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A Yemen deal? Only if Saleh or the Houthis give in

For any truce or political agreement to have any meaningful impact, at least one of these two parties will have to give in

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

As with the previous ceasefire in May, the truce in Yemen declared by the U.N. last Friday evening only took a couple of hours to collapse. That night and in the early hours of Saturday in the southern port city of Aden and the highland city of Taez, Houthis shelled civilian areas.

The local resistance committees, who for four months have been fighting off the presence of the Houthis and the military forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued to respond. The Saudi-led coalition also swiftly resumed its aerial bombardments against positions of the Houthi-Saleh alliance across the country.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the ceasefire call, there was still moderately encouraging news over the last few days: the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid proceeded in some areas and the pro-government forces and the southern resistance re-captured much of Aden, including the international airport.

Tragically, Yemen is witnessing the destructive combination of two ills that plague other Arab states

Manuel Almeida

Although it did not come as a surprise, how to explain yet another resounding failure of diplomacy to achieve even a ceasefire of short duration?

Political maneuvers

Back in June 2011, when Saleh was badly injured in an attack on the presidential compound, it looked like the end of the line for him. He was transported to Saudi Arabia for treatment, where he eventually signed the GCC-backed agreement that involved a transfer of power to his vice-president Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi and the abandonment of his presidential post in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

But then, upon Saleh’s discrete return to Sanaa, the former president against whom Yemenis of all stripes revolted in 2011 decided his best option would be to stay in Yemen. He would use his wealth and influence among the Republican Guards and the military to resist any attempts to force him out. This decision would prove decisive for the direction events have taken.

In September last year, the Houthi take-over of the capital Sanaa revealed an alliance between Saleh and the rebel leadership headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. The alliance led the two former northern enemies to put behind their backs, at least temporarily, the fact they had fought six wars between 2004 and 2011-2012 uprisings.

Emboldened by Saleh’s unexpected but powerful support and also by the ties with Iran (as well as Hezbollah), which the Islamic Republic was now ready to institutionalize, the Houthis got increasingly greedy. After dominating the capital, they placed the government of Hadi under house arrest in February after it refused to take decisions dictated by the Houthis. When Hadi fled to the former Southern capital of Aden, the Houthi-Saleh alliance went after him.

Advancing on strategic points

The Houthi-Saleh alliance also advanced on other strategic points, such as Taez and the energy-rich Marib province. Away from their northern strongholds, they were met with fierce resistance from local armed groups.

This still seems to be one of the least understood aspects of the current crisis: without Saleh’s backing and the leverage he has over military units and some northern tribes, the Houthis would never be able to get this far. They would be an armed faction among others.
Tragically, Yemen is witnessing the destructive combination of two ills that plague other Arab states. Like Assad in Syria, Saleh opted to spread chaos and death and bring his own country to its knees rather than capitulate. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis aim to be an armed militia above the state, making use of a so-called revolutionary ideology that is nothing more than a mixture of populism and radicalism.

The problem for the Houthis is that Yemen is much bigger and far more populous than Lebanon and regional identities are particularly strong. The Houthis cannot control let alone govern a place like Yemen, which would be an unacceptable scenario not only in the eyes of many Yemenis but also of the GCC states. Yet with Saleh’s assistance, the Houthis are powerful enough to paralyze any attempts to push forward a political solution.

For any truce or political agreement to have any meaningful impact, at least one of these two parties will have to give in. Either the Houthis realize what they are and what they cannot be, or Saleh or his close supporters in the General People’s Congress as well as the military recognize their strategy so far can only be a recipe for disaster.

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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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