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Russia’s role in Yemen: political negotiator or opportunist?

June 3, 2017 at 9:00 am

Houthis and supporters of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh gather to protest the Saudi-led operations during a rally on the second anniversary of the Operation Decisive Storm at al-Sabin Square in Sanaa, Yemen on March 26, 2017. ( Mohammed Hamoud – Anadolu Agency )

In a bid to secure key naval bases in Yemen, Russia is introducing itself to the conflict as a political negotiator. Sidestepping the United Nations (UN) framework and failed attempts to gather warring parties to the negotiations table, Russia’s intervention may trigger a dangerous new dynamic into an already complex and volatile conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on March 28, 2017. ( Sefa Karacan/ Anadolu Agency )

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on March 28, 2017. ( Sefa Karacan/ Anadolu Agency )

President Vladimir Putin’s intention is clearly more than about fighting terrorism and bringing peace to the region. Russia wishes to secure basing rights for its navy fleet in Aden and assist in securing the waterways for the Red Sea ports. Currently the Iranian-backed Houthi group has taken control of the Red Sea ports, including the most wanted and strategic Hudaydah port. There’s been an impending planned attack spearheaded by the Saudi-led coalition to regain control of the port, but this has been warded off by the UN envoy who warned of catastrophic consequences of famine and conflict escalation. Due to frequent attacks on oil and gas ships by the Houthis, states that hold interests in the ports are concerned for its security and are increasingly becoming frustrated.

Diplomatic meetings in Russia have triggered a strong alliance with the UAE, a major actor in the Yemen war, responsible for funding many armed groups fighting the Houthis. The UAE and Russia agreed to form a strategic partnership for the Middle East. According to Russian and Arab officials, the focus is to begin with the turmoil in Yemen.

Russia’s alliances

Russia has already forged strong ties with the UAE and former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, by starting to discuss the future of Yemen’s governance. In turn, Saleh considers Russia a strong ally and said:

In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports …we are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation.

Although Russia has open access to enter Yemen, whether it will use this opportunity to be a political negotiator or an opportunist is yet to be seen.

There is no indication that Russia will take on a military function in Yemen or whether it will maintain a political discourse. Either way, parties on the ground will be sceptical, as Russia brings along a track record of acquiescing Iran’s foreign policy in other Middle Eastern conflicts, including Syria.

Read: UAE uses US attacks in Yemen to get rid of Muslim Brotherhood

Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi [File photo]

Image of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi [File photo]

Russia’s ally, the UAE, is currently supporting the Southern Political Council (SPC) in a new departure from the original goals of intervening in Yemen. This has caused tension within the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a party, in addition to undermining the political integrity of Yemen’s recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Some positivity may come of Russian meddling in the Yemen conflict; the Saudi-led coalition – including the UAE – may see this as an opportunity to influence Russia to persuade Iran to stop arming the Houthis. This could lead to a halt in Saudi Arabia’s airstrike campaign which has been called out for war crimes violations by human rights groups. But this also largely dependent upon whether the Houthi incursions and frequent ballistic missiles stop posing a threat to Saudi’s national security.

Complexities on the ground

Currently there are three governments in Yemen: the Iranian-backed Houthi group which is in control of the capital, Sana’a, the transitional government led by Hadi and the newly formed SPC in the south. All three have alliances with tribal leaders and armed groups fighting on their behalf. Thus far, Russia has only made efforts to reach out to Saleh and the UAE.

Read more: UAE hosts meeting of South Yemen dissidents

Any negotiation without key parties to the conflict will simply be disingenuous. If Russia plans to follow a UAE-led plan for Yemen due to its strategic partnership, it is most likely going to be confronted with immense opposition. The main actors in the conflict need to be included: the Houthis advancing from the north, the Southern Political Council wishing to secede from north and central Yemen, and Hadi leading the transitional government.

To add to the complexity, the US is another state currently engaging counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the country. The UAE has requested such strikes go further and target the Houthis. The US has already assisted by providing locational intelligence against what it perceives as Iran’s influence in Yemen via the Houthi group.

Recently history has seen that US-Russian relations are turbulent and any political negotiation put forward will be followed carefully, to ensure state interests are not overlooked.

As the UN envoy’s peace negotiations reach a deadlock, Russia’s strategic positioning to solve Yemen’s war seems to be the only other choice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.