Two opposing Yemen armies – perpetual civil war or hostile partition? Weekly update 26th November

UAE training
UAE is training an new Yemen army


This week I am concentrating on the subject of mercenaries and new army recruits within Yemen, which have been major news stories in the last few days.  UAE troops were the main part of the ground forces until a short time ago, when they returned home.  In their place there is what is called an elite UAE force, and this week it was announced in Jane’s defence magazine that they are now training new recruits to the Yemeni army.  There are very few jobs in Yemen at the moment and the army is one possibility for employment.  The Yemen army split in 2011 and the major part of the original army are loyal to ex-President Saleh and are now fighting with the Houthis.  The rest – in 2011 loyal to the religiously conservative Ali Muhsin – have been fighting on the side of the Saudi-led opposition, and it is these troops that are now been bolstered by new recruits;  the first group was trained in Saudi and the most recent group have been trained by UAE in the Al Anad air base, near Aden. The recruits are selected according to their political views and their home governate.

This must have repercussions – two opposing Yemen armies with completely different loyalties, both in terms of their geographic origins, their preferred leaders and their political perspectives, surely making only two outcomes possible.  The first is a continuance of a prolonged civil war in Yemen, and the second is partition.  The choice between perpetual civil war or two hostile Yemens is a heart-breaking scenario.

Saudi is desperate to win ground from the Houthi-Saleh alliance before the UN peace talks, so they are making a big push with mercenaries from Sudan and Columbia.  If you recall, it was the Sudanese army that the Western world accused of genocide in Darfur; that same army is now fighting in Yemen with no world protests.  It was reported this week that Saudi had paid $2.2 billion US to Sudan for their support.  It was also reported that the UAE transferred 450 of the planned 800 Columbian mercenaries to Yemen this week. The mercenaries are already taking a big toll, with a reported 20 killed and 70 injured in the brutal conflict in the southwest corner. Additionally, reported by Saba news agency (sympathetic to the Houthis) was a strange affair; some of the new mercenaries in Marib were said to have demonstrated because they had not been paid as expected, and in consequence Islah militias had turned on them, killed 5, and injured 6; a blue-on-blue assault.  If this is true, it is a worrying development for the Saudi-led coalition.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was in UAE this week and made an extraordinary statement that indicates that he is quite ignorant of what is going on in Yemen – or trying hard to cover it up. “We respect what United Arab Emirates has been able to do to accomplish significant progress in Yemen” he stated.  What progress is this?  Civilians killed, homes destroyed, 81% of Yemenis suffering from severe acute food insecurity – according to a UN report this week.  It seems that everyone benefits from the war in Yemen – poor countries in North Africa are being paid to take part in the war, whilst rich countries are selling weapons and munitions.  Maybe this is the progress he means?  It is only Yemenis who are suffering – and he doesn’t think this relevant?

Despite eight months of destruction and death, the war is still at stalemate. There have been pictures of rows of armoured vehicles from the coalition heading to Taiz, and a report from UAE blaming Islah militias for the Saudi coalition’s slow progress, and others blaming the landmines left by the Houthis for delays.  Later on, farmers and their children will not be able to farm these fields without risk of losing a limb – some 70% of Yemenis still work on the land. The ordinary citizens of Taiz are trapped within this war, suffering a local siege as well as the Saudi blockade, with opposing militias ferociously fighting each other next to them and bombs still destroying their homes and lives from the air. Saudi is airlifting new weapons to the militias, but is not airlifting food and medical aid to Taiz residents.  It is as if they are pawns, expected to wait for their ‘liberation’ so that they can be fed and be grateful to their saviours – whoever they might be.  And the people of the north, far from feeling compassion, think that Taiz citizens are only getting what they deserve, such is the dehumanisation of ‘the enemy’ in this dreadful war.  And life is not much better in the rest of Yemen.

For those who live in UK, like me you might be distressed to learn that the remains of a British missile was found in a ceramics factory destroyed in Bani Matar near Sanaa, evidence gathered by Amnesty indicated there were no links to any militias there.   Amnesty’s press release said this was a war crime. Fortunately, production had already stopped because of the lack of materials for making ceramics, so only one civilian was killed, with others living nearby injured, including a 14 year old girl.  330 people will have no jobs to return to because of this disaster. You may have heard the UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond say a few weeks ago that UK is relying on Saudi Arabia to tell them if they are committing war crimes with British weapons, and if they heard it was so, then then UK would review its arms sales policies.  Maybe it is that time now Mr. Hammond?

A friend from Sanaa tells me that petrol prices are lower and she was hoping that would mean lower food prices. But a news report that the Yemeni Riyal fell against the US dollar seems to indicate prices might go the other way.  For people with money, it is a struggle to find essential goods at a price they can afford. For those without money, there is little hope, and very little humanitarian aid.

The longer this war goes on, the more intractable it becomes.  The media, never very interested in Yemen in its early terrifying stages, is not likely to retain an interest now that terrifying incidents have become an every day norm, after more than 240 days of non-stop aerial assaults, a ferocious ground war, an influx of extremist militias, and an inhumane and perhaps illegal blockade leaving Yemeni people dying from starvation, dehydration, disease and conflict – and those who have survived this, left hungry and without hope.

How’s Yemen doing?

The war in Yemen has reached a new stage; a massive ground force has entered via Aden and the city and port itself is now said to be under the control of Hadi loyalists – but Hadi is still in residing in Riyadh, promising to return to Yemen in the next few months and then developing Aden into the capital city of Yemen. This city has suffered massive damage; half of its housing stock and buildings have been destroyed – but worse than that, the Adeni people, for so long tolerant and more educated than those in the rest of Yemen, have learned how to hate. Reading messages on Facebook and Twitter, not only are northerners no longer welcome in this port city, but those southerners who were living in the north have also been told that they are tainted and cannot hope to return to their home town.

The anti-Houthi alliances that fought together are a mixed bag; the mutual hatred of the Saleh and Houthi fighters keeping them together. As stated by Yemeni analyst Will Pickard: “While the Hadi administration in exile claims that the city is under the control of its ‘loyalists,’ the truth is that there is no state in Aden, just a number of unaccountable militias that operate with impunity. Fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance has kept them all quite busy, but with the external enemy defeated, they are very likely to turn on each other. Without a doubt, they’ll also do what armed groups everywhere have always done: endanger and exploit local people”.

aden post war
War damage in Aden

The secessionists also face a quandary; if Aden becomes the new capital city, should they still insist on independence for South Yemen? They may all form a united viewpoint, but more likely they will bicker amongst themselves. Reconstruction will also prove challenging; like all of Yemen, Aden will need vast amounts of money to rebuild, but it is not clear who will want to invest there whilst militias are roaming free, especially if the rest of Yemen remains unstable and without a popular government and no agreed route to peace. If investment stalls, lack of homes and jobs will create discontent with different interest groups blaming each other for the deteriorating situation; the only way any government will be able to keep control is by adopting brutal tactics against any dissent.

Another question for the whole of Yemen is how long will the overseas armies stay? Moving into a war zone is relatively easy; finding the right time to get out is more difficult. At the moment it seems as if the majority of overseas troops are from UAE; this is already creating debate in the Emirates, as many of the soldiers are conscripts, a small number of whom have been killed or maimed and hence the need for an Emirati presence in Yemen is already being questioned. As time passes, just like in every other country that conduct wars in overseas territories, the protests at home will get louder and UAE will be looking for an exit. The international coalition partners have to stay in agreement, which will become challenging as costs rise, both in terms of financial implications and human costs.   At the moment, amongst Yemenis in the southwest there seems to be a general consensus that the overseas troops are doing a valuable job, but as in all conflicts it is likely that along the way sections of the local communities will want the overseas troops to leave and may take up an armed struggle to achieve it. When they do eventually leave it is likely that militias will fill the power vacuum and in-fighting between groups will become a norm. The Yemeni army will at some point become re-united, but is deprived of its weapons and munitions that have been destroyed in this war by coalition bombing; it will be too weak to hold the militias apart or control them. Instead, it is more likely that militias will control the population after the overseas troops leave. It is likely that the parts of the Yemeni army that fought on the losing side will be disbanded, leaving resentful and unpaid ex-soldiers who can easily be recruited to swell extremist militia ranks.

foreign troops in Aden
When will the overseas armies leave Yemen?

Those dilemmas in the southwest must seem a luxury to those in the north of Yemen, who are still anticipating that things could get worse as ground forces approach their areas; there has been little fighting on the ground in Sanaa and the northern cities, but this is something they are expecting after Taiz has been calmed and the armies move north. Whilst in the southwest these invading armies were able to make relatively quick progress, they are more likely to overextend themselves as they move into the northern mountains. The Houthi militias and the army units loyal to Saleh will be at a military advantage in mountainous terrain, although they have been weakened by the blockade that has prevented petrol, food and other commodities from reaching the northern governates. Whilst the population in the southwest has largely supported the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, and in Saada area the population is united against the pro-Saudi coalition assaults, in many parts of central and north Yemen the population is divided with some in pro-Houthi and pro-Saudi camps, but also with sections of the population disliking all fighting forces and just wanting peace in any form. Thus there is the spectre of suspicion and lack of trust within neighbourhoods as the threat of ground attacks becomes more imminent. In cities like Sanaa the situation could become at least as desperate as that in Aden a few weeks ago, with total breakdown of food supply chains, and street by street fighting and property destruction in some areas, whilst air assaults will continue to wreak destruction.

Sanaa bombs
Ground forces will create more suffering in Sana’a.

Meanwhile, in the only stable part of Yemen, the Eastern Hadramaut and Maharah provinces, the extremist Sunni militias are taking control, and more internally displaced escaping from northern cities will put an intolerable strain on the infrastructure and on relationships between the local population and the displaced.

Is there a way out? I am not sure if there are any negotiations taking place now, but I hope so. In the end, however many people are killed, however much property is destroyed, at some point there will have to be a negotiated settlement. The longer it takes to reach a settlement, the more people will be killed, the more property will be destroyed and the more entrenched the polarised positions will become. Yemenis have lived together in relative peace and with lots of tolerance over centuries; one day they will have to learn to do so again. This means they will first have to sit down with people they hate and make painful concessions. One ‘side’ in this war cannot be wiped out, however much some may want that to happen – it is a hopeless delusion to see that outcome as a possibility. And if any side has a solution forced on them by military means, resentment will fester and it will only be a matter of time until war breaks out again. Whether Yemen adopts a one-state or two-state solution, the only way for peace is for all parts of Yemen to have at least tolerant relationships with each other. All Yemenis have to be courageous enough to acknowledge their own responsibilities in shaping the conflict and be prepared to apologise and not merely blame the other ‘side’; they need to be generous enough to forgive fellow Yemenis for inflicting terrible losses and suffering on them and their families. Only then can peace be possible.

Foreign interference has turned a tense and challenging political situation in Yemen into a catastrophe beyond imagination. But now that these international actors are part of the Yemen scene, things have been so stirred that whether they leave or stay, most choices open to Yemeni politicians and fighters have little to recommend them; but although peace is elusive, it cannot be impossible. As one friend said, the only thing that we can do now is pray.