Sharq wa Gharb has conducted the following interview with Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, about the recent clashes in Southern Yemen and US-Houthi talks.
Sharq wa Gharb: What do you make of the recent clashes in Southern Yemen between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council?
It is very unfortunate. Of course, this is a level of tension that stood there for some time. It is not new. In fact, there were similar clashes earlier in 2018 that were resolved through the intervention of the Saudis and the Emiratis.
Now, I think we have the Saudis inviting the leadership to Jeddah to negotiate. My expectation is that once again, the Saudis and the other parties will be able to paper over this conflict and get everybody back onto the same page. This is an issue that is going to continue to challenge the Yemenis going forward. But it is an issue that cannot be resolved through violence or by force.
There needs at some point in the future to be another political negotiation and another effort at reconciling the parties, in order to agree on the way to address the divisions between the North and the South.
Sharq wa Gharb: The UAE rejected the claims, which pointed out that is supported the separatists in their capture of Aden. But is it possible for the separatists to enter such clashes against their allies, without the consent of their backers?
This is a big question. What the Emirati position on the future of Yemen and the dispute between Hadi’s government and the STC is that they have helped train and equip the southern militias for the purpose of confronting the Houthis. They, of course, deny that they have encouraged or in any way aided or abetted the STC or supports secession and that the southerners are basically pursuing their own agenda without the Emirati support. That may be the case, but of course, they cannot avoid the responsibility for the fact that they have created a military force that is outside the command and the leadership of the government.
Sharq wa Gharb: These clashes happened in the aftermath killing of Abu Yamamah al-Yafai, who was one of the UAE-backed commanders of the Security Belt. Although the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, the STC accused the Islah Party, President Hadi’s ally. How do you see this?
This is correct. I think most of the evidence available does point to the fact that this was the Houthis and not anyone else. But some of the southerners claimed that Islah was in some way aiding the Houthis or even that the Hadi government was somehow aiding the Houthis. There does not seem to be any evidence to support this.
I think it is a reflection of the long-standing antagonism between the STC and the Islah party that goes back to the events of 1994 and the civil war. Islah was very much involved in retaking the South when they tried to declare independence again. So this is a longstanding issue between Islah and the southerners. In some sense, I think the South used this tragic incident, even though the Houthis took responsibility, as a way of pushing back and hitting against Islah.
Sharq wa Gharb: Can we look at what’s happening in Southern Yemen as a reflection of a disagreement between Saudi Arabia and UAE?.
There no doubt in my mind that, in fact, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have divergent goals in Yemen. The Saudis have a much stronger commitment to the unity of Yemen. The Emiratis are ambivalent about that. I think that in certain instances, certainly in terms of what’s happening in the South and also what’s happened in the east in Al Mahra governorate, the two have found themselves in different positions on developments. So there are certainly differences between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
I think for Saudi Arabia, the stability in Yemen and the territorial integrity are much more important in terms of the way they see their own national interest. The concern that they have is about having a situation where you have long term instability on their southern border. It’s a bigger problem for the Saudis than it is for the Emiratis. I also think the Emiratis, see Yemen in a bigger context of their interests in the Red Sea … what’s happening in the Horn of Africa … whereas the Saudis look at Yemen much more directly in the context of their own security.
Sharq wa Gharb: The UAE announced its drawdown from Yemen a few months ago. They said they are going to adopt a “peace-first strategy”. Does it seem that they are following this strategy?
I think that one of the explanations for the Emirati decision about the drawdown and why they believe now is the time that they could drawdown is because, in their view, they have trained Yemeni forces adequately to take responsibility for preventing a Houthi takeover of the country and, therefore, there is no longer a requirement for a direct Emirati presence. Also, we shouldn’t forget that this happened at a period where the tensions in the Gulf were rising, and I think that there was a sense that the UAE saw that their military was needed more urgently in the UAE than it was in Yemen. I think that those were really the driving issues for Emirati decision.
They have said that they believe their drawdown could be seen as a signal to the Iranians and others to reinforce the political process and to help provide some momentum to the U.N. effort. Whether or not that was really the main impetus for making the decision, if the region sees it that way and uses that as an opportunity, then there is no harm.
Sharq wa Gharb: What do you make of the US position on these clashes?
For the U.S, I think that fundamentally, they see this as an issue that should be sorted out by the Emiratis and the Saudis. They have not been engaged in this issue other than by expressing concern about the violence and the loss of life.
I assume that behind the scenes, we are talking to the Saudis and Emiratis and encouraging them to sort this out. I think that everybody sees the same risk of allowing this conflict to fester. There is no question that everybody sees that this is having a negative effect on the effort to confront the Houthis. Everybody understands what the interest is. But like I said, I think that from a U.S. perspective, they decided that there will leave this for Saudis and Emiratis to figure it out.
Sharq wa Gharb: In June, you visited Aden and met officials from both the Yemeni government and the STC. Briefly, who did you meet and what was discussed?
Unfortunately, we were delayed getting there so we didn’t have the opportunity to have the full kind of discussions that we would have liked. We met with the Yemeni Prime Minister and his team. We talked about the way forward, efforts to reach a political resolution of the conflict, and where things were going generally. Then we went to the STC headquarters and met with the STC leadership. But that was a very short meeting. We had a deadline that we had to leave Aden by. So we only had an opportunity to listen to them and let them briefly explain the situation from a Southern perspective. This was obviously a few weeks before the latest round of fighting between the two sides started.
The southern leader who was killed in that Houthi incident – Abu Yamamah Al Yafie – was in our meeting with the STC too. So his killing was very direct and personal for us. But, anyway, that was what we discussed.
Sharq wa Gharb: On Yemen’s conflict overall, the US has announced that it is in talks with the Houthis. Despite the latter denied it, what made Washington take this approach, which is the first of its kind and how do you see the Saudis reacting to it?.
Well, it is not. I think that there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the nature of US contacts with the Houthis. When I was there, we met with the Houthis. Before I came, we met with the Houthis. After I left, certainly Ambassador Tueller – served from May 2014-May 2019 –when he was in Yemen, met with the Houthis. When there were talks in Kuwait back in 2016, Ambassador Tueller was there and had regular discussions with the Houthis.
In December 2016 right before he left office, John Kerry went to Muscat and met with the Houthi negotiators there and actually as a result of his discussions, he put forward a proposal for resolving the conflict. But that was rejected by the government eventually.
Nevertheless, Ambassador Tueller continued to meet with the Houthis. He was in the talks that were held in September 2018 in Geneva as well as the talks that were held in Stockholm in December 2018. It’s a misimpression to suggest that we have not had regular conversations with the Houthis over this entire period of time.
I think it is good that Ambassador Henzel is continuing the discussions with them. I think it is important that they hear from us, what our perspectives are, and also that we listen to them. We continue to encourage them to return to the negotiating table and to work with the UN envoy Martin Griffiths and try to find a peaceful solution to this current round of fighting and then go on from there.
We are not opposed to the Houthis in having a role in the Yemeni government. We have never been opposed. When the situation first deteriorated in 2014 when the Houthis came into Sana’a and negotiated the peace and national partnership agreement, we didn’t object to that.
Even the Saudis have contacts with the Houthis. The Saudis talked to the Houthis and also made clear both publicly and privately that they also do not object to a Houthi role in the government.
I think we all draw the line that if the Houthis have some aspirations some idea that they are going to be the Hezbollah of Yemen, that they are going to combine both political and military capability, that they’re going to in some way, control the government of Yemen through force and the threat of violence, then that’s unacceptable to both us and Yemenis. But beyond that, we are not opposed to the Houthis movement. I think it is right that we continue to engage with them.