The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]

Afghanistan today

An analysis of the actors, of the dynamics and the complexities of a country in continuous evolution and (for now) at constant war

 

Afghanistan is a country whose political, ethnic, and religious peculiarities have their roots in geography. Indeed, thanks to its privileged position in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has always been at the core of those routes that merchants used to trade and exchange ware, innovations, and tendencies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This inevitably exposed Afghanistan to many – and diverse – cultural, linguistic and religious influxes that favored the emergence in the country of a multiform reality, characterized by the coexistence – often tense and difficult – of different identities.

The ethnic and tribal side is where diversity and fragmentation are deep the most: alongside the Pashtun majority, many other groups – such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmens and Baluchis – do live in the country. In addition, the fact that each area of the country is traditionally inhabited by a specific tribal group gives to the ethnic map of Afghanistan neat and clearly demarcated borders.

However, the impact that geography had – and has – on the country involves also the political reality. Afghanistan, in fact, has a territory which is mostly mountainous and this peculiar topography has historically made it difficult to bring under the control of the central power those areas that geography has doomed to be distant from Kabul. This reality, so inherently fragmented that each area is de facto under the control of local militias and groups, continues to be one of the toughest challenges for the Afghan state (and its allied forces), that struggles to establish an undisputed presence in the whole country.

 

2015 was a year of changes for Afghanistan: ISAF, the mission with which NATO intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, reached its end in December 2014 and the new Resolute Support Mission brought with it a considerable reduction of the NATO forces deployed in the country. The responsibility of defending Afghanistan from the Taliban insurgence shifted in this way (at least to a great extent) to the Afghan forces (ANSF). The ANSF, though, seem not to be ready yet for such a tough mission: despite having significantly improved their operation capacity and having in more than one case retaken territories occupied by the Taliban, there are a series of weaknesses and internal problems that limit their capacity of acting autonomously and efficiently.

On the one side, there are external challenges such as the tactic difficulties inherent in the deployment of forces on a territory whose geographic characteristics – as seen above – make connection, the movement of troops and military communications hard. On the other side, there are internal problems, such as the declining recruitment and and the growing problem of the so-called ghost soldiers. In addition, the withdrawal of American trainers and advisors has deepened the problems related to leadership within the army, where most appointments to the highest ranks are still largely influenced by political calculus and tribal affiliations.

If to all this, then, the qualitative and quantitative limits in terms of equipment and weapons are added, it is possible to find an explanation for the losses suffered by the Afghan forces throughout 2015 and the low credibility of the national forces in the eyes of the population (especially in those rural and peripheral areas that are most difficult for the army to reach).

 

Conversely, the reduction of NATO and American presence benefited the Taliban. Taking advantage of the lower number of foreign forces active on the ground and of the limits of the Afghan forces, Mansour founded the cohesion and credibility of the Taliban on a series of military victories and territorial conquests that have interested not only the usual provinces of the south, but also a number of provinces in the north. Under the leadership of Mansour, thus, the Taliban obtained major successes (emblematic the temporary occupation of Kunduz) and achieved the maximum level of territorial expansion since 2001: to date, the group controls seven districts in the provinces of Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar and Nimroz, and threatens crucial urban centers such as Lashkar Gar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

This Taliban resurgence, moreover, led also to a rise in the number of terrorist attacks. These attacks – from which not even Kabul was spared – confirm how the capacity of planning and operation within the Taliban front has been growing over the last year, and they also remind how the Taliban find a significant strength in the blind ideological-religious commitment of their combatants.

 

2015 saw an increase in the number of civil and military casualties, revealed the weaknesses of the ANSF, and highlighted the Taliban’s resilience. This trend seems likely to protract throughout 2016, but its future development will depend on four main factors:

 

  • The cohesion within the government – Two years after the formation of the National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah, many of the programs and reforms that had been promised are still in stalemate, reminding how the Afghan policy continues to be conducted largely on the basis of personal and tribal bonds, and how state institutions and their functioning are dependent on such bonds. This incapacity on Ghani’s part of breaking with the traditional rules of power has inevitably widened the gap between Kabul and the Afghan population. In particular, in many rural and peripheral areas the central government lacks credibility, and the Taliban have often exploited such state of things to win the locals’ support through institutions of shadow governance. Only a central government cohesive and independent from power games could thus gain the people’s trust and thus cancel the support that the Taliban have in many areas and that allows them to expand influence and territorial control.
  • NATO and USA presence – The reduction of the Western presence in Afghanistan was accompanied by a serious deterioration of security within the country, with an Afghan Army and an Afghan Air Force not ready yet to fight autonomously (or at least not fully and not everywhere) against resilient and ideologically-motivated enemies such as the Taliban are. This situation led Gen. Nicholson (USA commander in Afghanistan) to ask President Obama a re-thinking of the American plan to further reduce the troops on the ground. An immediate revisal of both the NATO and the American strategies is indeed necessary to avoid the future collapse of the Afghan state, and it should take into account not only the military dimension but also the civilian and the political ones. Only in this way it is possible to prevent the legitimate non-intrusion in the Afghan affairs from becoming a dangerous de facto abandonment.
  • The cohesion within the Taliban – The election of Mansour as “commander of the faithful” in summer 2015 caused divisions and defections on the Taliban front. To deal with this situation, Mansour tried to strengthen the cohesion of the group and the credibility of his own leadership by rejecting the dialogue with Kabul and embracing instead a brutal strategy. His killing last May came thus at a delicate point of the Taliban’s life, and the future developments in Afghanistan will depend in large part on the level of cohesion that the new leader Akundzada will be able to give to the group: the more Akundzada is able of making the group united, the more difficult it will be for the ANSF to sustain the fight.
  • The role of Pakistan: “terrorist haven” vs. “peace broker” – Since the first days of his Presidency, Ghani has made of the rapprochement to Pakistan one of the firm points of his foreign policy, to build a cross-border cooperation in the fight against terrorism. However, Islamabad’s commitment to induce the Taliban to negotiate and to deny them any safe haven has appeared more than once to be weak and dubious. An increased and less ambiguous commitment on part of Pakistan would play a crucial role in changing the balance of forces and the international community should push in this direction, aware that no victory can be obtained as long as the Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan.

 

Further variables that should be taken into account in evaluating the balances of forces in Afghanistan are:

  • The role of the Northern power brokers – Especially in the North of Afghanistan there are political and military leaders (such as Dostum and Atta) who – being each strong of the support of his own tribal group – fight against the Taliban and compete among themselves for the role of security providers and the locals’ support. Their preeminence on the local scene is thus the manifestation of two realities: the persistence of secular ethnic-tribal bonds, and the incapacity of the government of ensuring security to its people. Getting closer to those power brokers is thus necessary for the government if it wants to strengthen its legitimacy and to make more efficient and coordinated the fight against the Taliban;
  • The role of the Haqqani network – Since the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy of Mansour, the role and influence of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been growing and has led to an increase in the number of attacks against civilians. The recent death of Mansour and the ascent of a new leader will difficultly reduce the role of the Haqqanis, who – being traditionally hostile to any negotiation and supporting instead a total war against Kabul – could exploit new rooms of actions created by the current stage of transition and exasperate even more the security scenario;
  • The presence and strength of ISIS – After entering Afghanistan with the name of ISIS Khorasan, ISIS is now the common enemy of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Afghan government. At the moment, its presence in the country is still limited, but a future expansion of its ranks might lead the NATO and the USA to rethink their presence in Afghanistan, and – in the long run – it might even lay the foundations for a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, on the basis of their common interest in defeating ISIS.

Yemen, one year after

Entering its second year of hostilities, Yemen is stuck in the dynamics of a civil and regional conflict that seems to offer no easy way out

 

Often obscured by the other events threatening the Middle East’s precarious balances and often buried under the curtain of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Yemen is nevertheless one of the most crucial theatres of the region and one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the past decades.

It all began (or rather escalated) one year ago, when the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa and the Saudis intervened at the head of a Sunni coalition determined to prevent any Shia rise in the Gulf.  Since then, Yemen’s already weak political landscape has definitely collapsed; a civil conflict has taken roots in the country and taken the life of too many of its inhabitants; jihadist groups such as AQAP and ISIS have found a fertile ground for their terrorist acts; and all the attempts made to reach viable agreements through diplomacy have gone up in smoke.

With the war marking this month its first anniversary, no light seems to be in sight at the end of the tunnel and no side seems to be disposed to step back and compromise. Rather, each party maintains the perception that a step back would be a step down in the precipice and a victory for the enemy.

Saudi Arabia, the war’s major foreign player, entered the Yemeni conflict through an intervention that marked the beginning of a new and more assertive Saudi foreign policy and that revealed how much Riyadh was (and still is) feeling exposed to the threatening rise of the Shia rival Iran.                                                                                                                                           With the rapprochement between the West and Iran in full course and with the role played by Teheran and its Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Houthis in Yemen became for Riyadh the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Despite the lack of any confirmation of a direct Iranian support for the Houthis, it became nonetheless vital in the eyes of Riyadh to prevent the Houthis from taking control over Yemen so as to avoid any risk of an Iranian wave of influence spreading from the Levant to the Gulf. In this framework, the war in Yemen became for Saudi Arabia pivotal to preserve its credibility as regional power and instrumental to send a signal to the rising Shia rival.

All this, though, came at a cost for Riyadh and to stand up to the perceived Iranian threat the Saudis have found themselves stuck in Yemen.

Acting as it did, Saudi Arabia gave to what was a domestic conflict a regional geopolitical dimension that it did not have and this, over the past twelve months, has turned the Yemeni war in such a complex and multidimensional conflict that it is now difficult to even imagine a viable way out.

Riyadh has thus far invested too much (both economically and in terms of credibility) to accept anything less than a settlement that grants the House of Saud a major influence over Sanaa’s affairs.

Nor is the search for negotiations stronger on the opposite side of the war. The Houthis have found themselves at the heart of geopolitical games, calculations and interests that go beyond the framework within which they had initially conceived and conducted their upsurge.        Risen against Hadi and a political system which they regarded as discriminating, they ended up on the stage of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and seem now to be in a position in which their bargaining power in any future settlement depends on how long they manage to resist the attacks of the Saudi-led coalition.

Therefore, imagining an agreement capable of restoring stability in the country requires a considerable degree of faith and hope.

Interested by domestic and regional dynamics whose boundaries are becoming ever more overlapping, the Yemeni war can find its end only with a serious and unambiguous intervention on part of the international community. In the specific, the international community should frame each side’s perception of costs and benefits of the war in a way that stresses possible points of convergence when it comes to imagining a post-war Yemen. For instance, nor the Houthis nor Saudi Arabia have anything to gain from the presence on the Yemeni soil of jihadist groups that directly threaten to the former’s survival and to the letter’s security. Their common opposition to AQAP and ISIS could thus be turned into a first and concrete point of convergence capable of making the dialogue start and progress.

For the moment it seems that the prosecution of hostilities is the only point on which all parties agree and though it is not too late yet to merge faith and hope with a coherent and resolute diplomatic approach aimed at avoiding another anniversary of a war that is tearing Yemen apart.

[Published in “The Times of Israel – Blogs“]

Yemen’s biggest but least reckoned threat

While Saudis and Houthis fight to the death, terrorism is the one gaining the upper hand
With the world focused on other Middle Eastern areas and other Middle Eastern tragedies, Yemen is finding itself abandoned to a civil war that over the last 6 months has been tearing the country apart.
After the Houthis occupied Sanaa and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (where he remained until recently) the country has abruptly become the battlefield of one of the most cruel and most complex civil wars that the region has known, and us forgetting about it doesn’t make it less brutal. Just less likely to reach an end.
Thus far, in fact, despite shocking figures released by the UN on the human tragedy Yemenis are now suffering, there is no sign that the war will come to end any time soon, as all the attempts to reach an agreement through diplomatic dialogue have inexorably failed for the lack of points of contact between Houthis and Saudi-backed Sunnis.

And though, a common interest between the two sides of Yemen’s war does exist: defeating that common enemy that thanks to war is now on the rise. Jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s war, in fact, with the flee of a President not reckoned as legitimate by everyone (as a President should) and with the lack of an alternative unity government capable of giving representation to all the country’s religious groups (as governments should), has inevitably created a power and security vacuum. And terrorist groups in all times and places have always proved able (or at least willing) to take advantage of this kind of vacuum. We have seen it in Colombia with the FARC’s rise, in Afghanistan after the war between the Soviets and local mujahideens, in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, and more recently in Iraq last year. And we could now see it in Yemen too, if the international community doesn’t give the country (and its people) the attention it deserves and – above all – if the parties directly involved make of any effort of dialogue a lost cause.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no new actor in Yemen. It has always tried to use the country and its internal tensions as a preferred base to plan and conduct attacks and as a starting point to maximize its power and influence in neighboring Gulf countries.
However, not even in its brightest days could the group hope to get as far as it has now come thanks to the outbreak of the civil war. In fact, exploiting the vacuum the flee of President Hadi created, and taking advantage from its enemies killing each other while carefully avoiding direct involvement in the war, the group has known an increase in capabilities, profile and power, and is now obtaining a success that few other Al Qaeda-linked groups can boast.
How did this happen? Not only has the group conducted attacks in the country’s most important cities to boost its credibility within a global jihadist movement that is now less Al Qaeda-centered than it used to, but it has also been able to get an actual control over swaths of Yemen – with the best example of that being the southern city of Mukalla. Here in fact – far from establishing a counterproductive regime of terror aimed at subjugating the local population – the group has revealed its threatening modern pragmatism by allying with local Sunni tribes. With them AQAP built the Hadromouth National Council (HNC) that, providing services and guaranteeing security to the population, is now deeply integrated in the local dynamics and joins a considerable support from the people of the area. A sequence of events, this one, that worryingly reminds of the strategy embraced in Syria by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabat al Nusra, and that made it possible for the group to get support from disillusioned Sunnis.
Perhaps more threatening than the territorial control, in fact, is the support AQAP is gaining from locals. With Houthis and Saudis fighting against the each other on Yemeni soil and from Yemeni skies, and destroying what remains of a country that violence has never spared, to the eyes of many Yemenis AQAP is now appearing as the only actor capable of concretely guaranteeing a minimum level of security and subsistence to a population that has lost everything. Above all trust in politics and trust in a Yemeni government that has abandoned them.

Yemen’s problems, though, are not limited to the al-Zawahiri-linked group. As if AQAP’s advancing was not already enough, a new threat is now on the rise: that of ISIS and its affiliated groups/individuals.
Taking advantage – just like AQAP – of an authority-lacking country, the group and its supporters are expanding their activities in Yemen, and though still far from catching up with AQAP (especially in terms of territorial control), it is to be noted (and feared) that the group is proving its dangerousness in two main respects.
Firstly, ISIS is challenging AQAP’s previously undisputed status as Yemen’s most active terrorist group – something that increases the prestige of ISIS in the jihadist universe and creates the risk of having an increase in the number of ‘wanna-be-jihadists ‘ who choose to join the Caliphate and its affiliated cells wherever they are present and operative.
Secondly, the group is proving its ability (the same that led Iraq to collapse and that exasperated sectarianism in Syria) in getting support by part of the population – mainly youngsters who interpret the attacks on Shia sites conducted by ISIS as a proof of the group’s determination to protect Sunni Islam in a concrete and assertive way.
Moreover, ISIS’s new presence in Yemen is threatening not only for the destabilization it directly creates through attacks, or for the support it is getting from disillusioned youngsters. It is even more threatening because it is opening a front within jihadist terrorism, a front between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that reminds of that in Syria at the end of 2013, when ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fell apart after and began fighting against each other (with tragic consequences for the Syrian civilian population).
The threat of such a competition between AQAP and ISIS is that if the former sees itself challenged by the latter, it will try to maintain its status, profile and support base by widening its range of operation and – if necessary – by trying to strengthen its legitimacy through a higher toll of attacks against Shias. In fact, though for the time being it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen, if AQAP is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains it cannot but maintain its momentum with a strong narrative of victory. Something that Yemen and the Yemenis will be the ones paying the price of.

The rise of terrorism in Yemen is clearly no good news for the country nor for its population, but it could turn into an effective starting point of dialogue. In fact, none of those who are directly involved in the civil conflict – Houthis, Yemeni Sunnis, Saudi-led Coalition of GCC countries – can gain anything if talks are obstructed and Yemen falls to terrorism.
Houthis and Yemeni Sunnis, in refusing to work towards a coalition government, aren’t but playing the jihadists’ game as they are leaving them free hand in the country. By continuing on this path, thus, they would have to deal with a strengthened internal enemy competing for power, and it would become even more difficult (read impossible) to reach an agreement and put in Sana’a a government accepted by everyone.
On their part, GCC countries (and in particular Saudi Arabia, that shares with Yemen an important border) in refusing diplomatic dialogue and in closing the door to any possibility of compromise, risk continuing to favor the strengthening of a terrorist group whose power and influence could be easily projected from Yemen to neighboring countries.

If the two sides of the conflict realized how the real threat for Yemen’s future, for the Houthis’ survival and for the Saudis’ security is represented by the rise of AQAP and ISIS, they could start their dialogue from the necessity to oppose the common enemy. They could make of this common point of interest the starting point of peace negotiations aimed at the creation of a government that represents all Yemenis – thus cancelling the roots of AQAP’s and ISIS’s legitimacy and the reasons of their support.
It is now time to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to rely on political cooperation to fill the vacuum created by the war, and that this has to be done before it is too late, before terrorism leaves no room to peace, and before the definite collapse of Yemen that is now on the horizon reaches its shores.