Eight years into the war local Yemeni reports indicate that Hans Grundberg, who had replaced Martin Griffiths as UN special envoy earlier this month, has familiarised himself with and reached out to all political factions and social components during his period as EU ambassador to Yemen from 2019 to August this year. Observers however are of the general impression that, in view of the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement’s relentless campaign to expand its control over northern Yemen from Mareb in the east to Hodeida in the west, his prospects for succeeding where his predecessors had failed are dim.
Some new variables have been at work, though it is doubtful whether they will favour Grundberg’s mission. One is Washington’s appointment of Timothy Lenderking as US special envoy to Yemen. Lenderking, who assumed his duties in the spring during the final months of Griffiths’ term, undertook several rounds of talks as part of a renewed US drive to kickstart the stalled negotiating process. As an energetic auxiliary to the UN drive, the US envoy coordinated closely with Griffiths, though he focused primarily on proposing initiatives in partnership with Riyadh. Nevertheless, his efforts ran up against Houthi intransigence, leading Washington and, by extension, the UN to prioritise the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the country. International stakeholders are particularly worried by the aggravating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Yemen’s humanitarian plight, although the warlords on the battlefronts appear indifferent to this threat.
A second variable may be the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul after a 20 year hiatus. As different as the Afghan and Yemeni situations are, especially in terms of the sectarian dimension, it appears that Iran and its Houthi proxy have been inspired by developments in Afghanistan. Iranian new President Ebrahim Raisi hailed the US military “defeat” and the Ansarullah leader Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi seized the opportunity to suggest that Saudi Arabia should heed the lesson of the US failure in Afghanistan, which is that invading armies are doomed to lose. His comparison gives weight to the thesis that the Houthi movement will continue to seek an agreement with Riyadh, the main backer of the campaign to reinstate the Yemeni government in Sanaa, similar to that between the Taliban and the US, which would recognise Houthi rule in Sanaa and serve as a framework for negotiations with the Houthis over areas of influence, power-sharing formulas with the legitimate government and other arrangements that would increase the movement’s manoeuvrability. It is believed that this was the general thrust of the Houthi response to Oman’s mediating bid two months ago.
The unprecedented degree of Iranian infiltration in Yemen is a third variable that will affect the work of the new UN envoy and prospects of a negotiated settlement. Last week the Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani announced that Haidar Sirjan, an Iranian Revolutionary guards officer who had been leading the Houthi offensive on the Mareb front, was killed in an airstrike along with nine others from the Lebanese Hizbullah forces. According to the Yemeni government’s account, Sirjan had previously served as a commander on the Hodeida front and was transferred to Mareb after the death of Mustafa Al-Ghazawi, a Hizbullah commander fighting in Yemen. There are also frequent references in the Yemeni media to the growing influence of the Iranian Ambassador to the Houthi regime in Sanaa Hasan Irlu, at the expense of a faction among the Houthis that are keen to reduce the Iranian role in Yemen. To what extent the US can influence Iranian presence there is unclear. The US has made its return to the nuclear agreement with Iran conditional on a halt to Iranian expansionism in the region. The new administration in Tehran rejects such linkage and insists on a return to the agreement in accordance with the provisions as they stood when the Trump administration withdrew in 2015.
A fourth variable is also connected with Iranian-Houthi military designs. The Houthi militias have begun to harden borders using landmines; and they have evacuated thousands of civilians from the border zones. The Houthis have frequently used landmines as a means to halt the advance of Yemeni government forces. But the use of these weapons to demarcate borders along the battlefronts is new. Last week, Yemeni sources reported the Houthi decision to evacuate two coastal villages in the Hodeida governorate. The approximately 175 families from Deir Afif and Al-Zoutiya in western Hodeida were given 30 days, as of 1 August, to clear out of the villages. This area, which is situated about halfway between the ports of Hodeida and Al-Salif, marks the divide between the areas of influence of government and Houthi forces. The Houthi action is an open violation of the Stockholm agreement the Houthis signed but never implemented.
In addition to the foregoing variables, an array of other problems affect the peace process. It should be borne in mind, in this context, that government forces are more focused on halting the Houthi advance into their areas of influence than they are in gaining territory at present. During the past two months, Houthi militias managed to take control of Al-Bayda, recapturing some of the territory government forces had previously taken in the eastern part of the governorate. The Houthis also successfully put down a tribal-militias revolt against them. But, for members of the Yemeni government and Yemeni political society as a whole, a political development has come to overshadow developments on the battlefield. Reports of an imminent transfer of power have raised alarm over a possible power vacuum and triggered speculation as to who might replace President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi. One of the names most frequently mooted so far is former prime minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr. He is seen as a likely alternative to the current second in command, Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who some doubt would be able to win a consensus among rival factions. Some believe that the search for a successor might range to figures who do not hail from Sanaa and, indeed, to figures who hail from the south in the interest of preserving the current political balance within the pro-legitimacy camp. In Yemeni politics, it is less a candidate’s individual character or qualifications that count than his tribal and regional weight. Hadi himself is a southerner, originally from Abyan. Daghr is also a southerner, from Hadramawt, which is why he might be seen as a compromise candidate. Whatever the case, the fate of the internationally recognised government may soon become an issue of concern that could add to the problems and certainly affect all stakeholders’ calculations.
Yemen is best perceived, not as a country plagued by a crisis in the north but as a crisis-plagued country. A longstanding secessionist movement in the south is another major dilemma and a source of tensions in Aden, the temporary seat of the Yemeni government. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), currently the leading faction of the Southern Movement, appears prepared to enter a transitional phase based on a federal system, although some fear that the STC ultimately aims to use the federal model as a platform for implementing a de facto partition between south and north. So far all UN and other international envoys have dealt with the southern crisis piecemeal, addressing it only when it raises its head in a way that affects their handling of the Houthi question. Perhaps they want to avoid treading on the eggshells of the differences, contradictions and tensions within the Saudi-led Arab Coalition to support the legitimate Yemeni government. It is well-known that the STC, which is the more dominant force in the south, is on better terms with the UAE than with Riyadh because of Abu Dhabi’s role in the south, especially in the fight to repel the Houthis’ southern advance. Attitudes within the coalition also vary towards the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and its political facade, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, generally referred to as the Islah Party. Whereas Abu Dhabi sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a direct threat to its national security, one not posed by the Houthis, the reverse is true of Riyadh.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly