Yemen's conflict: paths towards a solution or deeper into the mire?

Today's explosion at the Qasr hotel in Aden

It's easy to forget that there's a full-scale war raging in Yemen. Events in Syria which have more obvious repercussions internationally – the refugee crisis and Russian intervention, for example – tend to push it off the news agenda. Besides that, though, it's also very difficult, even for Yemenis, to get a clear picture of what is happening across the country.

The Saudi-led bombing which began in March continues, apparently with unabated ferocity. Weapon stores have been attacked repeatedly along with basic infrastructure – especially bridges, making travel inside Yemen almost impossible. 

It's probably safe to assume that along with the civilian casualties this has somewhat weakened the fighting capabilities of the Houthis who, aided by the forces of ex-President Saleh, over-ran much of the country late last year and early this year. Meanwhile, a naval blockade designed to prevent military equipment reaching the rebel fighters is also causing havoc with much needed supplies for civilians.

The self-designated forces of "legitimacy" – basically Saudi and Emirati troops, though they also include Bahrainis plus, possibly, Egyptians and/or Sudanese – have established themselves on the ground in the southern city of Aden and in the eastern province of Marib and are trying to reinstall the government that was sworn in by President Hadi last November but fled a few weeks later to Saudi Arabia.

In theory, Aden is now "liberated" but it is far from secure. Militias still appear to have a free hand and this morning the hotel used by the Hadi-appointed cabinet as their temporary seat of government was badly damaged in what was initially described as a rocket attack. Other reports blame two or three car bombs. Cabinet members are reported be unharmed but 15 or more soldiers (probably Emiratis) were killed in what may have been a separate attack.

In Marib, despite claims of successes against the Houthis, progress has been slow – possibly because of the Houthis' use of landmines – and Emirati and Bahraini troops have suffered substantial losses.

For the UAE, capturing Marib has been seen as an important objective. Construction of the new Marib dam in the 1980s was funded by the UAE and last month the crown prince of Abu Dhabi vowed to raise an Emirati flag over it. 

Capture of the UAE-funded Marib dam

The flag was duly hoisted on September 29 and it does seem the Houthis are on the point of being driven out of the area. Even so, the military purpose in capturing Marib is far from clear. There's talk of using it as a launch pad to capture Sana'a, on the other side of a mountain range in the west – a road journey of some 200km.

How Sana'a might be captured is another question. There's some talk of a siege rather than a full frontal assault. Taking Sana'a would still leave the Houthis with their original power base in the far north, and it's worth remembering that the Saleh regime waged six unsuccessful wars against them there.

Overall, there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about the Saudi-led military campaign. If it continues along its present course it is unlikely to end any time soon and the chances of thoroughly defeating the Houthis are, to put it mildly, extremely thin.

Diplomatic moves

On the diplomatic front, moves towards a political solution continue at a leisurely pace. Hopes – such as they are – currently focus on Security Council resolution 2216 (approved in April last year) and a draft seven-point plan. The basic outlines of the plan are:

1. Implementation of resolution 2216.
2. A complete ceasefire and withdrawal of militias from cities.
3. Lifting of land, sea and air embargoes, along with sanctions.
4. Respect for human rights and the release of prisoners.
5. Re-esablishment of the previous government under prime minister Khaled Bahah for a period of 90 days while a national unity government is formed.
6. Negotiations between Yemeni parties under UN auspices.
7. Handover of all heavy weaponry to the Yemeni government.

The reference to Bahah is significant, since there are expectations that President (or ex-President) Hadi will eventually be sidelined and replaced by Bahah.

The US and Britain – who have provided political support and indirect military support for the Saudi-led campaign – are said have accepted the plan. The Houthis are thought to view it favourably too (which is perhaps a sign that they are feeling under pressure).

The Saudis, however, are more ambivalent. They are said to be not opposing the plan themselves but claiming that Hadi objects to it and is demanding total surrender by the Houthis. However, since Hadi is completely beholden to the Saudis the idea that he has much influence over the Saudis' position is rather implausible.

At the UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile, Britain, the US and France forced the withdrawal of a Dutch resolution calling for a credible international investigation into war crimes committed during the conflict – in effect, getting Saudi Arabia off the hook. The move has been strongly condemned by Human Rights WatchOxfam and Amnesty International.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 6 October 2015