Transitions in Focus: Yemen

On Tuesday, October 9th, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East held a conference to discuss the nature of foreign involvement in ongoing conflicts in the region as well as the resilience of Jihadism in the post-2011 period. The conference coincided with the launching of a report, “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition,” which explores a number of trends in governance that have emerged since the Arab Spring.

Atlantic Council President and CEO, Frederick Kempe, kicked off the conference with opening remarks, followed by the President of the Italian think tank the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, and the Ambassador of Italy to the US, His Excellency Armando Varricchio

Following the introductory remarks, the Rafik Hariri Center’s senior fellow Karim Mezran led a panel titled “A Great Powers Game,” featuring Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria and the Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace; Ambassador Rend al Rahim, co-founder of The Iraq Foundation, Nabeel Khoury, nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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Panel I: The Struggle for Regional Hegemony: A Great Powers Game

The conference continued with a panel titled “The Resilience of Jihadism” featuring: Kim Cragin, senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies;  Hassan Hassan, senior research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism; Frederick Kagan, Director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project; and Arturo Varvelli, co-head of the Middle East and North Africa Centre at ISPI. 

Panel 2

Panel II: The Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Resilience of Jihadism

Finally, the conference closed with a keynote address by Ambassador Joan Polaschik, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the US Department of State, followed by a moderated discussion with William Wechsler, Senior Advisory for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

When over $2 billion was pledged for the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) earlier this year, it was considered not only a success but also the best funded response plan worldwide according to anonymous aid workers who spoke to the author during the UN General Assembly. So far, 65% of the pledged funds have been delivered. The delivery of the remaining funding is expected throughout this year.
Officials in US President Donald J. Trump’s administration have repeatedly described the ongoing conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hence justifying the United States siding with a country that many US officials view as “our strong ally” against Iran.

Ironically, the Yemen policy of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was also Iran-centric, lending the Saudi-led coalition vital logistical and intelligence support in order to get grudging support from Riyadh for his nuclear deal with Iran.  

Both administrations have been guilty of looking at Yemen solely through the prism of Iran policy. In both cases, Yemen has suffered the consequences.
As the conflict in Yemen continues and the country’s humanitarian crisis deepens, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is attempting to negotiate a ceasefire for the port of Hodeida, a vital port for bringing aid and food into the famine-struck country. Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition began attacking the port city in response to missile attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Taken against the recommendation of its allies such as the United States, this attack endangered the lives of many Yemenis who rely on the port for 70 percent of their food, fuel, and medicine imports. Aid organizations are struggling to deliver to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” As Yemen’s war continues into its fourth year and the death toll reaches over ten thousand, Griffith’s negotiation may not only provide relief to the humanitarian crisis, but might also offer hope for a future settlement to end Yemen’s civil war.
There are three possible outcomes to the ongoing battle for Hodeida. First, the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in ousting the Houthi fighters from airport, seaport, and city. Second, the Houthi forces succeed in thwarting the land assault, but remain surrounded from the south and the east. Third, both sides accept a UN sponsored compromise, placing airport and seaport under an international force to keep the flow of humanitarian assistance going and provide a lifeline to civilians across the country. In all three options, the war continues grinding agonizingly on, though obviously the compromise option would not only provide relief to the civilian population of Hodeida, but also serve as a possible stepping stone to a broader peace agreement in the war-torn country.
As early as 2007, while serving as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy from 2004-2007, I argued that the central government needed to pay attention to legitimate grievances to prevent constant warfare in the north and a potential secession of the south. At the time, the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh prohibited foreign diplomats from visiting the Saada region in the north, claiming that security conditions made any trip there a dangerous proposition. My colleagues and I, however, frequently visited the south.  
With one hand holding the hose for hookah and the other his beeping cell phone, a conversation with Mohammed al-Qadhi is constantly interrupted. He swiftly takes a glance at his cell phone and says, “Excuse me, it’s breaking news I must send this to my editors.” He grabs his phone and he begins tapping.

As one of Yemen’s veteran journalists and rare war correspondents, al-Qadhi has a lot on his plate. Despite spending a short vacation in Cairo, he is busy following the news, receiving calls and updates from his contacts in Yemen, and reporting to his editors at UAE-based Sky News Arabia.
The city of Aden was ostensibly the only part of Yemen where post-conflict reconstruction was viable, especially since the area of the conflict has been declared a Houthi-free zone since July 22, 2015.  Subsequently, the residents of the city were seemingly united in that the majority are southern, Sunni, and anti-Houthi/Saleh. But now the conflict is occurring amongst Aden “allies,” not just nationally but regionally as well, as they are now divided based on the claim that President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government is “corrupt.”