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Monday, January 12, 2015

Conflict continues in Yemen


The National Dialogue Conference(NDC) in Yemen was held between March 18, 2013 and January 24, 2014. The Conference was a transitional dialogue sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) subsequent to former president Saleh yielding power.

The NDC was plagued by problems from the beginning. Many in the southern separatist movement refused to join in the dialogue. There were problems with the Houthi separatists in the north as well who ultimately withdrew after two of their representatives were assassinated. The Dialogue members agreed that Yemen would become a federal system with six regions. Sanaa the capital and Aden the former capital of a separate southern state would also have special status. The federal system was rejected by southern leaders including Ali Ahmed who had been part of the NDC.

Many praised the dialogue including Marie Harf who was then a spokesperson for the US State Dept.: "The debates, discussions and compromises throughout the National Dialogue process are evidence of the will of the Yemeni people to work together constructively for the future of their country.” The Houthi leaders and the southern separatist leaders, both those who attended the NDC and those who did not, rejected the federal system proposed. Since that time, the Houthi's have extended their power from the north southward seizing the capital Sanaa and west to a port on the Red Sea. According to the Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies the Shia Houthi rebels now control up to 70 percent of the armed forces. The political transition, following on the transfer of power to vice-president and now president Mansour Hadi from former president Saleh, has failed.

 The Houthis are now threatening to take over the province of Marib that is rich in oil. Some analysts think that former president Saleh, who retains influence in the armed forces, allied with the Houthis in their advance outside areas in the north which they had held for a considerable time. The Houthis are a Shia minority in Yemen and are supported by Iran. It is unlikely that they could successfully rule the entire country which is majority Sunni. More likely, their aim is to be able to ensure that any Yemeni government recognizes their power and interest and is dependent upon their cooperation.

The situation is complicated by the strength of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The advance of the Houthis into Sunni territory has led some Sunni tribes to ally with AQAP in a unified front to resist and fight the Houthis. AQAP not only attacks the Houthis but has been in a continual guerrilla war with the Hadi government constantly launching attacks on the military and government facilities.

 An article in Al Jazeera by Sharif Nashashibi, a prominent journalist on Arab affairs, discusses the difficult scenarios the Gulf Cooperation Council could face in Yemen. One possibility is that the Houthis could extend their control in Yemen. Taking over the oil-rich province of Marib would help achieve this. Yemen would then come more into the Iranian orbit and away from the control of he GCC and Saudi Arabia.

 Given the increasing resistance to Houthi expansion a more likely scenario is a wider civil war, with Houthis, and government forces, fighting with Sunni tribes and AQAP. The southern separatists might choose to exploit this chaos to form their own independent state in the south. Saudi Arabia shares a long border with Yemen and violence within Yemen could cross the border. The Saudis have had sporadic conflict with the Houthis in the past. Sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunnis could also increase in countries such as Bahrain where the Sunnis rule but the Shia are the majority. Some parts of eastern Saudi Arabia could also see more conflict with Shia groups.

 The increased power of AQAP also poses a problem for Saudi Arabia which has itself fought a long internal battle to keep Al Qaeda forces at bay. The Islamic State portrays itself as a force that will combat Shia expansion and this could help it recruit adherents in Yemen. The GCC countries are reportedly suspending economic aid and also military aid to Yemen. This move may make the situation worse rather than better and increase the importance of Iranian aid.

Unlike countries such as Bahrain where the Shia are not a well-armed force and have little control of the government, the Houthis in Yemen are well-armed and have government support. Military intervention by the GCC in such a situation could be a complete disaster and no doubt a huge help to AQAP. No one in Yemen is seeking outside intervention.

Nashashibi believes that the best the GCC can hope for in this situation is to try and limit spillover effects from Yemen conflicts into their member countries. In Sanaa, the capital, there were large demonstrations on Saturday demanding the removal of Houthi fighters from the capital but of President Hadi as well. They also denounced an attack on a police academy on Wednesday that killed 38 people. The protests are called the Rejection movement and took place in other cities as well. The prospect for Yemen appears to be continued instability and an uncertain future.

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