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The Yemeni Impasse: War During the Pandemic

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As of the end of spring, the coronavirus crisis has not brought any noticeable easing to the conflict in Yemen. What is more, it would seem that the warring sides decided to take advantage of the confusion that befell the external forces and change the situation on the frontlines. Despite the already worsening humanitarian situation in the country and the UN calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic, offensive operations nevertheless continued. At the same time, the state of affairs in the south of the country has been deteriorating, with those in favour of self-determination again rearing their heads.

We should know by now that an epidemic is not going to stop the hostilities in Yemen. Not even the cholera outbreak that has affected approximately one million people in the country over the past three years is enough to make the warring factions lay down their weapons. In fact, with the cholera epidemic still raging and chronic famine in many parts of the country, the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of relatively few, has gone largely unnoticed. Both the warring parties and the population at large have come to terms with the constant threat of outbreaks of various diseases (cholera, diphtheria, measles, Dengue fever, etc.) due to the lack of basic infrastructure and centralized immunization plans.

What is more, the reality of the situation in Yemen is that those fighting on the front are more likely to survive an epidemic than civilians living in overpopulated cities, where sanitary conditions are truly awful. An estimated 17.8 million Yemenis were without safe water and sanitation in 2019, and 19.7 million did not have access to adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, those on the frontlines generally eat better and, unlike the civilian population, have priority access to medical supplies and personnel. Ansar Allah (Houthi) militants are even using the coronavirus crisis to recruit new soldiers, convincing young people that it is better to die a martyr in battle than to suffer an inglorious death from the virus.

It would thus appear that the Houthis are as determined as ever to win the civil war, or at the very least to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the forces that are loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition troops. Even after the coronavirus had hit the country, the Houthis resumed ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and also launched an offensive in Marib Governorate. Clashes also broke out near the strategically important Al-Hudaydah Port.

The Battle of Marib

Marib Governorate is considered the richest province in northern Yemen, with oil and gas fields, a strategically important oil refinery and the country’s largest power plant. It is also of no small importance that Marib is a stronghold of the moderate Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), which Saudi Arabia is backing in the conflict. Losing Marib will deal a serious blow to al-Islah’s positions, as well as to Riyadh’s interests in Yemen.

The pandemic provides the Houthis with an opportunity to carry out offensive actions, as the external sponsors of the Hadi government, and Saudi Arabia at the top of that list, are busy with their own domestic issues and cannot pay much attention to Yemen. There has been a noticeable drop-off in the intensity of airstrikes, for example, which has afforded the Houthis the opportunity to deploy both mobile units with light weapons and various armoured vehicles.

There is no doubt that the Houthi command is intent on capturing Marib, coordinating its campaign on the city on three fronts at once. At the same time, the main defenders of Marib are the militias of local Sunni tribes, who do not want to see a Houthi victory, but would likely be willing to work towards a compromise with Ansar Allah in order to avoid suffering endless losses. All the more so because the official armed forces exist primarily on paper and include the names of many phantom soldiers whose wages are divvied up among the commanding officers. The shortage of experienced higher-ranking personnel – a consequence of the fact that many officers do not want to cooperate with Hadi or al-Islah – has also proved detrimental to the combat capabilities of the government forces.

If the Houthis are able to capture Marib, then they will have control over almost all of northern Yemen, which will seriously weaken the positions of President Hadi. And this will open the door for further offensives in the south of the country, particularly the oil-rich Shabwah and Hadhramaut governorates, further down the line. Given the problems in southern Yemen (which we will expand upon below), the Battle for Marib may be seen as a turning point in the war.

Economic Collapse

While the coronavirus may not directly affect the military and political situation in Yemen, its economic consequences could be catastrophic for the country. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise even before the pandemic hit. According to the World Bank, between 71 and 78 per cent of the Yemeni population were living below the poverty line in 2019. And the looming global financial crisis only promises to make things worse.

For example, a global drop-off in energy prices and demand will hit government revenues, as the government had planned to increase oil production to 110,000 barrels per day and expand its exports of liquefied natural gas by the end of 2019. And energy exports accounted for approximately one-third of the country’s budget revenues in 2019. At the same time, there is a very real risk that Saudi Arabia could cut subsidies to the Yemeni government, which will greatly affect its ability to purchase food and other essential goods. Overdue wages to government officials and other state employees threaten to collapse the already weak public sector.

One of the most dangerous consequences of the coronavirus crisis has been the disappearance of remittances from abroad, as the lock-down measures introduced in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have crippled the ability of Yemeni migrant workers to make a living. What makes this situation worse is the fact that remittances are a key source of currency for the country as a whole and a means of survival for many Yemenis. In 2014, money transfers from abroad brought approximately $3.5 billion into the country, which is almost equal to the entire revenue side of the national budget.

Observers have also noted that a kind of conflict economy has emerged in Yemen that has paved the way for certain structures and people involved in the import of fuel and other vital goods to line their pockets, while others make money by redistributing humanitarian aid. The worse the situation is, the more these structures thrive, so they will continue to sabotage any attempts to restore normal economic life in the country.

Yemen is staring not only at a crisis, but at a complete economic collapse, with the paralysis of all public services, a new surge in unemployment, hunger and a fuel crisis brought about by the curtailment of imports.

The Mutinous South Has Risen Again

In addition to the onslaught of the Houthis and the collapse of the economy, the government also has to deal with the increasing fragmentation of the country. Less than six months after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, which was supposed to put an end to the separatist movement in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (more commonly known as South Yemen), the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has returned to its secessionist roots. On April 26, 2020, the STC announced it would establish self-rule in the south of the country, which should be understood first and foremost as a refusal to even formally submit to the Hadi government.

Observers see this step as a sign of worsening relations between the STC and Saudi Arabia, which had taken measures in the months prior to weaken former proxies of the United Arab Emirates. After the latter withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, it was the Saudis who were stuck with the task of integrating the STC, a staunch supporter of the UAE, into the state structures and ensuring that the militia forces of the southern regions were receiving money and supplies on a regular basis. Instead, they put the STC on short rations in the hope, it would seem, that the soldiers who were no longer getting paid would defect to units controlled by the government. Evidently, the STC decided not to wait for this to happen and went all-in while it still had control of Aden and serious military capabilities.

Riyadh’s Difficult Position

By early May, Saudi Arabia, as the main sponsor of the Hadi government, was facing a number of challenges. On the one hand, there was increasing military pressure from the Houthis, who were threatening to take Marib Governorate. Because the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces are so weak, the Saudis may have to increase their military activity in Yemen, a move that would be fraught with casualties and cause grave damage to the country’s reputation. At the same time, there is a risk that an armed confrontation with the STC could flare up in the south, most likely in Aden, where there is a small Saudi contingent guarding the Central Bank of Yemen building.

Saudi Arabia is effectively at an impasse. Riyadh can, if it so chooses, continue with a very costly war, thus creating a situation of controlled chaos. But it is a war that Riyadh cannot win in the short or medium term. In light of the coronavirus crisis, which will soon force a number of countries in the region to reassess their priorities and scale back their foreign policy ambitions, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia could step away from the war entirely. Admittedly, it may take a few more painful military defeats for this to happen.

Expectations and Reality

By May 2020, the position of the internationally recognized government and its external sponsors had become almost untenable. Nor do the dynamics of the regional cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in many ways dictate developments in Yemen, inspire optimism. While Riyadh appears jaded by the protracted war, Tehran, despite the coronavirus and despite the economic difficulties it is experiencing, is ready to continue an active policy and support its partners in the region.

Under the circumstances, it is extremely difficult to try and make any forecasts. That said, all of the above circumstances point to two likely scenarios. If Riyadh adopts a pragmatic position, then we can expect a substantive dialogue with the Houthis, which will lead to an honourable peace or a fairly long-term ceasefire. That is the first scenario. Under the second scenario, Saudi Arabia doubles down and fierce battles rage throughout the year, potentially leading to the death of the Hadi government and the ultimate collapse of Yemen.

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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Russia Foreign Minister’s Gulf tour: A bellwether of US-Saudi relations

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As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarks on a four-day visit to the Gulf, Middle Eastern leaders are either struggling to get a grip on Joe Biden’s recalibration of US policy in the region or signalling their refusal to adapt to the president’s approach.

Mr. Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar comes a week after the United States released an intelligence report that pointed fingers at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for allegedly ordering the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Earlier, the United States halted the sale of weapons to the kingdom that could be deployed in its six-year-long devastating offensive in Yemen.

Even though he is not stopping in Istanbul and Jerusalem, Mr. Lavrov is travelling in the region as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still waiting for a phone call from Mr. Biden and Israel is suggesting that it may not engage with US efforts to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and could act on its own more aggressively to counter the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Lavrov is certain to want to capitalize on Mr. Biden’s rattling of Middle Eastern cages amid perceptions that recalibration of relations with Saudi Arabia and delayed phone calls suggest that the United States is downgrading the Middle East’s importance in its global strategy, reducing its security commitments, and potentially considering a withdrawal.

There is little doubt that the United States wants a restructuring of its commitments through greater burden-sharing and regional cooperation but is unlikely to abandon the Middle East altogether.

The question is whether Mr. Biden’s rattling of cages constitutes simply signalling US intentions or a deliberate attempt to let problematic allies and partners stew in uncertainty in a bid to increase the administration’s leverage. 

Potentially the longer-term strategy may be an unintended yet beneficial consequence of the administration’s conviction that addressing domestic emergencies such as the pandemic and economic crisis as well as repairing relations with America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia is a pre-requisite for restoring US influence and leverage that was damaged by former President Donald J. Trump.

If so, Mr. Lavrov may unwittingly be doing the Biden administration a favour by attempting to exploit perceived daylight between the United States and its allies to push a Russian plan for a restructured security architecture.

That plan envisions a Middle Eastern security conference modelled on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a regional non-aggression pact that would be guaranteed by the United States, China, Russia, and India.

In doing so, Mr. Lavrov would be preparing the ground for debate about a concept that has been discussed in different forms at various points by US officials, in which a United States that credibly is getting its house in order would retain its dominant position as the military backbone of a new security architecture.

It would also drive home the point that neither Russia nor China are willing or capable of replacing the United States and that Middle Eastern countries are likely to benefit most from an architecture that allows them to diversify their relationships and potentially play one against the other.

It is early days, but so far, Saudi Arabia has insisted “that the partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America is a robust and enduring partnership” even though it rejected in the same statement the US intelligence report as” negative, false and unacceptable.”

For now, Saudi Arabia appears determined to counter strong winds in the White House as well as Congress rather than rush to Moscow and Beijing in a realignment of its geopolitical and security relationships.

To do so, the kingdom, in the run-up to the release of the report, has broadened its public relations and lobbying campaign to focus beyond Washington’s Beltway politics on America’s heartland where fewer people are likely to follow the grim reality of the war in Yemen, a country that the Saudi-led bombing campaign has turned into world’s worst humanitarian crisis or the gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

The campaign appears designed to create grassroots empathy for Saudi Arabia across the United States that would filter back from constituents to members of Congress.

“We recognize that Americans outside Washington are interested in developments in Saudi Arabia and many, including the business community, academic institutions and various civil society groups, are keen on maintaining long-standing relations with the kingdom or cultivating new ones,” said Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Filings show that companies lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia reported that half of their  2,000 lobbying contacts in the last year were with individuals and groups outside of Washington.

Working with local and regional companies outside the US capital, including Larson Shannahan Slifka Group (LS2 Group) in Iowa and its subcontractors in Maine, Georgia, North Carolina and other states, Saudi lobbyists contacted local chambers of commerce, media, women’s groups, and faith communities among which synagogues.

The lobbyists distributed materials touting the benefits to women in sports and other sectors accrued from Prince Mohammed’s social reforms in a country that banned women from driving as recently as three years ago.

The Saudi focus is unlikely to deter Mr. Lavrov from peddling Russian military hardware during his tour of the Gulf, including the S-400 anti-missile defence system that Saudi Arabia expressed interest in long before the US election that swept Mr. Biden into the White House.

The kingdom has so far not taken its interest any further. Whether it does so during this week’s visit by Mr. Lavrov will serve as a bellwether of whether Saudi Arabia will turn towards Russia and China in a significant way.

So far US analysts appear to be unconcerned.

Said former US intelligence official Paul Pillar, a frequent commentator on Middle East affairs: “The attractiveness of doing business with the United States will remain without the coddling, as is true of Saudi choices regarding arms purchases, given that their defences have been built largely around US hardware.”

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Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.

The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.

Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.

Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.

To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.

With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.

Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”

“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.

Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.

“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.

Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.

That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.

In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.

The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.

The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.

That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”

Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”

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Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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