by Mohammed Cherkaoui

Several puzzling questions have emerged in the volatile Arab geopolitical environment after two major developments occurred within less than forty-eight hours of each other in the last week of April. 

First, Yemen’s main southern separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), decided to establish self-rule in areas it controlled, to impose emergency law in the city of Aden and in all southern governorates, and to take control of Aden’s port, airport and other state institutions such as the central bank. The Saudi-backed government warned that these measures would have ‘catastrophic consequences’.[1] An armed unit of the STC fought to wrest control of Socotra’s provincial capital, Hadibo, from forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia. 

Second, retired general, Khalifa Haftar, asserted that his Libyan National Army (LNA) had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya, and vowed to intensify his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath television channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’[2] He also declared ‘the end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. He did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. 

These moves represent two strategic shifts in Yemeni and Libyan geopolitics, amidst global health concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite the religious norms of a truce during the fasting month of Ramadan. The moves by Yemen’s STC and Libya’s Haftar suggest the strong role of certain regional powers, rather than simply internal differences between local stakeholders. The fragile balance of power seems to be proceeding along the strategy of some regional players, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have pursued an opportunistic form of political realism. The UAE has relied on the logic of military power by supporting armed proxies, and has ignored international agreements and diplomatic efforts of the UN to reach solutions that would be accepted by all parties in the Yemeni and Libyan crises.

The UAE appears to be accelerating the pace towards full control of southern Yemen and its ports, especially Aden and Socotra, to help enhance its maritime trade and expand its influence in the Red Sea region. It also hopes to expand its political investment in oil-rich Libya, and its strategic position on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It competes with another regional power, Turkey, which has supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli, and has provided technological and tactical backing for GNA-aligned militias. In early May 2020, armed clashes in western Libya stopped Haftar’s forces from advancing, and reversed their course of action in certainstrategic areas.

Haftar’s unilateral declaration of a ‘popular mandate’ – similar to a declaration by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he announced his coup against a democratically-elected president – and intention of imposing de facto authority in Libya, have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. Haftar’s plans further threaten to escalate the crisis, which the UN Secretary General regards as a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, also known as the Skhirat Agreement, signed on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco. 

After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision implied deep frustration in his pursuit of more two and a half years ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’.[3] The Trump administration has refused to vote for the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no further explanation for opposing Lamamra, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister (2013-2017) and as African Union commissioner for peace and security (2008-2013). He also served as Algeria’s ambassador to the United Nations and the United States in mid-1990s. He is considered an experienced diplomat and has been a mediator in several African conflicts, notably in Liberia.

This two-part paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since the summer of 2014, two battles over legitimacy have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened the UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets for the oil revenues for their rival entities and their respective governments, and claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with either the United Nations or foreign governments have been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four particular figures with opposite views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.

The paper also probes into the struggle of the UN diplomacy, which passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors. First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda versus GNA in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain countries, like Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, and Russia, and the United States have pursued tilting the already flimsy balance of power on the ground in favour one player against another. Third, The Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a non-removal policy of the Qaddafi regime, but committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’.[4]Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and the discourse of ‘counter-terrorism’ since General Haftar has pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country from the perceived ‘terrorists’. The paper draws on my study of the Libyan case among other Arab conflicts, my previous writings, and fieldwork while serving on the UN Panel of Experts.

Bargaining with bullets

Libya has endured bloody confrontations, foreign manipulation, uncompromising diplomacy, and an open-ended stalemate. These challenges seem to have exhausted the UN nine-year diplomatic manoeuvring of the Libyan conflict. The overall scene presents Libya as synonymous with violence, lawlessness and statelessness, while lurking at the border between a ‘fragile state’ and a ‘failed state’. Libya represents a typical scenario of the gap between the normativity of the UN mediation and the realist strategic bet of foreign stakeholders on their armed proxies in the field. The nine-year UN mediation has been outperformed by cycles of diplomatic overtures in Tunis, Skhirat, Geneva, Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Berlin, followed by new rounds of fierce infighting on the ground between the Tripoli- Tobruk camps. In his book ‘International Mediation in Civil Wars’, Timothy Desk points to the transnational flow of weapons, resources, and ideas, which ‘means that when civil wars today end, they are more likely to do so at the negotiating table than on the battlefield’.[5]

In the early 1990s, Edward Azar, one of the forefathers of Conflict Resolution, developed his nuanced theoretical framework of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC) as a culmination of four main clusters which leads to violent conflict: ‘communal content’, ‘human needs’, ‘governance and state’s role’, and ‘international linkages’. He expects these conflicts to occur ‘when communities are deprived of satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity. However, the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages.’[6] Consequently, the interests of foreign players tend to suppress the desire for reconciliation among internal contenders. In most instances, those international linkages dictate the internal policy along two types of subordination: economic dependency and client relationships.

Prior to the UN General Assembly held in New York in September 2019, Haftar’s forces faced tough resistance in their attempt to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the fighting between pro-GNA and pro-Haftar forces killed at least 1 093 people, wounded 5 752, and forced some 120 000 into displacement.[7] Former UN envoy Ghassan Salamé told the UN Human Rights Council the conflict had spread outside Tripoli with air and drone attacks against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya. He expressed concern as ‘the conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war… It is fanned by widespread violations of the UN arms embargo by all parties and external actors.’[8]

Consequently, the philosophy of the UN Resolution 1973 (March 2011) which established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has gone astray. UNSMIL emerged with the aim of ‘find[ing] a peaceful and sustainable solution’ to the crisis, and, most recently, Resolution 2376 (2017), has extended the mission mandate for mediation and provision of good offices, including (since December 2015) supporting the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement. There have been recurring themes of ‘promising’ dialogue and ‘imminent’ reconciliation, proposed by six consecutive UN special envoys: Abdelilah Khatib (2011), Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017- March 2020).

The struggle of the United Nations diplomacy in Libya represents one of several challenges of international mediation in contemporary Arab conflicts. The protracted Libyan conflict remains a snapshot of several deadlocks, which have undermined the United Nations mediation and desired political transition in the North African oil-rich country after the fall of Qaddafi regime. In his concluding chapter in the 2018 Davos edition ‘The Future of Politics’, politician-turned-Harvard scholar, Nicholas Burns, wrote: ‘Nearly all of the Middle East’s twenty-two Arab countries are worse off, not better off… Stability and hope in the region are in very short supply. Four important Arab countries – Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – are essentially “failed states”. Libya’s warring tribes continue to contest for power with the outcome doubtful.’[9]

UNSMIL as a wishful platform of UN mediation 

The most recent SC Resolution 2486 (2019) was adopted on 12 September 2019, to keep UNSMIL operational until 15 September 2020, and recognised that ‘since 30 March 2016 UNSMIL has gradually established a consistent presence in Libya, and welcomes UNSMIL’s progress in re-establishing a presence in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of Libya, as security conditions allow. This presence inside Libya was impossible for nearly eight years of UNSMIL’s existence. The United Nations peace-making efforts between the two rival parliaments and governments gained some short-lived momentum after brokering, as mentioned earlier, the power-sharing Libyan Political Agreement, in December 2015. Yet, the deal soon ran into difficulties and ushered in a new phase in the conflict.’[10]

The frequency of infighting between the western and eastern camps, not ignoring several rogue militias, has derailed both political and humanitarian progress, if one considers the dilemma of slavery, detention, and abuse of sub-Saharan migrants. So far, UN diplomacy remains sandwiched between the interpretative legitimacy as a political construct, bestowed on the former by the international community under the Skhirat process, and the claimed military ‘determinism’ of the latter. 

In his briefing to the Security Council on 4 September 2019, then-UN envoy, Ghassan Salamé, stated, ‘Many Libyans feel abandoned by part of the international community and exploited by others.’ He also warned of two ‘highly unpalatable scenarios’ if the Council and broader international community fail to support an immediate end to the conflict — either a persistent and low-intensity conflict with continued fratricide among Libyans, or a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons, resulting in a sharp escalation and regional chaos.[11]

UN chief, António Guterres, has publicly condemned ‘the descent of Libya into political uncertainty and armed hostilities during the reporting period as deeply alarming.’ He also remains concerned about the impact on civilians of the shelling of residential areas and about the reports of targeted attacks and the destruction of vital infrastructure.[12] By the end of 2019, Salamé was cynical of the external support, which was ‘instrumental in the intensification of airstrikes’, and ‘imported weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots, trainers and technicians’.[13] In Europe, four well-publicised meetings were held, one in Paris and another in Palermo, to reach a Libyan reconciliation in 2018, a third in Moscow and a fourth in Berlin in early 2020. However, they failed to bring about any diplomatic breakthrough. 

Detractors of the UN in Libya

With the open-ended cycle of violence, the death toll, and civilian suffering in Libya, new questions arise now about the pragmatism of intervention: can the United Nations, at this point, avoid more civilian fatalities, provide humanitarian assistance for millions of internally-displaced persons and refugees, or guide any mechanism of peaceful transition into stability in Libya, and other those failed states like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq? What would be the minimum expectation from the UN now?

There might be some alternative approaches to what I term a good-enough paradigm of conflict management, however, affected civilians and concerned public opinion are hopeful of effective frameworks of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. In January 2018, in his remarks to the Security Council, Salamé explained how the complexity of the Libyan crisis pivoted around a conflict over resources. He then reiterated his UNSMIL team’s commitment to three fundamental objectives: a) adopting a new constitution as a permanent legal framework, b) reformulating a Libyan national polity, and c) holding general elections while more than two million Libyans have put their names on the electoral register. As stated previously, ‘the majority of Libyans feel less enthusiastic and believe the current deadlock is too strong to make any real political overtures. The only political momentum in Libya at present is the United Nations’ search for a new impetus among rival centres of power, including the militias. However, leaders of political and military rival groups are reluctant to engage in the UN process or to commit to any final decision.’[14]

UN diplomacy seems to be undergoing a period of fatigue. It has apparently exhausted its energy in searching for efficient formulas of conflict transformation, in fact, on fully-fledged conflict resolution. The UN literature asserts, ‘When an effective mediation process is hampered, other efforts may be required to contain the conflict or to mitigate the human suffering, but there should be constant efforts to remain engaged so as to identify and seize possible windows of opportunity for mediation in the future.’ So far, six UN envoys have experimented with a variety of mediation techniques and combined their institutional guidelines with their personal touch in managing the Libyan conflict. Any revision of these approaches should take into consideration four main challenges: 

  1. Fragmented legitimacy

As mentioned in the introduction, two battles over legitimacy, or two legitimation crises, have spoiled Libyan politics and UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, conceptualises a legitimation crisis as ‘an identity crisis that results from a loss of confidence in administrative institutions, which occurs despite the fact that they still retain legal authority by which to govern.’[15]

  1. First battle – why HoR?

I joined the UN Panel of Experts on Libya less than three months after the general elections of June 25, 2014, which gave birth to the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and later, the first government in Bayda led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. The turnout was very low at 18 per cent, while most candidates ran as independents. Nationalist and liberal factions gained momentum by securing the majority of seats, whereas the Islamist groups’ representation shrunk to around 30 seats. There was common interpretation that the Islamist forces faced ‘a devastating loss at the ballot box, and now face a genuine existential threat’.[16] The ballot results triggered several reactions nationally and internationally. The majority of Libyans, the new parliament, and the international community, would expect the Islamists ‘to accept the will of the Libya people expressed through the ballot box, and to refrain from using unorthodox tactics, such as using armed militias to influence the political process.’[17]

The United Nations swiftly recognised the HoR as ‘the only legitimately elected legislature’.[18] Then-UN envoy, Tarek Mitri, attended its inaugural session in Tobruk on 4 August 2014, and later expressed some regret in his report to the Security Council. He wrote, ‘Many efforts, including ours, to arrive at an agreement over procedural and related issues failed to ensure full participation of all elected members. A number of representatives decided to boycott the sessions. Underlining the importance of safeguarding Libya’s fragile transition, with the House of Representatives as the only legitimately elected legislature, we affirmed that every effort must be exerted towards enabling parliamentarians, who boycott the House of Representatives, to join their colleagues.’[19]

However, the political elite of the west and their Misrata fighters’ supporters, with links to Operation Dawn, did not accept the emergence of HoR as Libya’s new legislative assembly in lieu of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC). A new war of narratives erupted between the two political camps, and the conflict over the constitutionality of HoR became a wider legal battle before the Supreme Court. Throughout the summer of 2014, the gap deepened between the two de facto parliaments and rival governments over political legitimacy and control of the country’s vast energy reserves. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that the legitimacy of the government relied upon constitutionalism and consent, but also posited that political stability relied upon the legitimacy of rewards.[20]

In early November 2014, the Supreme Court invalidated the election of the HoR, and stated that the Election Law Committee ‘had violated Libya’s provisional constitution’.[21] The Court verdict led to celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, as it meant the non-constitutionality of HoR in Tobruk. Nouri Abusahmain, then-head of GNC, told reporters, ‘We, the General National Congress, call for dialogue. A dialogue serves national reconciliation, stability and development.’[22] However, HoR rejected the Court’s decision arguing it was made ‘at gunpoint’[23] with the court being controlled by armed militias. The UNSMIL team was taken by surprise, and the gist of its reaction was ‘an urgent need for all parties to forge consensus on political arrangements’.[24] Consequently, the Tripoli-Tobruk political rivalry and emergence of Haftar, as the ‘strong man’ of the east, have had a negative impact on the UN mediation efforts. 

  1. Second battle - why GNA?

A second reconstructed legitimacy emerged between November 2014 and October 2015. The UN mediation focused on multi-track, cross-elite, cross-tribe negotiations held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Bernardino León, then-head of UNSMIL, engaged in some shuttle diplomacy between HoR and GNC around a compromise with Sarraj. By mid-October, he secured the initial acceptance of both sides of a revised version of a framework of power sharing. The diplomatic breakthrough was celebrated on October 17 in Morocco by signing the new Libyan Political Agreement. 

The new agreement established a nine-member Presidency Council and a seventeen-member interim Government of National Accord, with the aim of holding new elections within two years (October 2015-October 2017). It also maintained the continuity of HoR as a legislature and advisory body, to be known as the ‘High Council of State’. This shift represented the best possible scenario of national unity and positive engagement of several stakeholders. The Agreement introduction reads, ‘Members from all these three legislative bodies made very important contributions to the dialogue process and to the conclusion of this agreement. Other independent stakeholders participated as well. The armed groups, municipal councils, political parties, tribal leaders, and women’s organizations contributed to other elements of the dialogue to promote a genuine and stable reconciliation.’ The Security Council announced its support of the Government of National Accord as ‘the sole legitimate government of Libya’, and stressed, ‘a Government of National Accord that should be based in the capital Tripoli is urgently needed to provide Libya with the means to maintain governance, promote stability and economic development.’

In the following two years, the military open-ended Karama (Dignity) operation, led by General Haftar, has scaled back the diplomatic hopes of the United Nations. The battle over legitimacy is not only political Tobruk and Tripoli, but also entails the complexity of the military-civilian relations in the country. Haftar is a good example of how certain military figures tend to flex their muscles in the field, intimidate the political will of Sarraj, and impose their fait accompli at every turn of the negotiating process. By mid-December 2017, he declared the Skhirat agreement ‘void’. So far, Haftar’s intention is ‘to seize, rather than share’, as he believes that ‘power can come as no surprise’.[25]

Several factors have solidified these disputing constructs of legitimacy: electoral legitimacy, international legitimacy, military legitimacy, and others. The International Crisis Group has noticed that, ‘While international rifts and competing regional ambitions remain an overarching conflict driver, locally, interlocking competing narratives of political and military legitimacy, a battle for power, tribal rifts and recriminations, and a deeply polarized media are making the war even more intractable.’[26]

Part 2 of the paper will address the impact of international links in Libya, the question of parallel or rival diplomacies, what is behind the counterterrorism discourse, and some concluding remarks.

* Dr Mohammed Cherkaoui is a professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington DC and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.

 

[1] Mohammed Ghobari, Mohammed Mokhashef (2020). ‘Yemen separatists announce self-rule in south, complicating peace efforts’, Reuters, 26 April, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-south/yemen-separatis…

[2] DW News (2020). ‘Libya: Khalifa Haftar declares “popular mandate,” end to 2015 UN agreement’. DW, 27 April, https://www.dw.com/en/libya-khalifa-haftar-declares-popular-mandate-end…

[3] BBC (2020). ‘Libya conflict: “Stressed” Ghassan Salamé resigns as UN envoy,’ BBC News, 2 March 2, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51713683

[4] Peter Bartu (2014). ‘Libya’s Political Transition: The Challenges of Mediation’, International Peace Institute, December.

[5] Timothy D Sisk (2008). International Mediation in Civil Wars: Bargaining with Bullets, Routledge.

[6] Edward E Azar (1990). The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases, Dartmouth Pub Co. 

[7] Aljazeera News (2019). ‘Libya’s Khalifa Haftar says open to dialogue as fighting drags on,’ 29 September, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/libya-khalifa-haftar-open-dialog…

[8] Aljazeera News (2019). ‘Libya’s Khalifa Haftar says open to dialogue as fighting drags on’.

[9] Nicholas Burns (2018). ‘An Outlook on Global Politics’, in The Future of Politics, Credit Suisse, 2018 Davos edition.

[10] Lisa Watanabe (2019). ‘UN Mediation in Libya: Peace Still a Distant Prospect,’ CSS Analyses in Security Policy, No. 246, June.

[11] UN News (2019). ‘International Meeting Essential to Getting Libya-led Political Process Back on Track, Ending Conflict, Special Representative Tells Security Council’, Security Council 8611TH, 4 September.

[12] António Guterres (2019). ‘United Nations Support Mission in Libya Report of the Secretary-General’, S2019/682, 26 August.

[13] Ghassan Salamé (2019). ‘With Libyans now “fighting the wars of others” inside their own country, UN envoy urges Security Council action to end violence’, UN News, July 29, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/07/1043381

[14] Mohammed Cherkaoui (2018). ‘Fits and Starts Characterize UN Mediation in Yemen, Syria, and Libya’. Arab Center DC, 7 February, http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/fits-and-starts-characterize-un…

[15] Habermas, Jürgen (1975). Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press. 

[16] Mohamed Eljarh (2014). ‘Libya’s Islamists Go for Broke’, Foreign Policy, 22 July, https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/07/22/libyas-islamists-go-for-broke/

[17] Mohamed Eljarh (2014). ‘Libya’s Islamists Go for Broke’.

[18] Tarek Mitri (2014). ‘Security Council Briefing’, 27 August, https://unsmil.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/SRSG%20SC%20briefing%…

[19] Tarek Mitri (2014). ‘Security Council Briefing’, 27 August.

[20] Morris Zelditch, Jr (2001). ‘Theories of Legitimacy’, in Jost, John; Major, Brenda (eds), The Psychology of Legitimacy: Emerging Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge University Press, 38.

[21] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’, 6 November, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-parliament/libya-face…

[22] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’.

[23] Aljazeera News (2014). ‘Libyan court rules elected parliament illegal’, 7 November, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/11/libyan-court-suspends…

[24] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’, 6 November, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-parliament/libya-face…

[25] Paul Taylor (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’, POLITICO, 17 April, https://www.politico.eu/article/frances-double-game-in-libya-nato-un-kh…

[26] International Crisis Group (2019). ‘Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya’, 22 July, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/avoiding-protracted-conflict-libya

by Zeenat Adam

South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCOargues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’ 

In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.

The recent and ongoing Saudi-Emirati offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hudaida will render UN special envoy Martin Griffiths’s ‘new’ solution to the five-year-long Yemeni crisis difficult to implement. The partial success of the Hudaida offensive has already emboldened the UAE to demand the return of the city to troops aligned to Yemen’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. As Griffiths engages the different players, it is likely that the Houthi, who currently control the port city, will be willing eventually to hand Hudaida over to a third party. Griffiths alluded to this when he referred to his meetings with Houthi officials as ‘fruitful’. This despite the group’s initial rejection of the envoy’s proposal. Clearly, the devastating military hardware supplied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE confronted the group with insurmountable odds, and it has reevaluated its position.

Griffiths will, however, likely face pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which insist that Hudaida be transferred to their direct control, and that UNSC resolution 2216, which calls for Houthi disarmament, be the basis for negotiations. Their belligerence is fuelled by the lack of consequences for their offensive, which has been condemned by the United Nations and most global powers.

Before the Hudaida offensive commenced on 12 June, Griffiths had been meeting roleplayers in an attempt to formulate an enduring solution to the current impasse. His solution closely resembledthe 2016 Kuwait and Kerry initiatives, and called for a ceasefire that would end with the disarmament of the Houthi. The major difference between his proposal and the other two was that he proposed a unity government be formed before disarmament. Other issues, including reconciliation, the status of southern Yemen, and the holding of elections were to be decided in a second phase. Disagreements over the ceasefire and the handover of Hudaida to a third party aborted his initiative. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had previously insisted that the port be handed over to a third party without commensurately agreeing to lift the blockade on Sana'a airport. Significantly, UNSC resolution 2216, adopted in April 2015, ratified Hadi as Yemen’s president and advocated Houthi disarmament and withdrawal. This resolution remains skewed and unrepresentative of the balance of forces, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE insist on it as a basis for negotiations, thus ensuring that no initiative can succeed.

Hudaida is a strategic port through which northern Yemen receives over seventy per cent of its aid; the Saudi coalition has been plotting its capture for two years. The plan to take the city is consistent with the UAE’s recent attempts to secure controlof ports along both the Asian and African sides of the Red Sea. In Yemen alone, Abu Dhabi controls the port of Mukallah, Mocha and Aden, and has significant influence in Socotra; in the Horn of Africa it controlsthe ports of Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland/Somalia) and Bosaso (Somalia), and had previously attempted to control Djibouti’s main port.

Fearing that Saudi-Emirati control of Hudaida would halt aid to northern Yemen, the international community had previously scuppered an attack on the city.  Significantly, even the USA, in Donald Trump’s first year as president, refused to endorse the operation, and refused to supply Saudi Arabia with military hardware required to detect and remove sea mines and land-sea missiles that have prevented Saudi-backed forces from being able to amphibiously dock in the port.

However, on 12 June, Saudi- and Emirati-supported troops commenced their operation to capture Hudaida, despite warnings from the UNSC, which condemned the offensive and unsuccessfully attempted mediation talks the day before. Worryingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE forced Yemen’s exiled president, Hadi, to endorse the offensive when it seemed that the international community would not. Under duress, he supported it, believing that his failure to do so would not halt UAE actions, but would, instead, allow the Emiratis to control Hudaida in the same way that they control Aden. Hadi’s lesson from Aden goes back to January when UAE-supported forces routed troops aligned to him. In February 2017, the UAE even forcefully prevented Hadi, a southerner and the internationally-recognised president of Yemen who the UAE supposedly supports, from returning to the region.  He was allowed to enter Aden only four months later, on 14 June, after his acquiescence with the Hudaida offensive. 

Griffiths has travelled to Sana'a twice in the past two months – between16 and 20 Juneand from 2 to 4 Julyin an unsuccessful attempt to secure a ceasefire. His proposal to broker a solution, including the handover of Hudaida to a third party, was accepted by the Houthi in June, even though they publicly rejected it. Although the group’s support is largely intact, its lacks the military hardware, especially airpower, to contain Emirati- and Saudi-backed forces, allowing them to rapidly capture Hudaida’s airport. Houthi fighters are attempting to stall the offensive through guerrilla tactics. Their leaders realise the asymmetry of forces, and will likely accept a solution which allows them a stake in governance and allows them to keep their weapons. They unsuccessfully proposed a second ceasefire offerfollowing Griffiths’s June visit, offering to surrender the whole of Hudaida to the UN in return for Houthi fighters being allowed to remain. This was rejected by Hadi. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to accept any solution that will allow the Houthi to maintain their arms. Further, they have demanded that Hudaida be transferred to Hadi, rather than accepting third party control. The ‘pause’ in operations during Griffith’s recent visit was thus an attempt by the Saudi-UAE coalition to allow him the space to convince the Houthi to capitulate, and has little to do with the flow of aid. Significantly, it was the UAE, not Hadi, that announcedthe ‘pause’, clearly indicating its oversized influence in the conflict.

The Houthi still control most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sana'a, where the majority of the country’s population resides. Moreover, the group’s ability to use guerrilla tactics will ensure that recapturing territory will be a protracted process for the Hadi-Saudi-Emirati coalition, especially since northern Yemen is mostly mountainous. Even in Hudaida, UAE-backed forces are seeking to avert street battles, which would result in a large number of deaths. The UAE ‘pause’ is thus both tactical and strategic.

Despite global criticism of the Saudi-Emirati offensive, there have been no concrete consequences for their actions, which will likely embolden them further. Even the USA, which previously had cautioned against the offensive, now tentatively supportsit. With the capture of Mukallah and Mocha, Saudi- and UAE-backed troops no longer required equipment to detect and remove sea mines and to counter land-to-sea missiles since they are able to travel on land along the coast. Additionally, the defection of troops aligned to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from the Houthi to the Hadi camp, opened another front against the former. Abu Dhabi also countered concerns that a siege of Hudaida will prevent aid from reaching northern Yemen by sending aid, instead, overland through the UAE. The blockade on Hudaida thus also has economic benefits for the UAE.

Griffiths’s initiative, based on a leaked draft, fails to adequately address Yemen’s complexities. His travels in the past few weeks indicate that he has been forced to adopt a piecemeal approach to find common ground. This too has largely failed owing to Saudi and UAE intransigence, which will likely intensify if Hudaida is handed to Hadi. A solution for Yemen needs to be holistic, allowing for the parties to agree on sets of measures simultaneously in an attempt to catalyse compromise. 

In his 18 June report to the UNSC, Griffiths promised that a new peace plan would be presented in July. However, the new situation will render it difficult for him to formulate a solution acceptable to both the Hadi and Houthi coalitions. Further, the leaked plan does not account for the many smaller conflicts within Yemen’s larger milieu.

In addition, the Saudi-UAE rejection of the UN process illustrates how little influence Hadi has in the conflict. Indeed, while he is touted as the recognised president, he is increasingly marginalised. The UAE’s increasing support for Tariq Saleh, nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, could result in Abu Dhabi having him play a role similar to that of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, to ensure that the conflict endures, especially since Saleh’s rise will further pressure the already-fragmented Hadi coalition. Southern Transitional Council (STC) officials, based in Aden, have acknowledgedthat a battle for southern independence will likely commence after the Houthi are defeated. It is probable that Abu Dhabi will continue supporting the STC to secure control of the country’s Red Sea ports, most of which are located in southern provinces.

by Helen Lackner

Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.[1]

On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’[2] The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.

This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14,[3] the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.

Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.

Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan. 

Yemen map Lackner

Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings

The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.

Political tensions increased through three episodes:

  1. Opposition parties in parliament regrouped in the Joint Meeting Parties in 2003, composed of Islah (the largest party, itself combining northern Hashed tribes and supporters of Muslim Brotherhood throughout the country), the YSP, Baathists, Nasserists, Popular Forces and al-Haq parties.
  2. The emerging Houthi movement began armed opposition to the Saleh regime in 2004, resulting in six short wars until 2010.
  3. The rise of the southern separatist movement from 2007. It was initially peaceful, but the regime’s aggressive response contributed to the growth and increased influence of the movement.

Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.

Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.

This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.

There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.

In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.

By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.

A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.

The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:

  1. In the areas controlled by the Houthis, worsening tension within the Houthi-Saleh alliance culminated in Houthis killing Saleh in his Sana’a residence on 4 December 2017, leaving them in full control of the northern highlands. This may well be the peak of their power, as they now have to add forces loyal to Saleh to their list of rivals.
  2. The disintegration and fragmentation of the ‘liberated’ areas. The main characteristic of the Hadi government is its absence. Southern governorates are under the control of a range of forces including southern separatists (the Southern Transitional Council (STC) established in May 2017 is the most influential of these groups), various local regional forces, and jihadis. The UAE set up, financed, trained and deployed military and security forces – known in the western governorates as Security Belts, and in the eastern ones as Elite Forces. They are all primarily composed of local Salafis and do not form a coherent body. The northern areas are under the control of the vice president (since April 2016), Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist on the extremist end of the Islahi spectrum. State institutions have largely disintegrated, partly due to the failure of the internationally-recognised regime to pay salaries.

While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.

Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.[4]

About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemen WHO LacknerYemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.

An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.

The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.

On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent).[5] Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.

Conclusion
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.

The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies

* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State

 


[1]     Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.

[2]     Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.

[3]     A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

[4]     UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.

[5]     SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.

By Justin Podur

Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.

The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire's Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana'a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and '80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen's most important ally.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.

Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.

The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.

People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.

When bin Laden's al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.

By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa'ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.

The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country's elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.

This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen's GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.

As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh's cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa'ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”

In the chant, "curse on the Jews" stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one's own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa'ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.

Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa'ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis' cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh's forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa'ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.

Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh's government. President Obama's drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh's strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen's elite.

At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh's rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.

Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana'a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada'a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.

The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.

The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.

The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.

Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh's son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.

The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.

* This article was first published on alternet.org

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