Despite Saudi Assurances, Yemen Set for Another Challenging Year

Yemenis carry much-needed relief supplies, after being cut off from humanitarian assistance for weeks. Taiz, Yemen, January 17, 2016. (Abdulnasser Alseddik/AP Photo)

March 26th marks one year since Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition of nine Arab countries to intervene in Yemen. The action was an attempt to reinstate Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president of Yemen and end the dominance of the Houthi rebels, who had taken power in September 2014 with the support of armed forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Saleh. Despite recent Saudi pronouncements, the crisis shows no sign of abating.

Early this month, a spokesman for the coalition stated that its operations in Yemen were “nearing their end.” However, the prospects for a full cessation of military operations and of hostilities by external and internal warring parties do not reflect current realities on the ground.

The past 12 months of intense fighting has left the state dismantled and the livelihoods of civilians severely affected. More than 6,000 people have been killed and more than 35,000 injured, while 82% of the population remains in urgent need of some form of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). To date, OCHA has received only 11.5% of the $1.8 billion USD it says it needs to implement its 2016 humanitarian response plan.

Since the start of the Saudi-led campaign, Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh have lost large swaths of territory they had seized during the 2014 coup. Yet they remain in control of the capital Sana’a and other parts of the north and are still capable of launching attacks across Saudi borders. The Houthis and allied forces are now attempting to regain territory in Taiz, from where they were forcibly removed, ending an eight-month long siege of the city. The siege had restricted humanitarian and commercial access to the strategic center and third largest city in Yemen.

Hadi and his government have also been able to return to Yemen’s southern port city, Adan, after locals and armed groups backed by the Saudis had ejected the Houthis. However, Aden and a major part of the south, where the president and his government currently reside, are now facing security challenges from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Aden and Abyan branch of the so-called Islamic State, and local militants, who took advantage of the power vacuum resulting from Hadi’s weak political and military leadership to compete over control of cities, resources, and leadership positions.

Attacks and assassinations have targeted state and military officials and the movement of Hadi and his government has been strictly limited. It is likely that the government will now move to Marib, a northeastern city, which Houthi rebels have not been able to control because of fierce resistance from local tribes, and where a state army branch is more structured and administered in fighting and acting on behalf of the government.

Saudi Arabia’s venture in its neighboring country has stretched longer than the Saudis themselves expected and left them with hefty financial burdens. In addition, the country’s military tactics have damaged its international reputation, especially the mounting concern over continued airstrikes on populated areas and the use of banned cluster munitions. It has also placed its major western arms suppliers—the US, UK, and France—under scrutiny, with calls for an embargo growing in Europe in particular. This has occurred against the backdrop of a weak central government in Yemen and a president with low local popularity. Hadi is also deemed unready to relinquish the direct support of Arab Gulf countries and the backing of the international community. How long are the Saudis willing to continue committing military and financial support to keep the weak government in place?

The Saudis have taken matters into their own hands by engaging in direct talks with the Houthis this month, for the first time since their intervention began. The talks resulted in a prisoner swap between both parties, a joint military team starting demining operations on the Saudi-Yemeni border, and a ceasefire, though this lasted only a few days. Nonetheless, the talks are a significant development since Houthi rebels have been the main military target for the Saudis and direct talks between the two were deemed unthinkable earlier in the conflict.

However, the talks have not moved the situation toward a more comprehensive agreement and cessation of all hostilities. This will only happen if the Yemeni parties to the conflict—the Hadi government on the one hand, and Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh on the other—are pressured and genuinely committed to engage in peace talks. For any talks to then have sustainable outcomes, it is imperative that the root causes of the conflict are addressed. This is achievable in two ways: first, conditions for a political transition must be addressed following a ceasefire; second, the dire humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by the war must be mitigated.

To date, UN efforts  to bring about a resolution in Yemen have been ineffective. The organization has pursued four years’ worth of failed political processes, including two rounds of peace talks last year in Switzerland. Furthermore, the Saudi-led military intervention has further diminished the UN role, adding a layer of regional power politics with conflicting interests. Planned UN talks for mid-January 2016 were suspended due to a lack of commitment from the local warring parties and amid regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

New talks are scheduled to take place mid-April 2016 in Kuwait, but doubts persist on whether the Yemeni parties will attend and if they will abide by UN-led outcomes. The lack of comparative UN influence in the country is highlighted by the fact that while it convinced Houthi rebels to free seven detainees in December 2015, local tribes were able to secure the release of 375 individuals in the same month. The tribes also played a role in the recent talks between the Saudis and Houthis, building on an indirect line of communication facilitated by Russia.

Greater involvement of Yemen’s traditional authority could therefore be in order to attempt to achieve a lasting peace in the country. Decisions by the powerful “seven tribes” surrounding Sana’a are at least expected to influence whether the Saudi-led coalition moves ground forces to the capital to take the fight to the Houthis there.

Despite recent announcements, the crisis in Yemen seems no closer to ending as the second year of the Saudi intervention approaches. Effective and inclusive peace talks remain vital to preventing bloodshed and relieving millions of Yemenis from suffering caused by political elites and armed rebels.

Waleed Alhariri is a Non-resident Fellow of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.