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Yemen, not Saudi Arabia nor Iran, lies at the heart of the solution

A ceasefire deal between warring parties in Yemen is set to go into effect Wednesday shortly before midnight. FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto examines whether this time, there are any peace hopes.

Yemen’s Houthi-run administration has welcomed a 72-hour, UN-brokered ceasefire scheduled to start at 23:59 local time Wednesday. The international community hopes the cessation of hostilities will allow aid to reach areas besieged by fighting and a Saudi-administered blockade of the impoverished Arab nation.

The UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has voiced hopes that the 72-hour period can be extended. For most Yemenis though, they simply want an end to a 19-month war that kicked off in May 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched gruelling air strikes that have claimed the lives of more than 4,000 civilians, displaced around 3 million and plunged Yemen into a humanitarian crisis.

This conflict has dragged on for 19 months and past ceasefire deals have not held. Why is this happening now?

The short answer is US leverage. The US – and to a lesser extent, the UK – have pushed for this deal.

This renewed US engagement comes in the wake of two important events that occurred earlier this month.

The first was the October 8 Saudi bombing of the funeral of a tribal chief killing more than 140 people, including community elders and tribal chiefs. These are exactly the kind of people you need in Yemen to maintain a peace deal. The funeral bombing sparked massive international outrage, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon calling for an investigation into “possible war crimes committed by the [Saudi-led] coalition in Yemen”. The Saudi’s Western allies, the US and UK, also faced pressure since the Saudi armed forces primarily use US and British arms.

The second event, and this has been largely overlooked since Yemen has been an overlooked war, is that last week, for the first time the US conducted direct strikes at Houthi targets. Last week, the US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at three rebel radar installations from USS Nitze, a destroyer, in retaliation for missiles fired at USS Mason. The missiles, which were apparently fired from a Houthi-held region, did not hit the USS Mason, but Washington was essentially forced to act.

To be fair, the US response was very measured. There have been no reports of casualties from the Tomahawk strikes with the US claiming the radar installations were in a remote location. In the immediate aftermath of the rebel strikes targeting the USS Mason, you could see Washington’s reluctance to be directly drawn into this conflict.

The US reaction was relatively slow with a Pentagon spokesman telling reporters that President Barack Obama was discussing the issue with his military advisers and was weighing his options. In the end, Obama’s military strategists, including Defence Secretary Ash Carter, opted for Tomahawk strikes primarily to make it clear that the US will act if the vital Red Sea navigation is at risk. This is a strategic zone, primarily the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is a gateway for oil tankers heading to Europe via the Suez Canal.

But the US does not want to get stuck in another “mission creep” situation. Remember the US has never really had a problem with the Houthis. On the other hand, the US does have a problem with AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), considered al Qaeda’s most dangerous regional branch. For the Shiite Houthis, a hardline Sunni group such as al Qaeda is a natural enemy.

From the US point of view, Washington is being drawn in to support an ally who has been very irresponsible in its bombing campaign. The Yemen operation is viewed, in many circles, as a personal campaign of Saudi Defence Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who has been described as a brash, “inexperienced youngster”.

The Saudi air campaign is extremely unpopular in Yemen, where more than 4,000 civilians have been killed and 3 million displaced, according to the UN. Anti-US sentiment was already high in Yemen before the Saudi campaign started. That’s only increasing now because the US is viewed as Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally.

The October 8 funeral bombing was yet another development highlighting Washington’s unenviable position in an unpopular conflict. The US does not want a mission creep in yet another theatre of war. And so, the US really pushed for this ceasefire deal.

Will this ceasefire hold?

There have been ceasefires in the past, but they have not worked and the war has dragged on for 19 months.

As with all things, what’s needed is a political solution

From a diplomatic perspective, the tragedy of the Yemeni crisis is that it has been viewed in the regional context as a clash between Sunni Saudi Arabia against Iran-backed Shiite Houthis.

The root of the problem though is an internal domestic crisis that got regionalised. And the only solution lies in resolving the domestic problem.

Yemen is not an easy country to rule. Administering Yemen has been likened to dancing on the heads of snakes.

The problem is, Yemen’s current leader, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi can’t dance, much less on the heads of snakes, like his predecessor, former President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who was a master of the political dance.

Hadi is not charismatic, and more important, has no support base. So, when he came to power, he turned to powerful northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and its western allies.

The transitional government that Hadi put in place after his inauguration did not include any Houthis, an omission that was skillfully taken up by former President Saleh, who has formed an alliance with the Houthis.

Hadi — who we call “the internationally recognised president”, which is really a euphemism for a leader merely on paper – is not even in Yemen right now. He fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lives in exile.

If his credibility was low to begin with, it’s at rock-bottom levels since he sought refuge in a country that is unleashing mayhem and a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

For a peace deal to hold, there has to be a comprehensive power-sharing arrangement. This is the Yemeni version of what in Afghanistan is called “the big tent” approach and like Afghanistan, Yemen has a track record of political players making deals with their former enemies. It’s a result of decades of instability, poor state structures and an armed populace. But it’s the only way forward and the Yemenis are quite good at it.

An all-inclusive deal must have a power-sharing arrangement with the Houthis. Hadi and the Saudis have to be convinced of this and for this, international arm-twisting is critical to get both sides to compromise.

As for Ali Abdallah Saleh, there are two choices: if he’s not in the power equation, he can’t stay in Yemen. Or his factions and family have to be part of the deal.

A deal should also include economic packages for the north, an impoverished region where the state has barely had a presence.

In another words, Yemen – and not Saudi Arabia, nor Iran – needs to be put at the heart of the solution.

What happens once the clocks strike midnight in Yemen?

As in all cessation of hostilities deals, what’s immediately expected is that both sides will hold fire. The Saudis will stop their deadly air campaign, the Houthis and their allies will hold fire.

This will enable the lifting of blockades so that humanitarian aid can enter besieged areas. This is critical – Yemen has a massive humanitarian crisis. It was the poorest Arab nation before the war; now the situation is disastrous. Food shortages are reaching critical levels — some of the pictures coming out of Yemen show children suffering from famine level conditions. Medical supplies are also running low. It’s hoped that humanitarian aid can reach some of these areas in the next three days and hopefully, that the ceasefire can be extended.

Date created : 2016-10-19