessionist attempts led by the YSP, the GPC-Islah alliance completely destroyed the socialists, once a powerful dictatorship that ruled the pre-union People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. It then remained an insignificant player that managed to find a small voice on the bandwagon of Yemen’s Arab Spring revolution in 2011. Currently, in the midst of this war, the YSP is unheard of. Ironically, its fate now awaits its nemeses, the GPC and Islah, once ruling allies, then ruling opponents, now on the same side of a banished government led by Hadi, who, despite his international recognition as president, is unable to set foot in the country he claims to preside over.

This scenario leaves Ansar Allah in control of the northern part of Yemen, with the STC controlling the south. This should be the logical platform for a north-south federation that can save the union. In the face of opposition to a preferred larger multistate federation, such a scenario was envisaged years back when the idea of a centralized state was completely rejected due to its absolute totalitarianism as well as political and financial corruption. But this scenario is now the most viable to bring a stable and peaceful solution.

Second Scenario

However, the danger for Yemen as a whole is the second scenario, in which the STC, without seeking a referendum, uses the fiat of its de facto power supported by the UAE to push for secession. Such a move will provoke others and become destructive in a postwar landscape. The move will also be dangerous for its proponents, the STC and the southerners who support it, and also the south’s backers in Abu Dhabi.

Since independence in 1967, the south has not been politically cohesive. The fighting between the Hadi government — whose members, including Hadi himself, are largely southerners — and the STC, which is identifiably a southern secessionist movement is reminiscent of pre-union southern civil wars. Other secessionist voices in the south have become more prominent since the war of 1994. The large, oil-rich Hadhramout region has the economic and geographic viability to survive as a state on its own.

Together with neighboring Shabwah, another large oil region, the two can be united as a nation. This is a prospect the Saudis have been seeking for many years, hoping to integrate the two regions into greater Saudi Arabia with a direct outlet to the Arabian Sea, away from the unstable Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Neighboring Mahra, bordering Oman, with whom it has historical and ethnic ties, can find some accommodating formula with Muscat.

Such a scenario will leave the STC with Aden and its surrounding regions of Lahaj, Abyan, Yafei and Dhalee, all of which can only be economically viable as part of a nation, never on their own. This is the dangerous scenario that the STC and the UAE must be very cautious about. It spells dangers for both by creating a total dependence of STC-ruled areas on Abu Dhabi. While this might look appealing for the UAE in the short term, enabling it to obtain geographical concessions from the STC — especially to Socotora, the Arab world’s biggest island coveted by Abu Dhabi — in the long term it will backfire because Yemenis have always reacted violently to attempts by external forces to dominate them territorially.

Besides, this scenario also enables the Saudis to become more powerful vis-à-vis the Gulf Cooperation Council, a prospect that others, especially the UAE and Oman, will find unnerving. There are much better ways of achieving regional partnerships that are peaceful, inexpensive and offer stable long-term benefits to all involved. On the other hand, there are intertwined economic and social bonds between north and south Yemen. Not only are these ties necessary and beneficial to maintain, but they are also difficult to break.

The gas exported through the Balhaf terminal in the south originates from the fields in Mareb in the north of the country. The southern Yemeni oil that originates from fields in Masila and eastern Shabwah is piped across the northern Yemeni desert to Ras Essa in the Red Sea, part of north Yemen. This type of profitable integration exists in other economic lifelines of the nation. Families on both sides have strong social relations that are evident through intermarriage, food, dress, culture and social habits, forming a diverse nation of strong similarities.

Why all this must be allowed to be lost at the risk of returning to the pre-union border wars is a serious question that anyone seeking to break the union will have to address. Secession demands have been largely led by emotions and a revolt against the excesses, mismanagement and corruption of the Saleh regime, which wreaked havoc on all Yemen and especially the south. But that regime is gone, never to return. Yemenis must now ask themselves if they still want to break up the country — with all the dangers, weaknesses and instability this fracture will bring to Yemen and the entire region — or whether they should mend Yemen in the broken places and build a viable nation that can be a strong regional and international partner?

Such a Yemen will become a powerful lynchpin to the region’s security arrangement, especially as a southern security gate to the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen has the only regional coastline that connects both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, extending for more than 2,500 kilometers. Going forward, regional political decisions affecting Yemen’s fate can either turn a very frustrated and angry Yemeni population, which has suffered six years of relentless airstrikes, blockade, starvation and military intervention, into a force for chaos or stability in this very important waterway. Clearly, seeing the support retaliatory strikes against Saudi Arabia are getting amongst Yemenis, those currently working toward peace have their work cut out for them. They better hurry. With time and patience running out, failure to meet peace expectations can become ever more dangerous.

Ideal Scenario

The ideal scenario given the current situation will be a new formula for a union that creates a federal government, with strong local governments to support it. That is the type of multistate federation envisaged before the military intervention brought Yemeni peace talks to a sudden halt on the eve of a breakthrough. It is still viable within a two-state federation.

The third scenario is a stalemate in the current battles with no decisive victories. It is very doubtful that this would lead to a negotiated settlement. It has failed in the past six years because of external players funding and arming opposing sides. No solution in Yemen is possible without turning around the roles played by external forces. A stalemate at the present time is the worst possible scenario that must be avoided at all costs. Yemenis cannot afford it and should not be required to suffer it again.

Strange as this might sound, it is, in fact, the UAE that can drive a solution, provided it is willing to terminate its destructive role in the Yemen war and follow the US example by announcing it is disengaging from the Saudi coalition. Despite saber-rattling, the UAE, among all Arab countries, has excellent relations with Iran, as demonstrated by substantial business ties, the large Iranian community in the UAE and the number of flights between the two countries. The UAE, despite the war, has good coordinating relations with Ansar Allah, and, of course, it is also the sponsor and benefactor of the STC without which the council would not survive. Despite the raging proxy battles between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the south of Yemen, Abu Dhabi still retains working relations with Riyadh. Unlike the Saudis, the UAE also has good relations with the Biden administration.

Working closely with Oman, which maintains unique relations with Yemenis across the divide, and Iran, which has excellent relations with Ansar Allah and is cordial with the STC, Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Tehran could together play a pivotal role in ending the war in Yemen, isolating those unwilling or unable to come to the table.

However, the challenge in this approach is that, unlike some of its neighbors who might be of help, Yemen is a republic with a strong tradition of a free press and multiparty political process. The attempts to rule Yemen centrally through a totalitarian system failed because of these two characteristics. Its tribal tradition does not accept the full authority of a state. On the flip side, it is this strong tribal independence that strengthens Yemeni resolve to resist authoritarian rule. Should the process of bringing peace to Yemen threaten this rebellious characteristic, the dangers to the process can be insurmountable.

Whether we will see this type of regional alliance brought to fruition depends on whether regional leaders are visionaries and strategists or are still confined to simple-minded tactical mentalities to achieve short-term gains. There is an opportunity in President Joe Biden announcing US disengagement from the conflict in Yemen and seeking its end. Others can do the same and ally themselves with this US direction. The blood and treasure that has been lost in Yemen, the social fabric that has been destroyed in the region, the hatred that replaced popular harmony due to bad decisions taken by regional leaders have all compounded the world’s worst man-made catastrophe.

The heaviest price has been paid by Yemenis, once also known to ancient Romans and Greeks as Arabia Felix. As the Quran eloquently describes it, using Yemen’s ancient name, “There was among the people of Sheba, in their homes the proof (of God), two gardens on the right and the left. Eat from the bounties of your Lord and be thankful. A good land and forgiving God.” More than ever in the past, Yemen and the whole of the Middle East now have a unique opportunity to come together, bringing peace and stability to a region uniquely endowed with the potential for prosperity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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