Why a military defeat of the Houthis is not enough for Yemen or Europe

Diana Alghoul |

When talking about Yemen, one of the most common phrases amongst analysts is that “it’s complicated.” True, to a very large extent. Tribal politics, new movements being infiltrated by old power political structures and when looking at the political actors involved, it becomes less clear how the conflict falls under the ‘Sunni-Shia’ divide that seems to be a top theme when discussing MENA politics. Yet the fact that Yemen is “complicated” does not mean there is no clear power political dynamic.

In a nutshell, if former president Ali Abdullah Saleh did not form an alliance with the Houthis, a group who he has fought six wars with since 2004, including one in 2009 where he requested Saudi support via area bombardment, they would not have been able to stage a coup on Sana’a in September 2014. Before Saleh stepped down, he warned that if he let go of power, Yemen “would turn into another Somalia,” indicating his vengeful intentions. By looking at Yemen today, not only is it clear that Saleh has taken his revenge on his own people for revolting against him, but also against the city that has suffered the most as a result of the Saleh/Houthi tactical alliance: Taiz – the birthplace of the 2011 revolution.

Taiz city, whose province is directly on the old North-South border is currently under a siege imposed by Saleh and Houthis forces. All roads that lead outside the city are blocked. Food prices have soared dramatically as it has become scarce due to the Houthis blocking aid and hospital have run out of medical supplies, including oxygen. The largest public hospital in Taiz, Al Thawra has been forced to close multiple times over the past year and it is only able to function if medical supplies are smuggled through the mountains. Those who do attempt to smuggle basic living needs into the city are usually caught by Houthi and Saleh forces and shot or kidnapped.

When looking at the logistics supporting anti-Houthi forces in Taiz, it is clear that power politics have to a large extent influenced the assistance of the resistance movement. Taiz is well known for being an Islahi (Muslim Brotherhood) stronghold, which despite being the perceived lesser evil in Yemen’s context still has unstable relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This has politicised the resistance movement because of a fear of what may come after the Houthis leave Taiz and how local successors would serve the security of their Arab allies. In some ways it looks as though the Arab coalition has learnt its lesson from its experience in Aden. After Aden province was liberated a security vacuum emerged, which gave enabled sporadic ISIS and Al Qaeda attacks. To ensure this mistake is not repeated in Taiz, there needs to be a guaranteed form of security for a post Houthi order. The main problem with this is that the more days go by, the more lives are lost as a result of daily shelling and the deadly siege. Moreover, there is some evidence for an alternative view that the lack of assistance to anti-Houthi forces in Taiz is because the UAE does not want to extend its military assistance to allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, however much the Saudis under King Salman are willing to ally with anyone against Iran.

Saleh needs to be beaten at all fronts

In light of these tensions within the Saudi-led coalition, what external powers need to do beyond defeating Saleh and Houthi militias militarily is to undermine them diplomatically and financially. While no party in the anti-Houthi movement recognises Saleh’s legitimacy, there are still ways to corner him. One of Saleh’s sons, Ahmed, is still living luxuriously in the UAE. Last April Riyadh even expressed suspicion towards Abu Dhabi’s intentions in Yemen, though this is unlikely to extend past the discontent of political officials in the foreseeable future because both are still in a formal military alliance. Saleh needs to be beaten at all fronts, not just militarily, because it is becoming clearer that as long as Saleh has the capability to destroy he will not surrender under any circumstances regardless of whether chaos will lead him to regaining power or not.

If a solution is not found, Europe will potentially face an influx of Yemeni refugees. Russia’s involvement has also become increasingly apparent, with Houthi and Saleh officials meeting with Russian ambassadors in Sana’a. As a consequence Yemen risks becoming another Middle Eastern political quagmire for EU policy. The policy mistake made in Syria must not be made in Yemen. With the growth of AQAP, terrorism remains a threat and EU policy should not look towards beating it through collusion with a former dictator who has perpetuated terrorism. A policy that aims for stability in Yemen should work in conjunction towards democracy and self-determination to ensure leaders who refuse to give up power do not have the tools to destroy all around them.