Thu - 16 Feb 2023 - 01:00 AM

written by : Ahmed Eleiba Writer Archive -

Despite conflicting statements from the belligerents in the Yemen war, they appear to be close to resuming the truce that broke off in October.

According to Abdel-Aziz Al-Bakir, Minister of State for the Houthi government in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the recent Omani-brokered talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia reached agreements on a number of issues, including the release of salaries for government employees in areas under Houthi control.

Al-Bakir released his statement after Ahmed bin Mubarak, Foreign Minister of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, denied that any agreement had been reached in the talks, which have reportedly failed to make progress on other issues such as the release of POWs.

Sources close to the Yemeni government told Al-Ahram Weekly that it had broken off negotiations and that Riyadh was now steering the process with Muscat. Moreover, the Yemeni government would probably reject any agreement that did not include binding guarantees that would compel the Houthis to cease hostilities inside Yemen, the sources said.

The Houthis have refrained from offensive operations outside Yemen since April when they concluded a truce with Riyadh.

In tandem with the Omani efforts, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking travelled to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE on 3 February to “continue concerted US diplomatic efforts with the UN, regional, and international partners to advance a comprehensive and inclusive peace process,” a US State Department press release announced.

The statement noted that Washington was working to promote support for humanitarian operations in Yemen. During his trip, the US Special Envoy would “encourage donors to give generously in 2023 to fund life-saving aid for Yemenis as part of the 2023 UN Humanitarian Response Plan,” it said.

He would also “urge the parties to seize this opportunity [the calm resulting from a UN-sponsored truce] to intensify their engagement with the UN to launch a Yemeni-Yemeni political process that can durably end the war.”

Some observers believe that the US linkage between “alleviating the humanitarian crisis” and an “inclusive Yemeni-led political process” to end the conflict could undermine efforts to promote a settlement.

The Yemeni government still ranks the Ansar Allah (Houthi) Movement as a terrorist organisation and urges other countries to do likewise. It also argues that the Houthis have refused to commit to the main rules and principles for a political process, starting with the recognition of the legitimate government.

They show no sign of backing down from the stances they have adopted since the coup of 2014 and they treat the current efforts to promote a truce not as a possible opening to a settlement but as an opportunity to reap the incentives offered by it.

On the question of government salaries, the Yemeni government charges that the Houthi Interior Ministry has pensioned off thousands of employees in order to bring in loyalists so that they can receive the released payments.

The Houthis are also taking military and demographic measures to prepare the ground to their benefit in advance of a truce. In the northern governorate of Saada, the main Houthi stronghold, Houthi forces have surrounded Burkan in the Razeh district not far from the Saudi border where they have encountered opposition among local tribes after confiscating tribal lands for projects runs by their elites.

A similar situation has arisen in Jawf, also near the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Houthis have issued decrees to confiscate land belonging to the Hamdan tribe in the area.

In the southern governorate of Abyan, there have been intermittent clashes between Houthi and Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces. The Houthis may be trying to avenge themselves against the STC for having blocked Houthi drives to take territory in the Shabwah governorate over the past two years.

One of the main weaknesses of the pro-government forces in Yemen has been their disunity. In late January, Yemeni Leadership Council President Rashad Al-Alimi created the National Shield Force in order to unify the armed groups in government-controlled territories. The Force, consisting of eight brigades, is under the command of Bashir Al-Subaihi, said to be close to Saudi Arabia.

Its precise function is unknown, possibly serving as a kind of presidential guard, a division parallel to the STC forces, or as a new combat force to be deployed against the Houthis.

One political source from South Yemen told the Weekly that the National Shield is meant to offset the STC forces, with Saudi Arabia being a key factor. The latter probably decided it needed a local military force in order to assert its influence in Hadhramawt, Mahra, and other parts of South Yemen because the STC is not seen as loyal to Saudi Arabia, the source said.

It thus appears that new power balances are taking shape in Yemen, not just between adversaries but also between the allies of the moment.

While prospects for a peace process in Yemen remain uncertain, the US is taking another course of action by seizing smuggled weapons destined for the country. Last week, US Central Command announced that it had “supported a maritime interdiction earlier this month that resulted in the seizure by partner naval forces of weapons that originated in Iran and were bound for Yemen.” Iran has denied responsibility for the shipments.

The seized shipments included what are described as “explosive precursor materials” such as urea fertiliser and ammonium perchlorate, ammunition rounds, fuses, rocket propellants and drone engines. Although the Houthis have repeatedly claimed to possess their own military manufacturing capacities, the seizure of such large amounts of equipment and material will diminish these.

The US has also announced that it has included Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen among the priorities of its counter-terrorist operations in the region. According to Yemeni news reports two weeks ago, a US drone strike killed Hassan Al-Hadrami, an Al-Qaeda operative in charge of explosives manufacturing, along with two of his colleagues in Al-Samda in Mareb.

The reports included images taken from social-networking sites of Al-Hadrami’s car after it was hit by the strike.

It is in US interests to weaken the Houthis militarily as part of the US confrontation with Iran, since as an Iranian proxy they could also pose a threat to Israel. It is also in US interests to target the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group because this supports affiliated terrorist organisations in the Horn of Africa and Somalia.

According to some observers, even if a truce in Yemen is renewed, Riyadh will still not feel secure as long as the Houthis remain in control of a large portion of North Yemen adjacent to the Saudi border. But they reason that such a truce will now be financed primarily by revenues from Yemeni oil, instead of from the Saudi treasury which up to now has sustained the lion’s share of the costs of the war.

The Houthis will target Yemeni oil facilities as a means to pressure the Yemeni government and the Arab Coalition that backs it into agreeing to sharing revenues with them. Sharing power with the Houthis is another question altogether, of course, but it is also one that is very premature, since it is hard to envision a peace process at the moment even if a truce is reached.

* Published by the Egypt’s English-language news website Ahram Online on Tuesday, 14 February, 2023. The views expressed in the article represent the author alone.