President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s choice seems so simple. Having witnessed the futility of military operations and lauded the benefits of negotiation with the Houthis in the north, logic assumes that dialogue will be kept open in southern Yemen.
But that future is receding as war grows nearer.
Normality is slowly returning to Saada, despite the numerous refugee camps that require resolution, allowing the United Nations refugee agency to visit the regional capital of Saada province for the first time in eight months. UN refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed a team of non-governmental and government representatives visited the area and met local authorities to discuss the recovery plan.
For his part Saleh claims the war is over “forever,” though this is hardly comforting.
Certainly negotiations were the only way to end the fighting, short term or long, but negotiations are only as good as their implementation. Saleh has declared an end to fighting before, the last time in Saada on July 17, 2008. In August and September he ordered some prisoners released as per the ceasefire, but according to Human Rights Watch, “dozens remain detained without charge or trial, and some are still unaccounted for.”
“Months after the guns fell silent in Sa’da, Yemenis are still in prison without being charged with any crime,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “President Saleh should take up this opportunity to remedy the injustices committed by his security forces and take immediate steps to ensure these abuses are not repeated.”
The last battle - “the sixth war” in a six year insurgency - stems as much from the Houthis’ obstinacy as Saleh’s; a Yemen Observer poll overwhelming believes the latest ceasefire won’t last either. Saleh must follow up on his end of the agreement, stop politically and economically marginalizing the Houthis and their supporters, or he’ll soon find himself in a seventh battle.
Nevertheless the present situation is preferable to outright war. Dialogue might not succeed in the end, but militarily defeating the Houthis is impossible while they sustain local support. And southern groups are watching closely.
The Yemen Post reports, “The last ceasefire between the government and the Houthi did not include this term and only focused on returning military and civilian equipment that were taken during the war. This means the rebels will stay having their weapons including medium and heavy ones to be an armed party after Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Despite the difference between the Houthi movement and Hezbollah, the matter may lead other parties to think to experience a similar experiment and then the democratic process in Yemen will be supported with factors including arms in a country that suffers from uncontrolled arms across its parts.”
Of course “other parties” like the Southern Movement, al-Qaeda affiliates, and their tribal networks have already taken up arms. Keenly aware and opportunistic of Saleh’s low approval and anti-American sentiment, insurgent groups in southern Yemen know that Saleh cannot defeat them militarily so long as they eschew conventional warfare.
The Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda to a lesser degree, has the popular support to wage a successful guerrilla war. Collateral damage works in their favor; they’ve witnessed US air-strikes kill many civilians and few al-Qaeda leaders, and the corresponding spike in anti-Saleh and US sentiment.
Theoretically dialogue is the only viable resolution to conflict in southern Yemen. Speaking to the military last week, Saleh wisely chose to extend his hand to any opposition group willing to negotiate within a national framework.
"If there are any political demands, they are welcome,” he said. “Come to dialogue. Now, we are going to form local committees to talk to these forces, if they accept dialogue.”
He also told al-Arabiya, “The government is ready to engage in dialogue with the leaders of the Southern Movement within only the constitutional and political framework... We welcome any political demands.”
At the same time this will be some extremely hard ball. Possibly too hard.
"Dialogue is only with pro-unity elements who have legitimate demands,” Saleh clarified. “But we don't have dialogue with separatist elements. The Yemeni unity was born to live, and I'm not worried about the unity.”
Thus Yemen has a problem since much of the south is rallying behind the Southern Movement - a separatist movement. A big problem after Saleh told his military, "The separatist flags are going to burn in the coming days and weeks.”
Given that the South Movement will likely push on for secession, having come to deeply distrust Saleh, it’s hard to see how the two sides can negotiate a resolution. But military confrontation is far worse as a possibility to resolving the conflict or eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence. Both problems are likely to amplify if Saleh shuns dialogue with separatist leaders and chooses a predominantly military strategy.
His exclusion of separatists and meetings with US officials suggest this outcome. James Clapper, the US undersecretary of defense for intelligence, found himself meeting Saleh in Yemen the same day that the US navy warned that al-Qaeda could attack ships off Yemen's coast.
Scare tactics have no use though when most Yemenis oppose US relations with the corrupt Saleh government and neither will Saleh, who is still quick to refute US influence in Yemen. And yet, allegedly, Yemen security officials force locals with relatives who died in military operations to sign documents implicating them with al-Qaeda just to dupe America.
Why would America bite into such a rotten counterinsurgency, one ripe for spreading the al-Qaeda virus?
Entangled as the future is, only negotiation holds out the chance of stabilizing southern Yemen. If Saleh wants to keep Yemen unified and avoid a potentially international conflict then he must find a way to limit corruption. Suppressing the press should end along with arbitrary arrests and trials. Political opposition parties must have legitimate power and regional autonomy might be an inevitability.
Yemen is a land where the lesser of two political evils rules. Not unlike America, whose war with al-Qaeda hinges on Saleh’s choice.