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”.
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.
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.
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.