Oman could serve as a crucial mediator for the conflict in Yemen, where dialogue presents the only way forward.
As the conflict in Yemen has taken a turn for the worse, observers believe Saudi Arabia’s military response to calls for assistance by Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi has eliminated all options for a peaceful solution.
The drums of war beat in unison from Riyadh to Rabat, Khartoum to Amman and the streets of Yemeni cities like Aden and Taiz. All those involved in the Saudi-led alliance are not only aiming to degrade the military and political power of the Zaydi-Shiite Houthi rebels, but also to halt Iran‘s expanding sphere of influence. Analysts have largely focused on Saudi statements regarding the mission to reestablish order on its southern flank, an attempt to restore a degree of certainty at a time of unprecedented lack of predictability.
Yemenis themselves remain divided over Operation Decisive Storm, undertaken by a coalition of ten countries led by neighboring Saudi Arabia. They are divided between protesting violations to their country’s sovereignty and opposition to unrestrained Houthi aggression, which saw the group consolidate its grip on power from the capital city, Sana’a, to southern provinces like Lahj and the port city of Aden. Military operations by regional powers, threatening a ground offensive, have not only exacerbated Yemen’s downward spiral into disintegration, it has now also nurtured discord among the Yemeni population.
The failure of mediated talks between Yemeni political actors led by UN Special Advisor Jamal Benomar in Sana’a lies at the center of the military option. According to the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, Operation Decisive Storm aims to create a situation where Houthis see no option but to reengage in dialogue, inside or outside Yemen, a move to prevent a descent into civil war.
But Yemenis believe the destruction of military infrastructure will exacerbate the security vacuum and create new spaces for Islamist militants to establish safe havens and expand their own operations targeting Houthis and their army allies, as well as providing them with the ability to plan and possibly execute operations against Western interests.
By targeting airport runways, radar posts, munitions depots, missile sites and fighter jets on the ground, the Saudi coalition may degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities, but it cannot force the militia and its military allies to capitulate and withdraw from cities and lay down their weapons.
The Houthi rebel group, an Iranian client allied with deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is supposed to fall in line and join a new round of talks according to Saudi calculations. The dialogue, outside Yemen, would aim to strengthen the legitimacy of Interim-President Hadi, currently in Riyadh, and his government, which resigned in mid-January after Houthis took control of the capital. Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah also resigned at the time and was released from house arrest on March 16, subsequently having left Yemen to join his family.
Observers warned as early as March 2013 of impending failures in the transition process as a result of a faulty transition plan adopted as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and the absence of a “Plan B.” The Office of the UN Special Advisor (OSA) on Yemen lacked the capacity to manage the transition after the 2011 protests, and staff were overwhelmed by political maneuvering outside the confines of the nine-month-long National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Talks held in Sana’a under the auspices of Special Envoy Benomar aimed at reconciliation among rival political parties and the drafting of a new constitution.
The United Nations lost all credibility as result, and it became the target of an extensive and well-coordinated demonizing media campaign by allies of Saleh and the Houthi rebels. The UN Security Council’s failure to follow through on threats of sanctions against those obstructing the transition process since 2013 also contributed to a loss of credibility among the Yemeni population. Furthermore, the failures to safeguard the transition and Hadi’s legitimacy naturally led to former President Saleh’s resilience as a center of power and the rise to prominence of Houthi rebels under the leadership of Abdul-Malek al-Houthi.
After the start of the air campaign, all UN staff were evacuated from Yemen to neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia. Some observers see this as a crippling sign against delivery of much needed humanitarian aid and the possibility of a solution to the conflict via dialogue. However, the option of continued talks under the auspices of the UN was nearing its own demise even before the start of the campaign, as parties had already boycotted the latest round of talks led by Benomar before he departed to present his latest report to the UN Security Council at its meeting on March 22.
While the current military campaign primarily aims to create a balance among Yemeni factions, it risks exacerbating the conflict and divisions among the population. No political faction has been able to beat the Houthis on the battlefield. Salafist and tribal elements were defeated in late 2013 in northern provinces, and military and tribal forces loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Islah party, suffered a devastating blow at the hands of UN- and US-sanctioned Houthi field commander Abdullah “Abu Ali” Yahya al-Hakim between July and September 2014. The last of the tribal elements loyal to Islah are currently pinned down in the oil-rich eastern province of Mareb.
The strongest resistance to the Houthis in recent months came from Sunni tribes in al-Baydha, where they receive support from Ansar al-Sharia militants, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and from tribes supporting the southern Secessionist Movement (al-Hirak) in other provinces. Civilian opposition to the Houthis also increased in Sana’a as a result of a Houthi crackdown on youth activists and journalists, a scenario that is now repeating itself in the central province of Taiz. Further opposition is growing in Aden, where Hirak elements have taken up arms against Houthi cells within various state security institutions like the Military Police and Special Security Forces (SSF). The main fight in Aden continues over control of the airport, one of two remaining ports of entry/exit in the country after the coalition disabled airports in Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeida on the Red Sea coast.
On March 27, former President Saleh announced a new initiative to deescalate the conflict and restart talks. His four-point proposal includes a call for talks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or a UN facility outside Yemen.
Soon after the announcement on television and social media, Saleh came under attack from his opponents as he had previously refused offers from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to host a new round of talks, which are also supported by President Hadi. Saleh has now lost all credibility among a large segment of the population and regional powers, which may endanger the future of his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). President Hadi dealt Saleh a new blow in his attempts to remain relevant as a new presidential decree removed the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, from his ambassadorial position in the UAE on March 29.
Dialogue as the Only Way Forward
The end game in Yemen has only one route: dialogue. The military campaign, already opposed in Morocco and Pakistan, two of the ten countries taking part in Operation Decisive Storm, can only lead to a protracted armed conflict that could threaten Yemen’s territorial integrity. Saudi Arabia has failed to provide a concrete timeline and fixed goals for the campaign, alarming the US administration, which is concerned over an open-ended armed conflict in a highly volatile territory. The longer the Yemen conflict continues, the faster the security vacuum will expand and create new opportunities for armed militants like AQAP and new affiliates of the Islamic State (IS). The two groups are not only a menace to Saudi Arabia and Western interests, but they also have made attacks against the “apostate” Houthi rebels a priority.
The Saudi-led coalition has yet to declare a mission to pursue Islamist militants like AQAP in Yemen. The US has withdrawn all its diplomats and military personnel from Yemeni territory, in effect suspending counterterrorism operations, even though the State Department claims to maintain relations with Yemeni authorities for intelligence gathering purposes. AQAP and IS, which have so far remained silent since the start of the air campaign on March 25, may find opportunities to target Houthis, similar to the assassination of Abdul-Karem al-Khaiwani, which was carried out by AQAP, or the attacks on two mosques in Sana’a on March 20, claimed by IS.
This will embolden Houthi elements to retain their military capabilities and perhaps expand relations with regional allies to gain financial support and armament. Saudi Arabia may then find it difficult to explain their pursuit of the Houthis if the latter are fighting terrorists previously targeted by the United States. In addition, prospects for peace talks would diminish, as Houthis will find no incentive for engaging talks, inside or outside Yemen.
There is no doubt that the Houthis had no intent to return to the negotiation table prior to the start of Operation Decisive Storm. It is further evident that the Houthis will continue to reject talks in Riyadh, Doha or at the United Nations due to their opposition to UN Envoy Benomar’s role. Saudi Arabia listed the Houthis as a terrorist group in March 2014, and the Houthis see Qatar as still very close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which complicates relations further due to the Houthis’ opposition to the Islah party in Yemen. The Houthis still have leverage they can use, while Saleh may soon run out of his own leverage to keep himself relevant in talks. Other parties like Islah, trying to find its own way out of this conflict, remain open to dialogue as it appears to be the only road to recover any meaningful role in Yemen’s future.
Notably, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who recently returned to Muscat after a several months-long health check-up in Germany, opted against joining the military coalition. Yemen’s eastern neighbor is the only Gulf state to maintain cordial relations with Iran, and it often acts as a mediator for members of the GCC. The sultanate has also remained on the sidelines as a passive observer during the transition period in Yemen. Omani diplomats assisted American and British personnel to evacuate from Sana’a in mid-February, and the country is the only GCC state to keep its embassy in Sana’a, while all other five member states opted to suspend services and join President Hadi in Aden in late February. Saudi diplomats were subsequently evacuated from Aden on March 28.
Efforts to end the ongoing devastation across Yemen will require the United States to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia amid tense relations over nuclear talks with Iran. The US would also have to play a role in positioning the Sultanate of Oman as a viable option. The US may be able to convince the GCC to allow Oman to offer its good offices and territory to host a new round of talks between Yemeni actors, and perhaps later between Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
Some actors have already reached out to Oman as the military operation begins to take a toll on the general population. A week into Operation Decisive Storm, coalition strikes have moved beyond high value targets to soft targets, already claiming a high number of civilian casualties. Hopes for dialogue in the coming days seem increasingly likely, as reluctance to place troops on the ground among Saudi Arabia’s allies begins to surface. Houthis continue to advance on the city of Aden as militia numbers remain unaffected, presenting high risks for foreign troops that could be entangled in a protracted ground conflict.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.