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Mar 22, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Alliances Crumble as Yemen Moves Toward Peace

Yemeni fighters supporting President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi clash with Houthi forces opposing him
(AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images)

An old Arabic proverb says "my brother and I together against my cousin, and my cousin and I together against the other." In essence, it means that loose alliances can form in the face of common enemies, even if conflict exists between the united parties.

Nowhere is this truer than in Yemen, where many alliances of convenience have formed over the past year amid the country's protracted civil war. But as a resolution to the fighting becomes an increasingly likely prospect, partnerships will crumble and allegiances will change, enabling old rivalries and problems to resurface. Even if a political deal emerges, it will not bring peace to Yemen.

Several recent developments suggest that the conflict between Yemen's former and current presidents, and the Shiite Houthi rebels, may be drawing to a close. On March 20, the Yemeni government announced a cease-fire not long after news broke of a partial truce along the border, reached between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi fighters. (The coalition backs Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, while the Houthis fight alongside former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.) The cease-fire also came a matter of days after Saudi Arabia said its operations in Yemen would be winding down soon. Kuwait has offered to host peace talks when they resume, which Yemeni officials say will happen within the next week or two.

A shift in momentum on the battlefield has created an opening for negotiations to move forward. The Saudi-led coalition has successfully advanced on Sanaa and parts of Taiz, weakening Houthi rebels' political and military position. In response, Houthi leaders are scrambling to take advantage of what is left of their bargaining power. The Houthis have begun to deal directly with the Saudis without their anti-Hadi allies, which include the Republican Guard, Saleh's loyalists and the General People's Congress. And though the Houthis formed a united front with Saleh's supporters during preliminary United Nations talks on March 19 and 20, both parties will seek to protect their own interests as negotiations over Yemen's future progress.

Indeed, despite being allies, the Houthis desire a much different outcome for the civil war than Saleh's loyalists do. The Houthi-Saleh coalition officially formed in May 2015, though its ideological foundations had been in place since the Houthis stormed Sanaa about eight months earlier. Both the Houthis and Saleh's supporters were pitted against the Saudi-installed Hadi administration, and when the Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes against Sanaa, the two joined military forces. However, Saleh and his supporters want to regain control over all of Yemen — a goal that partially contradicts the Houthis' objective of securing greater autonomy for their traditional northern stronghold of Saada. The Houthis also demand improvements in the distribution of resources and subsidies. That the Houthis and Saleh's supporters are planning separate rallies in Sanaa later this week to protest the Saudi coalition's involvement in Yemen is a testament to the deep divisions that still exist between their constituents.

As of March 21, Houthi officials have tentatively agreed to adhere to the U.N. Security Council's cease-fire resolution, which calls for combatants to lay down their weapons and pull back from occupied areas such as Sanaa. If the Houthis withdraw, it could be the spark that causes the alliances on both sides of Yemen's civil war to go up in flames.

Opposite the Houthis in the conflict are the supporters of Hadi, Yemen's current president, and their ally, the formerly secessionist Southern Resistance movement. The Southern Resistance has been a critical military component of the Hadi alliance, and it played a crucial role in taking control of Aden and Taiz from Houthi and pro-Saleh forces over the past few months. However, the movement's decision to align with pro-Hadi fighters was largely motivated by enmity for the Houthis — not loyalty to Hadi. If the Houthis are no longer part of the war, it is unclear whether the Southern Resistance movement will be, either.

Fighting May End, but Conflict Will Not

Though a peace deal between the Saudis and Houthis could calm the battlefield, it will not bring an end to the infighting and violence that has plagued Yemen for years. Instead, it will simply shift leaders' focus toward other security threats and issues of contention. For instance, the question of where Saleh will go once the immediate conflict is resolved has not been answered yet. Yemen's former ruler was toppled in the wake of the Arab Spring, and his rule is remembered by many as a bitter period of repression and corruption. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council and a large share of Yemeni citizens will move to block his return to the country.

Moreover, the Southern Resistance's antagonism toward the north will persist, and the movement could renew its secessionist demands. South Yemen, the Arab World's only communist state, formed its tense union with North Yemen in 1990, and its animosity toward the north has not disappeared in the decades since. And the Southern Resistance's military capabilities have increased substantially over the past year as pro-Hadi forces funneled money and equipment to the movement in exchange for its backing.

Meanwhile, Islamist extremists — especially those belonging to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State — have used the power vacuum created by Yemen's civil war to increase their own activity in the country. Any cease-fire between pro-Hadi and -Saleh forces will have little impact on the violence perpetrated by these groups, even in areas that technically have been liberated from their control. Though the international community (led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council) will try to combat the extremist groups, it will need to enlist forces on the ground in Yemen to do so. Since the country's many different factions show no sign of unifying in the near future, determining which local partners to work with could prove to be a complicated endeavor.

International pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to end its fight in Yemen and support the installation of a new government. The U.N. Security Council has pressured Riyadh to provide more humanitarian aid to Yemen because of its participation in the fighting, and the European Union has voted to enact an arms embargo against the kingdom. Therefore, Riyadh will likely push for some sort of peace deal to be signed soon. But the end of the Saudi-led coalition's activity in the country will only mark the beginning of a new period of difficulty for Yemen. Previous proposals to adopt federalism or divide the country in two will be back on the table as talks resume, but neither will ease long-standing tensions among Yemen's various factions. In the meantime, Sanaa will be forced to rely on the help of foreign patrons to cope with increasing water scarcity and a growing terrorist threat. And as talk of cease-fires and peace negotiations persists, it's clear that the crisis is far from over.

 

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