Yemen crisis: Shifting sands in the desert nation

Published: April 29, 2020 7:05 PM

The Civil War in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthi rebels invaded and took control of the capital Sana demanding a new government and lower fuel prices.

yemen, yemen war, yemen news(File Photo AP/PTI)

By Amb Anil Trigunayat

Yemen is the second-largest country with nearly 530000 sq km in the southern Arabian Peninsula with an ancient heritage and trading ports of strategic significance.  Its 200 odd islands including Socotra, islands add to its importance apart from its very geography. It is surrounded by Saudi Arabia to the North and Oman to the East, Red Sea to the West and Gulf of Aden and Guardafui Channel to the South. Saudi Arabia considers Yemen as its backyard.

Civil War is not new to Yemen but in 1990 after a prolonged conflict a United Yemen emerged but political stability and consequent progress,  in this tribal loyalty driven country, have been eluded due to intra Yemeni multiple conflicts which have worsened over time. This led to the Saudi led military intervention in 2015 which has brought about the biggest humanitarian disaster in the Arabian Peninsula. The war continues between the bellicose and battle-hardened Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran and the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Terrorism and the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  are well ensconced in the terrain.

Although just before Ramadan the Saudis declared a ceasefire for 15 days that has been extended to a month the recent developments in the South have been of great concern to them. UAE backed Southern Transitional Council based in Aden has decided to declare its independence from the internationally recognised Hadi Government on April 27 thereby undermining the fledgeling chances of any victory for the Saudi led coalition.While the Riyadh Agreement appears buried the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash condemned the unilateral declaration by STC even though many observers believe that STC could not have precipitated it without a nudge from Abu Dhabi.  UAE and STC do not like the influential Islah Party (IslamicBrotherhood) that is the power base of President Hadi and have accused them of the continued undermining of the joint Saudi-UAE effort.The chink in the armour may be quite deep.

The Civil War in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthi rebels invaded and took control of the capital Sana demanding a new government and lower fuel prices. As the negotiations did not move forward they took the Presidential Palace and forced the Saudi backed President Abd Rabbou  Mansoor Hadi to resign deposing him and his cabinet in exile. This led to Saudi intervention to contain the Iranian influence and to bring back their surrogate government of Hadi in the South while he himself stayed in Saudi Arabia. In March 2015 the Saudi led a coalition of 9 countries, with prominent participation of UAE and several other Sunni states and with US logistics and intelligence support, militarily intervened to dislodge the Iranian backed Houthis. During the past five years, they have realised that this costly and unwinnable war cannot be afforded any longer due to declining oil revenues, domestic discontent and international dis-approval. The Houthis have not only held on to  North West Yemen but with their drone and missile strikes brought about greater damage to the Saudi infrastructure facilities. The last one was in September 2019 when they claimed responsibility for attacking the Saudi Aramco facilities bringing the crude production down by 50%.Hence, they showed that they could hit the underbelly with ease and Iranian support.  The war between US and Saudi on one side and Iran on the other in the Strait of Hormuz could only be averted with great difficulty and due to the realization on the part of regional countries that a full-fledged regional war would destroy them all.

In September 2018, Houthis on the advice of Iranians offered a truce to the Saudis and UN and US-brokered talks were eventually held in Stockholm on December 13. However, the Peace talks remained prospective in nature and extant as the Houthis wanted to ensure that their supplies are not interrupted through the Hodeida port which was under their control. The Hadi Government and Saudis obviously wanted to cut down on this sustenance support mainly from Iran to Ansarullah group by controlling the port.In addition, the formation of the eventual political outcome and security arrangements remained on the cards only but a beginning had been made.Besides, there are several groups and countries that benefit from a war economy and which has been intrinsically played out during the discussions and aftermath. Around the same time, UAE decided to withdraw its forces from the south to readjust and redeploy them to defend themselves should the US-Iran conflict spiral out. Reports of a fall out between the Southern Transition Council supported by Abu Dhabi and Hadi government by Riyadh gained currency. However, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ( MBS) and UAE Crown Prince Mohamad bin Zayed ( MBZ) met and patched up a loose  agreement among  their proteges realising that this could undermine their four-year-old efforts to gain an upper hand over Houthis in Yemen. They suspected that these internal dissensions, competition and internecine fights could further embroil them deeper into the conflict and will defy their attempts for an honourable exit from the war that had effectively gained them nothing. But in the slippery sands, the loosely worded Riyadh Agreement could not bind the parties for good merely on hope for handouts.

The two major protagonists Saudi Arabia and UAE have their own regional ambitions to serve via Yemen and hence wanted to defeat the Houthis decisively to have a full-fledged pro- Saudi / UAE government. UAE is keen to have control and access to the strategic ports and 2000 km coastline and sea routes. On the other hand Saudi Arabia wishes to decimate the AQAP and other terrorist groups in concert with the US while securing influence in the Eastern part of the country where Oman has its own interests. Riyadh foresees a possibility of using province of Mahra to export oil. It also hopes to build a pipeline to carry crude to Arabian sea bypassing Strait of Hormuz that is often contested by the Iranians through the threat of blocking the shipping lanes. But if their protégé Hadi is unable to control the terrain and exert some legitimacy Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to justify its continued intervention in Yemen.

Finally, early this week the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared its autonomy and would like to rule its held areas including Aden thereby creating greater difficulties for the Hadi government whose headquarters are also in Aden.  Hence, the UN and Saudi recognised government of President Hadi has lost its physical space, capital and credibility since in 2015 he was forced to quit the official capital Sana.  The objective of the disgruntled STC is to have self-rule and independence for the South Yemen although many other tribes controlling larger parts in the South do not seem to be on board.Houthis control the large part of the North and are gaining on the ground. The Saudi led coalition have decried this and urged the STC to honour the Riyadh Agreement.Hence an eventual outcome could be very difficult to presage unless one is looking at the pre -1990 division of the country into two countries or a federation or confederation of divergent split regions if the eventual political solution thus dictates. But the regional and international influence will most likely continue to keep the dividing edge sharpened for continued influence among the hapless Yemenis.

As almost 24 million people are facing hunger and depredation due to war, excessive flooding in the South and now Covid 19, political discourse and international effort will have to be focussed on meeting emergent humanitarian needs and a viable political outcome.

(The author is Distinguished Fellow, VIF. And has been former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya & Malta. Views expressed are personal.)

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