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Yemen: Federalization as an Alternative to War

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In August 2019, the Yemen crises entered a new phase, essentially turning into a tripartite conflict. The forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) moved against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in an effort to restore the independence of South Yemen. By August 10, the STC’s units had captured Aden, having essentially forced representatives of the internationally recognized government out of the city. Later, on August 15, the STC announced its plans to establish an independent federative state in the south of Yemen. This was accompanied by pogroms and persecutions of northerners in Aden. Such developments are fraught not only with the spiralling of the Yemen crisis, but also with a possible clash between the principal parties of the anti-Houthi coalition: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh is counting on Hadi as the leader of a united country, while Abu Dhabi uses its STC proxies to create the conditions for splitting up the country, thus weakening the position of the pro-Saudi President.

The events that took place in the south of Yemen this past August can be viewed as a local civil war. Having captured the capital, the STC attempted to take control of Abyan and Shabwah, the governorates adjacent to Aden. The STC succeeded in rapidly taking over the military bases in Abyan. In Shabwah, however, they encountered resistance from forces loyal to Hadi. On August 22–25, the separatists were routed by the 21st Mechanized Infantry Brigade and began to retreat. By late August, the government forces had advanced on Aden but failed to capture the city largely due to the interference of the United Arab Emirates, whose air forces bombed troops loyal to Hadi in the Aden and Abyan governorates on August 29. Relative calm on the new front has followed ever since.

The Virtual Split of the Arab Coalition

Regional observers believe that, after the failure of the advance toward Al Hudaydah in 2018, the United Arab Emirates abandoned its plans to defeat the Houthis and instead turned its attention to establishing control of the coast in southern Yemen. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates is counting on the local separatists, with the Salaphites being a prominent group among them. The Salaphites are relatively well organized and have extensive ties with southern tribes. Additionally, they share a common enemy with the United Arab Emirates: the al-Islah Islamic party on which Saudi Arabia relies.

In the summer of 2019, the United Arab Emirates began to pointedly reduce its military presence in Yemen. The south was transferred to the control of the pro-UAE STC. This allowed the United Arab Emirates to solve several problems with one move: first, it reduced tensions in the country’s relations with Iran, which finances the Houthis; and second, it relieved the United Arab Emirates of its responsibility for the civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition’s airstrikes. The leadership of the United Arab Emirates try to present these actions as part of a long-term strategic plan. They insist that their policies in Yemen have from the outset been intended to establish local structures capable of resisting the Houthis. The STC is considered to be such a structure, which means that Hadi’s recognized government now needs to negotiate with the South. The STC itself claims it pursues following goals: to unite the south of Yemen and establishing a secular democratic state there; to prevent radical forces from becoming more active; and removing various armed units from cities and stabilizing the situation.

The problem is that in stepping up its activities, the STC delivered a serious blow to Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen. On the one hand, the weakness of the anti-Houthi coalition became even more obvious, as a civil war in its own right is going on behind the coalition’s battle lines. On the other hand, during any future talks, the Houthis will demand the same concessions that the STC will obtain from the Hadi government (if any). Thus far, representatives of the Hadi government are expected to declare that secession of the South is impermissible and suggest talks on federalizing Yemen.

Riyadh is in no hurry to make any concessions to the United Arab Emirates’ proxies and is busy flexing its muscles. For instance, against the background of clashes in Aden in the first half of August, Saudi Arabia succeeded in ensuring the inviolability of the Central Bank of Yemen and in preventing the national currency from crashing. Saudi’s military and armored vehicles took the building of the bank under their protection and kept the STC’s forces out. Riyadh also provided the Hadi government with 285 million Saudi riyals in financial aid, which are required primarily to import fuel.

The coalition partners are attempting to coordinate their activities, but discontent is growing. During an urgent meeting in Mecca on August 12 attended by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on the Saudi side, and Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed on the UAE side, the attendees called upon Hadi and the STC to engage in dialogue. The Saudi monarch, however, did not squander the opportunity to demonstrate his “extreme irritation” with the actions of the allies, which regional observers took to be a very bad sign.

Southern Passions Running High

The strengthening of the STC began in 2017 when it gradually took control of Aden, Yemen’s provisional capital. For a short time in January 2018, STC forces managed to take control of government agencies and even placed members of the government under house arrest. But the situation changed when Saudi Arabia got involved. Nevertheless, the course for secession had become obvious, especially since southerners had started to search actively for international support.

The STC was unable to achieve a quick triumph in August 2019 because the south of Yemen is, in fact, far from united. The differences go back to the times when that part of the country was independent and socialist. Back in 1980, the elites of the Lahij and Abyan governorates competed for control of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. That confrontation resulted in the short-lived South Yemen Civil War in 1986 and the massacre of Aden, where natives of the Abyan Governorate were defeated. Some of them fled North, to the city of Sanaa.

Currently, the STC relies on the natives of the Dhale and Lahij governorates, while the Abyan and Shabwah governorates support the Hadi government. The current president hails from Abyan, and the loyalty of the local tribes is unquestionable. Shabwah is not interested in the secession of the South, since its economy is oriented towards the “northern” Marib Governorate, as it hopes to receive dividends from the transit of oil and gas.

The Hadhramaut and Al Mahrah governorates are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude; however, the local elites are reportedly displeased with the claims of the United Arab Emirates and its proxies to dominance. Al Mahrah has rather strong pro-Saudi leanings, and in August, it openly called for the prevention of an invasion by STC forces.

The military capabilities of the STC are thus limited, and following the failure of the August blitzkrieg, the Council will most likely have to enter into talks with the Hadists. Saudi Arabia is already trying to set up a dialogue between the Hadi government and the STC. Media reports said that the first indirect contacts took place on September 4 in Jeddah.

The “Zero=Sum Game” is Over

While the Arab coalition is facing internal problems in the South, its Ansar Allah opponents (Houthis) have taken the opportunity to put additional pressure on their main adversary, Saudi Arabia. On September 14, with the help of drones and missiles, they delivered a strike against two large oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia, which forced Riyadh to cut oil production by more than half – 5.7 million barrels per day fewer than the usual 9.8 million barrels.

Despite the wave of accusations against Iran following the strikes, there is reason to believe that the Houthis are capable of organizing such an attack all on their own since they had previously shown cruise missiles with the necessary range to the public. However, in all fairness, we should note that experts identified them as radically simplified knock-offs of Iranian cruise missiles. Debates about the military capabilities of the Houthis are likely to continue, but some conclusions can be drawn. The war in Yemen costs Saudi Arabia dearly, both economically and in terms of its public image. Saudi Arabia is also clearly vulnerable to new attacks, despite enormous military spending and assistance from the United States. The media has added fuel to the fire by suggesting that it will take Riyadh between several months and a year to bring oil production to its previous levels.

Consequently, while Saudi Arabia could previously afford to ignore the occasional missile and drone from Yemen and continue bombing the adversary using its own aviation, now, instead of a zero-sum game, it has an asymmetric conflict on its hands with very unpleasant consequences. However, there is a way out of this predicament. A week after the strike against the oil refinery, Houthis proposed a ceasefire of sorts to Riyadh: they would cease missile strikes in exchange for the Saudi’s stopping their air raids.

A New Scenario for the Yemeni Drama

There are three possible courses of action from the point of view of the general development of the Yemeni crisis. The first scenario involves acknowledging that a military solution is impossible and launching talks with Houthis. The second is to stop counting on Hadi and his ineffective government, which does not enjoy broad support in Yemen, and find a new force that can defeat the Houthis and the Islamists and unite Yemen. Finally, the third option is controlled chaos, that is, the continuation of the war against Ansar Allah while at the same time ensuring that the instability is contained to Yemen.

From 2015 until now, the coalition has been pursuing the third course, that of controlled chaos. However, with the separatist movement stepping up its activities in the South (and the United Arab Emirates’ de facto withdrawal from the war) and the coalition’s increasingly obvious inability win a military victory over the Houthis may make other scenarios relevant as well.

As we have shown above, a compromise with Ansar Allah is the most apparent solution. In this case, further developments of the situation in Yemen will depend primarily on whether the dialogue between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is productive. The Houthis have long been trying to get Riyadh to enter into direct talks with them, and they have been pressuring Saudi Arabia into doing so by regularly attacking cities and infrastructure facilities in the country. Riyadh, however, is standing its ground and is not going agree to anything except the actual surrender of its opponents, which it believes to be puppets of Iran. If the Saudi leadership, as a matter of principle, decides to continue armed hostilities, then it may follow the course of forming another government to replace that of Hadi. However, it will then run into inevitable difficulties finding alternative leaders and ensuring their international recognition. This process will take a lot of time, which means that the war will go on.

The Yemen crisis is entering a new phase. There are three competing scenarios for the future of the country: a Houthi “Islamic republic”; splitting Yemen into North and South; and a federative state headed by a reshuffled government. The latter appears to be in the best interests of the Yemeni people, as it offers hope for a relatively quick settlement of the conflict and the preservation of a unified state. If Riyadh agrees to a constructive dialogue with the STC and Houthis, then federalization may have a chance. Thus far, however, the Saudi leadership has taken a tough stance and refuses to make significant concessions to either the Houthis in Ansar Allah or the southerners represented by the STC. If the current trend persists, the civil war should be expected to continue on several fronts at once, and Yemen will likely collapse slowly.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in political science, Associate Professor, Oriental Studies Department, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert

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Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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