Home / Article / A Narrow Way Out of Civil or Regional War in Yemen: What Happened in Riyadh in the Hours Before the Military Operation?

A Narrow Way Out of Civil or Regional War in Yemen: What Happened in Riyadh in the Hours Before the Military Operation?


The moment that asymmetric war consumes—without success—its purpose is the moment when the prospects of traditional war become more prominent in the minds of the antagonists. This is being manifested in the Middle East where Iran has been successfully expanding its role, by proxy, and through direct presence. Gulf Sunni countries have been retreating. But when it comes to an Iranian role in the Arab Peninsula, there is no space to retreat. To the GCC countries, Iran is trying to put them under siege.

 Yemen’s crisis was not intrinsically sectarian. But it is becoming so. This crisis has a potential to speed on a One Way Street to the worst destination—that is, to civil war in which Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) will emerge as the Yemeni version of ISIL.  It can develop into a regional war as well, due to a greater confidence gained by the Arab Sunni countries after their Yemeni operation and to the mounting anger in Iran and Hezbollah.

 Fortunately, these options are still largely unlikely. But in the fog of the current complex situation, we can see the signs of how one element of the regional configuration might pull the whole region dangerously close to a regional war.  So this “unlikely” can consummate faster than anyone thinks.

 As it stands now, there is still an opportunity to put the brakes on the crisis or at least to slow its advance. We will explain, momentarily, a course for an exit that has some chance of working in the current crisis in Yemen.  But first, we will take a look at what is going on in Riyadh, and what it really means.

 Saudi officials seem to be determined, no matter what it takes, not to allow the Iranians a base that threatens Riyadh’s national security on its southern borders. There had been many signs pointing to this fact just before the Saudi-led military alliance started its air raids on the pro-Iran Houthi forces in Yemen on March 25.

 According to MEB sources, Riyadh invited the son of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ahmed, for an urgent meeting in the Saudi capital just three days before the air raids. The arrival of Ahmed Saleh to Riyadh was kept out of the media. In the meeting between high level Saudi officials and the former President’s son, Ahmed had to listen to very sharp—at times, even humiliating—words.  He was warned not to even “think” about attacking Aden.   Saleh’s loyalists, abundant in the state structure and in the Yemeni armed forces until today, had been instructed by the former president to assist the Iranian backed rebels. The calculation of former president Saleh is that he, not the elected President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi, is the legitimate president of the country, and that his secret deal with the Houthis can guarantee his return to the presidential palace.

 While in Riyadh, Ahmed was told that the pro-Iranian rebels are taking his father for a ride, and if he wants to become president, he has to place his chips somewhere else.  Ahmed, powerful in his own right, had been the head of the Republican Guard when his father was the president. He was later appointed as Ambassador to the UAE. Ahmed was planning to become the president of Yemen after his father.

 We will get back to this important meeting in Riyadh shortly, when we explain how a way out of the crisis may be available. But in the meantime, it is worthwhile to say that there are multiple factors that are quickly developing in the context of the Saudi plan to confront the security threat knocking at its door.

 The major elements that define the Saudi view at this critical moment could be summarized in the following points:

 * Saudi Arabia will keep its direct military role under measured restraint while gathering the elements of expanding it if developments on the ground call for that course of action. These developments are indeed slowly heading toward issuing such a call. The pro-Iran Houthis vowed to escalate. A larger role will be given to other Arab forces if there is to be a ground campaign. 

 * Riyadh now places as a top priority a plan to form a political/armed force in Yemen, a la Hezbollah in Lebanon. That stems from realizing that Sunni tribes in Yemen cannot obtain a political voice without such a political organization. The Yemeni tribes’ self-proclaimed identity is mainly tribal, not sectarian. What we may now see is an intensive effort to inject this identity with a larger dose of sectarian determinations.

 * Yemen will push the Saudi overture to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) further. Riyadh badly needs the role of Islah Party in Yemen to confront the Houthis.  Islah is a MB party. This will require paying a price in other places like Egypt.

 * Monitoring the general mood in Riyadh leads us to expect a more aggressive Saudi regional policy in confronting the perceived Iranian expansion in the Arab World.  The impact of their military operation in Yemen, which shows them taking a bold initiative, will encourage them to use the same path with less hesitation than the usual past pattern. This newly gained confidence is, however, a two edged sword. It may lead to miscalculations.

 * The Saudis will pay less attention to what the US recommends, particularly if their military mission in Yemen succeeds. Just two months ago, it was hoped that a period of closer coordination between Riyadh and Washington was dawning in the Middle East. But the honeymoon was shorter than expected. The perception now in the Gulf capitals is that Washington is selling out its regional allies to the Iranians in return for a nuclear deal and a stronger strategic relationship with Tehran. This perception is a valid base for a more “independent” regional policy. The Saudis are telling all who may listen that they bombed Yemen without any contacts with Washington other than a formal, short notification.

 * It was impossible to imagine that the Arab countries would accept a situation where Aden and the Bab El Mandab strait (the Southern door to the Red Sea) could fall under Iranian control.  The Egyptian military navy will come dangerously close to the Iranian naval presence in that sensitive spot. Egyptian forces may land in Aden to repel any Houthi attack on Hadi’s last hold. The Egyptian navy is already in control of the Bab El Mandab strait with the US and British navies.

 Up until now, the main mission of the Saudi-Arab military campaign has been to limit the Houthi advance on the ground.  The main problem here is that, if the expansion of the Houthis continues to go on, and if the military operations continues for long, this situation will gain a life of its own and keep sliding to the worse.  As long as this trend goes on, the dangers of a long-term, all out civil war get closer. Time is an important factor in order to prevent the hardening of positions and the formation of permanent dynamics and concrete interests in a longer war.

  Now, back to the possibility of solving the Yemen crisis through negotiations. Well, any crisis can ultimately be solved in one way or another, and negotiations in the case of the Yemeni crisis are still possible. But the question in this particular situation is: when? The longer the crisis boils on, the higher its cost will be and the more difficult to solve.

 There is a limited window opening to allow an intensive diplomatic effort in this complex situation. The chances of negotiations had been mentioned twice in the last week.

 President Hadi called for a conference in Riyadh, where the headquarters of the GCC is located. It is inconceivable that the Houthis would send a delegation to Riyadh. Oman was hinted at as an alternative, but that requires that the relevant parties are willing to negotiate in the first place. This proposal was doomed from day one. Hadi is indeed a weak figure. He does not have enough weight on the ground to be of any influence.

 The second attempt that is indeed worthwhile came from the Salehs.

 It did not appear to us, in the beginning, that it would be easy for the Salehs, if they really wanted to, to easily or quickly persuade their followers to stand down, even if they committed themselves to that path under Saudi pressure. It took them both a long period of time to mobilize and charge the forces loyal to them to fight the government. It will still be a difficult U-turn, assuming there is a genuine desire to do it.

 Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress, issued a statement on March 26th saying that it has nothing to do with the recent developments in Yemen. The statement described what is going on as “a power struggle,” and cautiously condemned the Houthis attacks in Southern Yemen. The statement seemed to carry little immediate value.  Yet, it was an introduction for a full—and very carefully worded—initiative, offered by Saleh last Friday, calling for negotiations between the warring parties to be held in the UAE and for a freeze on the military engagements lines.

 Saleh could be only trying to give the impression that he is doing something. After all, he cannot forget that it was the GCC effort that removed him from power. He also could be under tremendous pressure to change his position. Still, his position should provide an opportunity to push him to develop it further. He cannot survive without foreign support.

 Dim as it is, this represents a glimmer of hope. The essence of Saleh’s initiative is based on a calculus that proved to be partially accurate: An escalation in the situation in the country will lead to (1) Proving that President Hadi is too weak to rule; (2) Showing that the Houthis, allied with his own loyalists, will prove to be a force to reckon with; (3) A situation if Saleh can deliver the Houthis in return for the GCC delivering Islah Party, he can put his son in as the president of Yemen or become, at least, the defacto real president, if not the official one.

 This seems to provide the exit we mentioned above, albeit one that is not yet certain. And if it works, it will be only for a relatively short period, depending on Iran’s position and how it will respond when it figures out that the whole story of Yemen did not bring much of a reward.

 Now, the initiative of Saleh will be the only card on the table. The big question is: Will the regional powers see it as a fair deal? For the Saudis, and as mentioned above, they kind of knew in advance about Saleh’s initiative. For the Iranians, they have less of a margin for maneuvering after the surprise Saudi-led military attack. It is not to be excluded that the regional players can get along with the UAE conference idea. The position of the Houthis regarding Saleh’s project will be determined by how delicately the former president will keep the balance between the two sides and whether Iran will approve a deal.

Saudi Arabia indicated that it does not accept Saleh’s project. The former president is known to be unreliable and favors double talks and deception. But Riyadh should not completely dismiss Saleh’s ideas even if it does not agree with its contents. It should not believe that it “passed” the moment of Saleh by its military action. This moment should be kept alive even only in form and under the general banner that there is a possibility to negotiate. Saleh’s diplomatic approach may be needed later even as merely a diplomatic approach and regardless of the contents of his specific initiative. If the military action is to meant change the balance of power inside Yemen and render the Houthis ready to negotiate, another deal could be achieved in a road that was kept opened from day one. This will also give the international community an available window to provide their input once needed. Ultimately, there will be negotiations if there is a realization that prolonged military action will only push the Houthis further to the Iranian-Hezbollah camp.

 In any case, Saleh seems to be back where he wanted to be: in the driver’s seat. The price will be getting back to power in some form.   

 The Iranian response is still debated. It is not likely in our view that Iran will decide to enter into an open war with the Saudi-Arab alliance. Iran always prefers asymmetric wars. That may threaten Yemen with turmoil sometime down the road if this crisis continues and may raise the chances of a full-fledged civil war. That is why the chances of success of diplomacy, with Saleh’s ideas or without, should be considered. And that is why any reconciliation in Yemen will be short-lived as long as the regional strategic confrontation continues. 

 The US should support any serious diplomatic bid to de-escalate in Yemen. The reason is that this crisis can bring a regional super- charged situation to a catastrophic conclusion. Theoretically, the space between local fighting forces in Yemen and their regional sponsors is wider than what we see in Syria or Iraq. That situation will not remain for long, and the crisis could be heading slowly to a further deepening of its regional roots with their substantial complexities. A delayed solution will make the problem much more difficult as the crisis will be further integrated into the regional enmity.

 We see now a moment of oscillation between war by proxy and conventional war, a deterioration from the past when only war by proxy was used. This is indeed an ominous sign.

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