Russia's next Power Play May Occur in Yemen

Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016. Picture taken June 18, 2016. REUTERS/Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters

Moscow can be an effective mediator in the conflict.

Since the start of the Astana talks on Syria in December 2016, Western analysts have paid a great deal of attention to Russia’s emerging role as a conflict mediator in the Middle East. The scrutiny surrounding Russia’s arbitration ventures in Syria has sparked a flurry of predictions on the next Middle Eastern security crisis where Moscow will assume a leading diplomatic role. The most frequently discussed potential theaters for a Russian diplomatic intervention are Libya, the Qatar crisis and the Saudi Arabia-Iran standoff.

While intervening in each of these three regional crises provides opportunities for Russia to expand its geopolitical influence in the Middle East, Western policymakers have paid strikingly little attention to the prospect of a Russian diplomatic intervention in Yemen. This omission is short sighted. The Yemen conflict possesses a unique confluence of characteristics that are highly conducive for a Syria-style Russian diplomatic intervention, and provides Vladimir Putin with a low cost opportunity to highlight Moscow’s leverage in the Middle East.

Russian policymakers view Yemen as an appealing destination for a diplomatic intervention, because they believe that Saudi Arabia is willing to end hostilities in Yemen if it is offered acceptable terms. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir confirmed this assessment during his recent visit to Moscow. In response to questions from Russian reporters, al-Jubeir insisted that Saudi Arabia wants a diplomatic settlement in Yemen that forces all warring parties to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2216, an April 2015 resolution that called for the end of the Yemeni civil war.

Rising antiwar sentiments within the Saudi political establishment can be explained by deteriorating conditions on the ground in Yemen. The absence of a major Saudi strategic victory in Yemen since the fall 2015 seizure of Aden has convinced Saudi policymakers that the Yemen conflict has descended into an intractable stalemate. Saudi Arabia’s attitude of resignation in Yemen has intensified considerably since Qatar withdrew from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mission in June and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began launching strikes on al-Islah, a Saudi-aligned Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood organization.

For a durable political settlement to be reached in Yemen, Riyadh will need to coordinate with an external great power mediator, as regional actors, like Kuwait and Oman, have exhausted their diplomatic options. This mediation vacuum provides an excellent opportunity for Russia to showcase its diplomatic prowess by facilitating the resolution of the Yemen conflict.

Russia’s case to assume a leading mediation role in Yemen rests on two distinct advantages. First, since the inception of the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015, Russia has maintained a cooperative relationship with all major political stakeholders in Yemen. Unlike the United States, which overtly aligned with Saudi Arabia during the early stages of the conflict, Moscow immediately declared its support for a peaceful resolution to the Yemen civil war. In April 2015, Russia condemned Saudi air strikes in Yemen, and expressed support for an all-inclusive United Nations arms embargo against warring Yemeni factions.

Even though Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen has transitioned into a protracted conflict, Russia has maintained positive relations with leaders on both sides of the civil war. To demonstrate its commitment to all-inclusive diplomatic dialogue, Russia retains an embassy in the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a and a consulate in Aden, the capital of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Saudi-backed government. Through these diplomatic channels, Moscow has consulted pro-Saudi and pro-Iran factions on counterterrorism measures, and held informal negotiations on the resolution of hostilities in Yemen.

Both major political factions in Yemen also have recent memories of Russian expressions of solidarity with their cause. In July, Moscow cordially welcomed the appointment of Saudi-aligned diplomat Ahmed al-Wahishi as Yemeni ambassador to Russia. On September 25, Russia helped Hadi’s government distribute Yemeni bank notes to southern Yemen to pay the salaries of Yemeni government officials.

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