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Will Russia step in to Yemen?

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 2 Mar 2018
 Ali Nasser Mohamed
Former South Yemen President Ali Nasser Mohamed at the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow on February 2018 (Photo: courtesy of Valdai Discussion Club Official Website)

South Yemen President Ali Nasser Mohamed re-presented his initiative for resolving the Yemeni crisis at the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow last week. The title given to the event was, significantly, “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields.”

It reflects Russia’s drive to establish a presence in the various arenas of conflict in this region, one of which is the war in Yemen, a subject to which the Russian think tank has accorded unprecedented attention this year.

President Mohamed’s eight-point initiative begins with a ceasefire declaration followed by confidence building measures to generate a climate conducive to a solution and then the creation of an interim presidential council and a national consensus government representative of all political entities.

The plan also calls for the creation of a system of local, regional and international committees charged with collecting heavy and medium weapons from militias and other non-state actors and placing them under the central authority of the Yemeni Defence Ministry.

Meanwhile, a dialogue process would be set into motion bringing together the political and social components of Yemeni society with the aim of reaching a consensus over the nature of a federated state.

Other stages outlined in the plan include the creation of a constitutional commission, the creation of an electoral commission to lay the groundwork for parliamentary and presidential elections, and an international convention on reconstructing and financing the reconstruction of the war-torn country.

Lastly, the proposal calls for Security Council endorsement of the plan in order to make it binding on all parties and implementable under UN supervision.

The South Yemen president maintains that there is a consensus among the regional powers involved in the conflict to end the fighting and move towards the negotiating track.

In an interview with the Russia Today Arabic edition on the fringes of the conference, he drew a comparison with the agreement between Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel- Nasser and Saudi King Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz in the 1960s that brought an end to the Yemeni Civil War that had proved high cost for both sides.

He also pointed to historical experience to argue that the Yemeni crisis today cannot be resolved militarily and that the perpetuation of the conflict only serves a certain number of beneficiaries. He stressed that the warfare needed to be brought to an end so that work can begin to build confidence between the factions preparatory to starting a negotiating process.

The initiative, as framed by the South Yemeni president, contains a number of problems. Perhaps the most important of is that reduces the crisis to a north-south polarity as though the political map of this crisis were limited to the Houthis in the north and the Aden-based Southern Movement, and as though the resolution resided in the creation of a bi-regional federal system and a north-south power-sharing arrangement. Such an outlook has encountered considerable criticism.

Firstly, it runs counter to the outputs of the National Dialogue, which envisioned a federated state based on four to six regions. That is the vision that the internationally recognised Yemeni government aims to realise, as underscored by Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr in a previous interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. More generally, by recognising only two factions — the Houthis and the Southern Movement — the plan sidelines other political forces in Yemen.

In terms of process, Ali Nasser’s plan is not very different from the framework of the Kuwait negotiations that ended in failure last year. At the time, the Houthis rejected the principle of beginning with the military track and the collection of weapons whereas, today, they have signalled their unconditional approval of the new proposal, which raises suspicions concerning their intentions.

An even greater complication arises in the fact that the plan calls for collected weapons to be centralised under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Yet no such central agency exists. Rather there are diverse agencies subordinate to the different conflicting parties.

The command of the Saudi-led Arab coalition has ignored the South Yemeni president’s initiative.

In fact, Riyadh claims that it is difficult to resume negotiations due to Houthi intransigence. At the recent Munich security conference, which was held at the same time as the Valdai Discussion Club, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said: “The Houthi Movement and its partner, Ali Saleh, broke 70 agreements. The Houthis and their Iranian backer have ruined solutions in Yemen.”

Criticisms were also raised among southern circles, even though President Ali Nasser enjoys considerable support there. His plan did not provide for the right to self-determination after the interim phase. This right has long been a fundamental demand of the Southern Movement.

Russia, which appears to be moving towards greater involvement in the Middle East, may see Yemen as a gateway for this purpose. There have even been rumours of Russian intent to establish military bases.

Oleg Ozerov, deputy director of the Africa Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, believes that Russia and Western nations can work together effectively to resolve the Yemeni crisis.

“Moreover, it seems that Russia and Western countries, in spite of numerous differences on other issues, may develop a common understanding regarding the need to end the war in Yemen on conditions acceptable to all parties,” he wrote, stressing that the Yemeni people deserved a better fate. Yet, some observers believe that such Russian intervention would not come free-of-charge.

Kirill Semenov, non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, observes that “Russia is expanding its reputation as a mediator in various conflicts and could wield its influence in Yemen to bring both sides to the negotiating table.”

He indicates that such efforts are, at least in part, informed by a desire to obtain military bases in the area: “Moscow has been gradually stepping up its activity regarding Yemen largely because other international and regional players have moved to secure a permanent military presence in the strategic waters of the Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandeb strait.”

On the whole, the South Yemen president’s initiative does not appear to offer a substantial contribution to efforts to restart the Yemeni negotiating process. If there is a contribution, it is towards opening the doors to Russian intervention in the Yemeni crisis and a cloning of the Syrian experience with all its local, regional and international complexities and polarities.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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