(Bloomberg) -- The latest rebellion of Yemen’s tortuous war is complicating efforts to end its first.
In the last few weeks, fighters wanting a separate state in the south have clashed with nominal allies loyal to Yemen’s beleaguered government, weakening the coalition built by their respective Gulf benefactors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The battles have encouraged the common enemy they’re supposed to be fighting -- the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who’ve controlled the capital since late 2014 -- just as American officials make the case for talks to end the conflict.
Persuading the Houthis, who have withstood four years of withering air attacks and fought off better-armed forces with a disciplined insurgency, that this represents their best shot at international acceptance could bolster an embryonic peace process. Yet their sudden good fortune, and the emergence of a second front, adds new layers of complexity.
“The Houthis are looking at this and thinking how they can benefit,” said Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington. “They are emboldened and will think that they should keep pushing their campaign.”
In Saudi Arabia this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said Washington was talking with the Houthis. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report that the Trump administration was also trying to cajole Saudi Arabia into negotiations with Houthi leaders, at a time when concerns over a possible broader conflict with Iran were growing.
After meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this month at his palace in Jeddah, Todd Young, a member of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, confirmed there had been “efforts made to have those talks,” while acknowledging that he didn’t know if anything had come of the approach.
Young, a former Marine and longtime critic of the Saudi war, said in an interview that while in the kingdom, he’d heard a “a candid recognition” of misaligned interests between Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. over Yemen.
Both countries remained committed to confronting Iran, he said, so if there’s a chance to split the Houthis “away from the Iranians and bring some peace and stability to Yemen in a way that’s acceptable to everybody in the region, that’s something that could be discussed.”
An email sent to the Saudi embassy in Washington seeking comment was acknowledged but not answered.
For now, the Houthis have stepped up their drone and missile attacks on enemy forces and Saudi territory, while their leader, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, has mocked the fissure within the Gulf coalition.
In a Sept. 1 speech, he accused Yemenis supporting the alliance of being complicit “in betraying their country.”
The fighting across southern Yemen, which began soon after the U.A.E. signaled it was withdrawing forces, has abated. Yet tensions are high with both the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the separatist, U.A.E.-backed Southern Transitional Council redeploying fighters.
Some Yemenis are despairing. “We thought that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were helping us but they are trying to divide the country for their own mean objectives,” said Suhaib Ahmed, a shop owner in the southern city of Taiz. “Our dreams of recapturing Sana’a from the Houthis are zero.”
Saudi Arabia is trying to solve the crisis diplomatically, with a separatist delegation heading to the kingdom last week for indirect talks with the Yemeni government. It also issued a warning against the possible fragmentation of Yemen, in what could be seen as a guarded rebuke of its coalition partner.
“There is no alternative to the legitimate government in Yemen,” it said in a statement. Saudi Arabia “does not accept any attempts to create a new reality in Yemen by using force or the threat of force.”
But restoring a degree of unity may prove beyond the kingdom. The fighting has drawn on long-held demands for the restoration of a separate state in the south of Yemen, which was only united in 1990. And it has been fueled by the central role in Hadi’s government of the Islamist Islah party, which the U.A.E. considers a terrorist organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The split in the south has raised questions about what the Houthis will do next.
“The Houthis could in theory burst out in a couple of places, at some point take advantage of the situation,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute who was embedded with U.A.E. forces on four Yemeni battlefronts last year. “Or they could play the longer game.”
The war has caused the death of thousands of civilians, displaced millions of hungry people and allowed a resurgence by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants. The suffering and potential security threats helped fuel rare bipartisan Congressional moves to curtail U.S. military funding for the Saudi war effort, halted only by presidential opposition.
U.S. Senator Angus King, a member of the Armed Services Committee who also attended this month’s meeting with the Saudi crown prince, said that while the only way forward was to talk to the Houthis, major obstacles remained.
“The Houthis may want to talk but the Iranians may not let them,” he said in an interview. If negotiations are possible, “What do the Houthis want? Do they want participation in government or do they want to run the country?” King said.
“If they want to control the country, I don’t think the Saudis and the Emiratis are going to be able to allow that.”
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