A Houthi supporter holds a weapon as he attends a rally against the United States over its decision to designate the Houthi rebels movement as a foreign terrorist organization. Photo by Hani Al-Ansi, Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Yemen is witnessing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century with a civil war that has been going on for the past seven years. Alongside multiple local and regional actors at play, there are new diplomatic initiatives such as the U.S. special envoy introduced by the Biden administration, whose efficacy in bringing the conflicts to an end is yet to be proven. Nihan Duran of Politics Today interviewed Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni researcher and non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen on the current state of war in the country and the prospects of a sustainable peace.
Q. What is the current situation of the civil war in Yemen?
When we talk about Yemen today, we are not talking about one entity nor two entities, divided into south and north, as was the case before 1990. There are several entities in Yemen both in the south and north, and the biggest power in the north is the Houthis. They control a big part of the north of Yemen, which means that they have more than half of the population under their control.
In the north, there are also other powers such as the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah party controlling Taiz and Ma’rib, the latter being a rich governorate, now besieged by the Houthis. On the western coast of the north, we have the military commander Tareq Saleh, the nephew of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Q. What is the picture of the south of Yemen?
We have an even more complicated picture in the south, given that there are more actors than in the north, such as the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). STC is controlling the interim capital Aden and the western governorates Dhale and Lahj and parts of Abyan. Shabwah is a tribal governorate that is neighboring Ma’rib and is affiliated the president Hadi and Islah party has presence there. Coast of Hadhramaut is controlled by Hadhramaut elite which is supported by the UAE and affiliated the STC. Hadhramaut valley is still under the government forces control.
The people of Yemen cannot attain peace without the political will of the STC, the Houthis, or whoever is there. Enhancing the local governance is a must because the local actors are more in touch with the real situation there.
Al-Mahrah region is under the control of local powers. Alongside different local actors, there are also regional actors involved in Yemen, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, who are not aligned and are not very willing to cooperate either.
Q. Alongside these local and regional actors, there are also new diplomatic initiatives such as the U.S. special envoy introduced by the Biden administration. Do you believe that these initiatives are likely to make a difference in resolving ongoing conflicts?
The U.S. policy towards Yemen has changed dramatically after the Biden administration. During the Trump administration, the Yemeni file was completely ignored, but now Yemen is a top priority in Biden’s foreign policy. What is happening now is that Yemen’s war is being considered in connection with the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, which sees attempts now to be revived.
As we all know, Iran supports the Houthis for Iranians wish to be a powerful regional player and their influence in Yemen gives them a lot of leverage vis-à-vis the West, as we can see in the negotiations for the Nuclear Deal. For Iran, Yemen is the easiest card to be capitulated for a possible concession to Saudi Arabia.
The parties involved in negotiations to end the Yemen war need to understand that one cannot stop this war without addressing the local disputes and disagreements.
Q. In other words, Yemen is the soft spot for the Saudis.
Yes, they can accept the Iranian influence elsewhere, but not in Yemen. The U.S. is now trying to reach a peace settlement between the Saudis and the Houthis. There are also official meetings going on between Iran and Saudi Arabia around regional issues. Though these developments do not necessarily mean Iran will cut through all the relationships with the Houthis, it may put some leverage on the Houthis to accept a peace agreement that recognizes other local parties.
However, what I see right now is that the focus is too much on the regional dimensions of this war, and local dimensions, which are as crucial to consider, are largely overlooked. The parties involved in these negotiations need to understand that one cannot stop this war without addressing the local disputes and disagreements.
Q. How do you think it will be possible to bring the local dimension to the fore in these negotiations?
The U.S. is trying to reach a peace settlement between the Saudis and the Houthis. The idea is that the Houthis can have leverage over the Saudis because the latter represent a state; Saudi Arabia has interests in their relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world. However, this is not the case with the Houthis for many reasons. First, because they are not internationally recognized, and second, they do not have a meaningful economic or political relationship with the world, except with Iran. As a result, the U.S. sanctions applied against some Houthi individuals, such as banning them from traveling or freezing their bank accounts, don’t make any pressure on them as they don’t travel or have bank accounts outside of Yemen.
When we are talking about the Houthis, we need to keep in mind that the status of war is a normal thing for these people. We are talking about a 17-year-old war that started in 2004. They started fighting when they were just kids and teenagers. It is important to understand their mentality, on top of their motivation as a religious group, who believe that they have God’s favor and support in their cause. For this reason, it is very difficult to convince the Houthis to compromise with other parties for the sake of peace.
Q. What about the people of Yemen?
I think the people of Yemen want peace. The general mood is that they are fed up with the war, and more importantly, they are beginning to lose faith in most of the main local powers to bring an end to the situation. They feel this way because of the local powers’ affiliation with the regional players. This has started to create a sentiment among the Yemeni people that these local powers are inadequate actors who are heavily influenced by regional powers, who in turn are using Yemen for their own benefit – regardless of what the Yemeni people want. The same goes with the STC, the Houthis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others. I feel that most of the Yemeni people have lost trust in these local powers, but they are far from finding other alternatives.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen. Photo provided by the author.
Q. On the other hand, we see in the south of Yemen a desire for a two-state or a two-region solution. What is the motivation behind that?
The south and the north were two different states until the unification in 1990. The Republic in the North, which had represented the capitalist camp, was established in 1962, and when the British withdrew from the south, the Southern state was founded in 1967, which represented the communist camp. However, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the desire for unification grew stronger, especially in the south. Yet, we need to note that, although they were united, the army remained divided and they could not agree on the constitution. So, there was a political crisis directly after the unity, and in 1994, a civil war erupted between the south and north. Yet, it is not very easy to refer to the new tension as a dispute between the south and the north in a classical sense.
Q. What do you mean?
During the civil war in 1994, some Islamist groups in the south fought for the government in the north against the socialist party in the south, who were defeated at that time. Whereas this victory made the north the hegemonic power across Yemen, it was received with resentment in the south, where people felt that they were being politically marginalized.
On top of that, after the discovery of the oil resources in the south, they eventually felt they would be better off without the north, who they have felt had neglected and marginalized them right after the 1994 war. Not surprisingly, the Houthis’ invasion of the south of Yemen in 2015 revived the two-decades-old injuries, which made the south feel that they cannot continue, especially with the Houthis controlling the capital in the north, Sanaa.