Yemeni Government Returns from Exile as al-Qaeda Expands Foothold
Yemen expert Sama’a Al-Hamdani says it’s in the interests of all parties to achieve a political solution as soon as possible because the alternative may be far worse
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: In news from Yemen, the government of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah has returned from exile in Saudi Arabia, spurring rumors of a possible ground invasion by the Saudi-led coalition to oust the Houthi rebels. And as hundreds of troops from Qatar and Egypt and other Arab countries have joined the Saudi-led coalition in recent weeks, UN officials condemn the situation saying “unless there is a serious commitment of the parties to find a political solution to the conflict that will end the violence and ensure humanitarian access to all populations without discrimination, the situation is likely to degenerate further.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. has announced over $89 million in new humanitarian aid to Yemen while simultaneously negotiating a billion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen and against the Islamic state. The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights has said all parties should be investigated for rights violations, finding over 2,000 civilians killed and more than 4,000 wounded since fighting began in March.
Now joining us to discuss this from Washington, DC is Sama’a Al-Hamdani. She’s an independent writer, researcher, and analyst focusing on Yemeni politics and women’s affairs. Thanks so much for joining us.
SAMA’A AL-HAMDANI: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So talk about the implications of the return of the exiled government from Saudi Arabia.
AL-HAMDANI: I mean, it’s a welcome step, you know, for Prime Minister Bahah to go back with seven ministers is really welcomed. Ever since the start of the war the government has been residing in Riyadh. And so to have any kind of government officials on the ground operating from there gives the Yemeni citizens some hope that even though there is war now and even though there is devastation now, there is a potential of having some peace being restored by having a well functioning government.
Of course, this is going to be really challenging for Prime Minister Bahah, considering the chaos that has existed in the city of Aden. Although the city of Aden has been freed and liberated from Houthi presence, what they still need to do is really get a grip of the area, and this is a real test for his government, to see whether they can take charge and kind of operate in a city where there is chaos. And if they succeed in doing so then this gives hope to the rest of the country which is now, you know, like I mentioned earlier, has no government presence whatsoever. The country’s being run by local militias that take control of their respective areas. And so this is a welcome step. It’s going to be extremely challenging.
And last time Prime Minister Bahah visited Yemen he stayed for a few hours, and then returned back to the Gulf after he visited the city of Aden. Hopefully this time they can stay in the city a lot longer, and hopefully they won’t have to return.
NOOR: And talk about the impact of the growing intervention by Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries. There’s been air strikes that have picked up as of late, and casualties for the Arab coalition troops.
AL-HAMDANI: First of all we have to understand the reality of this war on the ground in Yemen. This war is taking two shapes, or two forms. First of all, it is a civil war on the ground where the Houthi militia allied with the former president Saleh are taking over cities. So they took over Yemen’s capital last September, 2014. So it’s been a year now since they took over the capital. However, the war did not begin till March 28, 2015.
And so the war has been almost six months, now. And the war is taking two shapes. So the civil war is manifesting itself in several governorates in Yemen. A governorate is the equivalent of a state here in the U.S. And so several governorates are witnessing conflict between the Houthi militia and forces of former President Saleh and a group known as the popular resistance. The popular resistance varies from one city to the other, but it’s pretty much a name given to any group willing to take up arms against the Houthis. And so you have a devastating reality taking place in some governorates on the ground where the civil war has turned into a very intense and bloody war.
And then on top of that, in some areas of Yemen we are witnessing air strikes coming, and led by Saudi Arabia, of course it’s an Arab coalition. What we can say about this Arab coalition is that they are now allied by the sense that the Houthi militia is their enemy. Also, the former President Saleh is their enemy. However, their vision for Yemen differs very much. It’s not very clear what they have in mind for Yemen. We’ve talked about Yemen being a federal state possibly after this war. But Saudi Arabia has mentioned that they want to keep Yemen as a unified state.
The reality on the ground in the northern parts of Yemen, especially in the capital Sana’a where, and in the governorate of Sa’dah, the air strikes have been targeting civilian targets. And the coalition refuses to admit that they’ve been doing that. However, footage has appeared where people have recorded events where these air strikes have targeted their private homes. And this is kind of a strange war in a sense, because they’re targeting Houthi forces, or forces allied to President Saleh right to their homes. So the military targets that they’ve been going after include women and children, especially if they reside in the home of a specific target. This is a war where the blur between civilians and non-civilians is being kind of ignored or dismissed.
Of course, the Houthi forces on the ground have committed atrocities. However, you don’t expect several countries to behave on the same level as a militia on the ground.
NOOR: And this conflict is often portrayed as a proxy war.
NOOR: Can you talk about the international implications of what’s happening here? Because it’s portrayed as though Iran is arming the Houthi rebels. That’s what is alleged. And obviously the United States is arming Saudi Arabia, and just with this billion-dollar deal that’s being negotiated as we speak.
AL-HAMDANI: Sure. So the Houthi group, or the Houthi militia allied with former President Saleh looks or is described as Iranian-backed. In fact, they are supported by Iran prior to this war logistically, and they are more backed by Hezbollah from Lebanon, who provided them with strategic steps to expand. Of course, this was negated by a statement that has come out from Iran saying that they had asked the Houthis to return once they took over the capital Sana’a in September, 2014. President Obama gave an interview also, stating that Iran has not taken part of their expansion outside Sana’a, and it seems that they are operating out of their own will.
Ever since the start of the war, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia has made sure that nothing goes in and out of Yemen without their approval. So even humanitarian aid has to go through extreme scrutiny before making it into the country, hence the humanitarian crisis that Yemen is witnessing now is extremely, extremely tragic. And so Yemen now is under siege, and Iran is not effectively participating in this war. And they have decided to stay out of it because of the nuclear deal that has been struck between the U.S. and Iran.
And so the idea that Iran is supporting the Houthis, yes, they tried to back them up logistically at the start. However, they are not funding them directly. However, Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition is supporting and heavily funding and arming every other group that is willing to take up arms against the Houthis. So in a sense this is a war that is led by the Arab coalition, so Saudi Arabia plus the other Arab states that are participating, supporting the popular resistance, trying to restore the legitimacy of President Hadi’s government on the ground, and the Houthi militia allied with former President Saleh fighting them back, and then fighting their local opponents on the ground.
NOOR: And can you briefly touch upon the U.S. role in all of this?
AL-HAMDANI: Yes, absolutely. The U.S. is a great ally of Saudi Arabia. This is not a surprise to anybody, we all know this. However, recently the U.S. tried to start a relationship with Iran, hence the nuclear deal that was just signed. And so in a sense Saudi Arabia is a little bit upset about this treaty that was signed, because regionally speaking in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran are enemies and they are engaging in proxy wars in Syria and in Iraq. However, they both have embassies in each others’ countries, and they are in negotiations with each other. Yemen looks like a really great ground to have another proxy war, however, Iran decided not to involve itself in that.
And I think it is, in fact, in Saudi Arabia’s interest to end this war as soon as possible before Iran decides to join, because then the war, although it is a mess right now, it could get a lot worse. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken over the governorate of Hadramaut, and they are expanding. And as a matter of fact this war has kind of given Al-Qaeda a human face on the ground. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is no longer an extremist group that is threatening everyone. They kind of now appear as if they are another local actor engaged in this war. Because in this war they have effectively fought alongside the allies temporarily.
And so very strange stuff are happening. Of course, not stranger than anything happening in Syria and Iraq. However, a lot less people are informed on what’s going on in Yemen.
NOOR: Well, Sama’a Al-Hamdani, thanks so much for bringing us up to speed.
AL-HAMDANI: Thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.