On the Ground in Yemen: Q&A with Farea al-Muslimi

Yemeni pro-government forces backed by the Saudi-led military alliance gather during their fight against Houthi rebels in the area of Hodeidah's airport on June 19, 2018. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

As the battle for the port of Hodeidah continues to intensify, the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen has raised further alarm, particularly for its impact on the young. The increase in violence has laid more bare the regional rivalries that are exacerbating it and has made the aim of the new United Nations Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to rekindle peace talks a challenging goal.

For its part, the UN has continued its efforts to work towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The UN Special Envoy visited Sanaa recently and expressed confidence that a deal could be reached. Last month, as the fighting around Hodeidah began, the co-founder and chairman of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, Farea al-Muslimi, was in New York after his own visit to Yemen. He sat down with the Global Observatory editor Samir Ashraf to describe the reality in the country and the prospects for a settlement of the conflict.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are things like on the ground in Yemen now? Walk us through your recent trip, what did you do while there? How did you get in and out?

Politically there is an absolute deadlock. Diplomacy has basically stopped and nothing has been done to relaunch negotiations, whether through the UN or through other routes.

Obviously, in terms of healthcare provision and the humanitarian situation there has been an extreme escalation. There is the pushover battle at Hodeidah port, the last main port of food, aid, and trade getting into Yemen. Of course, pushing the battle towards Hodeidah will be an extreme nightmare for humanitarians, businessmen, and for life in general, especially in the north under the Houthis. Unfortunately, there is less pushback now from NGOs, human rights groups, aid organizations, and some Western countries.

Why do you think there is less pushback?

Many reasons. One is that the Saudis are determined and there is less ability to actually persuade them to change course. Two, the Houthi escalation and their battle with their allies has made them much weaker politically, despite their military and security strength.

In terms of the consequences of this lack of pushback? Yemen is becoming increasingly cut off, and the port of Hodeidah is not the only problem. We have some airports, for example, that have been shut down for two years. You only have Hadhramaut or Aden airports open, and for three airplanes. Three airplanes serving 27 million people. So if you want to get in or out of Yemen—which is especially a problem if you are sick or need medical attention—you have to drive 25 hours and pass over 128 road checkpoints through Sanaa, Dhamar, Bayda, Marib, Hadhramaut, and onwards.

Is that how you went in? Who is manning these checkpoints?

Yes, and also how I went out.

Different groups man different checkpoints. For example, there are some in the Houthi areas that are under the Houthis—there were 52 of these—and some under the internationally recognized government, like at the first checkpoint at Marib. Then there’s others under the national army, and others still under different groups fighting the Houthis.

The checkpoints are a major obstacle to people getting in and out of the country. If those manning just one of them decides you cannot cross, you are truly stuck. Very few people can fly out of Yemen on a plane. This land route exists because of the lack of other ways to get in and out. It points to a lack of management and also to the fact that the conflict is not being resolved.

The impact of these obstacles—the lack of movement within the country, aid being cut off, fighting between groups—is far-reaching, even in previously “good” areas. In Sanaa, for example, you now have much more hunger, you see people in the street with clean clothes like yours and mine who are beggars in the streets. This tells you that these people were previously fine, relatively speaking, they have just been pushed to the edge. At this point, it has been 19 months since salaries were paid to 1.2 million public sector workers. By our calculations these 1.2 million supported a further six million Yemenis. Basically, the last group of Yemenis who were not hungry or in a humanitarian crisis have reached that in the last year.

What about outside of cities? Has this also been the case there?

What I described is more true in the Houthi-controlled areas—which is somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of the country and where the absence of salaries has done more harm—but also in other places too. Basically, a decision was made to halt salary payments for government workers and then to blame the Houthis for it, to push the people against them. This has not worked. If there is one group that is actually getting richer in Sanaa it is the Houthis.

The salary decision was the best thing that could happen for the Houthis in terms of recruitment since the main motive for people to fight is economic. The Houthis have used the trick where they pay people in the front lines. They don’t pay you your salary at home, they pay you at the front line. So, since people need money, they turn to the Houthis and fight for them.

Another major issue is the black market. If you look at the war economy, which is something we have studied closely at the Sanaa Center, there is trafficking in fuel, weapons, and goods that everyone has a share in, from [President Abdrabbuh Mansur] Hadi’s sons to the brothers of Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. Looking at this black market is important because it is rare point where all the warring sides meet, which can be an opportunity to make peace more feasible.

What impact have the sanctions had on the black market? Do you think sanctions should be lifted?

In 2014, the idea of having sanctions made some sense. You want to hold those responsible for what was happening in Yemen accountable. Sanctions work well for someone like [Ali Abdullah] Saleh who had money outside Yemen, but not so much for the Houthis since they still work in cash. How do you sanction someone, who never leaves Yemen, with a travel ban? From this perspective the sanctions were a bit naïve.

What was ultimately missing from the whole sanctions process was an understanding of the context. We sanction Saleh, but some countries in the region continue supporting him. If these countries hadn’t, we wouldn’t need sanctions to change behavior.

I think we have a very good sanctions model in Iran and we should use it in Yemen. That model says conditional, gradual, incremental removal. You behave better—whether you’re Saleh’s son, or Hadi, or Abdel-Malek al-Houthi—then some restrictions are removed. That way you can improve buy-in for peace in Yemen.

Right now, sanctions don’t fulfill peace purposes. The sanctions were made for the idea of sanctions, not for the idea of peace. Things have changed since Saleh was killed, and again we need regional buy-in. If we have the regional buy-in, we are fine with sanctions or without sanctions. So that will be something we have to rethink as we move ahead in any new peace process or thought process. Any conversation on removing or adding sanctions, cannot and should not happen without an understanding of the context. It should happen in the larger context of any peace “package”—a new UN resolution, commitments, regional understanding, and P5 support for peace in Yemen.

What are the possibilities for a halt or end to the conflict? What do you think is needed from regional actors to reach a ceasefire? What do you think of Iran calling for a ceasefire?

Iran is not pushing for a ceasefire and is not going to push for one. They are very happy with how things are in Yemen. From Iran’s perspective they are actually “winning”—they throw one dollar, the Saudis throw one million dollars. In fact, Iran has nothing to lose in Yemen compared to in Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, which is contrast to the Saudis. So for now it is not in their interest to pursue peace, except in relation to the Iran deal with the US. I think their behavior in Yemen is more likely to change than in other places if keeping the deal or negotiating a different deal were offered in exchange.

I think three things need to happen for peace in Yemen. One, we will need understanding between the Saudis and Iran specifically on Yemen. Start with that, because both have an interest there and both can be convinced on the issue.

The second is about the UN process, which as faulty and as problematic as it is, and as misguided as it has been, is the only framework for peace between Yemenis themselves. The UN will need to pass a new resolution, in my opinion, that commits to peace. [Security Council] Resolution 2216 is, fundamentally, a war resolution. It has the provision that power cannot be taken by force—which is important and should be kept in another resolution—but ultimately it justifies the war, it does not push for peace.

The third is about the problems that started this war, which we keep forgetting about because of where we are now. This means examining the regional divisions that have impacted the economic development and investment in peace in Yemen, as opposed to war, on the part of other Gulf countries. Also, issues and discontent in Yemen were largely ignored by international actors and the UN in favor of Syria and Libya. Now, at least, we have a UN envoy who is more credible in the eyes of the Houthis, with more access. We should build on this.

I think if there is one overall lesson it is in relation to a question I usually get from diplomats. They ask, “What is one thing we should do to solve the war Yemen?” I say, “Don’t try to ‘solve it’ because that is based on a very short-sighted timeframe.” Peace takes time. It takes longer than a war and we need to it a shot. If we avoid short-sightedness then we avoid raising expectations and falling flat, which drains hope and backfires.

Much of what we hear about Yemen is negative, what are the positive signs that you see?

The bad news is that we have never seen anything like this war before. Eighteen countries, even more, are involved in it. The good news is—if it is even good news—that from a conflict resolution point of view, Yemenis are not new to wars. We are not new like people in Syria or other countries. Yemenis know how to manage conflicts and violence. Thus, in my opinion, whenever other countries—a coalition, the Iranians, or whoever—are ready for peace, it is possible and can happen quickly.

If you could share one story or description of Yemen, what would it be?

The true story of Yemen is not of a humanitarian crisis. Right now, there is a serious humanitarian crisis, but that is not its story. This crisis is happening because of political decisions to keep it. It is ultimately a political crisis. Framing it as a humanitarian crisis is an apology for not doing the serious work to end it. This is a solvable crisis. It just needs a little bit of understanding.