Yemen Peace Prospects Examined

Peter Salisbury speaks at Washington, DC’s Arab Gulf States Institute. [Staff Photo Phil Pasquini]

Journalist Peter Salisbury spoke Jan. 18 at Washington, DC’s Arab Gulf States Institute (AGSIW) on “Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order.” His December 2017 50-page assessment of the situation in Yemen of the same title was published by Chatham House, where he is a senior consulting researcher in its Middle East and North Africa program. Salisbury is also a non-resident fellow at AGSIW.

In his talk, Salisbury challenged current thinking on Yemen’s civil war as a binary conflict between the exiled government of President Abd Raboo Mansour Al-Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, and the now collapsed alliance between the Houthis—followers of Zaydism, a branch of Shi’i Islam —and Yemen’s deceased former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Instead, Salisbury argued, “We need to start thinking of a mediation strategy that includes all the different players and incentives to move it forward.” These players include Islah, a Sunni-Islamist party which is the best organized opposition group, and loyalists or allies of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a key part of the Saleh regime who split from the regime in 2011.

“There is a secessionist movement in southern Yemen,” Salisbury explained, “but it has not been very good at becoming a coherent, single unifying force over the last two decades. You have various different networks across the south that have been able to take over areas of territory where they are indigenous or local to that area and driven by internal politics, but cooperate with key security figures in Aden. Aden remains really a contested zone between figures backed by the Hadi government and southern secessionists sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, who is the main sponsor of most of the military groups across the tribal south.” Salafists, tribal groups, women and the youth must all be represented in any peace talks, he insisted.

In addition, in Hadramawt, the Hadrami Elite Forces took over from al-Qaeda at the beginning of 2016 and built a power base in the south, Salisbury pointed out.

“Yemen has really been divided into multiple zones of influence, control and power with different external allies and internal allies,” he noted. “Many different groups control different areas on the ground and have different agendas.”

Explaining the importance for all parties to be included in peace talks, he added: “Even if the war against the Houthis were to succeed in some way and they would be disarmed, then you have won the large war but have basically opened the door to a dozen small wars all across Yemen. There is a lot of chatter that the war can be won militarily in 2018, which I do not believe is going to happen.”

Salisbury concluded by telling his audience: “It is really hard for me to be optimistic about what happens in Yemen in the next few years, simply because when you take all of these groups on the ground and all of these external actors and you look at their agendas and where they are at psychologically, Yemen is not ripe for peace right now. I think an escalation in the conflict worsens a really terrible humanitarian situation. The only solution is a diplomatic solution.”

Salisbury did not address Yemen’s continuing humanitarian crisis, often described as the worst in the world. Humanitarian relief flights are allowed to fly to Sana’a only from Saudi Arabia, which severely hampers aid efforts. Yemen’s Health Ministry estimates that since August 2016 more than 10,000 people have died from lack of desperately needed medical care, food and supplies. According to the World Health Organization, there are currently more than 1,029,700 cases of cholera in Yemen, a country of 29.5 million people. Thousands of civilians have been injured and displaced from their homes due to the continued violence.

—Elaine Pasquini


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