The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think-tank in London with close ties to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), held an event on 16 May about the war in Yemen.
The event consisted of two panels.
The first panel featured Mummar al-Eryani, the Information Minister of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, and Alistair Burt, a Member of Parliament and one of the most knowledgeable British officials on the Middle East who was until March the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at FCO and Minister for International Development.
The second panel consisted of Yaseen Saeed Noman, the ambassador of the recognised Yemeni government to Britain, Dr. Nadia al-Saqqaf, the former Yemeni Information Minister.
European Eye on Radicalization attended the event and acquired a number of insights that brought to attention aspects of the Yemen conflict that are under-emphasised or misrepresented in much of the coverage.
The Huthis Started the War
The Yemen war is often presented as having begun when the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015. In fact, as Burt noted, the coalition acted defensively to protect legitimate security interests. The Iran-backed Ansarallah movement, usually known as the Huthis, plunged Yemen into civil war by launching a violent coup d’état in September 2014.
Yemen was going through the National Dialogue transition process to try to find a democratic political settlement after the ouster of long-time dictator Ali Saleh when the Huthis seized Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in late 2014.
Ambassador Noman said that Iran sent weapons to the Huthis during the National Dialogue, enabling them to expand from their heartland in Saada, using force to alter the terms of what should have been a peaceful process. Even so, as Al-Eryani noted, the recognised government tried to reason with the militiamen and to share power.
Al-Eryani described sitting in Cabinet meetings with the Huthis and working with them to serve the Yemeni people. The recognised government was willing to try anything for peace, says Al-Eryani. But for the Huthis this was not enough. The Huthis’ participation in the National Dialogue, even with the process unfairly tilted in their favour because of their use of force, was a deception, said Noman; they used the time to build up their capacity and plan for total conquest.
In the early months of 2015, the Huthis moved to expel the state officials and take sole power in Sanaa, before chasing the deposed government even after they fled to Aden. Dr. Al-Saqqaf voiced disappointment with the European Union, especially Germany, for having assisted with the National Dialogue, training Yemenis in problem-solving and democratic methods, yet offering no resistance when the Huthis moved to abort the process. Had the international community acted earlier to restrain the Huthis’ aggression, it might have prevented the collapse of Yemen into chaos and humanitarian disaster.
The passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216 in April 2015 was symptomatic of the problematic international community behaviour towards Yemen, said Al-Saqqaf. The resolution demanded rollback of the Huthis’ control and their disarmament before negotiations begin on a settlement. The resolution was late—coming after the Huthis had pushed out from Sanaa—and thus these terms were hollow. The international community could have pre-empted the Huthi-Saleh alliance that allowed the Huthis to overrun swathes of territory south of Sanaa, vastly expanding the area of the country embroiled in war.
This failure of the international community meant that Al-Saqqaf was forced to flee her country with her children.
It was the international community’s unwillingness to act, and the Huthis’ relentless attempts to extinguish all opposition with their attack on the deposed government in Aden, that finally triggered the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition to attempt to restore the legitimate government and the transition process that the Huthis and their Iranian supporters had violently interrupted.
The Extremism and Brutality of the Huthis
The Huthis have been given a nearly free pass in the Western media, Burt noted, and thus it was welcome that officials of the legitimate government were revealing the depredations of the Iran-supported militiamen. The British and other Western governments have long known about this state of affairs, finding the delivery of humanitarian aid in Huthi-held areas difficult, Burt confirmed, with severe delays to delivery and the theft of aid by the Huthis.
Al-Eryani described in detail the intransigence and criminality of the Huthis. The Huthis have imposed a reign of terror in the areas they control, Al-Eryani documented. It is a sectarian and exclusivist theocratic form of governance deeply influenced by the Iranian Islamist revolutionary ideology, which extends the principle of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), intended traditionally to place the indigent and infirm in the care of the clergy, to the whole of society.
To increase their numbers as they expanded the territory they hold, the Huthis have recruited 50,000 child soldiers, said Al-Eryani, a horrific element of the war that causes him to lose sleep. Homes have been looted; religious minorities like the Baha’i and women repressed and displaced.
Noman, too, notes the way the Huthis transformed a political conflict into a religious one, which is by definition much more difficult to solve. Noman added that the Huthis’ extremist rule is based on their belief in their divine right to rule. These beliefs are why the Huthis only speak of peace when they are weak; otherwise, they pursue an aggressive policy in service of Iran’s sectarian project in the region.
The Huthis’ aggressive and cruel nature is not merely a human rights problem; even in realpolitik terms it means they cannot be the answer to Yemen’s woes. As Noman outlined, the Huthis are so unpopular and so small in numbers relative to the whole country, despite the recent expansion, that there can only be instability where they reign.
The ideal solution is to neutralise Yemen, said Burt. Given the foothold Iran now has, Tehran is able to bargain for the country not to be used as a launching pad against them by the Gulf states. By the same token, the Saudi-Emirati coalition is well within its rights to eliminate the Iranian menace in Yemen and to halt the launching of missiles at the Saudi capital and other cities.
While Yemen might not be able to get to such a settlement solely via a “military solution”, said Burt, “military pressure” was needed against the Huthis in order to make a durable solution possible.
All participants were highly dubious of the recent Huthi claim to have handed over key parts of the port city of Hodeidah. Those on the ground saw a sleight of hand, with Huthi agents assuming these positions in different uniforms. And, indeed, the whole U.N.-sponsored process struck the panellists as unrealistic, not least because U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths has been paying no attention to credible Yemeni voices.
The U.N. notion that an immediate laying down of arms is the route to a lasting peace is simply wrong, as all the speakers agreed. If the coalition ended operations tomorrow and withdrew, it might tempt the Huthis into seizing more land, but they could not hold it; the resultant humanitarian catastrophe would extend and broaden the war. There is a class of people who benefit from continuing the war, and a key element is applying the right mix of pressure and inducements on these people to have them buy-into a post-war situation.
Underlining the point, three scholars recently documented in Foreign Affairs that civil wars generally end either with outright victory for one side—an impossibility in Yemen given the balance of power—or a settlement brokered by a third party. But this second option only becomes possible when the combatants have “reached a military stalemate such that all sides are convinced they cannot win a military victory”. Yemen is not there yet. To get there, the authors argue, the U.S. should “increase … support for the Saudi-led coalition, enable it to capture Hodeidah, and then use the resulting leverage to force both sides to end the fighting and sign a power-sharing agreement.”