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Extremists undermining chances of peace in Yemen

Aug 21,2019 - Last updated at Aug 21,2019

The politico-military advantage in the stalemated war in Yemen has shifted recently in favour of the Houthi rebels, who are now reinforcing their political position ahead of prospective peace talks by calling on Iran for support. Having shunned accusations of an Iranian-Houthi connection over the four and a half years of war, the Houthis dispatched a delegation to meet with no less a figure than Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and appointed an ambassador to Tehran. The encounter with Khamenei also marked a major change in attitude towards the Yemeni war at the senior-most level in Iran's two-tier system of government, of clerical and elected personnel, in which he is the ultimate decider.

Khamenei declared his “support for the mujahidah [struggle] for Yemen”, and accused Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of seeking "to divide Yemen”.

In a signal that Iran may intend to become involved in peace-making, Houthi representatives met the ambassadors of Britain, France, Germany and Italy to Tehran. The participants discussed the crisis in Yemen and agreed that the conflict must be settled through political action. They urged the parties to implement the truce agreement reached in Stockholm last December and extend it to the whole of the country.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have, from the outset of the military campaign, charged the Houthis of being proxies of Iran. Western media have picked up this accusation and constantly refer to the Houthis as "Iran-backed" or "Iran-supported".

The Houthi-Iranian strategic rapprochement followed the partial withdrawal of Emirati forces from Yemen, Abu Dhabi's call for peace talks and a senior-level meeting between Emirati and Iranian officers to discuss the tense situation in the Strait of Hormuz, vital for oil exports to the world. Fed up with stalemate, Abu Dhabi wants to end the war.

The Houthi-Iranian rapprochement also coincided with the capture by southern separatists of the port city of Aden, the seat of the government. While the separatists have vacated government buildings, they remain in two military camps, maintaining their domination of Aden. They have said that they will retain control as long as members of the fundamentalist Islah party, regarded as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other northerners remain in the government. The separatist refusal to hand over Aden has delayed talks on a Cabinet reshuffle with the aim of including the Southern Transitional Council, which insists the separatists want to "govern themselves". They seek to revert to the pre-1990 division of Yemen into two countries, north and south. The Saudis, the Houthis and the Iranians insist on the unity of Yemen.

The secessionists are not the sole factional problem faced by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Last week, four days of clashes between the local security forces and the army erupted in the Yemeni city of Taiz, killing at least 30 people. The fighting followed the dismissal of a pro-government security official and his replacement by an anti-regime figure. While the city centre is controlled by the government, the suburbs and countryside are disputed by government forces and the Houthis.

Meanwhile, the Houthis, who have, against all odds, countered the Saudi-Emirati campaign, have advanced south and fired missiles into southern Yemen. Bomb-laden drones have penetrated Saudi airspace and struck airports, oil pipelines and other targets. The latest such attack, carried out by multiple drones on August 17, caused a fire at a remote Saudi oil and gas field, which is located only a few kilometres from the Saudi-Emirati border. The Saudis have responded by bombing the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, and caves where the Houthis store weaponry. The Houthis control most of the cities and towns in Yemen and most of the population lives in Houthi-held areas.

Unfortunately, during this deadly and destructive war, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Daesh and multiple militia leaders and war lords have also asserted themselves, rendering it all the more difficult to forge a lasting peace settlement.

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