There is no Plan B in Yemen, or in Syria

It is time to return to the policy-drafting table to scrutinize the reality of these conflicts today

Raghida Dergham
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Let the talk about a Plan B stop out of mercy for the victims of the policies of attrition and the patchwork strategies being pursued in the raging battlefields of Syria and Yemen. There is no Plan B in Syria, because the US administration will not agree to what it will be needed to bring about a qualitative shift in the military equation in Syria, because of the lack of confidence in the abilities of the moderate Syrian rebels, and because the priority for both Washington and Moscow remains the US-Russian accord and de-facto partnership in Syria.

Let the two key players stop pretending their differences are vast, or that US Secretary of State John Kerry has a Plan B as he exchanges retorts with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in what resembles more a comedy with pre-arranged roles. There is no Plan B in Syria because the Gulf countries, which speak of “alternatives” leading to the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, do not intend to use the Islamist armies they are mobilizing to fight terrorism to topple Assad’s regime, nor do they intend to dispatch advanced weapons to the Syrian rebels to achieve a breakthrough that would tip the military balance of power.


It is time to return to the policy-drafting table to scrutinize the reality of these conflicts today, after the policy of attrition proved to be a failure and to have an appalling human cost. Reconsidering policies in light of new facts is not surrender; it is a necessary awakening to the dire need for a realistic re-evaluation of policies and strategies, to replace the principle of attrition with the principle of stopping the bleeding. This applies to both Yemen and Syria, and it is time to be candid without fear of recrimination.

Clearly, Kuwait, which is hosting intra-Yemeni talks brokered by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is worried about the prospect of the negotiations collapsing. For this reason, the emir of Kuwait intervened personally to rescue them. Oman, which is playing a behind-the-scenes role to prevent the collapse of the critical negotiations between Yemeni government and rebel representatives, and all the Gulf countries, is holding its breath because it is aware the collapse of negotiations would mean the continuation of the war of attrition in Yemen, now a gaping wound in the Gulf body.

Resolution masterstroke

Simply put, the ongoing negotiations are stuck at discussing UN Security Council resolution 2216, which was adopted following the coup in Yemen. The resolution was a “masterstroke” for having laid the roadmap for what can be described as the surrender of the rebels to the legitimate government. The resolution called on the forces of the Houthis and those loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to withdraw from cities and handover their weapons in surrender to the legitimate government, in addition to releasing detainees and restoring the situation that existed prior to the coup, while effectively granting them immunity.

That was an important diplomatic achievement for Saudi Arabia scored by its ambassador to the United Nations Abdullah al-Muallem, with the resolution winning unanimous approval and becoming the reference frame for the solution in Yemen and legitimacy there.

This will be no surrender because the fact of the matter is that there is no victor in Syria, regardless of whether some might believe Assad remaining in power is a victory

Raghida Dergham

That was then. But today, due to the reality on the ground and military balances, and the resulting attrition strategy and the situation in the Yemeni arena, sticking to it to the letter is neither practical nor realistic. This is the view of many Gulf stakeholders, who feat a protracted conflict in Yemen and the repercussions of the humanitarian crisis there on Gulf countries themselves and their image in the eyes of international public opinion.

The climate in the Gulf suggests interest in Yemen has receded, and that Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab coalition forces in Yemen, has lost a lot of its enthusiasm in the recent period. According to a notable observer, “it has lost the will to continue the fight,” which inevitably affects both the military and political course of events.

According to another veteran Gulf observer, a senior official in the Saudi leadership believes the war in Yemen was a pre-emptive one to avert projects by the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh against Saudi interests, national security, and the interior. Therefore, the goal of the Saudi war in Yemen was to prevent a Yemeni war in Saudi Arabia, and this has been achieved in the Saudi view.

From the standpoint of Yemen’s interests, however, the cost has been high without a clear prospect of salvation. The destruction of Yemen has become clear and embarrassing for the Arab coalition, particularly since the international public opinion, including the Islamic and Arab one, is critical of turning Yemen into a scorched earth as part of the pre-emptive strategy.

The UN has blamed the Arab coalition and its leaders, not just Saleh’s forces and the Houthis. Famine is coming to Yemen, exacerbating the humanitarian situation there and inviting more recrimination, criticism, and calls for an end to attrition in favor of policies that stop the bloodletting. Especially so when al-Qaeda is spreading in the south, and ISIS is planning to enter Yemen to carry out its schemes in that scorched earth.

The major powers, especially the US and Russia, are currently giving leeway for negotiations led by the UN envoy to Yemen. However, according to both public and behind-the-scenes indications, they are preparing to place Yemen under US-Russian bilateral care similar to Syria.

Such a development would pull the rug from under the feet of Saudi Arabia in particular, as the leading military player in Yemen’s conflict. So far, there is a desire in the Obama administration not to comply with the Russian call for withdrawing the Yemeni issue from the Security Council and Saudi Arabia, to be handled by the US-Russian diplomatic duo. However, more deterioration in Yemen and the collapse of negotiations will help Russia to get its way along with the US. Such a development is something that Saudi leaders find extremely dangerous with long-term repercussions.

These circles also speak about the background of the decision made by the Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to replace the prime minister Khaled Bahah a few months ago, in a measure that was sudden for the Saudi leadership. According to these informed circles, the Yemeni president, whom Riyadh is keen to keep as the image of legitimacy, acted without coordination with the capital that is hosting him. Riyadh was said to be upset by the surprise move and the claim that Hadi “tried to contact” them but could not.

These important issues require a new approach to the question of how to end the war in Yemen, regardless of who exactly needs an exit strategy. In truth, there is no other option now except pursuing an exit strategy to leave the Yemeni quagmire and end the humanitarian tragedy. This requires first and foremost admitting to the failure of the costly policies of attrition, which have a moral, humanitarian, as well as material toll.

The military situation in Yemen has yet to produce a decisive victory or defeat for any of the parties. The continuation of the current situation and its high cost might also be an unfavorable situation for Saudi Arabia, which wants the world to focus on its vision for 2030 instead of pigeonholing it though its role in Yemen’s war.

Ali Abdullah Saleh and some Houthis could benefit from the policy of counter-attrition, and thus may not mind for Yemen to become a quagmire for others.

There is a chance for a political solution through the UN envoy, who simplified the equation accurately when he said that there can be no solution except when the Yemeni and other parties agree to compromise. The room for compromise begins with a serious intention to implement a ceasefire and agree a transitional government, which accepts the Houthis as part of the internal Yemeni fabric rather than an outlawed group.

One of the most prominent obstacles to this solution is the resolution 2216 itself. The government party insists, with Saudi support, on the full implementation of resolution 2216, which has become impossible. The Houthis meanwhile believe there is no need for them to surrender as per the resolution, and therefore are seeking a different solution to the one at the heart of 2216, which they believe is unrealistic. Some in their ranks want a full divorce with the resolution, which is also impossible.

Others are willing to make concessions, but link them to similar concessions by the other party. This is in fact the only possible solution in the current negotiations. Such a solution would take into account the facts on the ground, while enshrining consensus and not dictating surrender, which is no longer an option anyway. The foe remains strong, and there is no Plan B in Yemen just as there is no Plan B in Syria.

“Afghanization” of Arab wars

The “Afghanization” of Arab wars, especially the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, is not a wise policy. It is the worst form of investment for all concerned, and will backfire sooner or later. Wisdom instead requires for a decision to be taken to stop the attrition, and replace the Afghan model with the Bosnian model, based on de-escalation and compromise solutions.

It is just unacceptable to sustain Syria’s crucible for years to come, until Assad falls. His fate ultimately is to leave, because of the Afghanization he and others imported into Syria. But the condition to remove Assad as a first step towards a solution is no longer feasible, because of the military balance of power on the ground. There is an axis supporting Assad that has dedicated for carnage huge military capabilities, from Russia’s warplanes to Iran’s ground forces and militias.

By contrast, the backers of the Syrian opposition have been reluctant about providing game-changing military support that can overturn the balance of power or influence the battlefield for diplomatic gains. Obama’s United States has held on to the pledge not to supply weapons to the opposition, and not to implicate its forces in Syria, or do anything that would shake its accord with Russia, including holding accountable the Islamic Republic of Iran for its actions in Syria.

Turkey played the Syrian card arrogantly, and ended up implicating rather than helping the opposition. The Gulf countries took one step forward and two steps back, under the pretext of US restrictions on supplying US-made weapons to the Syrian opposition, but they continued to issue threats without a meaningful Plan B. All this made the current balance of power what it is, and it is no longer possible to change it because of the weakness of the opposition.

Political solutions, when they are reached, cannot be seen in isolation from actual maps imposed by the military balance of power through war. The facts on the ground require a return to the policy-drafting table. If the investment in changing the regime in Damascus adopted the failed policy of attrition while the foe adopted a policy of sustained military support, perhaps it is time to consider compromise solutions, even if they are cosmetic.

This will be no surrender because the fact of the matter is that there is no victor in Syria, regardless of whether some might believe Assad remaining in power is a victory. There is no victor in Yemen either, no matter how much some might believe containing the war in Yemen is a victory.

Let there be cosmetic solution at the expense of UN resolutions and principles. This is the lesser evil, lesser than subjecting Syria and Yemen to another year of horrific tragedies. Neither the illegitimacy of Assad nor the legitimacy of Hadi deserve crushing Syria and Yemen’s children, as long as there is no Plan B as a serious option against war crimes, away from criminal justice.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on May. 20, 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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