Yemen: Between ending the conflict and a warrior’s break

The coming week is poised to see significant shifts in the Yemeni, Libya, and Syria...

Raghida Dergham

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The coming week is poised to see significant shifts in the Yemeni, Libya, and Syrian issues midwifed by the three UN envoys in charge of searching for political solutions to these conflicts, in which many local, regional, and international factors overlap and interact.

In Syria, with the approach of the real plan, the Western countries, particularly the US and Britain, seem to be caving in to the fait accompli represented in the insistence of Russia and Iran on Bashar al-Assad fighting the presidential battle to the end, because, in his view, he is part of the political process until it ends in 18 months with presidential elections.

In Libya, resolve is making its way to conciliatory international attitudes regarding the centrality of controlling the capital Tripoli and the centrality of having an official request made by the national accord government that would enable the US, Britain, France, and Italy to create an alliance against ISIS and al-Qaeda there, similar to the coalition working with the Iraqi government at present.

In Yemen, the recent Saudi engagement with the Houthi rebels is coinciding with notable changes in the government announced last week, with both military and diplomatic implications. They also coincide with an international understanding of the new military and political facts on the ground, on the basis of which the peace process is being pushed forward.

Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi took a surprising decision to sack his deputy and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah from both posts, appointing General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar vice president and Ahmed Obeid ibn Dagher as prime minister.

Appointing Ahmar raised questions about the intentions of Saudi Arabia, particularly since he has a history of brutality and bloodiness. The sacking of Bahah also caused tension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Ahmar’s appointment also caused anger as the man is seen as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.

Sources familiar with Saudi thinking downplayed the concerns that Ahmar could become president of Yemen, even if Hadi dies, given his difficult history and the implication for the secession of South Yemen.

What about his affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood? The sources say that some in Riyadh see him as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, but a “lighter shade” thereof. Ahmar, the sources said, is not ideological, and is cut of the same cloth as former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Therefore, he should be seen as the military counterpart of Saleh, and this is the main reason he was appointed, in addition to the fact that Hadi is convinced Ahmar’s presence along his side guarantees he would remain in office.

The advantages Ahmar brings with him to those who support him in the kingdom is that he has formidable military and tribal assets. Therefore, he has the ability to accommodate a large segments of northern tribes, and to rally and boost the morale of the Yemeni army, as well as win over part of the army forces that defected in favour of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Other informed sources said the Saudi support for the pro-Riyadh Yemeni president’s moves is a message to the Houthis and the supporters of Saleh: Either engage in lasting peace, or continue the fierce war this time with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar at the helm.

These sources quoted what the Saudi side told UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to communicate to the Houthis: Do not misread or miscalculate, and come to mistakenly believe the kingdom is fatigued and would not be able to continue the war. What is at stake is its strategic interests for which no price is too high. We want peace with you, but not from a position of weakness or intimidation.

The Houthi challenge

In the opinion of some, it is what happened on the ground in the Yemeni war that has prompted the Houthis to reconsider and seek peace with the Saudis. A source put it this way: The Houthis were born and have grown old in the space of a single year. They concluded that Iranian assistance under the table would not be sufficient to fight a ferocious war, and that Iranian support would not be enough to cover the burden of the war in Yemen, which is why they decided to distance themselves to an extent from Tehran.

The Houthis agreed to engage with Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that their request for them to be recognized as an equal to the legitimate government of Hadi was rejected. The Houthis found an opportunity through the UN envoy to discuss a settlement based on resolution 2216, which is backed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, led by Russia and the US.

They understood that these countries accepted Saudi Arabia’s insistence on its own arrangements at its southern border and its desire to reach a political settlement after eliminating the threat at the border. Now there is a different dynamic after the gains on the ground.

In Yemen, the recent Saudi engagement with the Houthi rebels is coinciding with notable changes in the government announced last week, with both military and diplomatic implications

Raghida Dergham

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed will build on this dynamic, after the ceasefire, which starts on April 10, is consolidated, at the negotiations scheduled for April 18 in Kuwait. Ould Cheikh will seek support from the UN Security Council for the five axes he declared and which he wants to implement through five teams working in parallel: Withdrawals; handing over weapons to the state; temporary security arrangements; resumption of the political process; and mutual release of detainees.

These breakthroughs may amount to a quantum leap towards ending the conflict in Yemen, but it could be merely a “warrior’s break” before resuming the fighting even more ferociously. It depends on several unpredictable considerations, especially since the pace of the war has become part and parcel of the pace of negotiations.

To be sure, the Ali Abdullah Saleh factor remains a key part of the equation, even if some are now claiming he is marginal and others are saying he would not be able to get any deal after the Houthis abandoned him. Some believe Saleh has become an obstacle to the political process, and that there can be no safe exit for him because the conditions for that are impossible. Indeed, his funds and assets he wants to remove from Yemen makes his exit difficult.

Perhaps it is the fatigue factor that will allow Yemen to end its many wars, and the same could apply to Libya’s bloody conflict, where now there seems to be finally a willingness to stop the bleeding. The head of the UN-backed Libyan national accord government Fayez Sarraj arrived in Libya with international support, with the UN pledging to continue to support the government to impose its authority in the capital.

The Secretary-General’s envoy Martin Kobler made a first visit to Tripoli, as a number of countries said their ambassadors would be returning to the Libyan capital. In other words, there is a bare minimum level of security guaranteed in Tripoli, in what could indicate the militias that controlled the city have endorsed the national accord government. This government has received economic and political support as well, as municipalities, the central bank, the national oil company, and the Libyan investment authority all endorsed it.

The Western governments, with Russian support, want the Sarraj government to be stable in order for this to lead to address two main threats: the expansion of ISIS in the Libyan interior and into Africa and Europe; and illegal migration via Libya’s shores to Europe. What the West wants is for the Libyan government to authorize a Western intervention in Libya against terrorism and illegal migration.

Security control

The first challenge is to consolidate security control over the capital and the country. This requires equipping the army and the police. Indeed, current capabilities make the talk about the government tackling the likes of ISIS out of the question, as the UN Security Council continues to implement an arms embargo on the Libyan government. For this reason, there are agreements being sought to pass exceptional resolutions that would sanctions arms deals with fast approval.

The primary beneficiary of any arms deal would be Russia. The Libyan air force’s equipment is primarily Russian and Eastern European. Meanwhile, Britain and Italy could take the lead on restricting the army and police.

What Libya needs is not just mobilizing its army and police to fight against ISIS and similar groups. Help must also be extended to the government to get rid of militias and merge them into the national institutions, in addition to allowing the army and police to procure the right weaponry.

The national accord government will not be able to work as long as the militias refuse to hand over their weapons and be assimilated. The government will not function unless experienced political and administrative cadres are brought in. There is now an opportunity, provided that local, regional, and international decisions are combined to effect radical changes and launch a serious effort for institution-building in Libya. Stopping the bleeding may be the result of fatigue, but reconstruction needs more than tactical measures.

The Syrian issue needs more than one last paragraph. What is certain, however, is that the moment of truth is now challenging all sides to be honest with themselves and with others, but this is still elusive amid the quest for deals and amid wishful thinking. The main obstacle is the fate of Bashar al-Assad, and this is the key to a breakthrough in the transitional political process in Syria, which is supposed to culminate with presidential elections 18 months after the start of negotiations.

The onus of proving good intentions falls primarily on the duo Kerry and Lavrov, not Bashar al-Assad. Assad is clear in that he intends to fight the presidential battle even if atop the ruins of Syria. But others, especially the sponsors of the presumed political solution, are still hiding behind their fingers and dodging the issue.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Apr. 08, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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