September 29, 2017

Yemeni President’s Call for Military Solution Fails to Resonate

Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi
Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 21. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

For much of the past two and a half years diplomats have argued that Yemen’s civil war will only be ended through political compromise. Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, however, has other ideas. The only solution is a military one, he told Al Arabiya on September 24.

It is not clear what Hadi’s military solution might look like, though. The front lines of Yemen’s war have barely budged since January, when United Arab Emirates-backed forces moved up Yemen’s southwestern coast and seized the small Red Sea port town of Mokha from Houthi and Ali Abdullah Saleh-allied forces, which control much of the country’s populous northwest.

Hadi had little say in the Mokha offensive, orchestrated by the UAE and fought by Southern secessionist militias. The Emiratis, part of a Saudi-led coalition ostensibly aimed at restoring Hadi to power, and their local partners have had the most success on the ground against the Houthis and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but their relationship with Hadi, who has described UAE forces in southern Yemen as “occupiers,” is tense at best. In fact, even Saudi Arabia’s patience with Hadi is all but exhausted. Were it not for U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 reaffirming his legitimacy as Yemen’s president, it is likely he would have no voice whatsoever in the outcome of the conflict.

The Hadi-UAE divisions belie the idea that Yemen is embroiled in a conventional civil war in which two sides line up against each other and fight until a victor emerges or a peace deal can be brokered. Instead, the conflict is made up of multiple, sometimes overlapping, power struggles, in many cases between supposed allies. The fractured nature and internecine politics of the Yemeni battlefield make the idea of an absolute military victory impossible – something Hadi surely knows.

Tensions between Hadi and the Emiratis have been mounting more or less since UAE special forces entered the southern port city of Aden in early 2015, working with local forces to turn the tide of the fight in the city against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Houthi-Saleh forces were ousted from Aden and much of the south by the middle of 2015. The Emirati special forces that entered the battlefield were reportedly shocked by the lack of communication between the Hadi government and the poorly equipped militias holding the city.

Once Houthi-Saleh forces had been pushed back, the UAE had expected Hadi and his inner circle to return to Aden and lead stabilization and reconstruction efforts. Instead, the president and most members of his government remained in Riyadh, leaving the day-to-day administration of one of the few parts of the country under Hadi’s nominal control to an appointed governor who had spent much of the previous decade living outside Yemen. When that governor was killed in an apparent attack by the Yemeni franchise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Emiratis lost patience and selected a well-regarded secessionist militia leader, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, to take his place in an attempt at restoring order in Aden.

Relations have only soured since, with Hadi competing with UAE-backed political and military leaders in Aden and elsewhere in the south, often using his position to fire rivals like Zubaidi, who Hadi dismissed in April, and the governors of Shabwa and Hadramout, who were widely seen as being UAE backed, and who joined a secessionist “transitional council” founded by Zubaidi after his ouster.

The tensions come in part because of Hadi’s reliance on a network of militias and military units with ties to Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party. For UAE leaders, Islah is much too close to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization they revile. In April 2016, Hadi named Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist military leader who oversees the fight against the Houthis in northern tribal territories of Yemen, as his vice president, further angering leaders in Abu Dhabi.

Hadi-Emirati tensions have at times undermined efforts to make military advances. During the Mokha campaign earlier this year, UAE-backed forces advanced to a highway junction that should have given them access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that has suffered some of the fiercest fighting of the war. According to well-placed sources in the south, Emirati military leaders planned a buildup of heavily armored vehicles in the area with the aim of moving up to Taiz.

But in February, a military unit loyal to Hadi attempted to seize Aden airport from a UAE-backed militia that has controlled the facility since 2015. Fighting broke out, and only ended when an Emirati military helicopter opened fire on pro-Hadi forces. The decision was made at the time, according to sources, to halt the Mokha campaign and concentrate on maintaining control of Aden. A committee was later formed in Riyadh to improve coordination among the Saudis, Emiratis, and Hadi government – represented by the increasingly influential Mohsen.

Meanwhile, the governor of embattled Taiz announced his resignation on September 26 in protest, he said, of unpaid salaries. Some Taizis speculate he was unable to do much in a city where divisions between Salafist and Islah-backed militias have made it all but impossible to coordinate a unified military response to the Houthi-Saleh alliance’s assault on the city. In Hadramout to the east, residents complain of a campaign of assassinations, apparently part of a tit-for-tat battle for control of smuggling routes between rival military units. Fissures have emerged in the Houthi-Saleh alliance in recent months, with violence briefly breaking out between the unlikely allies in August before a public reconciliation widely seen as little more than a Band-Aid masking serious internal divisions.

Perhaps Hadi believes that infighting between the Houthis and loyalists of the former president, Saleh, will forge an opening for Mohsen’s forces to take Sanaa. But, members of his inner circle concede that any battle for the capital, surrounded by heavily-armed tribes, would be a destructive and bloody folly. More likely, Hadi has recognized that his presidency will be short-lived once a peace deal is inked. With little real skin in the game of the civil war, he would appear to have scant motivation to end the conflict, and his comfortable existence in Riyadh, anytime soon.

Peter Salisbury is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.