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Arab Spring left army in disarray, soldiers sympathetic to rebels - Yemeni minister

Yemen is grabbing international attention – the government ousted, the president under house arrest and rebels in power. Will the country slide into Syria-style civil war? And with Al-Qaeda in Yemen growing stronger, who will be there to stop it? We ask a leading Yemeni politician, state minister, and former mayor of the capital, Sanaa, Ahmed Al-Kohlani on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: You are in Sana'a right now, the capital of Yemen, a city you were once mayor of. What is the situation there right now? Is there anybody patrolling the city, ensuring security?

Ahmed Al-Kohlani: Right now the country’s main political parties are engaged in dialogue, with the help of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen. The parties have to reach a solution to avoid a civil war in the country. There are government forces on the ground in the capital, there are also groups of Ansar Allah also known as Houthi rebels, but the situation is relatively calm. Most of the militias that were under control of Ansar Allah have joined the security forces and are not patrolling the streets anymore. The traffic in the city is fine. As for the security situation, there is much less shelling and bombing now, and you can even say, to an extent, that people can have something like a normal life.

SS: But the Western embassies are shutting down – are you sure it’s not dangerous to stay there?

AK: The closure of Western embassies was shocking to many officials here, because we had passed through much more troubled times in Yemen, but the embassies were still functioning back then. So that was surprising. Some say it was a political decision. No incidents involving diplomats or officials had occurred that could justify the closing of embassies. I personally believe that it was done to put pressure on the negotiating parties so that they would reach a political settlement, because the talks have been going on for quite a long time.

SS: So who is in power today in Yemen?

AK: None of the warring parties is in total control in Yemen right now. Some areas of the country are controlled by the Houthis, others - by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist Al-Islah. There are some regions that are still under government control – but this control is very weak, especially in the south, where the separatist Southern Movement has the most influence. In addition, forces loyal to the detained president – the People’s Committees, are entrenched in Aden. So, no single faction has total control.

SS: Who are these Houthi rebels who seized power in Yemen?

AK: The Houthis, or Ansar Allah, are Yemenis that started their activities in the northwest of the country. They had been at war with the government of Yemen before – six times. This time, they have managed to capture more territories and eventually take control of the capital, Sanaa.

SS: Do they have the backing of Yemeni people?

AK: No doubt they do. The number of their followers increases as they capture more territories. They accept and address the people’s complaints, so they earn a lot of sympathy from locals. A lot of people from other political parties have joined the Houthis, because this group was supporting the demands of the local population, especially in the northern provinces of Yemen. But as the group grew stronger they’ve started taking over territories by force.

SS: What do they want in the long-run?

AK: They mostly call for people’s complaints to be addressed. And now that they’ve become a serious force, they want to remain in power. But if there’s a transitional period and elections, we’ll see which party in Yemen has the most sway.

SS: How did the rebels take over - why didn’t the Yemeni military stop them?

AK: What happened last month was predictable. In September the Houthis and the government signed an agreement - the Peace and National Partnership. It was supposed to help reform the government, make it more inclusive, give the numerous political groups in Yemen what they want. But there was no mechanism for its implementation. So there were miscalculations on the part of the government, plus the economic strains due to the doubling of oil prices inside Yemen. People got angry, and Ansar Allah used that chance and demanded to cancel the agreement. They staged demonstrations, gained support and surrounded the capital. After a series of clashes with the army, they took over the government headquarters…

SS: Right, but what I’m asking is why weren’t they stopped by the military? Why were they allowed to overthrow the President, take over the government headquarters, seize power? How come the military didn’t stop them?

AK: The army was there, of course. But it’s not in its best shape today, and wasn’t able to protect the government. There were several factors. First, there had been defections following the uprising of 2011, there was a split within the army ranks, and the new leadership wasn’t able to restore harmony among the ranks. Secondly, some of the military have supported the Houthis, since a lot of their demands relate to the army. So the army didn’t do its job, it didn’t stop the rebels, it allowed them to enter the capital without any resistance, despite military defenses posted outside and within the capital.

SS: The rebels captured the capital back in September, why is this making global news only now?

AK: Only a small group of rebels entered the capital back in September, their presence was limited to some areas. Afterwards, they took over the central governorate of Amran and reasserted their control over Sanaa, expanding into other provinces. That’s when the media obviously started paying them more attention, both at home and internationally.

SS: But why weren’t people worried about it? When the rebels come into a city and try to take power – that should ring alarm, no?

AK: I won’t conceal that people have started worrying about their future, and about the Houthis controlling government institutions. Many fear that they lack the real will to establish a solid coalition government, choosing instead to keep the power for themselves. At the beginning, they wanted to become a part of Yemen’s political process, but now, after they have taken over and published a Constitutional Declaration, there’s more fear they will refuse to share power. So the Houthis need to make concessions as part of the national dialogue, in order for them to stay part of a political revolution in Yemen.

SS: What will happen to the President and his Cabinet? Do they want to return to power?

AK: The government submitted its resignation to the president and the president, in turn, submitted his own resignation to the parliament. According to the Constitution, the parliament has the right to endorse or dismiss the resignation. Certain parties within the parliament are hampering the political process right now, so we find ourselves at a dead end. Until the parliament takes a decision, the president will remain under house arrest.

SS: There’s speculation that former President Saleh, ousted in 2011, is working with the Houthi rebels in a bid to return to power. Sources point to the lack of the military’s resistance . Could the former President be eyeing a return to power?

AK: Oh, that’s impossible. As for the former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, I don’t see any chance for him to return to power. And according to my personal knowledge of Mr. Saleh, I don’t think he has the ambition for it. Such a scenario would be unacceptable both for him and for the others. As for the alleged alliance between Saleh and the Houthis - we can’t be certain about this information. Indeed, there have been media reports about it, but there is no clear evidence. There is a possibility that there is some political coordination between Ansar Allah and the People’s General Conference party headed by Saleh, but such coordination exists between other political parties and groups as well. Still, we have not yet seen any solid evidence proving close cooperation between Saleh and the Houthis, or the fact that it was indeed Saleh who initially sent the Houthis to Sanaa. It’s an obvious speculation.

SS: Without the backing of major players like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will the Houthi government be able to stay in power?

AK: I don’t think so. The Houthi authorities will have to face serious problems. If the Houthis should decide to keep the power for themselves after a new government is formed, they would have to deal with a number of economic issues, as well as domestic and external challenges. But I think that our Houthi brothers have thought about that a thousand times, and they are fully aware of all these issues. I also call on our neighbours and other foreign governments to cooperate with the Yemeni people in the spirit of partnership and support. I’m sure that if they contribute to the political process, the Yemeni people will manage to achieve a political settlement. But foreign governments should engage the entire Yemeni people without limiting their contacts to certain parties, groups or persons.

SS: The Gulf Cooperation Council is saying it’s ready to act, use force against the Houthis - is that really what Yemen needs to achieve stability right now?

AK: We hope that it won’t happen in Yemen. We wouldn’t like Yemen to become another “Syria”. That’s why we hope that our brothers and neighbours won’t resort to such measures. A foreign military intervention in any form would not contribute to solving the crisis. On the contrary, it would only make matters worse. So we are hoping that neither the Gulf states nor Saudi Arabia will do that. These countries should assist Yemen’s development. A foreign military intervention would not be in the interests of either Yemen or those countries.

SS: Why do Gulf States want to intervene?

AK: I can hardly imagine that they would risk an open intervention. They may exert some political pressure or even make threats aiming to weaken the Houthis’ monopoly on power, try to force the conflicting parties into making concessions and establishing a National Reconciliation Government, or a National Salvation Government, and announcing a transition period. During this period, a general election would be held to identify the political influence and popularity of each party. I don’t oppose such foreign pressure, we rather welcome it.

SS: Oil provides over 60 per cent of govt revenues in Yemen. With production now in danger, and with oil prices falling, where will those in power get funds to help stabilise the situation?

AK: I think the current situation can produce certain challenges in this regard. But if we see a political agreement brokered between the conflicting parties -- and I hope that such an agreement will be achieved soon -- the situation will probably change. Of course, the sources of financing for the state budget need to be secure and stable, and we know that that the budget mainly relies upon oil and gas revenues. But now oil production is endangered. The ongoing crisis can be drastically aggravated by the disruption of oil and gas pipelines through bombing attacks. But I’m sure that the signing of a political agreement would stabilize the situation so it would be possible to continue oil production and provide oil and gas revenues for the budget, along with other revenues such as taxes or custom dues, etc. But we don’t want Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to confront the people of Yemen.

SS: So your assumptions are based on wishful thinking, do I understand correctly?

AK: That’s my personal opinion on this issue. I’m closely following the situation on the ground, keeping track of the developments on a daily basis.

SS: What kind of dialogue can take place? Southern provinces long battling for secession are taking up arms, since the Houthi takeover has halted their plans for federalization. Politicians from the dissolved government are consolidating their power in Aden. Houthis are controlling the north.. but Sunni tribes are preparing resistance. Is the country facing a multiple-side civil war, Syria-style?

AK: The persons taking part in the negotiations represent the parties engaged on the ground, whether they are from Ansar Allah or the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Southern Movement. They are now seated at the negotiating table. If they manage to reach an agreement, our country will avoid war. That is our main task today. I’m sure that a civil war would destroy everything and result in never-ending bloodshed. But at the end of the day, no political group would be able to keep all the power to itself, not even through use of force. Let’s not forget that everybody in Yemen is armed, and every group has its own arsenal. That’s what makes us believe that a political agreement would be a solution for everyone. But if those groups resort to violence, they will only destroy each other, themselves and the entire country rather than achieve a decisive victory. Violence will not resolve anything.

SS: Al-Qaeda in Yemen has already taken advantage of the chaos during the Arab Spring, reinforcing its position in the country. Will this chaos enable them to do even more?

AK: If the political groups continue to fight each other on the battlefield, Al-Qaeda will prosper. But if the government and its security forces were to be strengthened, Al-Qaeda would undoubtedly be contained within a certain territory. That would only be possible provided there is a strong national army. Some groups have already started fighting Al-Qaeda in several regions of the country, but as I said, combatting this terrorist group in all of Yemen would only be possible once we have a strong government. Therefore, if all the political groups were to join forces to consolidate our statehood, that would weaken Al-Qaeda in Yemen. But when there is political vacuum and constant infighting in the country, Al-Qaeda only grows stronger, getting support from every direction. We don’t want that.

SS: Al Qaeda is constantly engaged in battles with the Houthis…The Houthis could prove to be a valuable ally against the terrorists. Why hasn’t the U.S. ever partnered with them in their battle against Al Qaeda?

AK: The Houthis are engaged in the fight against terrorism. In several regions and governorates, we have seen clashes between the Houthis and government forces on the one hand and Al-Qaeda on the other hand. Now that the Houthis had seized power, they will keep on fighting al-Qaeda. In addition, US drones have been deployed in airstrikes against Al-Qaeda in areas where the Houthis were clashing with Al-Qaeda, particularly in the Radaa district and the governorate Gf Al-Bayda. US officials keep on saying that they continue to combat Al-Qaeda despite the presence of Houthis. Maybe there is no formal relationship or coordination between Washington and Ansar Allah but nonetheless…

SS: Al-Qaeda’s numbers in Yemen have tripled in recent years from 300 to 1000 fighters. How did that happen despite a fierce U.S. drone war?

AK: This is true. That is exactly what happened, despite the air strikes. The main reason for this is that there is no state control, the borders are all down and anyone can enter the country. This way large groups of Al-Qaeda militants make their way from other states into Yemen. If we had a centralized state in control of the borders both on land and sea, nothing like this would ever happen. There is no other way but to restore the state and the Army in order to fight Al-Qaeda.

SS: Only last September, Barack Obama referred to the Yemen strategy as an appropriate example of how to “handle” Iraq and Syria. Was this strategy ever actually successful?

AK: The US decided that using airstrikes works better than the presence of American or other foreign troops on the ground. At first the air strikes were efficient. Lately, there have been fewer air strikes, while clashes on the ground continue. And Al-Qaeda is still making progress. What we need is a centralized state in place and a strong Army: this would prevent Al-Qaeda militants from continuously infiltrating the country. No matter how effectively one can fight Al-Qaeda from air and on land, only stopping it from getting into Yemen can solve the problem. The USA, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states need to help restore the Yemeni Army which would protect the country and stop Al-Qaeda’s growth. Because today we’re seeing 10-15 militants killed, but they are replaced by 30-40 new ones entering the country the next day. That is a huge problem.

SS: The U.S. said it was supporting its partners on the frontlines in Yemen. Who are those partners on the ground today? Are they still there?

AK: There are no more partners - the American Embassy left, the Yemeni government resigned, there is no president. So cooperation will be difficult in the absence of a central government, and government institutions. Yemen’s future relationship with the USA will be very limited, possibly confined to South Yemen only.

SS: What about the 400 million dollars’ worth of U.S. military equipment - where are the weapons the U.S. gave to Yemen? Who has hold of them right now?

AK: This military equipment is with the army units, which are currently at their military bases. The military personnel is there, and so are the commanding officers. Some of this equipment might have been seized by Ansar Allah rebel forces in the areas where the fighting took place. I heard that in the southern parts of Yemen there have been attempts to seize the army’s weapons by both Al-Qaeda troops and other armed groups. This is exactly what we’ve been warning about. If foreign countries start aiding this or that group in Yemen, the arms could well end up in the wrong hands. Instead of providing support to a certain group, it would be better to support Yemen as a state. It would be better to support Yemen’s unity and to help the Yemeni army and the Yemeni government. Arms should always go to the state, otherwise there will always be a threat that what’s happening in Syria and other countries could befall Yemen, God forbid. We hope it won’t happen.

SS: Now the U.S. is freezing intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation in Yemen - so what now, Al Qaeda will be given free reign in certain parts of the country?

AK: The US is not the only one fighting the Al-Qaeda terrorists – the Yemeni people, the Yemeni army and paramilitary forces, including the Houthis, are also fighting them. As far as I understand the U.S. won’t freeze its counter-terrorism activities, it should carry on with its campaign in Yemen.

SS: The country is positioned on a major international shipping route through which 10 per cent of global shipping is sent. What could happen to Yemen if events there threaten this trade?

AK: I believe all countries that are using this waterway must remember what happened in Somali, when pirates began regularly attacking ships that were passing through the Gulf of Aden. We hope that Yemen will not find itself in a similar situation. If some states attempt to spread chaos in Yemen, support certain groups within the country, then the armed confrontation will be endless. International sea routes passing through the Gulf of Aden will be in danger. So countries interested in maintaining security of navigation should support the Yemeni government in maintaining its country’s security, rather than participate in Yemen’s conflict on one side or another. Otherwise the ‘Somali scenario’ might take place in Yemen as well.

SS: Up to 80 per cent of conflicts in rural Yemen stem from the water crisis in the country, according to the local press. Are water shortages to blame for the current crisis?

AK: Certainly shortage of water plays its role, as do unemployment and the difficult economic situation. Economic issues are the cause of many processes happening in the country. Foreign investments are next to none due to the difficult security situation. Thousands of young people with degrees and professional training are out of jobs, or are unable to start their businesses. The Arab Spring also made an impact in stirring up this crisis. People got excited about revolutionary sentiments. They stopped obeying laws. All these things resulted in the weakening of the state.