There are two major obstacles to Peace in Yemen. First, it’s the deeply rooted, multifaceted political conflict, then it’s the armed conflict produced by entrenched interests at local and regional level. This is not just about Hadi and Saleh, or Hadi and Houthis, or Houthis and Islah, or al-Ahmar and Ahmed Ali, it is about a multitude of political actors jockeying for the lead in Yemen’s future, and reap the economic benefits. Add to this plethora of local sub-actors competing for patronage, the impact of regional and international rivalries and spheres of influence hoping to shape and control Yemen. Every actor in Yemen is an obstacle, motivated by individual/group short-term interests, and the absence of an honest, impartial mediator with sufficient power to impose rules and pre-conditions intensifies the conflict along both the political and military fronts. We must look at the motivations behind decisions by each actor to reject the new UN proposal.
Of course the armed conflict obstructs peace, but it’s the character of the armed conflict which primarily stands in the way. There are no rules, crimes of war are the norm not the exception in the conduct of this war. It is purposely decentralized, franchised to local sub-actors, and since the escalation of the armed conflict in March 2015, the strategy has fundamentally relied on fueling conflicts at the local level, where the legacy of revenge will linger for years to come. Revenge fueled the escalation in 2015 and will fuel a number of low intensity conflicts across the country for years to come. The character of the conflict represents a primary obstacle to any political system that may surface in the post conflict era. The UN and G18 have no plan to deal with the day after a peace agreement is signed. No plan exists for peace monitors, as parties have rejected the introduction of UN Blue Helmets. The humanitarian crisis is beyond financial capabilities of any western government, and Saudi Arabia’s current economic crisis will not allow for significant humanitarian aid to support the reconstruction phase. Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar are not known for their aid contributions, nor can they do so significantly in 2017.
The regime rupture that began in 2006 expanded, leading to a tug-o-war completely fragmenting the State, rending obsolete the idea that power-sharing equations could secure the stability and continuity of the State. Furthermore, it is clear that in the absence of a clear total victory by one actor, or an alliance, there are no prospects for handing the country over to one political party or faction to govern over the entire country. This reality tends to provide sufficient reason for arguments supporting Yemen’s partition, even though such arguments run out of steam when we look at the fact the two state solution is not only unrealistic, but a recipe for a potential total fragmentation of the southwest of Arabia. This bleak forecast originates in an ill-drafted agreement singed November 2011 in Riyadh. Aimed primarily at averting, some said delay, a civil war. When the international community had the opportunity to reach a significant agreement, that would at minimum deal with reconciliation following the regime rupture, it simply settled for halting the momentum of the Arab Spring along Saudi Arabia’s southern front and kicked the can down to 2012. Regional powers relied on a highly naïve plan based on dialogue and restructuring of the armed forces and security agencies.
The poorly implemented transition agreement of 2011 clearly illustrated new challenges for organizing a Unity government, as political bargaining has failed to produce stability in a post-Arab Spring era. A major aspect of the transition process contributing to the perpetual bargaining is the persistence of rivalries among members of the G10 (now G18). The group composed of the UN Security Council P5, the Office of the UN Secretary-General, the GCC Secretariat, the EU, KSA and Qatar (later adding Germany, Turkey and Netherlands) continues to implement a type of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ since 2011, granting Yemeni political actors opportunities to leverage and bargain away their interests. Each actor, from Saleh to Houthis, Islah, Ali Muhsin, junior members of the JMP, and others met on an individual basis with nearly each member of the G10 from April 2011 until the start of the current conflict. So imagine the cycle of obstructionism during a negotiation process where each actor involved meets with each diplomatic mission, asks ‘what do we get?’, then asks again from every other diplomat, waits to see how other political actors react and then raises the stakes again, or simply opposes the final proposal when diplomatic missions extend an offer to other actors that ‘conflict’ with a particular party’s own interests. That summed up the process in 2011 and the fiasco called the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).
So far, the UN envoy has held peace talks twice in Switzerland and Kuwait, and again we see how responses to the current proposal drafted by UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed illustrates the cycle of obstructionism. As of 7 November 2016 all political actors rejected the new UN proposal, except for Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose reaction is well understood as political positioning to show the international community he is willing to work with the UN, when no one else is doing it any way. Hadi may be correct in saying the new agreement is far from presenting a path to a comprehensive peace, but so has every other proposal, including president Hadi’s own plan. The new proposal is primarily rejected for three reasons: it fails to address the southern issue significantly in interests of Hirak; it resembles a proposal introduced by Houthis during talks in Kuwait; it resembles the Kerry proposal, which resembles the Houthi proposal, which was already rejected by president Hadi. It is evident the conflict faces a new stalemate as political solutions are rejected by all, each actor aims to safe guard the limited advantages they have gained over the past eighteen months, including Southerners who are under cautious Emirati patronage. President Hadi, VP Ali Muhsin, Saleh, Houthis and Islah work toward a plan that safeguards Yemen’s unity, while southern actors aim to reject any plan that undermines secession, no matter how fragmentation looks like at the end. We are yet to begin considering the impact of the US election, as president-elect Trump has yet to produce a Middle East policy beyond Twiter-based campaign rhetoric. Saudi Arabia increased air strikes soon after elections results were in, and Saleh moved quickly to congratulate Trump in hopes relations with Russia will produce leverage against the Saudi-led Coalition.
Secretary Kerry visited Oman this week for one last push, he announced a new ceasefire scheduled for 17 November. Agreeing to a new Kerry plan not only calls out Saleh’s bluff accepting the UN draft proposal, but also puts Hadi in a bind to at least ‘soften’ his position after his initial rejection of the plan.
A New Agreement
The UN has called for new talks on a new agreement, to either extend the GCC Initiative of November 2011 or completely replace it. The call began with an agreement on a new ceasefire, based on the April 2016 agreement, which failed from day one as clashes continued on all fronts, and the skies over Yemen. The unique difference between this current proposal and past drafts, is the direct call to replace president Hadi and his government as the first step. On 27 February 2012 Hadi promised to hand over the presidency after the NDC and a new constitution, within a two-year timeline that was eventually extended by consensus for one year (2014). Yet, Hadi has proven far more agile and astute than people thought, and under pressure today he appears far more resilient.
It is interesting how Hadi’s resilience today places him side by side with every other actor obstructing the path beyond a new crossroads. It was clearly expected for President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to instantly reject a new agreement (Ar) proposed by UN Special Envoy. What was not expected was for him to challenge the position of his primary patron, Saudi Arabia, who initially indicated the proposal was a viable option. We admit the whole of the conflict cannot be shouldered by Hadi alone, but today he faces an unexpected dilemma, a historic opportunity to pave the path to reconciliation or hold steady amid an expanding armed conflict. Houthis, on the other hand, have also shifted from viewing the agreement as a first step toward a solution, to publishing a statement by the Supreme Revolutionary Committee on 6 November rejecting the proposal as the UN envoy prepared to depart Sana’a.
Yemen faces a multi-faceted challenge, as actors find themselves having to chose between a new GCC initiative, the existing Constitution or a new draft Constitution. The two-page agreement with TEN main points is highly ambitious, as it include the immediate appointment of a new Vice President (replacing Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar), followed by a total withdrawal by Houthi militia and pro-Saleh military forces from all government facilities and war fronts, a new cabinet replacing PM Ahmed Bin Dagher and current ministers, as work simultaneously begins on new elections, but fails to address newly empowered actors in Aden, Mareb, Mukalla and Taiz. The new proposal does not present a path to a comprehensive solution, nor does it begin the process of reconciliation among regime actors and regional populations. On the surface the agreement merely aims to structure the state in order to begin the process of restoring order within government institutions. This will be a distraction as the government will be unable to extend its authority beyond the institutions’ buildings, and will create new political conflicts as parties aim to secure employment and salaries for their loyal clients. Below I attempt to describe the position each actor has taken or may take to reject the new UN proposal and the reasons.
President Hadi is at the center of the political and military conflict today. He is no longer a simple interim figure at the mercy of the G10, he now believes the 600-day old fight against Houthis and Saleh has giving him a legitimate mandate to be an active participant in the negotiations over the transition process, no longer merely a domain for his patrons. The introduction of a new transition proposal threatens his survival, his legacy, which he never imagined would require a fight. The ‘interim’ president has surfaced as a highly underestimated political actor, previously known as the ‘ribbon VP’, and has now proven as highly disruptive as every other actor.
A point of leverage for Hadi today is the fact the ongoing war was initiated under the pretext of protecting his legitimacy as president, under the GCC Initiative of Nov. 2011. Further more, the Coalition had the UN Security Council enshrine the justification and goal of the Coalition’s military effort in Resolution 2216. Parallel to this narrative is the inevitable narrative of a proxy war to counter Iran’s growing influence in Yemen, which safeguards justification for a war against both Zaydi-Shia Houthi rebels and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh through Operation Restore Hope. Ongoing obstruction surfaced from perceived momentum on the battle ground at a particular point during the conflict as each party comes to believe it is about to gain an upper hand on rivals. While both Houthis and Saleh often utilize this tactic, so have Islah and president Hadi himself. Undoubtedly, president Hadi’s back is against the wall under this new UN proposal, as reality is about more than his mere legacy, it is about entrenched interests and long term plans. His list of allies is extensive, and it is credible to assume his reluctance to step down also has to do with an unwillingness to be replaced by his rivals; Hirak, Islah, al-Ahmar, Ali Muhsin, a Salafi leader, Houthis or Saleh himself. Hadi’s critics have adopted a view on his ‘inevitable’ transition, calling on him to step down ‘for the sake of legitimacy’, not his own but the legitimacy of the transition process.
Under a new unpredictable scenario, extending from US Secretary Kerry’s proposal (14 Nov.), Hadi may attempt to move on a position that strengthens his role as representative of the South, with Haydar al-Attas as his advisor. This move would aim to rival former VP Khaled Bahah, who aims to represent Hadhramawt in any new peace process launched by the UN Special Envoy. Positioning by Hadi, who is very well aware the incoming Trump administration is far too unpredictable, expects his patron Saudi Arabia to increasingly resist any US proposal (in reaction to any move Trump makes on the Iran nuclear deal), directly serving Hadi’s primary interests of survival. If Trump remains silent on the situation in Yemen, we can only expect him to extend Obama’s approach at least during his initial weeks in the White House.
Observers often, if not always, ignore a major element of Hadi’s survival, his son Jalal. Not much is published outside of local Arabic sources about the role played by Jalal Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi since February 2012. He has been very loyal to his father, serves as his ultimate right hand man, and is in charge of an extensive network of loyalists. Jalal has also developed a large media network focusing now on south Yemen, often brutal against opponents. Yemeni sources indicate Jalal is a major force behind his father’s resilience, making it highly unlikely Hadi would step aside without a fight.
(speculation among observers this week focused on a potential deal in Muscat that will force Hadi to step down. The deal made outside the framework of the UN proposal indicates Houthis and KSA talks would reach an agreement where Houthi rebels withdraw from Sanaa. The agreement does not include Saleh/GPC, reminding us of the deal in July 2015 between Houthsi and KSA in Muscat leading to the Liberation of Aden. It is highly unlikely Houthis would agree to withdraw from Sana’a and southern Saudi territories simultaneously. The lack of trust between KSA and Houthis also would obstruct any sideline deal, in addition to the unthinkable betrayal by Houthis of loyal supporters in Hashid and Bakil who lost people in the Sana’a funeral air strike.)
The Southern Secessionist Movement, known as Hirak, remains fragmented. Leaders inside Yemen and in exile have failed to reconcile and form a united front, as new actors, mainly Salafists, moved in to fill the leadership vacuum on the ground. The southern issue is shrouded by increasing uncertainty as leaders hesitate to fulfill their promises of independence as they balance relations with two patrons that remain uncommitted to supporting partition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have each taken various rival Hirak factions under their wings, merely promising each to stand against a Houthi/Saleh return to southern provinces. But the people of the south grow restless at the slow pace of progress and prolonged focus on security priorities, as the economic crisis deepens while leaders jockey for individual spheres of influence on the ground.
Hopes and aspirations of people across southern provinces no longer rest in hands of Yemen’s regime elite and their political bargaining, but rather in hands of regional patrons. The ambiguous approach to the southern issue by Saudi Arabia and the UAE keep the people and the leadership in limbo. President Hadi, a southern by origin, failed to consolidate his position among southern people before, during and after the Dialogue Conference. After being rejected by the south in a boycott of the one-man election of February 2012, he created a southern contingent from among southerners based in Sana’a, and even facilitated the return to Yemen and political rise of Mohammed Ali Ahmed as the leader of the contingent at the NDC, creating a rivalry with Dr. Yaseen Noman of the YSP and Yaseen Maqawi that secured Hadi’s own position as final decision maker on the issue. Hadi then received a very mixed welcome in late February 2015 when he escaped Sana’a and found shelter in Aden. Hadi immediately claimed Aden would become the temporary capital of the (united) Republic of Yemen until Houthis and Saleh were expelled from the capital Sana’a. Many among Hirak rejected this announcement, while some believed the move would be a first step toward independence as no one believed Houthis and Saleh could be pushed out of Sana’a. The most recent move to relocate Yemen’s Central Bank to Aden, a move adding to southern confidence on independence, has contributed to temporary support for Hadi’s legitimacy among southern people as they reject the new UN proposal. Yet, observers need to understand southern ‘support’ for Hadi is not only temporary, it is more rhetorical than concrete support for his presidency of the Republic of Yemen or a future southern state. It is unclear how the south will react to Hadi’s rapprochement with Hirak’s resistance narrative.
One must also keep in mind that elements under Ali Salem al-Baydh’s Hirak faction, who now control Aden province and host Yemen’s Central Bank, are highly unlikely to relinquish any degree of authority and power to any actor. Governor Aydarous and security chief Shallal Shaye currently balance relations with a Salafist faction, under Hani Bin Beriek, and hold on to patronage from the UAE. This well organized, centralized Hirak faction hails from al-Dhale province, a stronghold that expelled pro-Saleh forces early in 2015 and rejected initial calls to fight Houthis in Aden. Hadi has been unable to to suppress this faction, mainly because of the deep rivalry between him and al-Baydh since 1986. Aydarous and Shallal hold near de facto control over the southwest of Yemen (Dhale, Lahj, Aden), with a degree of support from Yafa tribes, but remain in conflict with leaders in Abyan and Shebwa provinces. Pro-secession Hadhrami leaders have also signaled resistance to any centralized southern leadership under al-Baydh and his Dhale contingent, based on a long standing regional rivalry and Hadhrami rejection of Yafa’i elements active in their province.
Southern people across the eight provinces remain thankful to King Salman and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, but are also highly suspicious of the possibility they will remain a mere bargaining chip. A large segment of the population fear growing influence of Salafi elements and Wahhabi clients across the south, as the old occupation being replaced by new actors. The people yearn for leadership but simply witness the old PDRY elite jockeying to counter tribal leaders and patronage from outside.
Khaled Mahfoudh Bahah served as Prime Minister following the Houthi take over of Sana’a in September 2014 as the candidate of consensus, until president Hadi replaced him with PM Ahmed Bin Dagher and Gen. Ali Muhsin as Vice President in April 2016. A year prior, following his release from Houthi house arrest in Sana’a, and as the Saudi-led Coalition began military operations, Bahah was appointed Vice President. Since president Hadi refused to name a Vice President when elected in February 2012, many speculated this move would pave the way for Bahah to replace Hadi in a new phase of the transition process. In November 2014 Bahah was hailed by many as the right technocrat to help Yemen through the political crisis. His removal in 2016 came to galvanize opposition to Hadi among the southern population. To make matters worse, Hadi intensified this opposition when he appointed Saleh’s long time right hand man, Ali Muhsin, and Bin Dagher, a life long GPC leader, to replace Bahah.
Between April 2015 and April 2016 PM Bahah was UAE’s darling, who undoubtedly had a hand on his appointment as VP in 2015. This relationship was uncomfortable for Hadi, under KSA patronage, and KSA itself, since the Kingdom wanted full oversight on the Yemeni government. Saudi and the UAE maintain a very fragile partnership within the Coalition since the start of Operation Restoring Hope began. Keeping Bahah close was a tactic by the UAE government used to maintain a balance in the conflict, and undoubtedly aiming to prevent the rise of less desirable elements within Hadi’s government, such as Islah or hardline Salafis. Bahah’s presence also granted the UAE a more positive image among the southern population as the Emirates increased its footprint in Aden and later in Mukalla. The UAE government had already cemented their role in south Yemen by the time Bahah was dismissed, there was no resistance to his replacement as they had become abundantly dependent on Aden’s Aydarous and Shallal. Later, AQAP’s exit from Mukalla in April 2016 served to consolidate their sphere of influence from Aden to Abyan, Hadhramawt and Soqotra. Bahah failed to build a coalition on the ground during his term as PM/VP that could serve as leverage in order to secure his survival.
Another aspect of Bahah’s failure to meet expectations was his own commitment to relieve the deepening economic crisis. We can only assume he meant to focus only on alleviating the crisis throughout southern provinces, as the population was to be his primary constituency. Even though it was Houthi rebels who initially put forth his name as the candidate of consensus in 2014, Bahah remained a staunch opponent of the Sana’a-based rebels and their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh. This contributed to his support for the boycott imposed by the UNSC under Resolution 2216, on the north. Bahah believed he could garner enough support from the Saudi-led coalition for humanitarian and economic aid for southern provinces, but as the last year since the liberation of Aden illustrates, aid has only trickled into Aden with a scarce supply of electricity, jobs only found in security sector, universities struggle, and areas in Hadhramawt and Shebwa provinces are yet to recover from damage caused by cyclone Chapala in 2015. Hopes and aspirations of Hadhramis were not defeated with Bahah’s removal, but uncertainty definitely increased.
In late October, Bahah initiated a tour of Western capitals. From Berlin he launched his own initiative for a peace process, and during an event hosted by Chatham House in London he shifted his support to the UN proposal, warning that failure to re-engage talks would plunged Yemen into a new level of escalation with no other “opportunity for six months.” Under the circumstance in which Bahah served, it would be slightly unfair to qualify his term as a failure, but it would also be unrealistic to see him as part of a final solution under the current conditions. Whether Yemen’s future involves partition or remains united, it is uncertain if a southern ‘technocrat’ could lead such a complex transition. This opinion is shared by southern observers, who don’t believe there is room for Bahah in the next transition process.
(Part II sections forthcoming)
Dr. Saeed Noman