Why Arabs must resolve the Libya and Yemen crises now

The people of the Gulf are worried about the implications of the Somalization and Afghanization of Yemen on their countries

Raghida Dergham
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Currently, there are two key opportunities led by the United Nations worth supporting because there are no alternatives, both in Libya and Yemen. The situation in these two countries, as well as in Syria, is heart wrenching, which requires urgent actions regardless of calculations about who wins and who loses, and who is right and who is wrong. The U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura is still searching for a mechanism to implement the Geneva Communique, which had received the unanimous backing of the permanent U.N. Security Council member states. That is, before some of them reneged on it. The communique calls for a transitional government that includes both the regime and the opposition, which would then prepare for elections.

De Mistura is still looking for a way to persuade Saudi Arabia to accept Iran as a key actor and as a partner in shaping the future of Syria. The U.N. envoy believes that there is no alternative to recognizing the Iranian role in Syria, regardless of Riyadh’s position that this would legitimize Iran’s role in Arab Syria. De Mistura is working now in the shadow of nuclear negotiations with Iran, studying his next move in light of the outcome of these negotiations, and the repercussions of either their success or their failure on the Syrian arena, and on Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.


The U.N. Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, for his part, is pushing for a humanitarian truce that would pave the way for political negotiations. His efforts today are an opportunity that must be supported without arrogance and extremism. To be sure, the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen, classed by the United Nations as a ”level 3” crisis which is the highest level, requires the major powers at the Security Council to impose a ceasefire and deploy international forces to Yemen. It also requires the Arab coalition to fully facilitate the job of the United Nations, and inject large sums of money and quickly to prevent famine in Yemen and stop the country from sliding into ‘Somalization’ or ‘Afghanization’, as this would affect everyone without exception. Yemen today cannot bear insisting on restoring its legitimate government or on implementing Security Council resolutions as a precondition for negotiations. It is in a state of collapse, and there is no other way than to pursue bold new political and economic decisions that would prevent a full-scale civil war that is fast replacing what was supposed to be a preemptive war. In Libya, there are indications the efforts of the U.N. envoy there Bernardino Leone are bearing fruit. Egypt has reiterated its support for his mission and the U.N. has unanimously stood behind him. The U.N. envoy has developed a fifth draft in 9 months for a political solution, and he believes that if agreed, this document would be a road map for a national unity government formed out of competencies on an equal-opportunity basis, in parallel with a ceasefire agreement and an agreement to disarm militias and withdraw them from oil installations and cities. The success of this agreement depends on strict and serious Arab and international positions. Otherwise, it is going to take a decisive military intervention at some point before Libya irreversibly turns into a failed state fully controlled by militias and terrorists.

Let us stop at the figures released by the U.N. and aid organizations: More than 21.1 million Yemenis, or 80 percent of the population, are now in need of aid. 13 million are facing a food crisis. 9.4 million people lack access to safe drinking water, which raises the risk of diseases related to water shortage including cholera. The healthcare system faces collapse, after 160 medical centers closed down because of the security situation, fuel shortages, and lack of other basic supplies.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. secretary general, said the third level is the highest level of humanitarian emergencies under the U.N. emergency system, and applies to the situation in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan, requiring faster response by relief agencies and donors to meet the urgent needs of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, as he said.

The people of the Gulf are worried about the implications of the Somalization and Afghanization of Yemen on their countries

Raghida Dergham

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described what is happening in Yemen as a “humanitarian emergency”. He said that around 3,000 Yemenis were killed in the last three months, half of whom civilians, and that more than one million people were forced to leave their homes. The U.N. chief said most of those who are in need of humanitarian assistance have not received aid yet.

Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi wrote to Ban Ki-moon, telling him that the Houthi militias have bombed the port of Aden indiscriminately to prevent ships carrying aid from unloading their cargoes. According to Hadi, the ships were diverted to the port of Hodeida, which is controlled by the militias.

Hadi said the U.N. must use all its powers to protect medical and other aid, and secure conducive conditions for the delivery of relief to civilians in Aden, Lahj, Taiz, and Dalea who are caught in a humanitarian catastrophe caused by militias and terrorists.

The U.N. view is that all Yemeni rivals must agree at the very minimum on an immediate truce lasting throughout Ramadan to deliver humanitarian aid. The U.N. insists there can be no military solution in Yemen.

The Security Council blames all sides as it seems to be in the process of ignoring its own resolution 2216, which put forward a conditional roadmap for a political settlement. These conditions are no longer politically viable and have been overtaken by developments on the field. Therefore, it is necessary to avoid the language of conditions and obstinacy, because the war in Yemen, which started as a preemptive war, has turned into a civil war, and because the Arab coalition is not prepared to carry out a qualitative military shift that would require escalation on the field towards securing the major cities. Because Yemen is on the verge of becoming a hornets’ nest for ISIS and al-Qaeda that will sting all sides involved in Yemen, the Arab coalition must consider an exit strategy from Yemen through the Security Council and by facilitating the efforts of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. Funds must be poured into aid and infrastructure to prevent collapse, as this would spawn thousands of ISIS ‘hornets’ ready to breach the border and expand operations in Yemen’s neighboring countries and beyond.

Ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh will not survive the hornets of ISIS and al-Qaeda, no matter how much he might be delusional about victory in Yemen. This man is resolved to turn Yemen into another Afghanistan or Somalia, so he can return to power, but he will pay the price for this. The Houthis, who may boast of being the tribe that brought Saudi Arabia to Yemen and defied it, will be proven naïve and foolish by history. They have turned Yemen into a failed state ready to be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaeda, thinking their alliance with Iran and Ali Abdullah Saleh is an achievement. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards too are digging their own grave in Yemen like they did in Syria, alongside a grave for the Syrian people. Their plans have failed and these countries are now their Vietnam.

Somalization and Afghanization

The people of the Gulf are worried about the implications of the Somalization and Afghanization of Yemen on their countries. For this reason, Gulf leaders must be frank and must adopt pragmatic policies to get out of the predicament, regardless of whether it was right or wrong to go to war in Yemen. The correct decision right now is to leave, because of the lack of readiness to escalate on the ground in Yemen.

The people of the Gulf are worried for Iraq and see the Iraqi army fragmented, requiring the close involvement of the U.S. army from planning to execution, according to a source involved in Gulf policymaking. The people of the Gulf fear Iran could intervene to fight ISIS in Iraq, but they do not have any practical alternative. It is time for the Gulf stakeholders to engage in brainstorming to come up with measures rather than seeking aid from others.

The people of the Gulf are confused about the Turkish debate on Syria and Iraq, and do not know what Turkey has in its mind and whether it is planning to intervene against the Kurds. In fact, they fear this, because this would serve ISIS, in their view. The people of the Gulf believe all this is happening because of U.S. impotence. One Gulf source said, “There is nothing we can do about this.” This is a defeatist view and a way to avoid responsibility. The Gulf has many policy tools, and all they have to do is put serious efforts into new strategies to take matters into their own hands.

The crisis of confidence between the Gulf and the United States is serious, and has not been fixed by the Camp David Summit. Some thought engaging Russia would help, but Russia responded in the typical manner of President Vladimir Putin. Putin said the Russians have good relations with all countries of the region, and called for an alliance against terrorism instead of seeking to topple Assad in Syria.

Russia will not give Iran up no matter what tactical differences the two countries may have over Syria. They are both in a willful alliance with Assad. This is not the first time there have been voices saying Russia is involved in Syria at Iran’s request. The issue for Putin’s Russia is bigger and has to do with the ‘bonanza’ of profiteering from lifting the sanctions on Iran, as soon a nuclear deal is reached.

Change is on the way

President Barack Obama himself is still working to pull off the negotiations with Iran. The difference that emerged in the past few weeks is that Obama has now guaranteed his legacy as president, following the decisions by the Supreme Court that upheld both his healthcare reform plan and equal marriage. In addition, the Senate has approved fast-tracking free trade agreements with Asia Pacific nations, a huge achievement for him, not to mention the historical normalization with Cuba.

These achievements could serve as an incentive for the U.S. president to press ahead and seal his legacy with a deal with Iran at any price, but also an incentive for him to hold his ground and not compromise on supreme U.S. interests. This will be clear in the coming weeks, but the past two weeks have given him a boost in morale and popularity.

Something will happen. A change should be expected in Obama’s Middle East policies, both in the event of a nuclear deal and in the event it collapses. Either outcome will have major impact.

It is worthwhile for Arab and Gulf leaders to implement measures and draw strategies for both outcomes. It is useless to complain about U.S. policies or seek to restore the status quo. Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East now requires not being complacent about the humanitarian crises in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. The Arab leaders have real instruments at their disposal, and it is time they used them.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 3, 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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