How to break the alliance that broke Yemen
The Yemeni civil war, which a few Yemenis claim has been going on for years
Last summer, Ansarullah’s militia took over the governorate of Amran just north of Sanaa, after delivering a blow to local tribes and military units that had participated in previous wars against the movement in northern Yemen. Then, no one would have guessed the militia of the Zaidy revivalist movement would today be fighting side by side with the forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the streets of Aden, the former capital of the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The Yemeni civil war, which a few Yemenis claim has been going on for years, is becoming extremely unpredictable and complex, with conflicting tribal, military and territorial allegiances plus the intervention of the coalition of Arab states. Finding a negotiated solution to it will be increasingly hard. But however hopeless Yemen’s collapse might seem, this war is still in essence a contest for political power and almost every party involved has their own legitimate claims.
Apart from the terrible humanitarian crisis the Arab coalition will need to address with urgency, the big question at the moment seems to be how to find a basic point of understanding that can lead to serious talks.
There are at least two big obstacles to that. One is Ansarullah’s preference for a military solution and their revolutionary zeal clearly inspired in and influenced by Iran, a link that experts and many Yemenis are inclined to dismiss because it brings in a sectarian element largely alien to Yemen. The other related obstacle is the gap between the willingness to negotiate that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh displays while his forces wreak havoc.
The crucial alliance that defines this crisis was laid bare during the takeover of Sanaa in September last year by Ansarullah, the movement also known as the Houthis. The military and security forces loyal to Saleh, who had fought six wars against Ansarullah between 2004 and 2011, stood aside and opened the gates for Ansarullah fighters to take over the city and eventually place government leaders under house arrest.
Without the support from pro-Saleh factions, especially the Republican Guard, Ansarullah’s militias would probably not have taken Sanaa, let alone half the country.
Given the web of tribal alliances and the split within the military and security forces, it is almost impossible to estimate with precision how many fighters are loyal to Saleh and Ansarullah’s leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi. Yet it is not so much the numbers that mattered, but the way a military force whose job is to stand with the government turned into its executioner.
In the face of no better options, it might be about time to go back to basics and re-focus on Saleh who, until operation Decisive Storm started, lived comfortably in his mansion in the capital. Although side lining Saleh for good would be no easy task, the Saudi-led coalition has also been targeting Saleh forces' positions, so the attempt to weaken Saleh is a process already in motion.
The former president is feeling the pressure. According to recent press reports, Saleh has proposed a deal to Saudi Arabia. In exchange of a few guarantees including his immunity, he would turn his forces against the Houthis. The Saudis refused.
Although there are signs this unlikely alliance is fraying, both sides will be reluctant to break their Machiavellian pact at such a crucial time. Untying this knot soon would probably need an outside push.
Focusing on Saleh would be a legitimate move. His disastrous 33-year rule is what Yemenis turned against in 2011 and he has not hesitated to plunge his country further into chaos. It would also hardly be seen as a violation of international law, considering he is no longer in government and the various U.N. Security Council resolutions that name him the main spoiler of the political transition process.
The potential benefits would be an inevitable weakening of Ansarullah's power and reach, thus putting more pressure on the movement's leadership to negotiate, as well as a chance to lure many of the pro-Saleh armed forces to Hadi's camp.
There are, however, potential disadvantages and here as usual the devil lies in the details. One of the concerns is that going too far in targeting pro-Saleh military and security forces will cripple those very forces that would be responsible for restoring order and security in case there is a halt to the conflict. Here the power of the Yemeni tribes, which tends to be both a curse and a blessing, could fill some of the vacuum.
Another key issue would be to avoid the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq with the full dismantling of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification laws. Saleh’s old regime is certainly weakened but it remains relatively intact. Yet most people should not be blamed for doing what they are told and taking a salary home. With a couple of inevitable exceptions, everyone should be granted a chance to be reintegrated immediately and take part in negotiations, including pro-Saleh people in the General People’s Congress and the military, as well as Houthi leadership and militias.
The biggest obstacle is probably the physical absence of Hadi’s government, which is now following developments from Riyadh. Why would anyone involved in the fighting shift to the government's side when it has no meaningful political presence in Yemen? Returning Hadi and his ministers safely to Aden without the presence of the ground troops nobody is keen to deploy is now looking impossible.
The key provisions of the National Dialogue would also have to be pushed forward and implemented with far more urgency than before, including a new discussion on the federation issue.
Maybe it is wishful thinking. But only a political solution could start mending some of the great damage already done.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.