Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th February 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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Two autonomous regions:


The announcement by US President Joe Biden on February 4th that America has formally ended its support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen may bring the war to an end. The president also put a halt to the sale of related US weaponry and appointed Timothy Lenderking as the US’s first envoy to Yemen.

The Houthis who control 70 per cent of the North and were seeking to capture more territory as clashes in Hodeidah which displaced 700 people in mid-January showed, said the war will end when the air strikes stop and the siege ends. But they have continued to target Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones. Fierce fighting is continuing in Marib as the Houthis try to sieze control of the entire province.

Winding road

Saudi Arabia reacted to Biden’s announcement by reasserting its commitment to a political solution and welcomed his commitment to co-operate with the kingdom to defend its sovereignty and counter threats against it. But the Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman announced that his country will continue its political and military support to the Yemeni government against the Houthi militias.

Not all American military aid to Saudi Arabia will stop. Biden added an important caveat when he made his announcement: “At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks and other threats from Iranian supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

In the second major policy shift the Biden administration reversed the previous administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Scott Paul, who leads Oxfam America’s policy advocacy on a number of emergencies and cross-cutting humanitarian issues, said: “It is the humanitarian consequences of the designation, not the conduct of the de facto authorities, that warrants this reversal. Unfortunately, even with the designations revoked, we’re back to the previous and unacceptable status quo where millions of people still face extreme hunger, cholera, COVID-19 and daily violations by warring parties, more interested in their own military advancement than the basic needs and rights of Yemenis.”

The humanitarian crisis still has to be dealt with. More than six years since the conflict began, 80 per cent of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance and experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people according to the International Rescue Committee. Development aid to build the country’s infrastructure and develop its economy must go hand in hand with aid as hostilities come to an end.

While America’s two major policy shifts are a welcome development it is also incumbent on the Biden administration to hold the Iranian leaders accountable for defiantly supplying arms to the Houthis. The annual report by sanctions monitors documented several supply routes for Houthis in the Arabian Sea using traditional vessels (dhows). Weapons seized included anti-tank guided missiles, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers similar to those made in Iran. The Biden administration has remained silent in the light of this important report and seems to be rewarding Iranian leaders by returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal and lifting sanctions on the Iranian regime.

The ending of the fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition is only the first step towards solving Yemen’s intractable problems. The only way to prevent continued suffering is through an inclusive political settlement that enables an equitable economic recovery and paves the way for the country’s development.

The Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) led by President Abdroba Mansur Hadi welcomed Biden’s announcements and stressed the importance of supporting diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) welcomed the appointment of Lenderking and said it “looks forward to working with him and all efforts to bring about comprehensive peace in the South, Yemen and region.”

But the power-sharing between the IRG and the STC which saw the formation of a new government at the end of December is not without its problems. The IRG returned to Aden from exile in Saudi Arabia without a programme. On January 13th protesters in Aden burned tyres and blocked main roads demanding salaries which have not been paid for four months and calling for urgent economic reforms to curb the currency’s sharp devaluation.

But the lack of trust between the IRG and the STC is making it increasingly difficult for them to work together and there is a very good chance this fragile alliance will soon collapse. The STC has rejected recent appointments made by Hadi including the appointment of a new Attorney General and Shura Council head. Statements from the STC allege the appointments were made by Hadi on January 15th without consultation and flout the Riyadh Agreement on which the power sharing deal is based. The head of the STC, President Aidaroos Qassem Al-Zubaidi, is also unilaterally making military appointments.

Another alarming development reported in the media is the establishment of a new military force in Aden by the STC. The killing of Brig. Ibrahim Harad, a senior security official in Aden, by unknown armed men and a huge explosion which rocked the Mansoura neighbourhood suggest security in Aden is deteriorating.

Al-Zubaidi is caught up in contradictions. In a recent interview with Emirate Sky News he said that the most appropriate solution in Yemen is to find two neighbouring stable countries bordering the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and what he called “the restoration of the state of the south”. He added that the STC “undertook to raise the flag of the south in the United Nations and restore our country with its currency and postal stamp and raise our flag in the United Nations.” When he arrived in Moscow at the head of an STC delegation invited by the Russian government on February 1st, Al-Zubaidi pledged to the people of the South to lead them on a safe path to achieve independence and restoration of the state. But he also said he supported the Riyadh Agreement and would be discussing its implementation with the Russians.

Aden Harbour

How can Yemen emerge from the dark tunnel in which it has been cornered for the past six years? The Yemeni state is now a collection of spare parts which can never be reassembled into a roadworthy vehicle: the Houthis run a de facto hard-line Islamic state in the North where oppression and violations of human rights are increasing. The South has a power-sharing government which is not fit for purpose. The IRG is surplus to requirements; it cannot rule the North and it is doing nothing to provide the basic services – including electricity, water, healthcare, education and security – that the South desperately needs. The STC has failed to bring about a genuine unity of all Southerners, with every governorate working from the ground up to achieve a model state. According to FOSY’s Chairman Abdul Galil Shaif the STC became more interested in power games than in building a model state.

Perhaps some inspiration can be drawn from Iraq’s experience where the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is governed by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRI is a constitutionally recognized autonomous region. Yemen could have two constitutionally recognized autonomous regions, the Northern region and the Southern region, each with its own parliament, political parties, elections, executive, ministries, legislative and judicial powers, budget, judicial system, internal security forces and police. A central administration headed by President Hadi could be responsible for defence, foreign policy and the allocation of an equitable share of national revenue to the Northern and Southern regions.

In exchange for the UAE’s military withdrawal from Yemen the Houthis stopped attacking the UAE’s ships and the UAE signed a co-operation agreement with Iran to protect the Persian Gulf shipping lanes. If approached in the right way, there is a chance the Houthis could agree to being part of a government in the Northern region when the coalition stops bombing areas under their control. The Houthis would then have no reason to continue targeting Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones and the regional powers, armed by the West, would cease their involvement in Yemen’s war.

In a message to the regime in the North one of the STC’s leaders, Ahmed Saeed bin Braik, said: “Let’s be brothers and each of us look after their house.” The people of the North are certainly not happy with life under the Houthis and will do what is necessary to see the leaders they choose come to power, especially if they see a prosperous, thriving Southern region.

In a written statement on Yemen prepared for the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council the Next Century Foundation, a UK-based a think tank and track II diplomacy organization that operates in various conflict zones, pleads “for the international and regional community to conceptualize their approach to Yemen beyond the brokering of ceasefires to instead focus on working on national solutions – without losing sight of Yemen’s regional idiosyncratic needs and thus build towards long-term governance. Today’s failures are very much the result of such oversight.” A new United Nations resolution on Yemen is needed and a new special envoy respected by all sides has to be appointed to oversee an international donors conference to assist the virtually bankrupt country.

There are sincere, selfless Yemenis who will work for a political solution that will serve the people no matter how long it takes, how lonely it gets and how difficult it becomes. But in the current political quagmire there is a danger that their voices and endeavours will be stifled without support from honest international brokers and the Yemenis, like the Afghans, will become a forgotten people plagued by never ending crises.

Karen Dabrowska - February 2021