Seasoned experts on the Yemeni issue are proposing the idea of “securing” Aden and Sanaa using international peacekeeping forces or international observers as a necessary measure for Yemen to begin its recovery following the Houthi coup against the legitimate government and Operation Decisive Storm conducted by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. U.N. Security Resolution 2016 was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which means that it has the ability to impose measures with “teeth” such as deploying international forces or observers. The resolution imposes sanctions and a travel ban on Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son Ahmed.
This certainly contributed - along with the air strikes that destroyed much of the pro-Saleh forces - to convincing the stubborn father that it is time to pack and leave Yemen once and for all. The deposed president has finally realized that continuing to ally himself to the Houthis militarily will lead to his demise, and that his delusional belief that he could return as president or bequeath the presidency to his son has become costly for both men, who are now together under international sanctions.
If Ali Abdullah Saleh flees to Oman for political asylum but not to use Oman as a base for pursuing his obsession with power, and if the international community takes action to secure Aden and Sanaa alone, the required political process will be feasible and viable. Certainly, the issue requires a long-term Saudi strategy in Yemen, with security, political, economic, and structural elements not based on exclusion but on encouraging dialogue, reconciliation, and regional accords.
It can be said that moving from the military operations under Decisive Storm to ending the air strikes and beginning Operation Restoring Hope constitutes an “exit strategy” that was necessary to avoid slipping into the quagmire of a ground war in Yemen. For one thing, it became clear that neither Egypt nor Pakistan was willing to become involved with ground troops in Yemen.
Political efforts are necessary and so are structural investments in Yemen. Pushing the political process forward requires serious stances by the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and other countries participating in the coalition, as well as the U.N.Raghida Dergham
There was some hastiness at the start of Decisive Storm, because the operation did not include preparations for a ground war in Yemen and did not include a plan B should ground forces not be available to participate. The air strikes alone would not have accomplished the military goals no matter how intense they were. The U.S. experience in fighting Al Qaeda in Yemen using drones provides clear lessons for the impossibility of achieving victory through air campaigns alone. The hastiness was evident when Pakistan declared it would join the Arab coalition only to decline to do so soon thereafter. And perhaps the assumption that the serious and new strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, would guarantee Egypt deploying forces in Yemen, was rushed too.
Whatever the case, the decision to end the intensive air campaign is a wise “exit strategy”, particularly since Decisive Storm has achieved one of its most important objectives, namely, to eliminate weapons that threaten Saudi national security, and to confront Iranian threats to Saudi national security through neighboring Yemen.
One of the most knowledgeable figures when it comes to Yemen’s history and secrets said that victory in the conventional military sense would have been possible if the Arab coalition had decided to land forces in Aden to secure the legitimate government similar to the landing at Normandy. He said, “There are no mountains and valleys in Aden, and no army brigades. There is a [pro-legitimacy] popular base there, and hence securing Aden through a beach landing is easy.” He also said that after Aden, securing Hodeidah would be easy because there are no major forces there, and because it also supports the legitimate government, followed by securing Taiz and then Ibb. “This would place three-quarters of the people of Yemen under the legitimate authority.”
This option was not been adopted because of the obstacles and concerns related to a ground operation, as well as the history of involvement in Yemen starting in Saada where Egypt, and before it the Ottomans, suffered a defeat. Nevertheless, a beach landing through Aden remains an option if required, especially since Saudi Arabia is officially maintaining that the war is not over and that it will continue to target the movements of Houthi and pro-Saleh forces through aerial bombardment and naval blockade.
The U.S. participation in the naval blockade was meant to send a message to the Islamic Republic of Iran, stating that the United States would not sanction any actions that threaten Saudi national security. The message was firm: Greater Iranian involvement in Yemen would negatively affect efforts to convince the US Congress of facilitating a nuclear deal. Since Iran desperately wants the sanctions to be lifted, and since President Barack Obama reassured Iran huge amounts of cash would flow in Tehran’s direction after a deal, Tehran felt it would be in its interest to avoid any naval military confrontation with the United States and to leave the Houthis without military assistance.
In fact, the Houthis now have access to the entire weapons stockpiles of the Yemeni army, and Tehran does not need to deliver arms shipments to them. There is no military value at present for Iranian support for the Houthis enough to justify risking the nuclear deal and the quest to get the sanctions lifted. So the test for Iran is how much it is willing to convince the Houthis to turn into a civilian political movement, something that it has failed to do so far.
The overt U.S. movement through the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was a message of support for Saudi Arabia and its efforts in defending its national security and legitimacy in Yemen. At the same time, Washington was letting Riyadh know that it is concerned Decisive Storm could allow Al Qaeda to expand on the ground, and that it supported ending coalition air strikes over Yemen in order to resume pressure on Al Qaeda by air. The U.S. message also had a dimension related to the humanitarian cost of Decisive Storm and the devastation it could cause if the air strikes continue for several months. The American messages included semi-assurances that Iran could be ready to facilitate negotiations, especially on the foundations sponsored by Muscat in a comprehensive initiative, and that Iran is definitely not planning to engage in a military confrontation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Not yet clear
Iran’s role in the Muscat dialogue is not clear yet in all its aspects. What is clear is that the relationship between Iran and Oman is very good, and that Oman is neutral vis-a-vis the Gulf policy on Iran and Yemen. Regarding how willing Iran is to open a new chapter with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, following Decisive Storm, this remains an as of yet unanswered question. Perhaps Iran does not see itself as the losing party in Yemen because Decisive Storm ended before a complete military outcome emerged. Yet it may not consider itself the victor in Yemen because Saudi Arabia and other countries participating in the Arab coalition were not drawn into the quagmire of a bitter ground war by deciding to end the operation.
The Houthis and Saleh and his followers are hinting that they could accept the new fait accompli and Resolution 2016 calling on them to return weapons to state institutions and withdraw from the locations they had seized as a condition for letting them take part in negotiations. But at other times, they speak with a triumphalist tone because Decisive Storm ended with them still in control of their positions.
In reality, the end of Saleh is certain. If he implements what Muscat’s secret track discussed and he flees to Oman, then this will be his end politically speaking. If he backtracks on leaving and insists on destroying Yemen, then this means that the war of attrition will last for a long time and will drain both Saleh and his son.
The political equation in Yemen will change with the end of Decisive Storm and the start of Operation Restoring Hope to bring the parties to the previous status quo, provide humanitarian assistance, and begin reconstruction. The Yemen branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, seemed reassured by the Arab coalition war on the Houthis and Saleh, as this war benefits them and helps them regain their lost status. This has increased the odds for the Muslim Brotherhood to be factored in future Gulf and Gulf-Egyptian calculations.
Now, there will be a flurry of initiatives and efforts to mediate in Yemen. Oman does not want to host the dialogue - if one is agreed - and prefers for it to take place in Europe, in Geneva or Vienna. Saudi Arabia, officially, still considers Riyadh the best venue for any dialogue in fulfilment of the request made by the legitimate Yemeni president. However, Saudi Arabia also realizes that there can be no U.N.-brokered dialogue in Riyadh because of the Houthis’ opposition. The Obama administration seems to be eager for the dialogue to take place under the sponsorship of the U.N. and not to fulfill the request by the Yemeni president and hold it in Riyadh.
The military operations will not stop completely. Rather, Arab coalition forces will continue their operations by targeting Houthis wherever they may be - if they continue to reject dialogue and negotiations, and to become a civilian political movement. These forces continue to dominate the Yemeni airspace and territorial water.
Political efforts are necessary and so are structural investments in Yemen. Pushing the political process forward requires serious stances by the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and other countries participating in the coalition, as well as the U.N.
These countries have a practical idea to implement Resolution 2016, which included a roadmap for the political process: the idea of securing Aden and Sanaa through international presence. This would lead to a serious move towards Yemen’s recovery.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 24, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham
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