Biden and Iran: The Saudi Factor

The Yemen conflict is striking in that the entire global community and all the actors involved have achieved a singularly powerful consensus that there is no future for a solution achieved by force and a political solution is the only option. Since June 2015, this thought has permeated UN documents, speeches delivered by politicians and by heads of the UN Secretary General’s special missions to Yemen. The scale of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen has surpassed record highs: there are over 100,000 dead, the number of refugees is running into the millions, and the number of people who need external aid to survive has long ago exceeded 24 million, which is about 80% of the country’s total population. Major damage has been done to the artificial irrigation systems that form the material foundation of the thousand-year-old civilization of this unique country, and this damage will continue to prevent Yemenis from going back to their customary lifestyle for years to come.

Many convincing texts have been written about the war’s negative impact on international relations, including GCC states themselves, about the geopolitical struggle surrounding Yemen due to the rivalry over influence in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, and about the eroding system of international law in areas bordering on the conflict zone. In addition to introducing new threats to the health of Yemen’s suffering population, the COVID-19 global pandemic has delivered another blow to Yemen in the shape of a sharp drop in the humanitarian fund: incoming funds have shrunk to nearly just a third of the 2019 figure (from USD 3.6 bn to USD 1.3 bn).

In 2020, the expert community has demonstrated unprecedented unanimity in focusing on clearing the hurdles blocking a Yemen crisis settlement: the community has been hoping to prevent the disaster from growing into an unprecedented humanitarian and political collapse that would have even more profound and detrimental consequences for Yemen and all neighbouring regions. Not by chance have Russia and the EU spearheaded these discussions and found far more points of intersection than differences during their communications.

By the end of the year, experts, politicians and Yemen’s people have once again started to hope owing to the possibility of a Joint Declaration (JD) on a ceasefire being signed and to the partial lifting of the economic and transport blockage imposed by the command of the Arab Coalition (AC) in March 2015. Contextualised within a record POW swap held in October, when over 1,000 people returned home, making it the biggest prisoner exchange since the start of the war, this initiative proposed by Martin Griffiths, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, is perceived by many as a chance to put back on the agenda a comprehensive crisis settlement, for which Russia has been consistently striving for. Hopes have also been raised by reports about progress being made at the Riyadh simultaneous talks between , Yemen’s Internationally Recognised President (IRP), and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) on implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (RA) they signed back in November 2019. This agreement provides for forming a government with their joint participation. Both processes, the JD and the RA, essentially concern two unconnected hotbeds of military hostilities within the Yemen conflict area, those between the AC and the Sanaa Alliance (SA) forces in the North, on the one hand, and in the “Houthi”-free South, on the other hand, between the AC’s wings represented by the IRP and the STC.

Yet, if we take a closer look, these seemingly positive trends are moving in opposite directions and could ultimately generate new clashes. If we compare the two documents, the RA that was signed under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019 but has not so far been implemented, and the JD that has not yet been signed, we will see that they have radically different goals. The RA is intended to bring back to Aden the IRP’s offices that had been pushed out by the STC in August 2019; the objective is to consolidate the wings on the grounds of continuing the war with the SA, while the JD is intended to affect a ceasefire between the AC and the SA in order to put an end to the war.

The main difficulty in implementing the RA is that its signatories, the IRP and the STC, are unwilling to look for ways to align their contradictory views of Yemen’s future. The IRP advocates Yemen’s integrity and federalisation, while the STC is officially fighting to have South Yemen restored within the 1990 boundaries of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The STC is consistently staking claims to represent the interests of the South at any future talks; the STC has warned the UN that the crisis cannot be settled unless this claim is taken into account. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that concluded in January 2014 taught us that the “Southern Question” could have a significant impact on Yemen’s political developments. The UN Security Council praised the NDC Document signed at the end of the conference, but it was not recognised by the leading factions of the South, which ultimately reduce the value of this achievement.

Understanding that finding a solution to the pivotal problem of national unity is crucial for settling the crisis inevitably means to understand that it is the Yemenis themselves who have the principal right to decide this matter. Otherwise, progress in implementing the RA or achieving peace in Yemen, in general, can hardly be expected.

Let us suppose that the joint government envisaged by the RA is, indeed, formed. What will the united military and law enforcement block do now if, in the year since the RA was signed, pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati wings of the AC, represented by the IRP and the STC, have failed to move from confrontation to compromise in the southern governorates of Shabwa and Abyan? The situation in Hadharamaut, Yemen’s largest governorate, which various AC wings have divided into Inner and Coastal Hadhramaut, continues to intensify. In August 2020, the STC officially announced it had suspended its participation in the RA since its adversary had been building up its military presence at the points of contact. Even so, let us suppose that the parties make progress in finding solutions to all these problems. Under the RA, compliance with the so-called RA military section should constitute the next step; this involves moving all IRP-STC military bodies, consolidated under a united command from the South, and redeploying them in the North to engage the SA forces. This manoeuvre can only impede the UN’s simultaneously implemented project, the JD envisioning putting a freeze on the situation on all fronts. Additionally, if the current IRP’s government signs the JD without waiting for a new government, including the STC to be formed, the JD’s legal status will be flawed. Anyone can see that, while these events do raise people’s hopes when they are considered separately, they are, in fact, disjointed and divergent, which breeds suspicions among the Yemeni actors immediately involved and reduces their positive value.

Sadly, year in year out, we see Yemen’s hopes of a speedy settlement of the military conflict disappear as if dashed against an invisible wall; in the long run, these hopes repeatedly turn into increasingly dangerous humanitarian, geopolitical and military-political situations.

Recently, international fora have been voicing more and more well-founded criticisms of the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 adopted in April 2015. There are many reasons for such critical statements but the main one is that, during the past years of war, the balance of power in the crisis area has utterly changed. One major impediment to the resolution being revised appears to be the conviction that this resolution is the only guarantee of the IRP status as the bulwark of a settlement that would prevent Yemen from descending into uncontrollable chaos, which is generally taken to mean terrorist threats and the country’s uncontrollable collapse. The same conviction permeates the IRP’s official stance as it gives this resolution (as well as the NDC’s decisions) pride of place on the IRP’s negotiating platform at all talks. We should not forget that the resolution recognises that the “Houthi” capitulating and the IRP returning to Sanaa is the only acceptable scenario for putting an end of the AC’s campaign in Yemen.

During nearly six years of war, the situation on the ground has changed so much that these goals now appear virtually unattainable. The expert community acknowledges this. Yemen today has no single political influence centre (PIC), single government, or even single parliament. Since March 2015, the IRP has been almost permanently stationed in Riyadh and all Yemen’s domestic political scene could not fail to notice this. In addition to the unrecognised authorities in Sanaa, including the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), which controls the greater chunk of the territory in the North, home to three-quarters of Yemen’s population, the STC led by General Aidarous Zubaidi has been active in the South and, with the UAE’s support, has gained such influence that even Saudi Arabia, leader of the AC, has to take it into account. A question begs to be asked: if the IRP and the STC could engage in talks on establishing joint authorities, why cannot this model be extended to another PIC in Sanaa? Maybe the reason does not lie in Iran’s hostile influence on the Houthi, which is presumed to have initiated the entire conflict?

During armed clashes between the AC’s wings in Aden in August 2019, the STC and the UAE defended their actions, accusing the IRP of being under excessive influence from the radical religious faction of the Al-Islah party, which had been integrated into the IRP’s offices during the latter’s stay in Riyadh. The STC also claimed that the IRP had been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation) as part of the Al-Islah. This was the STC’s principal motive in declaring the South a self-governing territory in order to combat AQAP and IS, banned terrorist groups adhering to the ideology of so-called jihadist Salafism. Let us note that the unrecognised SA authorities in the North did succeed in clearing these groups from the entire territory they control. This ideological aspect of the differences between the STC and the IRP is sufficiently important to merit special attention. Yet, the RA did not address this aspect, which, like the unity issue, will certainly continue slowing down the entire settlement process.

Why is the strengthening of the IRP’s actual role in the settlement process important? The IRP alone has the legal right to make sovereign decisions that the global community has to take into account since it recognised the IRP in 2015. The IRP can spearhead initiatives for ending the war. This idea seems naive to many but it might, in time, give the IRP a chance to turn the tide that has long been going against it.

There is a widespread opinion that the IRP’s standing in the Yemen crisis rests mostly on this resolution and any steps to amend it will automatically undermine it. We will attempt to prove the opposite by studying the resolution’s real influence on the IRP’s standing on Yemen’s scene and on the tactics adopted by the UN mission in Yemen, which the settlement process had depended on.

The most dramatic turning point in the crisis was probably the collapse of the three-month-long Kuwait round of talks between April and August 2016. That round was attended by three delegations: two represented the SA (Ansar Allah and the General People’s Congress, GPC) and one the IRP. The format of the talks did not fully align with the idea of the resolution that considered the civil war in Yemen to have divided the state into two camps, one supporting the legal authorities (IRP) and one consisting of “Houthi rebels” accused of a coup. The delegation of the GPC, then led by Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not fit into this view at all, since Sanaa’s delegation by definition represented “rebels.” If the GPC were part of the rebellion, it would be groundless, to put it mildly, to accuse the Houthi of being pro-Iranian. In 2001–2011, President Saleh was known to be an important strategic partner of the USA in the region; he lost that status and U.S. support only at the start of the “Yemeni revolution” in early 2011. Clearly, the GPC delegation’s arrival in Kuwait acknowledged the true state of affairs in Yemen. Consequently, the “disconnect” with the particular concept of the conflict underlying the resolution was let slide. Another “disconnect” resulted, however, in the collapse of the talks. In June–July 2016, after much intense and sincere work, the Yemeni delegations achieved an understanding on a conflict settlement mechanism. This was built on forming an emergency collective supreme command body to be in charge of all the heavy weapons so that this body would be working in a climate conducive to launching inclusive peace talks for paving the way for deciding democratically the issue of Yemen’s legitimate authorities. By late July, nothing was left of that joint Yemeni breakthrough owing to the discrepancy between the principle approved at the talks and the formula British experts used in drafting the resolution.

The tragedy of that failure is that the chance to put an end of the war back in 2016 was lost. The Kuwait round of talks and its outcome was vividly reminiscent of the famous historical precedent in Yemen when, back in 1965, at the height of the civil war in the YAR, the Yemeni parties, republicans and royalists held a restricted-attendance conference at the village of Al-Hamri in Amran Governorate and agreed the concept for the peace formula. Even the dethroned monarch himself approved the decisions adopted at that conference, although they granted victory to the republicans. Following the al-Hamri conference, the YAR civil war continued for nearly five years, until 1970, when foreign actors – Egypt and Saudi Arabia, finally agreed between themselves and Saudi Arabia officially recognised the YAR. Back then, however, the al-Hamri formula formed the foundation of the reconciliation granting the Zaidiyyah tribes, who had supported the king, the right to participate in republican government bodies. It is important to emphasise that the Yemenis voluntarily gave up on the idea of a “clean” unilateral victory for the sake of preserving national unity and for their country’s future.

The main political outcome of the Kuwait round’s collapse was the joint decision made by Ansar Allah and the GPC to form a coalition government in Sanaa with parity-based representation of the parties and to recognise the validity of Yemen’s constitution. That autumn, the Parliament elected at Yemen’s latest elections, in 2003, resumed its work in Sanaa (although not in full muster). The GPC held the parliamentary majority, although the unrecognised regime in Sanaa was still known as the Houthi regime. This resumption of parliamentary activities was the decisive factor in the subsequent course of the armed hostilities since the bureaucracy, the military and law enforcement in the North were still looking to the GPC leader.

Understanding that finding a solution to the pivotal problem of national unity is crucial for settling the crisis inevitably means to understand that it is the Yemenis themselves who have the principal right to decide this matter. Otherwise, progress in implementing the RA or achieving peace in Yemen, in general, can hardly be expected.

The collapse of the Kuwait talks had another logical yet negative consequence: all subsequent UN peacemaking missions moved away from trying to achieve a comprehensive crisis settlement to striving instead to smooth out the urgent emerging problems of a mostly humanitarian nature. The Stockholm talks (December 2018) focused on the dangers to the humanitarian situation in Al Hudaydah, on the situation in Taiz and on POWs. Those talks were attended by two delegations representing only the IRP and the SA since GPC members were now part of the Sanaa delegation. The fate of the Stockholm agreements was lamentable primarily because the war that had created all those dangers was still raging. As of November 2020, the situation around Yemen’s port of Al Hudaydah, the largest on the Red Sea, continues to balance on the verge of a disaster, with all the military and humanitarian risks subsisting and augmented by a new environmental danger threatening the entire Red Sea basin: over a million barrels of petrochemicals might leak into the sea from the Safer floating oil storage facility built in 1974 and moored at Al Hudaydah.

The collapse of the Kuwait talks spurred on the political movement aiming for greater insulation of the South. This movement was launched in 2017 and has already resulted in the above-mentioned events in Aden in August 2019. The IRP could no longer be present in the provisional capital, this making the AC’s Saudi wing very vulnerable because the South, which had been proclaiming its loyalty to the AC since the start of the campaign, in this particular instance preferred its rival, the STC, thus taking a step toward a rift. The struggle between the AC’s wings in the South has a disintegrating impact on that region of the country.

In 2020, the UN mission in Yemen focused primarily on the urgent new situation that emerged on the eastern front of the military operation in the North as the SA’s forces advanced against the centre of the Ma’rib Governorate. From the start of the war, that region was the IRP’s main military foothold in Yemen. It is hard to predict whether the UN initiative will be successful and how long the breather will last if the JD is, indeed, signed.

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Summing up our analysis of the impact the Resolution has on the real issues of the conflict, we can state that it was not conducive to the IRP performing the role expected of it by the international community, namely, to put the speediest end to the war, as envisaged in the Resolution itself. The Resolution did not help search for a comprehensive conflict settlement either; it also resulted in the UN mission switching its focus to secondary issues emerging because the war continued unabated.

The Resolution was not suited to the Yemeni crisis situation from its inception (Russia abstained during the vote for this very reason) and its influence on the IRP’s standing in Yemen can be only seen as counterproductive.

A new formula needs to be developed for settling the Yemen crisis with the participation of Yemenis and taking account of their wishes; this formula needs to focus on the real national problems that have been artificially pushed into the background. It appears that, without such a formula, all the contradictions and “disconnects” described in the article in the actions of the parties on the Northern and Southern fronts of the Yemeni conflict will most likely generate another go-round in the crisis.

Even though Yemeni PICs have different visions for the country’s future, their actions clearly demonstrate a desire to reinstate Yemen’s statehood and sovereignty either in the pre-1990 unification mould (the STC and other factions of the South Yemen Movement – al-Hirak), or in the post-1990 unification mould (the IRP and the SA). The chaos in the conflict zone cannot be overcome without a cooling down of the geopolitical passions that attract an expanding circle of foreign actors. Yet, to achieve this goal, the UN needs to have a reliable new tool for launching a political process in Yemen’s format. The very history of the country gives sufficient reason to be optimistic concerning Yemen’s prospects and the willingness of all the principal actors to participate constructively. The risks generated by the COVID-19 pandemic do not appear to be the main stimulus prompting them to become involved. More likely, Yemen’s unique political culture, its adherence to common values and common sense, will kick in. We should not believe that only pre-fabricated scenarios in the spirit of political engineering are capable of ensuring the success of such talks. Every surprise foreign actors have faced and will continue to face in Yemen proves that the Yemenis themselves have equally rich potential for independent creative activity.

From our partner RIAC

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