Yemen: Why death of ex-dictator makes ending war harder, and more urgent

Just before his death, ex-dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh seemed to offer the Saudis a face-saving way out of their war in Yemen, where a humanitarian crisis is already in full swing. For now, they are vowing to press the attack against the Shiite Houthis.

Mohammed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters
Members of the Shiite Houthi militia attend a funeral in Sanaa, Yemen, Dec. 7, for fellow fighters who were killed in recent clashes.

With the killing of deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, the warring sides in Yemen have lost their main exit strategy and interlocuter, with experts warning that the parties must be brought to the negotiation table before the conflict spirals further out of control.

Days before his death, Mr. Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades, appeared to offer Saudi leaders and their allies a glimmer of hope that they could wind down their costly and much criticized war in Yemen without looking defeated in front of their publics.

Mr. Saleh indicated on Dec. 2 that he was formally breaking ties with the Iran-supported, Shiite Houthi rebels with whom he had most recently been allied, and instead was ready for dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi sources and analysts say the kingdom had been hoping the opportunistic Saleh perhaps would be able to broker an insider deal, ending the conflict in return for securing a position of power for him or his son.

The Saudis had entered the war in Yemen on behalf of Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, aiming to thwart what they saw as aggressive meddling in a neighboring country by regional rival Iran. The long conflict had already transformed remote areas of impoverished Yemen into a breeding ground for Al Qaeda and, more recently, Islamic State (ISIS).

As the scope of the humanitarian disaster has worsened, however, the new Saudi leadership has been subjected to censure for what critics said was an adventurist foreign policy.

But the alleged execution of Saleh by Houthi fighters in Sanaa on Dec. 4 – two days after he indicated he was breaking ranks with the militia – dashed Saudi hopes of an exit strategy.

Pressing the attack

Rather than viewing the loss of its lone intermediary and potential key ally as a warning, however, the Saudi-led coalition appears to be using Saleh’s killing as an attempt to rally Yemenis across all groups and regions to “rise up” against the Houthis and drive them out of Sanaa.

Mr. Hadi, head of the internationally recognized government, called on forces loyal to him to “join hands to eradicate the terrorist Houthi militias and build a new, united Yemen,” while Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, vowed from the United Arab Emirates to “lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen.”

Experts, meanwhile, say neither side of the conflict has the manpower or resources to tip the scales: Houthis will be unable to extend themselves beyond the territory they control in northern and central Yemen; and the Saudi-led coalition will be unable to turn the tide by missile strikes alone.

“Realistically what you have now is a really emboldened Houthi movement which think they have the upper hand in every sense, the Saudis unwilling to appear to lose, and you have lost one of the main interlocuters for talks,” says Peter Salisbury, senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a Britain-based think-tank.

The cost of escalation would be staggering. Already 6 million civilians are on the brink of starvation and 11 million more are faced with a hunger crisis, while cholera has struck one million Yemenis, according to the United Nations.

Reports this week indicated that Saudi Arabia was tightening its blockade on the few fuel shipments allowed in from the Hodeida port, depriving millions of people access to cooking fuel, water pumps, and fuel for hospital generators.

Sectarian and radical shift

Experts warn that with the worsening of humanitarian conditions, and the Houthis’ loss of Saleh and his General People’s Congress as political allies, what was once an internal political conflict will become increasingly sectarian and dominated by extremist groups.

Operating alone as a Shiite Zaidi movement ruling over much of a majority Sunni country, the Houthis will play directly into the hands of groups trying to paint the war as a Sunni-Shiite conflict.

“Houthi consolidation of power in the north will most certainly extend the sectarian nature of the conflict in Yemen, and it will empower Al Qaeda and other groups that trade in sectarian rhetoric,” says Mr. Salisbury.

ISIS has already proved its potency in southern Yemen, targeting security forces, Emirati soldiers, and assassinating Salafi imams that preach a more moderate Islam.

With ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq, Syria, and parts of North Africa, there are concerns that thousands of fighters may retreat to Yemen to expand as a base to target Arab Gulf states, US interests, and Iran – three of the group’s major targets.

Experts also warn that increased fighting, missile strikes, famine, poverty, and lawlessness will drive thousands more Yemenis into the arms of Al Qaeda.

“There are a lot of angry, poor, starving people who have lost their jobs, who are out of school. It is a ripe environment for the recruitment of people that want to find a purpose in life,” says Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.  “I think unfortunately it is a great possibility Al Qaeda may increase its influence.”

Push for talks

The Trump administration surprised many on Wednesday by calling for the end of the Saudi-led blockade on Yemen. But calling an end to a disastrous blockade is one thing. Urging and facilitating all sides to sit down and discuss a political solution is another.

“People are less keen of talking about the political side of the process,” says Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen expert at the Pembroke College at Oxford University.

“We really need to think about the grassroots political processes that are required inside Yemen to start mending the fences, for if and when peace is finally made with the Houthis. This actually stands the chance of stopping the fighting on the ground.”

One tiny country is quietly leading the drive for peace talks in Yemen: Oman.

Traditionally known for its neutrality, non-interventionist foreign policy, and ties to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor emerged as a natural advocate for peace in Yemen.

Oman, which previously acted as a go-between between the US and Iran leading to the 2015 nuclear deal, has mediated a series of talks between the Hadi government and the Houthis to implement a peace plan championed by the UN, pushing for confidence-building measures such as turning over the Red Sea port of Hodeida to a neutral party, opening Sanaa airport for civilian traffic, and paying the salaries of civil servants.

Oman also reportedly arranged talks between US officials and Houthi representatives in the sultanate in 2016 during the Obama administration, but have failed to continue talks under the Trump administration.

Lacking international backing from major actors, Oman’s efforts to encourage parties to lay down their arms have often unraveled at the eleventh hour due to escalations from the Saudi-led coalition or from the Houthis themselves.

Experts say Oman needs the backing of international players – namely of the United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s closest allies and biggest arms suppliers, and of Iran – to bring the parties to abandon their drive to stubbornly continue a disastrous war to “save face.”

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