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Few signs that conflict in Yemen will end soon

The Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen are deepening the chaos in the country, where a full-blown civil war is under way, says Gerald Butt

Yemen's cabinet-in-exile has begun holding regular meetings in the country's embassy in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. When and how circumstances might allow ministers to resume their duties in Sana'a is not something that President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his advisers can predict. 

Nor can the Saudi-led Arab alliance say when airstrikes, begun in March, might defeat the armed opponents of the president. At the same time, the UN Security Council is powerless to enforce the recently passed Resolution 2216 ordering the Houthis and their allies to pull out of Sana'a and return state institutions into the hands of the internationally recognised regime.

Response to the unfolding Yemen crisis both inside and outside the Middle East has been slow and often based on dubious interpretations of its causes. The international media's focus on the role of the Houthis, a Zaidi Shi'a group from northern Yemen, gave the impression that the country was witnessing nothing more than an internal uprising led by a disaffected minority community. The reality is that Yemen is engulfed by a full-scale civil war, pitting powerful units of the army against one another. The Houthis and some tribal leaders have allied themselves with one half of the military, under the command of Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Tribes with allegiance to President Hadi are backing the other half.

The role of ex-president Saleh and his son Ahmed - head of the Republican Guard - has been crucial in the military success that the Houthi-backed army units have enjoyed. Resolution 2216 imposed a general assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo on both the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. An annex to the resolution accused the latter of "working to undermine President Hadi's authority, thwart Hadi's attempts to reform the military and hinder Yemen's peaceful transition to democracy". 

It added that Saleh junior had played a key role in '"facilitating the Houthi military expansion". In early 2013 he had "issued thousands of new rifles to Republican Guard brigades and unidentified tribal shaikhs." 

In short, the Salehs and their supporters have been using state funds pilfered over decades (up to $60bn, according to a UN assessment in February) to finance a military operation aimed at seizing back the power they lost when the 2012 internationally backed transition agreement saw Hadi become president. 

Saudi Arabia, an important backer of that accord, has long been concerned with developments in its southern neighbour - which in recent years has become a base for attacks on the kingdom by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Instability in any country close to Saudi Arabia is regarded as a matter of great concern. Saudis watched as Hadi was forced to flee first from Sana'a to the southern city of Aden and then into exile. When Houthi and Saleh forces began closing in on Aden, Saudi Arabia heeded Hadi's call for help and agreed that immediate action was needed. So airstrikes were ordered. 

For Saudi Arabia there was another incentive to back the Hadi regime: the kingdom believes that the success of the Houthis can be explained by the support they receive from Iran. The latest Saudi involvement in Yemen, therefore, should be seen in the context of the Arab Gulf states seeking to curb perceived Iranian meddling in several parts of the region - in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Evidence of how Iran is helping the Houthis is hard to find and Resolution 2216 made no mention of an Iranian role. In the Security Council discussions before the vote Iran was mentioned only twice, both times by Yemen's ambassador.

During those discussions, the UK's UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant, while supporting Saudi-led military action, said that, ultimately, 'an inclusive political process' was required. This is undoubtedly a sound assessment. For Saudi airstrikes without ground forces backing the army units loyal to the president are unlikely to win the war and remove the Houthis and their allies from Sana'a. There is no indication so far of a ground force being assembled, or of significant numbers of rebel troops transferring allegiance to Hadi. 

Saudi Arabia has historically preferred to refrain from direct action in regional crises. Under King Salman and his two energetic and ambitious ministers of defence and interior, it has acted with uncharacteristic boldness - some might say rashness - and with little evidence of diplomacy being employed in tandem with force. If progress on the military front remains slow and inconclusive, the kingdom might welcome diplomatic mediation.

Oman is one country that could play a role in persuading the various parties that a clear military victory for any side is unlikely. The Omanis have studiously distanced themselves from joint Gulf action in either the Iraq or Yemen crises, and they enjoy good relations with both Tehran and the West, having brokered secret talks on the Iran nuclear crisis. 

Iran itself, while denying accusations that it is helping the Houthis, concedes that it has a relationship of sorts with them. Foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said in mid-April that Iran had "influence with a lot of groups in Yemen, not just the Houthis and the Shi's." He described Iran as 'a major force in the region' and said it would use its leverage 'to bring everybody to the negotiating table, to the point that we can'. But Tehran says that an end to Saudi airstrikes should precede negotiations, a condition rejected by Riyadh.

Amid the roar of battle there are faint sounds of possible ways forward - suggestions, for example, that the Houthis and ex-president Saleh might agree to the establishment of a ruling presidential council headed by recently appointed Vice-President Khaled Bahah, the former prime minister who enjoys wide support among Yemenis. But then the resignation of the UN's Yemen envoy, Jamal Benomar, on 15 April in the face of Gulf criticism of his role merely increased the mood of despair.

As Yemenis face humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world's poorest countries no party is yet ready to make concessions. So the day when the cabinet can leave the embassy in Riyadh and return to Sana'a to start rebuilding the country is still far away.

Gerald Butt is a Middle East analyst and former BBC correspondent in the region.

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