Going Nowhere in Yemen

 
The reality on the ground has changed, and unless the Saudis make concessions there won’t be a political settlement in the foreseeable future
 
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By Abdel Bari Atwan

As ministers from the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE gathered in Riyadh for a meeting of the so-called international Quartet on Yemen on Sunday, a suicide bomber targeted a military base in the heart of Aden, killing 50 people and injuring dozens more, in an attack claimed by Islamic State (IS).

We do not know whether the timing of the bombing was deliberate or merely a coincidence.  But it underlines, yet again, the failure of all mediation efforts to date to bring an end to the bloodshed in Yemen and restore a modicum of security and stability to the country and relief to its long-suffering citizens.

Aden is nominally the temporary capital of the internationally recognized Saudi-based government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Fifteen months after its ‘liberation’, and with the forces of ‘legitimacy’ supported by Saudi and UAE firepower supposedly in control, it could be expected to have become reasonably secure. But a succession of bombings, assassinations of senior officials and other deadly attacks in recent weeks tell a different story.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose remaining days in office are numbered, went to Riyadh merely as a matter of protocol and going through the motions. At his joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, Kerry spoke tediously about the need to continue seeking an end to military operations and the consequent bloodshed in Yemen. Jubeir, for his part, concentrated on denying news reports attributed to US officials that Washington was cutting back on its support for the Saudi war in Yemen and suspending supplies of some precision-guided munitions to the kingdom because of the civilian casualties they were causing. Jubair also focused on the JASTA law which enables victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for damages in the US, warning of the threat this legislation poses to the international order.

In other words, the Saudi foreign minister had little to say about Yemen as such. And he avoided any mention at all of that other war: Aleppo and the evacuation of armed insurgents from the city. This reflects the fact that his country’s political priorities are changing fast.

 

It was telling that Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin-Allawi joined the four ministers at their talks in Riyadh. The Quartet members – especially Saudi Arabia – appear to be reconsidering their policy of side-lining Oman due to its neutral stance in Yemen, and conceding that it can play a pivotal role in resolving the crisis. This change of heart seems to be only partial, however: Jordan has been tasked with hosting the Quartet’s next meeting, rather than Oman as had previously been decided.

The Quartet’s objective, in our judgement, is not just to end the war in Yemen. It is also to provide Saudi Arabia with ways to extricate itself from its ill-considered intervention, and spare it the mounting financial and military costs, with as few losses as possible. The problem is that the kingdom is refusing to make the ‘concessions’ needed to help achieve that goal – above all to open channels of dialogue with the wily former premier Ali Abdallah Saleh, the Houthi Anasarallah movement’s ally in this war; and to put pressure on Hadi to comply with the international road map drawn up by UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (providing for the formation of a national unity government wielding full presidential powers, the removal of Vice-President Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and the calling of presidential elections within 40 days).

If the Saudi stance remains unchanged, the efforts of the Quartet, which has become a Quintet, stand little chance of succeeding in the foreseeable future. The Houthi-Saleh alliance is strengthening its position on the ground. By forming a government led by Abdelziz Habtour and continuing to put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s borders it has created a new political and military reality which cannot easily be undone.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance pursued a strategy of playing for time while standing fast in the face of the Saudi military intervention: absorbing the airstrikes, preventing the fall of Sanaa, and turning Saudi Arabia and its allies in the eyes of many Yemenis from self-styled saviours into naked aggressors.

It is a strategy that so far seems to have worked remarkably well.