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Yemen after Saleh’s Death: Moscow on Standby

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On 4 December 2017, former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh was assassinated in his home country. His murder came after clashes in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and a schism within the tactical alliance Ansar Allah (often termed “the Houthi movement” in the media) and supporters of Saleh, primarily, the Republican Guard.

Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down as president following mass protests in 2011–2012 in exchange for full immunity from prosecution for the actions he took during his term in office. The deal was supported by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC). The process of transferring power from Saleh to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (a native of South Yemen) was launched. According to Sergei Serebrov, Saleh’s removal was largely linked to a tribal rift in the country’s political elites, which had been latent and deepening since 2007.

In 2015, President Hadi was forced to flee the capital after Houthi forces seized control. Later on, the Houthi movement and the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, formed a tactical alliance. Hadi, in turn, took refuge in Saudi Arabia, which intervened in Yemen’s domestic conflict. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with the Gulf Coalition (hereinafter, the “Coalition”) and enjoying the full support of the United States, the United Kingdom, etc., commenced bombing the positions of the Houthis and their followers. Not only did the operation aggravate the humanitarian situation, it also failed to facilitate any kind of political process. The Yemen peace talks in Kuwait were similarly unsuccessful. The United Nations described the ongoing situation in Yemen as catastrophic: the healthcare system was destroyed; 7 million people were on the verge of famine; and there were some 300,000 confirmed cases of cholera. The humanitarian situation in Yemen has continued to deteriorate.

The clashes that took place last week were triggered by Saleh’s decision to switch allegiances, as well as by his harsh rhetoric against the Houthis. He announced that he was ending cooperation with Ansar Allah and was ready to support the officially recognized government led by Hadi, accusing the Houthis of crimes against the Yemenis. However, to most of the country’s population and part of the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces, it sounded like their former President had betrayed them. The sentiment was carefully stoked by Houthi-controlled media and other Yemeni communications channels, with the Coalition announcing its support for Saleh further fanning the flames. What is more, the Hadi government made an announcement promising a new law that would pardon everybody who severed ties with Ansar Allah. Essentially, the situation was spun in such a way as to make it appear that Saleh had succumbed to the temptation to support rich Arab monarchies that had been blockading and bombing Yemen for three years.

Another factor, though not a key driver in the political processes, still deserves to be mentioned. The Houthis also see the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh as revenge for the founder of their movement, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who died in the Yemeni war in 2004 (during the 1990s and 2000s, Saleh led around six wars against the Houthis). Hussein al-Houthi is considered a martyr to the Houthis and is often referred to as Hussein of Yemen, a reference to one of the central figures in Shia Islam – the grandson of Prophet Muhammad Husayn ibn Ali killed by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid in Karbala in 680.

Saleh’s forces were defeated, and Ahmed Ali Saleh will now have to bring together what is left of them.

Regional Forces in Yemen and the Possible Balance of Power after Saleh’s Death

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (and, to a certain extent, Qatar) are the most influential actors in the history of Yemen. Western and pan-Arab media often refer to Iran, and more specifically, to Hezbollah, as the Houthi’s main sponsors. However, many Russian experts regard this position as a completely intentional and hysterical exaggeration of Iran’s role in Yemen. Although the Gulf Coalition has continued as a united front for a while, it soon became clear that each party is pursuing its own interests and goals. As such, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are known to have certain tensions which are not obvious from their joint rhetoric. While Riyadh supported President Hadi and took part in military operations in Yemen, albeit quite erratically, the United Arab Emirates gained more influence in South Yemen in pursuit of its own project to establish control over major ports in the Gulf of Aden. To illustrate, the United Arab Emirates already has military bases deployed on the Mayyun (Perim) and Socotra (both in Yemen) islands, in the port of Assab (including its airport, Eritrea), Djibouti (including its airport) and the military base in Berbera (Somalia).

The differences between Abu Dhabi and Doha are even more irreconcilable when it comes to the United Arab Emirate’s uncompromising position on Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood (many experts argue that domestic Yemeni actors should not be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood). They have also added fuel to the ongoing crisis within the GCC, since tensions remain between Qatar and other GCC monarchies.

Reportedly, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has appointed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, head of the Republican Guard. It should be mentioned that Ahmed Ali Saleh has been at the helm of the Republican Guard before, but has been residing in the United Arab Emirates as of late. Before the Coalition took up arms against the Houthis, he was Yemen’s ambassador to Abu Dhabi. He was then arrested in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Ali Saleh is believed to have been the liaison between his father and the powerful Al Nahyan family (who have a strong influence on the position of the Saudi-led Coalition through their close ties with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman). It is possible that the unexpected shift in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rhetoric was brought about by certain agreements between him and the United Arab Emirates (and, through the United Arab Emirates, with the Coalition), but he ended up making a miscalculation. Saleh’s forces were scattered, and it is up to Ahmed Ali now to bring together what is left of them.

The collapse of the Saleh–Houthi alliance will without a doubt tip the balance of Yemeni political forces. This does not mean, however, the change will be for the better, and the Coalition will finally be able to destroy all the Houthi forces. We will most likely see further fragmentation of the political forces within the country. This article will not dwell on the role of the Al-Islah Party, the Southern Movement (al-Hirak), or even Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. The Houthis emerge as a fairly solid force against this background, even if they have been weakened somewhat by recent events. Even taking the intended merger of the forces of Ahmed Saleh, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Coalition into account, the Houthis will still enjoy strong positions in the north and remain a key player in Yemen. As for the General People’s Congress, led until recently by Saleh, Ansar Allah said: “The General People’s Congress remains our partner in the Supreme Political Council and in counteracting aggression. We need to intensify our cooperation.” Iranian politicians like to add another factor into the mix when the Houthis are defined as “rebels.” According to some political figures in Iran, Zaydis (followers of the Zaidiyyah sect of Islam widely represented in North Yemen) and Zaydi imams have ruled Yemen for centuries, and the Houthis represent this very part of the Zaydi population which is so essential for the Yemen political scene.

Moscow: Keeping Tabs

According to a press statement published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, on August 21, 2017, Russia’s Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov received the newly appointed Ambassador of the Yemen Arab Republic to Moscow Ahmed Salem Al-Wahishi, who presented his diplomatic credentials. The move established an official Yemeni representative in Moscow, although, given the deep political crisis tearing the country apart, it was unclear exactly which side Al-Wahishi was intended to represent. On July 13, 2017, President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, acting largely with the backing of Saudi Arabia, appointed him ambassador to Moscow. The new ambassador is believed to be a compromise between Mansur Hadi and former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh. The appointment was in large part made possible by the fact that Moscow blocked almost every other candidate for the position from the Hadi government if they were known to be exclusively pro-Saudi in their political leanings.

What does Moscow stand to gain from issuing accreditation to a Hadi-appointed ambassador? Russia has shown it is ready to mediate in the crisis, but nothing more. Moscow has sought to alleviate some of the tensions in its relations with Saudi Arabia on the Yemen matter, while maintaining a multi-faceted approach. It has continued to work with all the actors in the crisis on different levels. Pragmatists on every side of the conflict benefitted from Russia’s move, since it put them on a path towards political dialogue. However, it is likely that Russia will abstain from any actual action on the ground to reinforce its diplomatic efforts due to its limited resources and current foreign policy priorities. Therefore, Russia’s commitment to promoting the political process can be defined as long-term.

In this context, we cannot avoid mentioning the Syrian conflict and possible relevant trade-offs between Saudi Arabia and Russia. However, it would be unreasonable to tie the conflicts in Syria and in Yemen together, even though some Russian experts believe that Syrian armed groups with connections to certain Saudi circles pose the greatest threat to the so-called de-escalation zones.

It should be noted that the Yemen crisis involves a variety of regional forces. If Russia were looking to take on a more active role, it would have to synchronize its interests with those players. Until recently, Russia was generally aligned with Iran and the domestic Yemeni forces it supported (in words rather than deeds, but occasionally also with some actual “ground” support), i.e. the Houthis and Saleh. The latter repeatedly urged Russia to return to Yemen by building a military base. However, despite Yemen’s logistical value, Russia, as we have pointed out above, has no reason to become actively involved in the matter and spend its resources in this part of the region. Moscow is quite satisfied with the current terms of access to the Gulf of Aden. Furthermore, Russia having a presence in Syria gave Russia the opportunity to influence key regional players (where the Astana process started), something which Yemen did not have. In any event, the Houthis will command strong positions in North Yemen and remain a key player on the country’s political scene.

The accreditation of the ambassador was thus an entry point to regional processes for Moscow. While this involvement has to be maintained, although it is not worth taking serious steps in circumvention of the UN Security Council. Furthermore, Moscow should revisit the security of Russian representatives in Sana’a. There should not be any radical changes in Russia’s politics in this area. Moscow will maintain working contacts with all the players involved, while taking the actual circumstances into account. This will help prepare Moscow for any possible further changes.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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