2023 Yearender: Stability without peace in Yemen

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

With inadequate humanitarian assistance and ongoing political and sectarian divisions, a comprehensive peace settlement is not on the horizon in Yemen, reports Haitham Nouri

Stability without peace in Yemen

 

Yemen has been living through a period of relative calm over the past 19 months, but the country, long dubbed “happy Yemen” in the Arab world, has yet to see a comprehensive peace.

The fighting in the country has not completely ceased, and there have been occasional clashes among the combatants and even allies. The mood is one of caution as apprehensions of a resurgence in hostilities linger.

Nonetheless, the current situation is markedly better than the tumultuous period between September 2014 and April 2022. At that time, the Civil War in the country and the interventions by its neighboursafter March 2015 led to the loss of over 100,000 lives, the displacement of millions, and the outbreak of diseases such as cholera.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has labelled Yemen as one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, a situation that isrobbing the country’s children of their future. According to UNICEF, since October 2023, more than 21 million people in Yemen required assistance, including over 11 million children.

The ongoing conflict has resulted in the displacement of 4.5 million individuals.

A delegation from the Houthi Movement that governs most of the former North Yemen has headed to Riyadh to start the final phase of the comprehensive peace negotiations.

Throughout the country’s Civil War, Iran supported the Ansar Allah group (the Houthis), a Zaidi Shiafaction, while Saudi Arabiabacked the internationally recognised Yemeni government.

Despite the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations mediated by China in March this year, peace in Yemen has not materialised. This is because the crisis in the country is domestic as well as regional.

The ouster of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in power in 2011 was followed by conflicts that escalated into a full-blown war. Regional powers then intervened, exacerbating the country’s political, economic, social, and humanitarian challenges.

While the fighting eventually subsided, it did not pave the way for peace and reconstruction.

After the assassination of North Yemen Imam Yehia Hamideddin in 1948, the country struggled to find stability, even during the extended ruleof president Saleh. The instability in North Yemen culminated in the overthrow of the Imam Ahmed bin Yehiain the early 1960s in a move that was supported by Egypt and opposed by Saudi Arabia, which backed the Imam.

The Arab Yemen Republic was established in 1965 following a Civil War that persisted even after Cairo and Riyadh withdrew from the conflict. War between the North and South Yemen Republics erupted multiple times, notably in 1972, 1979, and twice in the first half of the 1980s, until the two nations united in 1990 when the South lost Soviet support.

Saleh’s ambition to rid himself of his southern partners triggered a furtherCivil War when they expressed their intention to reinstate two separate republics.

ThisCivil War, referred to as the “unification war” in the North, broke out in 1994 and resulted in Yemen’s triumph over Eritrea. Yemen reclaimed the disputed Hanish Islands after a conflict with Asmara, and international arbitration determined Sanaa’s ownership of them.

However, the promised stability was short-lived. In 2000, the Al-Qaeda terrorist group established itself in Yemen, where it has persisted to the present day.

The South has not abandoned its aspiration for the reinstatement of the former Democratic Republic of Yemen with Aden as its capital, evident in the 2001 referendum and the Shabwa incidents of September 2010 led by the Southern Movement.

 

TRIPARTITE WAR: For over a decade, Saleh’s regime grappled with Al-Qaeda terrorism, the Houthi rebellion in the North, and the separatist desires of the Southern Movement, treating them as manifestations of the longstanding conflicts in Yemen that have persisted for centuries.

North Yemen was formerly ruled by Zaidi dynasties, and there was a continuous but sometimes latent conflict between the followers of the Shia Zaidi sect and the Sunni Shafeis in the country. In the South, areas like Lahj, Aden, and Hadhramaut remained distant from the Imamate in Sanaa.

In the conflicts during Saleh’s tenure, the Houthis represented the Zaidis, while Al-Qaeda and the Islah Party, the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, claimed to represent the Shafeis. The Southern Movement said it was the successor to formerly socialist Aden.

The repercussions of this conflict exacerbated the poverty in Yemen, already the poorest Arab country according to UN indicators. The situation was further compounded by post-independence state corruption.

Against this backdrop, what became known as the Arab Spring then erupted and led to the overthrow of Saleh, called the “Falcon of Sheba,” after more than three decades in power in 2011. Saleh was one who “dances on the heads of snakes,” as he described himself in a press interview.

Yemen has not experienced a moment of respite since the departure of Saleh, who then allied with his former adversaries, the Houthis. He had earlier engaged in four rounds of conflict with the Houthis in June 2004, March 2005, January 2007, and August 2009, but in allying with them after his overthrow he was joined by his followers, including thousands of army officers and soldiers.

His support also included the majority of Yemen’s middle classes, which had benefited from his rule.

Sectarian divisions then engulfed Yemen. The Zaidi Houthis and Saleh loyalists were backed by Iran, while the Sunnis aligned with the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Southern Movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Sunni factions were supported by the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Yemenwitnessed a humanitarian tragedy. The crisisfuelled a sense of regret among Saleh’s supporters, fostering the idea that the revolution against him had been a conspiracy aimed at undermining the country.

 

A STABLE YEAR: The prevailing humanitarian, political, and military situation in the country proved untenable and was rejected by the Yemenis, Saudi Arabia, the Arab world, and the West.

Ending the war became an imperative goal, leading to a truce between the Saudis and the Houthis in April 2022. The truce was renewed two months later and then again in August 2022, solidifying into a de facto permanent arrangement.

Some months later, the Chinese brokered a settlement between Riyadh and Tehran, the regional backers of the two sides to the conflict. However, the war did not subside, and ongoing tensions have continued.

Finding a settlement has proven more challenging than brokering an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who, in coordination with other Islamic countries, have collaborated to counter the Israeli aggression on Gaza.

Despite the difficulties, progress has been achieved, however, including the exchange of prisoners, a reduction in battles across the country, particularly in Marib, and the easing of the siege on Taiz.

The UN facilitated the replacement of the deteriorating Safer tanker in the port of Hodeidah, which was threatening a catastrophic oil spill, and there has been a modest influx of aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

However, the involvement of the Houthis in confrontations with Israel amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza could complicate matters.

It might lead them to adopt a more rigid stance in any forthcoming Yemeni peace negotiations, or it might be a strategic move to align them with their Iranian ally, which has shown a reluctance to engage in any direct confrontation with Israel, choosing to do so through its proxies like Hizbullah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen instead.

A prolonged truce in Yemen is unlikely without a comprehensive political solution addressing the concerns of the Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council, the Sunnis in North Yemen, and the Republican Gathering, which opposes both the division of the country and religious rule.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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