Last September, after a tense August marked by public demonstrations against government cuts to fuel subsidies that increased prices by 90 percent, Houthi militias took over Sanaa.
The swiftness of the offensive by the Houthis, whose leadership used its populist face to capitalize on the general discontent, was a surprise only for a short while. It soon became apparent that a helping hand from the forces loyal to deposed leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, which had been present in the Houthi victory against its enemies in the Amran governorate a few weeks earlier, had played a key role in facilitating the occupation of the Yemeni capital.
Since then, speculation has been rife about who in this alliance between former foes has been using the other part. Some say Saleh used the Houthis to overthrow the government of President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi in a desperate attempt to cling to power, or pave the way for his son Ahmed Ali Saleh. Saleh’s recent message to Saudi Arabia - delivered by his son in Riyadh - to turn his forces against the Houthis in exchange of a few guarantees including his immunity gives credit to this version of the story.
Others believed the Houthis would turn against Saleh once their military aims were achieved, a scenario which now looks beyond the movement’s reach. Regardless of who will benefit from this alliance, if anyone at all, a decision was made by both sides to privilege a military option.
This Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm, the military response it led since March 26 in the form of aerial strikes, and the beginning of Operation Restoring Hope. According to the coalition spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri, this new phase will involve a scaling down of the air strikes but will still require military actions to prevent the Houthis “from moving or carrying out any operations inside Yemen.” Its main focus will be the political process and aid delivery.
Speculation has been rife about who in this alliance between former foes has been using the other part. Some say Saleh used the Houthis to overthrow the government of President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi in a desperate attempt to cling to power, or pave the way for his son Ahmed Ali SalehManuel Almeida
The assumption that a cessation of the coalition’s air strikes would immediately bring the current conflict to a halt is naïve to say the least. The conflict did not begin with the airstrikes and scaling them down is only one of the necessary steps to open the way for a negotiated solution.
The day after the announcement heavy fighting took place in Taiz, a city whose population is openly hostile to the Houthis. Houthi forces took over a base previously held by forces loyal to President Hadi and the base was then bombed by the coalition.
Yet the most critical situation remains in Aden, the former southern capital, where Houthi fighters and forces loyal to Saleh continue to wreak havoc, indiscriminately shelling buildings, and having their snipers kill civilians who dare to venture out in the open. It is still unclear whether the coalition support to the southern militias will be enough to prevent Aden from falling into the control of the Houthis.
This particular front can have huge consequences for Yemen’s political future. In the view of the majority of the population of Aden and surrounding areas, who have not forgotten the civil war of 1994 against Saleh and its aftermath, they are fighting invading northerners who are as alien in the south as foreign troops would be. It is unlikely they will ever come to trust a system with centralized rule in the northern capital of Sanaa and this war may well work as a unifying factor for the so far fragmented southern separatist movement.
Despite its inevitable heavy price, there are indications that the intervention has forced both the Houthis and the forces that remain loyal to Saleh to accept the idea of a foreign-sponsored political agreement, which could also bring a permanent ceasefire. But how could such an agreement look like?
The short answer is a return to the previous road map, as defined by the GCC Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (generally endorsed by the Houthi leadership), and the various U.N. Security Council resolutions on the matter.
This would have to involve a Houthi withdrawal from Sanaa and many of the areas they occupied across central and southern Yemen. There are rumours that the movement’s leadership has already agreed to many of the demands made by the UN Security Council.
Regarding Saleh and his family, the plan seems to be their removal from Yemen under the obligation of non-involvement in Yemeni politics. Saleh himself called for dialogue with the message "We hope that everybody will return to dialogue to solve and treat all the issues" posted on social media.
Among all the provisions of the GCC Initiative and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, there are three aspects that would have to be addressed with a new sense of urgency: parliamentary elections, presidential elections, and the new constitution that would include a road map to the federation issue. In this picture, and with the military opposition that undermined the transition process in check, Hadi would work essentially as a facilitator to guarantee that the previous delays to the process would not be repeated.
All this would have to be backed by an immediate reconstruction of the infrastructure destroyed during the conflict and an urgent international effort to address the awful humanitarian crisis.
However, recent history advises a good dose of skepticism. Saleh has proved to be willing to do anything to cling to power, the Houthis have violated many of the previous agreements they entered, and radical factions in Iran remain determined to export the revolution regardless of the consequences across the Arab world.
More than Iranian weapons or training for the Houthis, this revolutionary fervour may well be the main threat to Yemen coming from the Islamic republic.
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.
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