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Glimmer of Hope for Yemen, Gloom Elsewhere in the Middle East

Posted June 5th, 2015 at 2:28 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

This week, there were a plethora of events in Washington devoted to deepening understanding of the factors tearing apart Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen and threatening the stability of many other countries in the region.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Institute of Peace held a day-long “peace game” aimed at diminishing the appeal of violent extremist groups.

That night French Ambassador Gerard Araud hosted an off-record salon at his residence that brought together members of Congress, journalists and former U.S. officials to discuss past U.S. missteps in the Middle East and how to avoid them in the future.

On Thursday, the Arab Gulf States Institute, a new think tank in Washington, addressed the Yemen crisis, while the Atlantic Council launched a high-level bipartisan task force   aimed at devising a new strategy that reflects the aspirations of people from the region.

American policymakers and pundits alike have been confounded by the epidemic of crises and hard-pressed to come up with recommendations that address root causes. In this environment, Washington is giving out aspirins for fear that more radical treatment may only make the patient sicker.

In contrast to its predecessor, the Barack Obama administration is combining a smaller and more selective U.S. military footprint with diplomatic initiatives.

While the strategy seems to be faltering in Syria, Libya and Iraq, there may be cause for optimism in Yemen, where the U.S. military role has been confined to providing logistical support for Saudi-led bombing and drone strikes against al-Qaeda.

On Thursday, Houthi rebels who provoked the Saudi campaign by seizing the capital, Sanaa, and large amounts of territory beyond their traditional northern tribal lands agreed to attend peace talks in Geneva June 14.

The announcement followed a rare meeting last week in Oman between Houthi representatives, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson and U.S. ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller. The meeting in Oman – which has stayed neutral in the conflict – was a breakthrough according to Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who is now vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

The U.S. intelligence community has had links to the Houthis but was unable to dissuade the group from seizing Sanaa earlier this year and advancing to the southern city of Aden. The Oman talks, Seche said, not only led to freedom for a U.S. journalist held hostage by the Houthis, but gave the U.S. “a better sense of the Houthi endgame.”

Houthi acceptance of the Geneva talks, organized by a U.N. envoy, provides hope for a lasting cease-fire in the war, which has killed about 2,000 people, many of them civilians, and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest nations.

The Saudis have portrayed the campaign as an effort to prevent Iran, which supports the Houthis, from spreading its hegemony to a country that is traditionally within the Saudi sphere of influence.

Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and president of TAWQ, a non-governmental organization that advocates democracy, told the Arab Gulf States Institute that Iranian influence over the Houthis has been exaggerated and that the conflict in Yemen is primarily a domestic matter.

Saudi bombing has empowered extremists among the Houthis and cemented their alliance with an ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Iryani said, as well as boosting the fortunes of the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

Iryani told VOA News that he believed the fighting would stop soon and that the Saudis would jettison the exiled president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, in favor of his vice president, Khaled Bahah, a former prime minister and ambassador to the U.N. who has more popular support.

“The Iranians have a very effective local ally [in Yemen] but the Saudis don’t have one,” Iryani said, unless they push out Hadi, an ineffective successor to Saleh.

Prospects for diplomatic progress in the region’s other conflicts look much dimmer.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken resorted to touting body counts in an effort to show that a U.S.-led coalition is making headway against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But despite Blinken’s claims that U.S.-led airstrikes have killed 10,000 militants, IS keeps advancing and appears to have consolidated control over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in Iraq.

Outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he was not surprised that “there’s been this back and forth in the early stages of what will be a long campaign” against IS.

But there are real questions about the will of Shiite-led Iraqi forces to fight to reclaim Sunni Muslim majority areas.

In Syria, there seems to be a tacit agreement between IS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to target other opposition groups and not each other. Assad’s goal: force the global community to make a binary choice between his regime and IS, with his regime emerging as more acceptable. IS has a similar goal for Sunni Syrians: that it is the better alternative than Assad.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration has trained fewer than 100 Syrians as an alternative to both Assad and IS.

At the Atlantic Council on Thursday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – who is co-chairing the new task force with former national security adviser Stephen Hadley – said the region was facing “a set of overlapping crises” unlike any witnessed in the past. The aim of the task force, she said, was soliciting answers from the region “not just codifying an ‘inside the Beltway’ consensus” in Washington.

But with the Middle East so divided, those answers are likely to be confusing and contradictory.

Rabab El Mahdi, an associate professor of political science at American University in Cairo, told the Atlantic Council audience via teleconference that the region was not so much facing a series of crises as a “historic transformation” akin to what Europe experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Arabs, she said, are still seeking freedom but the euphoria of the 2011 Arab uprisings has been replaced by “a feeling of despair and intense frustration.”

The setbacks in the region are seen by many Arabs “as an outcome of U.S. policies going back to the invasion of Iraq” and the U.S. failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as lackluster support for Arab political transitions, el Mahdi said. “We can have common enemies,” she added, but “that doesn’t necessarily make us friends.”

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