As the United Nations Security Council voted this week to impose an arms embargo on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, analysts say there is still no end in sight to the war that has killed hundreds of people and crippled the country’s infrastructure.
The UN resolution, passed on Tuesday, also calls for the Houthis to relinquish the territory they seized after sweeping through the country and pushing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile earlier this year.
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In addition, it imposes a global asset freeze and travel ban on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi.
The developments come just as Saudi Arabia, which has led coalition air strikes in Yemen since late March, boosted security along its border with Yemen, bringing in tanks and artillery units to counter a perceived threat from the Houthis in Saada, where the group maintains its stronghold.
The outbreak of Yemen’s war followed a series of missed opportunities, analysts say. Just before the conflict erupted, Yemenis were close to striking a deal to solve the internal political crisis spurred by the Houthis’ rapid takeover of Sanaa, according to sources close to the negotiations.
The process was derailed, however, when the Houthis began an aggressive push to further expand their territory, moving towards the southern port city of Aden in an overreach that prompted the Saudi-led air offensive. Houthi spokesperson Mohammed al-Bukhaiti acknowledged that a substantial number of issues had already been ironed out when the war broke out.
“We [had] agreed on key points such as having a presidential council and a national unity government, but we did not finalise the names for those posts,” Bukhaiti told Al Jazeera.
The longer the campaign, the greater the risk to Yemen and the KSA. The Houthis were defeated the day the bombs started falling. Since then, they have been recovering. With more collateral damage, they will come out on top.
“We even discussed the issue of arms, and there was an agreement among all parties that all political forces will have to be disarmed, including Ansar Allah [the Houthis]… This was meant to be handed back to the army, but now who do we hand the arms to?” he said. “The Saudis?”
Gamal Gasim, a US-based professor of Middle Eastern studies specialising in Yemen, said the pre-war negotiations failed because the Saleh-Houthi alliance “was only serious about putting an end to Yemen’s transitional period” and targeting key supporters of the 2011 uprising.
“Certainly, they miscalculated the political change in Saudi Arabia with the coming of a new king and a new security leadership team that does not trust Saleh and views the Iranian support to the Houthis as a direct threat to the kingdom’s national security,” Gasim told Al Jazeera.
For Saudi Arabia, Operation Decisive Storm, which has manifested in three weeks of air strikes on targets throughout Yemen, is a broader weapon to curb Iran’s influence in the region. Iran has been accused of providing military support to the mainly Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels, charges Tehran denies.
During a previous Houthi uprising in 2009, Saudi Arabia also intervened in support of the Yemeni government. The Houthis later approached the kingdom in an attempt to establish better relations, a diplomatic source told Al Jazeera, but the Saudis rebuffed those attempts.
In the current context, experts say, it is likely that the air campaign will weaken the Houthis – perhaps enough to push them back to the negotiating table – but not defeat them.
“If the goal is pushing the Houthis out of territory, it will most likely require a ground war. But a foreign military presence would only complicate matters and if used in the north, would play to the Houthis’ advantage,” April Longley Alley, a senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
“The campaign thus far appears to have weakened parts of the military affiliated with Saleh more than the Houthis,” she added. “That said, the Houthis are suffering from strikes against critical infrastructure, weapons storage facilities and their military positions.”
Although the conflict has taken on sectarian dimensions, largely due to the perceived influence of Iran, it would be more aptly described as a local power struggle, experts say. “Houthis are Yemenis after all, and have managed to appeal to [a variety] of Yemenis beyond their religious background,” Shuaib Almosawa, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, told Al Jazeera.
“It is certainly not [a sectarian conflict],” Gasim added. “There are many reasons behind it, including the lack of effective modern state institutions in the country, poverty, political corruption, and foreign intervention.”
Among the ultimate winners will be al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is taking advantage of the current chaos to expand its reach. Earlier this month, AQAP fighters freed hundreds of inmates, including one of the group’s leaders, after storming a prison in southeastern Yemen. The group has also reportedly teamed up with local tribes to increase its recruiting base.
In addition, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – an army general who has close ties to Yemen’s Islamist Islah party, which has openly supported the Decisive Storm air strikes – could come out ahead in the end, the diplomatic source said, amid speculation that Mohsen has been assisting Saudi Arabia with identifying military targets. “If the conflict continues, [Mohsen] could use his tribal and military networks to help fuel resistance to the Houthis and Saleh,” Longley Alley noted.
According to a Sanaa-based analyst who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, AQAP will remain the primary beneficiary of Yemen’s war, as Islah “will be destroyed as well in the upheaval that will follow, and its extreme branch will join AQAP. Already, [tribespeople of various religious backgrounds] are joining AQAP in large numbers.”
The Houthis’ push for control – coming as Yemen was on the brink of a constitutional referendum – will result in a long-lasting social schism and discrimination against them, the analyst added.
What is now needed, Longley Alley said, is a UN-brokered ceasefire, in which the Saudi-led coalition halts air strikes and the Houthis and their allies withdraw from Aden.
“Then the parties could move back to political negotiations. The appointment of [former Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled] Bahah as vice president is potentially a very positive sign. He has broad popular appeal and could be a unifying figure in fragmented times,” Longley Alley said.
“But the longer the fighting continues, the more difficult it will be to find a political solution. The fighting in Aden, for example, is augmenting and militarising the north-south divide, making it more difficult to come to a peaceful settlement on the future of the south.”
The Sanaa-based analyst said that while the Saudi bombing campaign is a show of force, it should be one that ultimately leads to negotiations.
“If diplomacy takes over now, then we will be safe,” he said. “The longer the campaign, the greater the risk to Yemen and the KSA. The Houthis were defeated the day the bombs started falling. Since then, they have been recovering. With more collateral damage, they will come out on top.”
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