The Next Moves in Yemen's Deadly Chess Game

A handout picture released by the official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) on April 21, 2016 showing delegations taking part in the Yemen peace talks, in Kuwait City.

On 6th of August 2016, the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, announced the end of the Kuwait round of Yemen’s peace talks. Following an earlier two rounds of talks in Switzerland, the Kuwait talks were launched on 21st of April 2016. Despite the lengthy period of this round and the range of topics and proposals discussed by the delegations, no agreement was reached and the Special Envoy concluded by promising further talks at a future date not agreed upon yet. In the meantime, the two sides of the conflict (the government of President Hadi and the Houthi/Saleh alliance) have sent signals of their next moves that each side hopes will give them a better negotiating position in the next round.

Government Moves

The next period will see moves from Hadi’s government on two fronts: military and economic. On the military front, the government forces and their allied tribal forces launched a new offensive on the Nihm front (east of the capital Sana’a). Also, shortly following the conclusion of the Kuwait talks, the spokesperson of the Saudi-led coalition announced that the coalition will revive their military operation “Restoration of Hope”. In addition to the Nihm front, it is expected that the government forces and their allies with support from the coalition will attempt to progress on the Mareb front and Midi front (See this Chatham House paper for an understanding of the different fronts).

Conflict Frontlines – April 2016. Yemen: Stemming the Rise of a Chaos State, Peter Salisbury – Chatham House On the economic front, the government and coalition countries will attempt to strangle the Houthi/Saleh alliance by putting more pressure on their access to financial resources. The Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), which remains headquartered in Houthi/Saleh controlled Sana’a, has managed to prevent the complete collapse of the Yemeni economy by maintaining its neutrality and independence from the warring parties, and continuing to bankroll the salaries of all public sector employees including army personnel regardless of which side they are fighting on (See How Yemen’s wartime central bank keeps country afloat). After making multiple public statements that they intend to “relocate” the CBY, and despite the advice of the international community against any moves that jeopardize the independence of CBY, Hadi’s government sent an official letter on 30th of July to the IMF requesting the freezing of Yemen reserves and to stop adopting the signature of CBY’s current governor and vice governor. After the letter was leaked to the press, and within hours of the closing ceremony of the Kuwait talks, Hadi’s government made a statement to the official Saba News Agency that they had sent letters not only to the IMF but to all banks and financial institutions to freeze the remaining Yemen reserves and stop adopting the signature of CBY’s governor.

A view of the Central Bank of Yemen is seen in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, Nov. 15, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

The term of the current governor and vice governor of CBY ends in August 2017. However, the term of the remaining three members of the board of governors ends in August 2016, and Hadi’s government has made clear that they intend to replace the current members with others who are more clearly loyal to them and willing to take a more active anti-Houthi/Saleh stand. With Yemen’s reserves on the verge of depletion, GCC countries have made it clear that they do not intend to inject any funds into the CBY and rescue the economy from collapse. It seems that Hadi’s government and the Saudi-led coalition are hoping that a failure to continue paying public salaries, and the subsequent economic collapse, would put more pressure on the Houthi/Saleh alliance and will lead to popular discontent in the areas controlled by them.

Houthi/Saleh Moves

As for the Houthi/Saleh alliance, their moves will be on the political and military fronts. On the military front, the Houthi/Saleh alliance have launched an offensive deep into the rural areas of Taiz governorate bordering Lahj in an attempt to take control of the last remaining supplies route that connects Taiz to the south. In addition to Taiz, the Saleh/Houthi alliance are likely to deploy more forces on the Mareb front, while trying to hold their positions on the Jawf, Shabwa and AlBaydhah fronts.

In addition, the Houthi/Saleh alliance has reinstated the title of the Republican Guards to the elite forces that Hadi previously renamed to be Reserve Forces, and announced funding the Republican Guards to increase their preparedness for battles. With this rather symbolic move, the alliance is sending a clear message that the old Saleh structures will be brought back in a more organized way to be officially part of the war.

Soldiers of the Republican Guard stand to attention during a graduation ceremony (Getty Images) Perhaps more importantly, the coming period is expected to witness active political steps by the Houthi/Saleh alliance. This has already started with the announcement of a 10-member Supreme Political Council formed by the General People’s Congress (GPC, Saleh’s party) and the Houthis. After naming the members of the council on 6th of August 2016 (day of concluding the talks), the alliance has a number of moves up their sleeves. For one, the council’s establishment effectively suspended the constitutional declaration made by the Houthis in February 2015 and the subsequent Supreme Revolutionary Committee. The council’s announcement stressed that it will be working according to the constitution, in a step towards battling the legitimacy of Hadi and his government. The next step under planning is to convene a session of the Yemeni House of Representatives. The Yemeni House of Representatives is led by the Speaker and three deputy speakers. The speaker and one deputy is on the Houthi/Saleh alliance side, a second deputy is on Hadi’s side, and the third deputy is residing in Sana’a and is likely to remain neutral if not join the Houthi/Saleh side. In addition, the Houthi/Saleh alliance estimates that they can convene at least 140 members of the 301 members of the house, with estimates of 80 members of the house being in Saudi on Hadi’s side and the rest not yet accounted for. Convening a session of the parliament could serve to either install a new government formed by the Houthi/Saleh alliance, and/or impeach Hadi.

Finally, there has been talks that the new Supreme Political Council will appoint their own members of CBY board of governors, in an attempt to nullify any appointments that would be announced by Hadi. If both sides appoint their own board of governors, it will effectively create two central banks similar to the current situation in Libya.

Houthi/Saleh representatives signing the agreement to launch a Supreme Political Council (Photo from Yemen Today Channel

International community

Staff Brig Musallam Al Rashidi, Commander of UAE Force in Hadhramout, and others. Photo by WAM

So far the international community has been united in its approach to Yemen, which has focused on unequivocal support for Hadi’s government and complete backing of the UN Special Envoy’s efforts to reach a peace agreement. However, in the absence of successful outcomes from the talks, the international community is increasingly pressured to look at an alternative “Plan B”. The most discussed plan B is to forget about a national peace agreement and begin working with local forces in the different regions of Yemen to establish security and stability wherever possible. Hadhramout is the most likely starting point, where the United States for example is currently contemplating an increased partnership with the UAE in establishing a success model there, especially given the support of the Hadhrami tribal and business community. While the UAE or Saudi establishing military presence and having influence in Hadhramout or Aden is not contested internationally, a unilateral move by any of the big international powers to support and establish influence in any region of Yemen will open the door for other international players to establish their own influence in other regions (most notably Russia with the Houthi/Saleh alliance in the North).

While both sides of the conflict know that they cannot achieve a complete victory from now until the next round of talks, it is heartbreaking that many hundreds (if not thousands) of lives will be lost simply to achieve a slightly better negotiating position in the next round.

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