Cease fire in Yemen: false alarm or the beginning of a choppy road to peace (for a while)
In our April13 post, we noted that the Houthis were considerably more than just an Iranian surrogate in Yemen. Indeed, we pointed out, the Houthis, as part of the minority Shia were basically concerned with fairness for their people in a Sunni dominated country. About forty percent of Yemen’s population is Shia. In fact, since their formation in 2004, they had been fighting the al Qaeda Sunni militant jihadists in the North (practically they were behind the group Believing Youth, formed in Sana’a in the early to mid 90’s). And, recall, the Yemen version of Al Qaeda had just seen their numbers and power increased due to a merger with Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia forming Al Qaeda for the entire Arabian Peninsula, but based in Yemen. Most of this activity took place in North Yemen.
Under an Arab League sponsored armistice, and with more forceful pressure from Saudi Arabia, the two non-Houthi key figures contending for power were named head of the new government, namely Ali Abdullah Saleh as President and his rival Ali Salim al Beidh as Vice President. Following the Civil War, al Beidh resigned to continue his fight against Saleh. He was replaced as Vice President by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Saleh ran a tremendously corrupt government, even for that part of the world. Though nominally against al Qaeda, and their version of Sunni militant Jihadism, in practice he pretty much left them to their own activities in the North. Salem’s benign opposition to al Qaeda reached it height when he released one hundred and seventy six al Qaeda prisoners. Both Saleh and al Queda were Sunnis. Yemen became a major source for exporting terrorists in the region because of its strategic location with Saudi Arabia (and Egypt on the African continent)) to the north, and Somalia just across the Red Sea, where the Arabian peninsula and Africa are at their closest point.
Obviously, the U.S. and its allies in the region had a stake in changing the Saleh leadership. Not only was it critical in their fight against al Qaeda, but it was the geopolitically important site for U.S. anti-terrorism training and activities. Corruption and a deepening economic crisis provided all of the necessary conditions for a U.S. supported change in leadership in Yemen. Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia, reportedly to get medical treatment for injuries he had suffered during an attack on the Presidential pALACE in 2011. This provided the spark, or sufficient condition, to effect a change. Saleh ultimately resigned (actually he agreed to not take an active role in upcoming elections) in exchange for immunity against prosecution.
Hadi became “acting President,” and agreed to hold elections within 90 days. Elections in Yemen can hardly be called democratic. There usually is just one candidate and he regularly receives 99+ percent of the vote. Hadi, was elected in such an election in 2012. Various conferences held to achieve some semblance of unity for practical purposes disagreed along sectarian lines.
Meanwhile, the Shia minority were basically ignored by the Hadi government, as well as being left as the only truly active force in the fight against al Qaeda. In 2015, they proved that government forces were “paper tigers,” as they moved in and took control of Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a, with only weak opposition. This emboldened them to successfully attack cities in the South. As they moved towards Aden, the U.S. decided not to fight at this time and in that place. Hadi resigned, fled to Saudi Arabia and a sympathetic Royal Family. When the Saudis announced a primarily air war against the Houthis’ positions, Hadi rescinded his resignation and the Saudis started a significant bombing campaign. U.S. aircraft were reported in specifically targeted actions, though this has not been confirmed by Washington, in a climate of chaos, and where a number of civilians have been killed in “collateral damage.”
As I had predicted, the Houthis all along planned to accept a negotiated settlement. Nothing can change their minority status. But they can negotiate protections for, and sharing of resources. Division of Yemen into regions based on sectarian considerations have been suggested (and rejected by the Houthis). The Persian Gulf states, the GCC, working with United Nations diplomats have proposed a first step negotiation for a cessation of hostilities to allow for humanitarian supplies and medical necessities through. However, until that is supposed to begin later today, bombing continues. Indeed, what may have been one of the largest bombing raids “snuck in” just before the cease-fire deadline.
Historically, wars in the Middle East don’t just stop cleanly. There are preliminary negotiations, and more negotiations, and then even more. There are breaks in agreed upon territorial boundaries. And breaks in the cease-fire as well. Patronage payments, some for tribal leaders, have been significant parts of previous Civil War peace negotiations. This is par for the course. And coalitions seldom hold fast. Just this past week, Saleh, who had been in an uneasy alliance with his former enemies, the Houthis, broke with them, at least nominally. Bigger issues, such as constitution-writing, have rarely gone smoothly even if they were initially agreed upon by the warring parties. Think of the failures along these lines in Iraq, and the consequences of those failures. In this particular case regional demands will ha be to be part of the negotiations. The Saudis surely have their own agenda, at least in terms of a friendly government and a greater semblance of stability. Hadi’s role in a new government has to be agreed to by the Saudis. My guess is that negotiations in Yemen will, at least, be as complicated as Iraq’s has been. But the final result will be a negotiated peace—at least for a while. And from the U.S. perspective, some meaningful agreement on how to proceed against al Qaeda will have to be agreed upon. A mess at best. And the path to those objectives is likely to be a choppy one. Sometimes in the Middle East you have to settle for the least bad alternative.