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Accueil > Entretiens > Interview with Jens Heibach – The situation in Yemen

Interview with Jens Heibach – The situation in Yemen
Article publié le 25/04/2017

Jens Heibach holds a diploma in Political Science from the Freie Universität Berlin and a PhD from Philipps Universität Marburg.
He has worked at the Cultural Department of the German Embassy in Sanaa (2008-9) and as a lecturer in Middle East Politics at the Center for Near and Middle East Studies in Marburg (2009-15).
Since 2017 he is a Research Fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. His research focuses on politics in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen in particular.

Could you explain the origins of the war in Yemen ?

There are several dimensions to the war currently going on in Yemen which can actually be understood as an accumulation of several wars, at least as far as the Yemeni actors are concerned. The war has its roots in the Yemeni uprising in 2011, which eventually led to the resignation of President Ali Abdallah Saleh. Saleh had autocratically ruled the Yemeni republic since unification in 1990. He was – and still is – amazingly skilled in pitting one group against the other, and he had managed to rule the country over decades by instigating and managing a multitude of conflicts on the local, national and regional level.

This seemingly had an end when he signed the GCC initiative in November 2011, which in essence granted him immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for his stepping down as president. Yet the GCC initiative also provided for a flawed transition process in that it deprived major players of the opposition movement of having any meaningful say in the process of shaping Yemen’s future. These included in particular the Southern movement, which, founded in 2007, gradually evolved into a secessionist movement, but also Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthi movement. For instance, in the National Dialogue Conference – which was an essential part of the transition process as designed by the GCC initiative and which was tasked with compiling recommendations concerning the overhaul of the Yemeni constitution – the Houthis were given 35 seats out of 565. Again, other players were side-lined too. But the Houthis had by then already become a force to be reckoned with, both politically and militarily. Since 2004 they had been campaigned against in six wars by the Saleh regime. And they not only stood their ground but, having acquired strong military capabilities in the past, also managed to take control of Sa’ada and adjacent provinces in the course of the uprising in 2011.

That is to say, the Houthis were far too powerful a force to be excluded from the transition process. But the GCC initiative was masterminded by Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh’s lack of interest in a more inclusive transition process might have also stemmed from its enmity with the Houthis whom Riyadh conceives of as an Iranian proxy – which they are not, by the way. Now, if the Saudis really intended to exclude the Houthis from power, this plan has certainly backfired. When President Hadi in 2014 attempted to push through his vision of a six-region federal division – which would have deprived the Houthis of vital resources and access to the sea – the Houthis took control of the capital, put Hadi under house arrest and ruled the roost. Ironically, it was their former wartime enemy who helped them to advance. Saleh, who had been allowed to stay in Yemen and who still had a huge base of followers in the army and the security apparatus, allied with the Houthis against Hadi. It is no more than a partnership of convenience, but it holds to this today.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance’s control of the capital and the de facto abolition of the GCC initiative in September 2014 ultimately turned the civil war into a full-fledged war. Before long Hadi fled to Aden and, in March 2015, to Riyadh. He had called on the international community to militarily back his government in pushing back the Houthi-Saleh alliance and in restoring the legitimate order, and the Saudis decided to comply with his request. They assembled a military alliance which, backed by inter alia the U.S., the United Kingdom and France, intervened in Yemen – with tremendous costs for the Yemeni people and grim chances of success. Well, there are a few theories out there as to why the Saudis actually ventured on this undertaking : dynastic struggles inside the royal family, a quest for prestige to bolster up the kingdom’s regional and international standing and, of course, the struggle against Iran. Indeed, it seems to have become common knowledge that the Houthis are some sort of a Yemeni Hizbullah and that Saudi Arabia couldn’t tolerate an Iranian proxy on its doorstep. The problem is that Iran’s role in Yemen is marginal and that the Houthis are neither significantly backed by Iran nor are they an Iranian proxy. If anything, the war contributes to growing Iranian influence in Yemen.

Who are the Houthis and who supports them ?

The emergence of the Houthis dates back to the 1990s when they became an important actor of the Zaydi revivalist movement. The Zaydiyya is a sect of the Shi’a that today is almost unique to Yemen. With regard to Zaydi jurisprudence, theology or political doctrine, however, it is actually much closer to the Shafi’i or Hanafi Sunna than to the Twelver Shi’a Islam prevalent in Iran, which is why it is often referred to as the “fifth school of Sunni jurisprudence”. Back then, the Houthis protested against what they considered a political marginalization of Zaydis under Saleh. In the first place, they took issue with the growing presence of Wahhabi-style Salafism in Sa’ada, a traditional stronghold of the Zaydiyya close to the Saudi border, the increasing authoritarian character of the Saleh regime, the widespread corruption, maladministration and the regime’s close, if strained alliance with the U.S. As I see it, the Houthis don’t have a clear political agenda that solely rests on a Zaydi doctrine. They tie in with Zaydi tenets, yes, but they are rather driven by ordinary political and economic interests. As this is so, they don’t have a natural support base either. They allied with northern tribes hostile to either Saleh or key tribal families such as the al-Ahmars. At times, they cooperated with the Southern movement, with major opposition parties and arguably even with their arch-enemy, the Sunni Islamist Islah party. Nowadays they are allied with Saleh and those tribes and army units that are not only loyal to Saleh but that antagonized them during the six wars waged against them by the regime in the 2000s. That is a quite pragmatic approach I’d say, and it’s got nothing to do with sectarianism. You can find both Zaydis and Sunnis in the Houthi-Saleh camp as well as in the anti-Houthi-Saleh camp.

Nevertheless, the sectarian narrative is dominating the news coverage of the war – as is the notion of the “Iran-backed” or “Iran-led” Houthis. Most experts reject the notion that Houthis’ rise to power was facilitated by Tehran, let alone that they are controlled by Tehran. The common political ideological basis with Iran Houthis may have comes down to anti-imperialism and, at times, blunt anti-Westernism. But if that was the basis for assessment, then there would be a quite lot of Iranian proxies all over the Middle East. In terms of religious ideology, though, Zaydism and Twelver Shi’ism share few commonalities only. Furthermore, the Houthis do not enjoy the same level of support by Iran either, which is confined to the media, capacity building, and some sort of arterial and weapon support. To be fair, the quality and scope of Iran’s arms supply to the Houthis is highly controversial – and deeply political – but most scholars agree that it is rather modest in scope. Technically speaking, the smuggling of arms in large quantities is almost impossible right now with the naval and air blockade enforced by the Saudi-led military alliance. The Panel of Experts on Yemen, a body tasked with reporting to the UN Security Council, also stated in its last report of February 2017 that “it has not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Above all, Iran does not control the Houthis, and it is well aware of its confined ability to influence their decision-making. The Houthis have disregarded Iranian wishes on multiple occasions. For instance, they apparently ignored Tehran’s advice of not taking Sanaa in September 2014.

That notwithstanding, the sectarian narrative is out there – and it is going strong. While some actors involved may actually believe in it, I think the sectarian narrative has been put in place to divert attention from base political ambitions and sheer power politics. However, it might quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Probably, it already has.

What is the aim of the coalition formed under the aegis of the Saudis ? Which countries are part of it ?

To begin with the latter question, the coalition officially comprises all GCC states except for Oman as well as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan. Not all member states contribute equally to the coalition. Morocco, for instance, has critically downsized its commitment, and Egypt has always been reluctant to fully engage in the operation, to the dismay of the Saudis. Other states are involved as well. Pakistan, for instance, has recently committed troops to safeguard the Saudi border. Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia allowed the coalition to make use of their military bases, air space and territorial waters. Senegal has offered to send troops but that never came to pass. In the latter cases it is quite apparent that Saudi Arabia must have offered some convincing incentives to participate in a war they would have hardly taken stock in otherwise. Then, at the beginning of the war, you would also find reports about mercenaries from Latin America deployed in Yemen. Of late, there have been reports about the infamous Sudanese Janjaweed militia having landed in Aden to fight alongside Emirati troops. Then you have states such as the U.S. or the UK backing the coalition by providing intelligence, logistic support and weapons. Since the beginning of the war in March 2015, for instance, the UK has granted export licences worth more than £3.3bn of aircraft, munitions and other equipment to Saudi Arabia. This number seems to be exceptionally high, but it is dwarfed by U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia – which are again increasing under the Trump administration. While not directly backing the coalition, the German government in 2016 also approved of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worth €529m and €154m respectively.

As to its aim, well, the official aim of the coalition is to defeat the Houthi-Saleh alliance, to reinstall the government of interim president Hadi and to return to the transition process as laid down in the GCC initiative. Yet the problem is that everybody knows by now that the GCC initiative hasn’t worked and that Hadi has lost all his credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of most of the Yemeni populace. In actual fact, Hadi has become a liability to the coalition and the Saudi in particular. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has completely fallen out with Hadi and there are rumours that it even threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the Saudis don’t let go of him. On the ground the allies are backing different, in part competing Yemeni factions of the anti-Houthi-Saleh camp, and there have been numerous reports about these competing factions fighting each other. These are arguably the only real proxy wars going on in Yemen right now.

Apart from that and seeing this unlikely coalition and its backers, it should be clear that everybody is pursuing somewhat different goals. The bottom line is that they all want to defeat the Houthi-Saleh alliance. The Saudis have put their stakes high, and they can actually lose more than their face in case they fail – which is very likely. The U.S., on the other hand, can be a game changer. The Obama administration supported the Saudi campaign so as to soothe Saudi fears that Washington had abandoned them. The Trump administration, however, is right now contemplating to increase its engagement in order to confront Iran. If that is going to happen, then the outcome will probably be disastrous. International Crisis Group-scholars April Longley Alley and Joost Hiltermann have recently outlined what an escalation of the war by the U.S. might entail. In this case, Iran might indeed be drawn into the Yemeni quagmire and the war could eventually destabilize Saudi Arabia, too.

Could you talk about the Houthis’ and the coalition’s territorial gains ?

There haven’t been any substantial territorial gains by any one side in the past year or so. The Houthi-Saleh alliance was pushed out of the southern provinces in 2015 but they are still in control of much of the Red Sea coast and the northern highlands. The war is more or less stagnating. Again, the Panel of Experts on Yemen – just as the Council of the European Union – has recently stated that a military victory is no longer possible. The Saudi-led coalition is right now preparing to capture Hudaydah, a strategically important seaport held by the Houthi-Saleh alliance. But even if they manage to take it, there will be no other way of defeating the Houthi-Saleh alliance than entering the mountains. Defeating the Houthis and Salehis there, however, seems to be a mission impossible.

Where are the negotiations today ?

At a standstill. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, keeps on expressing his deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and that’s basically all he can do at the moment as virtually all parties to the conflict refuse to engage in negotiations on the peace process. Instead, they all seem to be bent on solving the conflict militarily. The main problem is that the conflict parties tend to conceive of the war as a zero-sum conflict, and for some it actually is. For instance, if there was a settlement, Hadi’s days as president would be counted, and thus Hadi – just as Saleh – was a major spoiler of past negotiations. The Saudis, on the other hand, have invested dearly to defeat the Houthis, not only in terms of money, making it even harder for them to find a face-saving solution. Moreover, they are currently hoping for the Trump administration to boost its military engagement in Yemen, and the signals from Washington obviously don’t increase their preparedness to compromise. Yet main issues of the past roadmaps – e.g. the unconditional withdrawals and handover of weapons in Sanaa, Hudaidah and Taizz – are unacceptable to the Houthis. Hence, it seems that the conflict is not yet ripe for resolution – despite the enormous suffering of the Yemeni population.

What are the consequences of this war for the local population ?

It’s a disaster. The death toll has long reached the threshold of 10,000, there are over three million internally displaced persons and frightening reports about all kind of human rights violations by all parties to the conflict. The indiscriminate air campaign against Yemen’s critical infrastructure, including arterial roads, factories, hospitals, and harbours, has literally bombed the country back into the middle ages. The economy has collapsed, and the Yemeni state has probably ceased to exist. Basic humanitarian needs can no longer be met as there is a critical shortage of pharmaceuticals, electricity, fuel, water and food. The UN has just sounded a warning cry concerning the funding gap of $1.9bn for its Humanitarian Response Plan. Currently, 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. More than 7.3 million Yemenis face the prospect of famine, and more than 460,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. These are incredible figures and they are obviously related to the naval and air blockade enforced by the Saudi-led coalition in the first place. The country is highly dependent on food imports – accounting for up to 90 percent of the food in Yemen – which nowadays cannot reach Yemen due to shipping restrictions or destroyed harbours. What is more, the Saudi-led coalition is currently preparing an offensive on Hudaydah which is the entry point for 70 percent of food and humanitarian supplies – although the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has just appealed to the conflict parties to refrain from escalating the conflict in the key port, warning that “any alterations to the commercial and humanitarian imports coming through this port would have grave consequences on the country at a time when it faces a severe food, health, and nutrition crisis”. Food has in fact become a weapon of war.

How far can this conflict affect the countries of the region ?

The war’s consequences may actually transcend the region. For one, al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula has become stronger than ever in the course of the war, and it is looking to plot and execute attacks against the West as the Panel of Experts on Yemen has indicated of late. Then again, Da’esh is on the retreat in Syria and Iraq, looking for a new home to resettle, and Yemen appears like it could offer a safe harbour. On the other hand, the war is affecting maritime security in the Bab al-Mandab strait, a critical chokepoint that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Approximately four percent of the global oil supply passes through the Bab al-Mandab. In addition, most ships passing this strait are going to, or have come from, the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal, in turn, is of critical importance to the Egyptian economy and, thus, to the stability of Egypt. The notion of the Bab al-Mandab strait being closed up is now haunting strategist at the Pentagon as Vice Admiral Kevin M. Donegan has revealed in an interview with Defense News. Add to this the possible implications of the war on the stability of Saudi Arabia and you’ll have two states endangered by the war – two states that are deemed to be key to the stability of the Middle East.

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