The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen – Operation Decisive Storm – started two years ago. It was an unavoidable option, as gaining full control of Yemen and preventing full Iranian domination there took just a matter of hours, or a few days at most. This is a truth that must not be forgotten, because if the air strikes leading the operation had been delayed for any reason, we can be sure what the outcomes would have been; the legitimate Yemeni government would have fallen for a start, to be replaced by Iranian puppets – the Houthis and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh – as the de facto leaders of the state. Their influence would have spread all over Yemen. The second outcome would have been a direct threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; if the military intervention had failed, it would have allowed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps to establish a new front just beyond the gates to Yemen’s northern neighbour, making them more dangerous than they are now.
When the Iranian project was thwarted at a crucial moment, Tehran retreated from claiming that Sana’a was the fourth capital of its empire and argued that its role in Yemen was exaggerated. Iranian forces went on to claim that they were not on the ground in Yemen, as they are in Iraq and Syria. They also alleged that the crisis in Yemen is fundamentally domestic in nature and cannot be dealt with except by stopping the war within the country.
There are many analysts who suggest that the best outcome would have been to leave the Yemenis to deal with their own crisis, with their own means. The political and tribal environment in Yemen would have been enough to bring an end to the Houthis’ political ambitions and prevent their takeover of elite institutions and the armed forces. This belief was based on the fact that the conflict is mainly domestic and that outside interference must be rejected.
However, the earlier 2011 crisis ended with outside intervention in the Gulf initiative, a strategy that was accepted by the UN Security Council, which sent a special envoy to Yemen in order to give its recommendations and oversee the transition process. The UN team had no intention of taking control of the country; had this type of intervention been maintained, Yemen would have been an example of reconciliation in the region, devoid of civil conflicts.
Considering that the dialogue at that time was considered rare, Yemenis expressed their commitment to ensuring that they would attempt to reach an agreement that would please everyone. The Houthi-Saleh coup is now seen as a stab in the back of all Yemenis and a blow to legitimate governance.
The more important point is that the coup forces had no intention of fostering internal reconciliation. It was clear that the coup had already been sold to Iran as another piece in the regional game. Indeed, the goal was to create a new government structure wherein every side believed, falsely, that they were including the others. The opportunist model is bound to explode at any time and was the first example of the introduction of the sectarian model of governance. There was no delay in a demonstration of its exclusion of certain factions.
Whatever the positions of the people who represent legitimate government institutions — the presidency, government, the army or other institutions — the work that was being done was to disregard their opinion and bring them down. The tactic of the coup forces was to humiliate such people and discredit them. By way of contrast, the model sought by the national dialogue aims to empower and respect the people of Yemen and bring legitimacy to the state.
The Houthi-Saleh model is based on an authoritarian approach backed-up by the militias. This was a tactic used by the Houthis before the coup and, if allowed to continue, will only exacerbate the level of marginalisation in the state. Moreover, the Houthis and Saleh will hand Yemen over to Iran as a regional and international bargaining chip.
War was not the outcome favoured by Saudi Arabia or any of the other coalition countries taking part in Operation Decisive Storm. However, the conviction which justifies the coalition approach remains strong despite its difficulties. The role taken on by Saudi Arabia should have been one for the international community under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.
However, the organisation’s membership was keen to prevent divisions in the Security Council. Although the Obama administration took a notably pro-Saudi Arabian stance in the face of the substantial threat from events in Yemen, it also continued its dialogue with the Houthis both before and after the coup and has turned a blind eye to Iranian interventions. Indeed, Iran put pressure on the US to adopt a no war stance in Yemen, which at the time meant recognising the outcome of the coup and Houthi control.
After changes on the ground saw the balance shift towards a more peaceful direction in early 2016, the conditions for a legitimate ceasefire became possible. The Houthis and Saleh went to talks in Kuwait with their own agenda to legitimise their coup and undermine Yemeni reconciliation. They believed that they could establish a fait accompli that could not be bypassed.
In reality, the agenda was Iranian; it called for an end to the war and the abandonment of any possibility of leaving the resolution to the Yemeni people, one that could be negotiated without interference. The coup itself was presented in the guise of national peace and partnership, as well as an attempt to stop the war. However, the war did not begin with Operation Decisive Storm; it began with the coup, when the Houthis’ control of Sana’a extended to the rest of the country. One of their first acts in power was to release Iranians who had been held captive after being caught smuggling weapons in March 2013.
The priorities for a settlement were outlined in UN Resolution 2216, which stressed the need to denounce the coup in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the state and the army’s legitimacy. The negotiations in Kuwait were the coup’s final chance to make this compromise and to show a willingness to make such a sacrifice in exchange for becoming members of the coming executive. Even so, the Houthis and their allies wanted a larger share in government than they deserved and refused to hand over the capital as well as their weapons, which they saw as a kind of surrender.
The negotiations in Kuwait cannot be limited to a summary of Iranian manoeuvres, which did not succeed, but they outlined the coup’s level of deception and willingness to work with Iran as it emerges from the grip of international sanctions. From the sidelines of the negotiations — or “consultations”, as the Houthis prefer to call them — the US put pressure on the legitimate government in exile in Riyadh and continued to do so through its meetings with the quartet (the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). In John Kerry’s final attempt before leaving his post as Secretary of State, he called for the removal of the legitimate president and his deputy from their positions. These negotiations did nothing but meet the needs of the coup and its forces without getting anything from them in return for the sake of a political agreement.
Two years down the line from the start of Operation Decisive Storm, and despite the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen as a result of the coup’s policies, there are several fundamental factors to consider. The dynamic on the ground, for example, is no longer in the interest of the Houthis and their allies, and the army has, from the ground up, managed to decrease belief in the coup’s legitimacy by fifteen to twenty per cent. Furthermore, the new US administration is not interested in appeasing Tehran, and although it is not clear yet, it is unlikely to be interested in enabling Iranian control in Yemen.
In a number of scenarios, Yemen has indeed become an Iranian bargaining chip. While Iran has failed to push the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh (who are trained by Americans) to intensify their attacks on Saudi soil, it is fair to say that the Iranian project in Yemen has failed. Nevertheless, the government in Tehran seeks to promote the image that it is still capable of victory.
Translated from Alhayat, 30 March, 2017.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.