Prospects of a settlement to the Yemeni crisis have once again receded as both sides rejected the initiative proposed by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
At the same time the conflict, inclusive of its regional dimensions, has taken a very ominous turn as fighting escalates once again. Saudi-led coalition spokesman General Ahmed Asiri has accused the Houthis of firing a ballistic missile from the northern Yemeni province of Saada in the direction of the holy city of Mecca.
Houthi officials deny this, countering that the target was King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah.
Saudi air defences downed the missile at a distance of 65 kilometres from Mecca. But the unresolved controversy over its direction and destination has exploded in the face of Tehran.
Although Iran’s name was not explicitly mentioned during the last Saudi cabinet meeting, Riyadh has strongly hinted that it was the agent behind the missile attack.
The international community and most regional powers condemned the missile attack.
Al-Azhar in Egypt denounced the attempt to target Mecca as an “insidious crime” that could never be undertaken “by anyone with a grain of faith in their heart”.
In a statement issued Friday after the incident, the renowned religious establishment said, “Al-Azhar, backed by all Muslim people, declares its opposition to this dangerous transgression that targeted the Muslims’ heart, the direction toward which they orient their prayers and the first home that God made for the people.”
France feared the repercussions of the incident on the settlement process.
In its statement condemning the strike, Paris said that targeting Saudi Arabia would undermine the trust needed to resume the political process.
The US, through its ambassador in Riyadh, denounced the Houthi missile fire as an unacceptable provocation, reiterating that his country stands beside Saudi Arabia and is ready to work with it to deter and counter any outside threat to its territory.
The intercepted Houthi missile that was fired deep into Saudi territory was a Burkan-1.
An Iranian-modified Russian Scud missile, it weighs eight tons, can carry a 700 kilogram warhead and has a range of up to 800 kilometres, making it a midrange missile.
The existence of this type of missile in Yemen was first discovered in September 2016, a week after the “Kerry plan” was launched in Riyadh.
One of the points of that plan called on the Houthis to hand over their heavy weapons to a third party.
That first Burkan was fired against the city of Taif, which is also in the direction of Mecca. Sources contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly have suggested that the target at the time was King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz Airport, which the Houthis believed was hosting an American military contingent.
The cities of Taif, Jeddah and Mecca all lie in the same line from northern Yemen and all can be reached by a midrange missile of that sort, which means that its actual destination is open to speculation. Nevertheless, in the opinion of a source close to the office of Yemeni President Hadi in Riyadh, Iran wants to portray Saudi Arabia as incapable of defending the Holy sites.
The Saudi-led coalition has resumed its aerial attacks against rebel targets in Yemen, in the course of which it struck Al-Zeidiya Prison in Al-Hodeida killing dozens inside. The coalition has intensified bombardments elsewhere in the country.
These developments were reflected politically in international efforts to reach a settlement.
Following the Houthi escalation against Saudi Arabia, the initiative that UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed had tried to promote evaporated along with the truce process that he had hoped would offer an opportunity to create a climate conducive to resuming talks in Oman in the near future.
On the other hand, it is surprising that the UN envoy would propose an initiative that would be rejected by both sides to the Yemeni conflict.
In a Security Council meeting on Monday, 31 October, Ould Cheikh Ahmed maintained that his proposal was based on UN Security Council Resolution 2226.
However, the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi disagrees. In an official statement it held that the initiative “flagrantly” departed from, circumvented and undermined all frames-of-reference for a settlement, namely Resolution 2226, the Gulf Initiative and the outputs of the Yemeni national dialogue.
In interview with the Weekly, Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi, a Yemeni political affairs expert, held that the Ould Cheikh Ahmed initiative failed “because it was primarily based on the very antithesis of the provisions of international legitimacy. It also appears to be another of episode in the drive to terminate the Yemeni revolution that erupted in February 2011.”
According to Al-Majidi, that drive began “when the West rushed to Yemen — and sadly the Gulf countries at the time shared the Western view — to convince Yemen to sign a deal with [former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh, which they called the ‘Gulf Initiative’. They said that they wanted to keep Yemen from sliding into a civil war.
Sadly, they succeeded in deceiving the leaders of the political parties who, in turn, worked to subdue the people.
As a result, the revolution was circumvented by a settlement that not only granted immunity to the man who killed Yemen for more than three decades but also granted him a half partnership in government, although he actually controlled all authorities.”
“As for the UN and the countries supervising the political process,” Al-Majidi continued, “they persuaded the Yemenis to sit at the dialogue table for about a year while the militias were gnawing away at the country piece by piece.
Meanwhile, the international community continued to play the circus game in Yemen. It tried to convince the Yemenis that they should furnish a model for the region, but they seemed happy when that model was gobbled up by the militias.
In fact, what we had was an ideal model for how to put an end to a popular revolution and how to lead an internationally sponsored counterrevolution.
Ultimately, they drove the country to the civil war they had warned us about.”
In the opinion of Ahmed Rafiq, a Yemeni politician, the Ould Cheikh Ahmed proposal, although the first written initiative (which is significant), incorporated the view of only one side in its details and arrangements.
In addition, it failed to incorporate essential prerequisites for a solution, foremost among which are the need to bring a complete, comprehensive and lasting halt to hostilities on land, sea and air, and to lift the naval and aerial blockade against Yemen.
Instead of addressing these, the proposal confined itself to the context of promoting negotiations, in which regard it urged commitment to the truce agreement of May and called for certain Yemeni-Saudi border measures to be implemented and committed to by one side only.
Furthermore, Rafiq added in interview with the Weekly, the UN envoy’s proposal ignored the humanitarian and economic dimensions.
In his opinion, a settlement was still possible, but the necessary political will was not yet available. He therefore expects further rounds of warfare.
Ali Al-Bukhaiti, a former member of the Houthi movement’s political bureau, believes that the Saudi regime’s enemies inside Saudi Arabia, in the region and elsewhere in the world are benefitting from that country’s predicament in Yemen.
The Ould Cheikh Ahmed initiative offered a way out for the kingdom, but opportunists reject it, he said.
The UN special envoy’s roadmap, details of which were leaked last week, calls for transferring the powers of President Hadi to a new vice-president agreed upon by both sides, the dismissal of current Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, and the formation of a new government to oversee the political transition process.
It also calls for the creation of military committees to oversee the withdrawal of militia forces and the end to all manifestations of warfare.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.