Lessons from Round VIs Sa’ada (Yemen) at peace now? (2/2) [Archives:2008/1175/Opinion]

July 24 2008

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
“It is over”! “The war in Sa'ada is not yet quite over”! “The President 'talked' to A. M. Huthi”. “The President 'did not talk' to the field leader of the diehard Huthi fighters”. “The Huthis have opened the blockades of most of the garrisons that were besieged before the 'truce'. “The Huthis have actually taken over several positions and villages, which were not in their domain before”. These are just some of the very conflicting recent reports, headlines and exchanged claims and counterclaims between the antagonists themselves, which have been bounced around over the last week since the first call by the President of the Republic of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for an end to the “War in Sa'ada” and other areas, which he later declared as having “come to an end” last Thursday. What is the situation now?

For sure, some agreement was reached, for the Sana'a – Sa'ada Road is open to traffic and both sides are indeed talking about some sort of easement of the heavy fighting that has characterized this Fifth Round of what has been an irrational and unjustified internal bloody conflict now in its Fifth Year. Needless to say, this Round V has actually proved to be an embarrassment for the President in more than one respect. The most obvious sign of this came when the European Union and the United States for once agreed on what constitutes a “war on terror” and what does not and both stated publicly that the War in Sa'ada is out of the “War on Terror” trick or treat bag. The Americans fully became convinced only after four years of intermittent fighting, whereas the Europeans began to see this early as individual states and later as one regional sovereign amalgamation. On the other hand, and this is important, the Huthis may have actually shown or were helped by the revelation that there is more to the element of “terror” emanating from the Government's side. The unusually nascent coziness between the regime and some of the elite members of the suspicious list of “Qaeda” and extremist “cells”, who have attained some international recognition, could not remain undercover for long, as the regime had tried to keep. Moreover the obvious recent public evidence of this coziness, such as the official nod of approval for the creation of a witch-hunting authority, disguised as “the Virtue Commission” may even have arisen out of the recent western reactions to the War in Sa'ada, in addition to the need for some political cushioning in the wake of some of the military setbacks realized in the efforts to bring the Huthis to submission.

After thirty years of successfully being able to maneuver flexibly in the relations with Saudi Arabia, and sometimes to display individual initiative to the like and sometimes dislike of the wealthy neighbor to the North, the President is apparently back to what some observers have alluded to as a heavy dependence on the Saudi regime. That this will help in dealing with the Huthi regime in the wake of loss of support and credibility, with respect to some of the other influential regional and international players, remains to be seen. The Saudis, have their reasons (mostly based on security assumptions – the major fuel of Saudi policy) for viewing the Huthis a menacing thorn to their southern flank and have expressed their unhappiness with the latter as an extension of the “Persian” threat to their well-being on more than one public and private channel. With the open expression of disapproval of the extremist “Salafi” attempted unsuccessful inroads into the independent staunchly Zeidi region of Sa'ada (all the former suspicious Salafi “orientation” camps that were in the Sa'ada region have now been removed by the Huthis, to the relief of the residents of the Governorate), the Saudis were not predisposed to accept the strong political (and military) presence of such anti-Saudi (whether in their religious or political manifestations) sentiment to their South. So after 30 years, it would appear that the commonly despised enemy of both the Saleh regime and his intermittent backers in Riyadh has brought the two regimes together again, for neither of them do not see any grounds for congruence with the Huthis, each for his own reasons, but nevertheless with the same degree of vehemence. The irony is that the unusual perseverance and steadfastness of the Huthis has caused this strong intimacy to reemerge adding more to the complication of the situation in Sa'ada with regional and perhaps international overtones, perhaps none of which any of the players in the conflict had expected to come into play or even pursued.

Amidst all this intertwining scenario, President Ali Abdullah Saleh must make very difficult decisions and weigh complex factors that are now probably more detrimental to his and Yemen's future than any previous decisions he has confronted before. Will the heavy leaning towards Yemen's northern neighbor and their temporal agents in Yemen, the well entrenched Salafi establishment, stand as a favorable solution, with respect to assuring the longevity of the regime, and more significantly to enhancing the future welfare and well-being of the country? Or, are these just a continuation of the delicate balancing of forces maneuvers the President has astutely relied on in the past 30 years to maintain the survival of his regime, while the nation continues to take the back seat to eventually find itself, as always, on the short end of the stick? Happy Anniversary, Mr. President.

Hassan Al-Haifi has been a Yemeni political economist and journalist for more than 20 years.