The only hope for Yemen lies beyond its capital

The only hope for Yemen lies beyond its capital
Comment: Yemen's future will have to be built on the inkspot military strategy, which depends on small yet growing peace hubs beyond the main cities, writes Nadia al-Sakkaf.
8 min read
09 Jan, 2018
Clashes erupt in Sanaa between Houthi rebels and supporters of Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh[AFP]
As Saudi-backed Yemeni troops under President Hadi make progress on the ground closing in on the Houthi rebels, the situation in the capital Sanaa becomes more dire

In return, Houthis continue to claim their territory showing they are still a force to be reckoned with, as they continue to fire long range missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia.

However, in addition to the battles around Sanaa, Hadi has managed to liberate important cities on the Red Sea and the west coast from the Houthis.

While it may seem that the end of the conflict is in sight, and despite this welcome progress, peace in Yemen remains a distant possibility, for there are already too many factions with divided loyalties on the ground today.

With so many figures growing in power, who would not want to surrender newly acquired riches, even if to a legitimate government and through elections?

We are, perhaps looking at the Libyan model in terms of our future over the next decade. As it is, there are already two visible governments, although one is legitimate and the other is de facto. Additionally, there are several groups gaining power, who have control over land and who are gradually winning the support of their communities, such as the governor of Marib and the Hadrami Coalition in Mukalla.

As Yemenis, we have been locked in an identity crisis for many years. Who we are as a people was always defined by our tribe, geographical affiliation and more recently sect, rather than one national identity. The fragmented society of the country is a consequence of Saleh's strategy, enabling him to rule for three decades.

The fragmented society of the country is a consequence of Saleh's strategy

And that is one of the many reasons - although he was mourned after his death - he is no hero to me. Saleh eventually reaped what he sowed, and his strategy of frequently changing alliances became his undoing.

In fact, the latest vicious conflict between Salah's affiliates and the Houthis - which lead to Saleh's death at the hands of his enemies - did not come as a surprise to most Yemenis. If at all, it came later than expected.

The tension between the Houthis and Saleh's people had been building since the very day the alliance was created. Ideologically, it was not possible for the two parties to continue in a constructive partnership, and each, while working with the other, undermined the other through competition for shared resources and shared power.

The Houthis used the last three years to learn Saleh's way of running the country by winning favours and pitting power groups against each other until they outsmarted him in his own game.

As it is, there are already two visible governments, although one is legitimate and the other is de facto

His famous statement "dancing on the heads of snakes" was adopted by the insurgent group, and the entire country continues to live the consequences of a legacy of more than three decades of manipulation and authoritarian control.

Today the Houthis control most of the northern areas as well as an extensive amount of heavy artillery and far reaching missiles, much of which is said to be provided by Iran. However, their control over the country is not one that is based on support or welcomed by the majority of the population, even those under their control.

The culture of fear and the police state they have created is their means of survival - as that of any authoritarian regime - and will likely be the end of them. Knowing Yemen and Yemenis, it is clear that Houthi control will be short lived, given their method of rule and the fact that there is no shortage of weapons, men willing to fight, or ambitious new leaders.

But what next? Now that the Houthi-Saleh coalition has come to an end, an opportunity presents itself for president Hadi to become a unifier of Yemenis and take charge of the GPC party. It is doubtful that he will be able to do so, not only as demonstrated in the past, but also because the power groups he is working with including the Southern Movement, are actually undermining his authority.

Read more: Can the General People's Congress in Yemen preserve its clout after the death of Saleh?

As it is, since the coup in 2014 there have been two distinct divisions in the party, one loyal to Saleh and the other loyal to Hadi.

With Saleh's death, many of the GPC leaders, including Saleh's own son Ahmed Ali who has been a guest of the UAE in recent years, have displayed their interest in supporting Hadi against the Houthis who murdered their leader. Others have joined Hadi out of fear of being targeted by the Houthis who are hunting down those of Saleh's men still in Sanaa.

Despite Hadi's statement to the Yemeni people and to GPC members indicating his willingness to take up the role of a unifier, and even calling Saleh - his foe until very recently - a martyr, not much has happened in terms of Hadi's GPC restructuring, compared to the swift moves carried out by the remaining members of the GPC in Sanaa who decided to realign with the Houthis, and choose a new leader to replace Saleh.

The struggle in Hadi's GPC wing is not for the lack of leaders but rather because there are a number of them with conflicting interests and backgrounds.

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Although Hadi is the highest ranking figure in the GPC now, and a natural choice, it is a well known fact among Yemenis that the northern tribes will not bow to a Southern leader.

And although the GPC in essence is a political party, it has to play by socio-cultural and even geographic rules dictated by the social power groups, especially powerful tribes.

This means that both Hadi and his prime minister bin Dhager, despite their positive initiatives and extended hands may not present the solutions northern Yemeni tribes are looking for. 

And here steps in Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who may be the answer the tribes need even if temporary.

Muhsin, as a supporter of Hadi, also provides the legitimacy KSA needs to back this agreement. Moreover, Alahmar was already been appointed by Hadi in April last year as vice president, and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces before that.

UAE's reservations against Muhsin's affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood may soon be discounted - at least for the time being, as signs of such proximity have started to show.

This will require Yemenis who believe in peace, to work together and overcome their differences

None of this matters however, until and unless the status quo on the power balances on the ground is changed.

The liberation of Hodeida and Taiz are crucial in this equation, and until then not much change will happen in the larger picture, and this is likely to take a very long time.

The situation in the south is not much better.

Read more: Houthis release Yemeni journalist Hisham al-Omeisy after more than 150 days in captivity

The sudden confusion in the north, and the death of Saleh could provide the southern movement factions with the push they desperately need for a secession to take place, leaving the north to its own mess.

As it is, Yemen can never go back to the central state it was prior to 2011, and the 1990 borders are no longer viable for the socio-demographics as they stand today. This provides an opportunity for a loose implementation of the federal regions decided after the National Dialogue Conference which concluded in January 2014.

Moreover, poverty and the lack of adequate infrastructure to support even the most basic needs will exacerbate the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia will not be able to win the war with further strikes

Saudi Arabia will not be able to win the war with further strikes without real progress on land, and without showcasing successful models in the liberated regions.

Working with Yemeni troops on the ground is essential, but ones who answer to a leadership that is capable of influencing matters on the ground.

The only hope for Yemen lies beyond the capital, as it always has.

It lies beyond Sanaa and beyond Aden; in the grey areas where there are less controversial socio-political circumstances, and where efforts at stabilisation and reconstruction can produce results much faster.

This solution may not seem appealing to either Hadi, the Saudis, or the P5 for that matter, because it is less prestigious and does not give the closure they would like to the Yemen story.

However, the development of peace hubs beyond the main cities will provide hope for Yemenis who will see with their own eyes what a peaceful alternative looks like.

The solution for Yemen will have to be built on the inkspot military strategy which depends on small yet growing safe areas.

This will take a long time, much patience and a lot of international support. But most importantly, it will require Yemenis who believe in peace, to work together and overcome their differences for the greater good.

Nadia al-Sakkaf is a researcher specialising in gender and politics. She was the first Yemeni woman appointed as Information Minister, and prior to that was Chief Editor of The Yemen Times.

Follow her on Twitter: @NadiaSakkaf

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab