June 11, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Destruction of Yemen

• A UN conference on Yemen in Geneva this weekend is unlikely to make much headway towards resolving the conflict

• The country faces problems common to other Arab countries, but is poorer and more vulnerable

• The Saudi air campaign is doing damage in Yemen beyond the Houthis but seems to be leaving its main target, Iran, relatively unscathed

• As time goes on and the air campaign in Yemen fails to yield tangible success, it is increasingly a test of Saudi leadership.


Talks to resolve the conflict in Yemen will start in Geneva on Sunday, almost nine months after the Houthi rebels moved from their northern strongholds into Sana’a, the country’s capital, and 11 weeks after the beginning of the Saudi-led air campaign. The UN conference's prospects for success are poor, and the Houthis are still to confirm their attendance. Even if they do go, and they probably will, there is no agreement on the agenda. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled Yemen in March and is now based in Riyadh, says that the talks should solely address the mechanics and timetable of his return to power and the withdrawal and disarmament of the Houthis in line with Security Council Resolution 2216 adopted in April. This is clearly unrealistic.

The conflict in Yemen is just one manifestation of the disruption of the Arab world as it adjusts to a post-dictatorship period. The previous president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ruled for over 20 years after the reunification of the country in 1990, and was president of North Yemen for another 12 years before that. He is still trying to exercise power and is a key ally of the Houthis. In this respect Yemen resembles other Arab countries where the pendulum of change still swings wildly in the aftermath of the fall of dictators: Iraq (Saddam Hussein was in power for over 20 years); Syria (the Assads have been in power for over 30 years); Egypt (Hosni Mubarak was in power for over 30 years); Libya (Muammar Qadhafi was in power for over 40 years); and less markedly, Tunisia (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in power for over 20 years). With government institutions outside the security forces weakly rooted, these countries have shown the fragility of a system that is overly reliant on personality and enforcement.

But beyond being an example of the intrinsic weakness of dictatorships, Yemen is also a front line in the struggle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although they are more local to the Middle East, the consequences of this vicious competition are proving as destabilizing to the region as any process of political change. Together, they have provided fertile soil for the growth of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, including the so-called Islamic State. President Hadi has said explicitly that Iran is more of a threat than al-Qaeda, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now controls Yemen’s fifth largest city, al-Mukalla, and is digging its roots ever deeper into the complex social fabric of the country.

The Saudi-led air campaign has hurt Yemen more than it has hurt Iran, without apparently doing much more than encouraging the Houthis to launch attacks across the shared border. The United Nations put the number of civilian casualties in the country at around 650 in April, and as the bombing has intensified since then, it is bound to be higher now. The UN also estimates that a staggering 12 million people, half of the population, are directly affected by the fighting, with 1 million displaced from their homes. Yemen is an exceptionally poor country where 80 percent of the people now need humanitarian assistance, mainly in the form of food aid. Although Saudi Arabia has undertaken to meet the whole $274 million appeal for short-term assistance for Yemen launched by the UN Secretary-General in April, and will surely pay up eventually, so far nothing has been received.

The humanitarian problems are exacerbated by the destruction of infrastructure and of cultural heritage, with the list of damage growing by the week and now including the 8th Century Marib Dam, the 7th Century al-Qahira castle, the old city of Sana’a, which is a World Heritage site, Sa’ada, the Houthi capital, which has applied for World Heritage status, the contents of the Dhamar museum and the 1,200 year-old al-Hadi mosque—not to mention Ottoman forts and pre-Islamic palaces. This may not shift opinion much in Saudi Arabia, but it is unlikely to engender public gratitude anywhere in Yemen. The two countries will live side by side in hostility for many years to come.

The talks in Geneva will not solve anything, but if they go ahead and gain traction they could at least encourage a ceasefire that avoids the possibility of an escalation of the fighting along the border. It is already clear that the Houthis will not be bombed into submission, but even a limited land war will be harder to end than the air campaign. As the Saudi dead mount up, the royal family will find it hard to declare victory, especially when the main enemy, Iran, appears to be no less emboldened than before. After Egyptian President Sisi was reported recently to have made disrespectful remarks about the Saudis, and with Turkey’s President Erdogan taking stock of his party’s recent electoral setback, much rests on the shoulders of the Saudi Arabian leadership. The coming weeks will be a real test of their skills.


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