Earlier this week, Yemen’s Houthi rebels wrote the UN Secretary-General to affirm their commitment to both the seven-point peace plan brokered by the UN during talks in Muscat, Oman, and to relevant UN Security Council resolutions. While for various reasons this news should be met with a good dose of caution, it is a promising development in the search for a political solution to Yemen’s tragic conflict.
Some of the points of the peace plan negotiated in the Omani capital were translated into Security Council resolution 2216 this April, which was endorsed by both the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition. Among other conditions, it demands the end of hostilities, the withdrawal of Houthi militias and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen’s cities, and the return of arms and equipment seized from the military. It also includes the restoration of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and the conversion of the Houthis into a political party.
While resolution 2216 offers a door to a political settlement to the current conflict, there is the risk of different interpretations of the terms of the UN-brokered peace deal. The Houthi leadership has been consistently unreliable regarding all agreements and negotiations it has entered since September 2014, when the group took over the capital, Sanaa. One example was the collapse, due to the uninterrupted attacks by Houthi forces on state institutions, of the UN-sponsored Peace and National Partnership Agreement signed last year by all Yemeni factions.
Another possible obstacle to the implementation of a political settlement is the presence of the still powerful and influential Saleh, the former president who ruled Yemen for 33 years. His party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has also accepted the UN-brokered peace plan and resolution 2216, in an emailed statement. So far it is unclear whether Saleh has endorsed that statement in a desperate attempt to save face, or if it represents recognition by his own political supporters that his days are numbered.
Nevertheless, Saleh’s ability to wreak havoc should not be underestimated. It was Saleh’s violation of the GCC-backed transition plan of November 2011 that plunged Yemen into chaos. Under the terms of the deal following Yemen’s uprisings, Saleh was allowed to return to Yemen with immunity on the condition that he transfer power to his vice-president and stay away from politics.
Without the backing of Saleh and his loyalists in the army and the powerful Republican Guard, the Houthis would not have been able to reach so far and resist against pro-government and Arab coalition forces for so long. The former president, who fought six wars against the Houthis with devastating consequences for Yemen’s northern population, lured the Houthis into a war alliance with two objectives: re-asserting an influence he never really lost and exacting revenge on his political enemies, chiefly the pro-Hadi faction and the leadership of the al-Islah Party (a coalition of various tribal and Islamist groups).
The unreliability both Saleh and the Houthi leadership have displayed has rendered the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition deeply suspicious of any efforts by the Houthi–Saleh alliance to implement peace agreements. Moreover, Iran’s longstanding ties to and support for the Houthis, which many Yemen observers underestimate, add another cause for suspicion, especially from the Saudi perspective. However, the Houthis’ and the GPC’s declared willingness to abide by the terms of a peace plan comes in the context of important gains on the ground by pro-government and coalition forces. This offers some hope that the Yemen conflict could be set for a breakthrough.
Over the last few weeks, pro-government, coalition and local tribal forces have made important progress in the key energy-rich province of Marib, just east of Sanaa. According to various reports, the Houthis withdrew many of their fighters from the province back to the outskirts of Sanaa. In the southwest, the long military effort by local militias and pro-government military forces to liberate Taiz, one of Yemen’s most important cities, has intensified with the military assistance from the coalition. Last week, off Yemen’s southwest coast, the Houthis lost control of the small island of Perim, located in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb straight, to Gulf Arab forces.
If the UN-brokered deal is successful, what next?
If the most positive of scenarios is confirmed, with the Houthi and pro-Saleh forces giving up on their armed struggle, avoiding a devastating battle for Sanaa, and declaring a permanent ceasefire, the Yemeni government and its regional and international backers still face a daunting challenge.
The urgent reconstruction effort is a monumental task. There is a severe humanitarian crisis, much of the country’s infrastructure has been devastated by the war and basic services are lacking, not to mention the grave insecurity with members of the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda wandering around. On Tuesday, four bomb and rocket attacks allegedly carried out by IS affiliates on Aden’s government headquarters at the al-Qasr Hotel and a coalition operations headquarters killed at least 15 people. The hope on the security front is that, once the main conflict subsides, the focus of Yemeni government forces and the Arab coalition can turn in full to the terrorist threat.
If Yemen’s economic fragility can be temporarily mended with the financial support of the GCC states, on the political front the implementation of the deal itself would be a very complicated process marked by tensions and recriminations over the conflict. The process would require a major show of restraint from all parties and close international oversight and pressure to avoid its collapse.
The sad irony is that, after a devastating war, Yemeni political factions will find themselves compelled to return to the very same issues and questions that animated the political debate at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that ended in January 2014. Among those issues, discussions about the federation option will be key.
One of the central causes of the current conflict is the northern Zaydi Muslims’ opposition to federalism in Yemen. (Zaydism, predominant in north Yemen, can be generally described as the doctrinal variant of Shia Islam that comes closer to Sunni Islam, although it has various branches.) The Houthi forces, backed by Saleh, only moved to paralyze Yemeni government institutions after the division of Yemen into six federal regions was announced in Article 391 of the draft constitution in January last year. The following month, the Regions Committee final report revealed further details about the federation.
Saleh and the Houthi leadership were set against against federalism for at least two reasons: the fact that the northwest Zaydi areas are resource scarce when compared to most other areas, and because it would be a nail in the coffin for their ambitions to rule Yemen from Sanaa.
Also related to the central issue of federalism is another of Yemen’s fault lines, the old north–south division that was a formal reality until unification in 1990. Despite the incessant calls for independence from the separatists of al-Hirak (the Southern Mobility Movement), the NDC laid bare a more complex reality. In particular, the push by NDC representatives for the eastern governorates of Shabwah, Hadhramout and al-Mahrah, formerly part of South Yemen, for the creation of an eastern region works decisively against the idea of a two-region federation along old north–south lines that separatists and the Houthis have previously backed.
The way the current conflict has strengthened regionalist feelings in Yemen is one of the key aspects the US government and all other international players concerned about the country’s future should bear in mind. The brutal violence employed by the Houthi–Saleh alliance across the country and the strong local armed resistance in Taiz, Aden, Marib and elsewhere, means that a permanent return to the previous status quo--with political power and decisions on resource distribution heavily centralized in Sanaa--is unviable.
The NDC, in which even southern separatists were involved and which the Houthis endorsed, has showed that a multiple-region federation is the most democratic option available and Yemen’s best hope to stay in one piece. Its outcomes should be gradually but fully implemented--when and if the security situation improves and the humanitarian emergency is brought under control.
Manuel Almeida, Ph.D., is consultant on the Middle East, a columnist for Al-Arabiya and former editor at the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter at @_ManuelAlmeida
Image: Wikicommons/Ibrahem Qasim