In an interview, Carnegie’s Farea al-Muslimi outlines the deadly dynamics at play in Yemen.
Farea al-Muslimi is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Yemen and the Gulf states. He is also chairman of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, a youth-led think tank that aims to bring new perspectives to Yemeni and regional affairs. Diwan caught up with Muslimi, fresh from a discussion in which he participated at Carnegie with former ambassador Barbara Bodine and Senior Associate Frederic Wehrey, to ask him about the latest developments in the Yemen war.
Michael Young: The Yemen war today appears to be hopelessly stalemated? Is that a fair assessment?
Farea al-Muslimi: Yes and no. From one side, the United Nations envoy’s attempts at bringing the different sides to the table have failed, especially with the recent unilateral formation of a cabinet by the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. This cabinet is the biggest setback to peace efforts since the war started. It is an illegitimate government that will not be internationally recognized. The move basically represents a useless escalation.
But at the same time, the conflict in Yemen is still not as divisive as the one in Syria, both in domestic and regional terms. Nor is it as decentralized and uncontrolled as the one in Libya. There are still openings for peace, but no one is capitalizing on them. Local and international actors are investing more in war than in peace in Yemen. That’s one reason why this war, which shouldn’t have been started to begin with, goes on.
MY: Recently, the Yemeni prime minister, Ahmad Obeid bin Daghr, called on the Houthis to accept a “peace of the brave,” amid claims that there may be an opportunity for a settlement. How do you assess peace efforts in the country, and what is the position of the different sides?
FM: Peace is a continuous process, especially in a country such as Yemen. It is also about intentions. For the time being, neither the government in exile nor the Houthis and Saleh appear to have much interest in peace. Or they are not under enough pressure to achieve it.
The formation of the Bin Daghr government earlier this year was a setback to peace efforts. This government, which was formed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in an unconstitutional move, didn’t receive parliamentary recognition. The issue today is that the various parties in Yemen, even when they are allies, have different agendas and demands, and these sometimes are in conflict. That’s why the war grows harder to resolve with time.
For example, Saleh’s demands differ greatly from those of his current allies the Houthis. The two are likely to fight against each other once the war is over. Similarly, Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Hirak southern secessionist movement are both fighting the Houthis and Saleh for completely different reasons.
The conflicting expectations and agendas apply regionally as well. Iran doesn’t consider the Houthis as core allies but rather as pawns it can use to spread its sectarian agenda and ensnare the Saudis in a war on their southern border. Similarly, the Saudis might be willing to make peace with the Houthis today but they will not do so with Saleh. The United Arab Emirates are more willing to make peace with Saleh than with the Houthis. In fact, the UAE has less of an issue with Saleh than with the Muslim Brotherhood, yet the UAE and Islah are fighting on the same side these days.
Bahrain is in Yemen because Saudi Arabia, its close neighbor, is there. Kuwait does not want to be left behind, and has a historical rivalry with Saleh (who sided with Saddam Hussein when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991). Qatar has only one main ally in Yemen, Islah, and will not make peace with Saleh under any condition. These complexities and contradictory agendas are prolonging the war, with no clear purpose.
The failure of the peace process in Yemen is also due to a larger regional issue, namely the lack of credible brokers. In 2011, the Gulf countries were able to sponsor a Gulf Cooperation Council deal during the uprising against Saleh because they were not part of the problem. This time, unfortunately, they are implicated in the war. The vacuum in regional and global leadership has had a negative influence on all conflicts in the region, including Yemen’s.
MY: The humanitarian situation in Yemen has been described by the UN envoy Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmad in this way: “People are dying … the infrastructure is falling apart … and the economy is on the brink of [the] abyss.” This has been the situation for some time, but do you see a scenario in which the situation can become much worse than this?
FM: Unfortunately, yes. The recent relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden by Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, before preparing for the move, is going to exacerbate the famine in Yemen. This has left 1.2 million Yemenis who are on the public payroll without salaries for more than three months and unable to purchase food. Only 58 percent of the UN’s humanitarian response plan to deal with the Yemeni crisis has been funded so far. Yemen has been in a dire humanitarian situation for some time and the continuing war is escalating this terrible situation, with no less than 21 million Yemenis in need of aid.
MY: The Saudis have played a major role in the Yemen war, but have not appeared to make progress. On the contrary, in the border area there are many reports of cross-border attacks against the kingdom. Can you describe the reality there, and what the Saudi options are from this point forward.
FM: At the beginning of the war, the Saudis actually made some progress when they forced the Houthis and Saleh’s forces out of the south and destroyed most of their heavy weaponry. Saudi Arabia controlled Yemen’s airspace and sea access tightly. No ship or airplane could enter or exit the country without Saudi permission. But the Saudis were then unable to capitalize on their original progress and force the Houthis to negotiate unconditionally. This inability to impose a deal represents a political failure for the Saudis.
As for the Saudi borders, the Houthis are still able to launch attacks against Saudi towns. This has humiliated the Saudis. That said, the attacks have also served the kingdom, providing its Western allies with reasons to support Saudi Arabia in its campaign in Yemen. However, the cross-border attacks have decreased since the Saudis were able to kill Hussein al-Mulasi, a prominent former special forces commander fighting in the Houthi ranks, who was responsible for most of these attacks. While the Houthis might succeed in attacking a few Saudi border towns and using videos of this as war propaganda, the fact remains that the Saudis have the upper hand along most of the border thanks to their air force.
MY: What has been the American role in Yemen, and do you anticipate change under the new Trump administration?
FM: The United States has provided unconditional support to the Saudis, as a way of ensuring their success against Iran. It has secured endorsement of Saudi strikes through UN Security Council Resolution 2216. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent initiative to broker a deal in Yemen, the United States has provided the Saudis with significant military and intelligence support.
Additionally, for many years Washington has been fighting its own war in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The United States considers AQAP a national security threat and has conducted drone strikes in Yemen for some time. The Saudi air campaign in the country is simply a page from the American playbook in Yemen.
A Trump administration was very unexpected. But the Saudis are definitely more excited about him than they would have been about Hillary Clinton. To them, she would have continued Obama’s policies. Whether Trump will change course has yet to be seen. Policy on Yemen since 2001 has mostly been determined by the CIA and the Pentagon, with less direct input from the president or the State Department. The Obama administration also concluded important military deals with Saudi Arabia, totaling some $115 billion in eight years. Trump is a businessman and might continue with such an approach.
MY: Can you describe what the dynamics are in the south of Yemen. Some argue that the southern secessionist movement would like to exploit the situation to break free from the north. What are your thoughts?
FM: On a popular level the south might be ready for secession, especially after the ongoing war against the Houthis and Saleh. However, from an institutional, infrastructural, and even a leadership perspective it is not ready. Secession might drag Yemen into more chaos, but will not necessarily ensure that the south becomes truly independent. Today, within the south itself, there has been much failure with regards to maintaining security and order in the liberated areas, despite immense support from the Gulf coalition countries. More importantly, there are major divisions among southern leaders themselves and other rifts. For example, the region of Hadhramawt is preparing to establish a separate entity outside the formula of southern secession. This would only increase fragmentation. The south, despite not gaining much public attention, actually remains Yemen’s most dangerous focal point, since what happens there threatens Yemen as we know it.
MY: A final question. What are the likely outcomes in Yemen? You have a shattered country and society, a large refugee population, wide swaths of the country under no real control, all of which facilitates the freedom of groups such as AQAP and the Islamic State. How do you address this?
FM: What you might end up with is a disturbing mixture of Syria and Libya, which will only get worse the longer the war drags on. However, despite the war and the current divisions, Yemen’s social fabric can still be repaired. That’s because violence is not new to the country. It has seen violence in the past and, more importantly, has overcome it.
The main issue however is the behavior of the external actors in the war—from Tehran to Riyadh. They are not only helping to destroy Yemen but are in fact aiding extremists who gain from the general breakdown in the state. The longer the war goes on, the easier it will be for extremists to take over the country and even the surrounding region.