Meddling or mediating: what is Russia's game in Yemen?

Russia has so far kept a low profile in the Yemen conflict – in contrast to its role in Syria – but that is now changing. Over the last few months it has been stepping up political and diplomatic contacts and advertising itself as a potential mediator.

Given Russia's position in Syria, allied with Iran and the Assad regime, the obvious assumption in Yemen is that it would support the Houthis who control the northern part of the country and have backing (up to a point) from Iran.

Russia's behaviour in the Security Council invited the same assumption earlier this week when it dismissed a report by UN experts about alleged Iranian weapon supplies to the Houthis as inconclusive. 

There were echoes here of previous Russian stonewalling over the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in Syria but the two cases are actually very different. While the evidence against Assad is overwhelming, the evidence of Iranian weapons supplies to the Houthis is more tenuous.

Efforts to incriminate Iran over weapon supplies have been going on for a long time and have not come up with anything very substantial. There's no doubt that some of the Houthis' weapons are of Iranian origin but it's less clear how, or when, they were acquired. The amount of Iranian weaponry in the Houthis' hands is also minuscule compared with the weaponry supplied by western powers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two countries leading the military intervention against the Houthis.

Of course, no one would be surprised to see Russia blindly making excuses for Iran in the Security Council but its stance on this occasion was not unreasonable: it was broadly in line with available evidence. It would also be a mistake to imagine that Russia views Yemen as just another Syria.

Russia, the mediator?

While Russia has clearly sided with Assad and Iran in Syria, in Yemen its position has been a lot more ambivalent. It has been "trying to maintain contacts with all of the interested stakeholders, excluding terrorist groups," according to Kirill Semenov of the Russian International Affairs Council, a government-sponsored think tank.

Writing for Al-Monitor, Semenov cites Russia's recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, its acceptance (after several refusals) of a Yemeni ambassador nominated by the anti-Houthi president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and a meeting in Moscow earlier this month with Hadi's foreign minister, Abdul-Malik al-Mekhlafi, as evidence of a pragmatic approach.

In an earlier article for Al-Monitor, last October, Semenov noted that Saudi Arabia is "desperately searching for mediators" and said "Russia seems the logical choice to solve the Yemen crisis".

On the other side of the conflict, Russia has contacts in the Houthi-run capital, Sana'a, though until recently these were mainly with the Houthis' ally, ex-president Saleh, rather than the Houthis themselves. To the extent that Moscow favoured any particular player in Yemen, it was Saleh. 

Because of his mischief-making after resigning the presidency, the UN had placed Saleh under a worldwide travel ban which meant, among other things, that he couldn't travel abroad for medical treatment. Such was the Russians' concern for his well-being that last October they flew a team of doctors to Sana'a to operate on him, allegedly for wounds sustained in an assassination attempt six years earlier. Because of the Saudis' air blockade over Yemen the flight required permission from Riyadh  – which the Russians managed to obtain.

Hopes pinned on Saleh

There was clearly more to this than a simple humanitarian gesture. Russia's interest in Saleh was that he appeared to be in a position to break the conflict's current deadlock – if he chose to do so. His support for the Houthis was clearly not unshakeable. As president, he had fought six wars against them but as ex-president he had helped them gain control of Sana'a, mainly as a way of undermining his successor, President Hadi. During his 34 years in power, Saleh also had many ups and downs in his relations with the Saudis, so there was no reason to suppose he would always be their enemy.

Russia's belief that Saleh might change sides proved to be correct – but ultimately futile. In a dramatic move at the beginning of December, the ex-president turned against the Houthis and launched a coup attempt in Sana'a. Had it suceeded, the Houthis would have been seriously weakened and probably forced to retreat to their mountain strongholds. This might have hastened the end of the Saudi-led military intervention but it would also have hurled Saleh back to the centre of the political stage – bad news for the countless Yemenis who had spent months on the streets in 2011 trying to get rid of him.

On 2 December an anonymous article celebrating Saleh's coup appeared on the Moscow-registered website, Russia News Now, and on two "alternative" websites in the US (Moon of Alabama and Blacklisted News). Headed "Saudis throw the towel – Saleh is back – Russia wins", it announced:

"The war on Yemen has finally taken a turn towards an end. Former President Saleh is back in his leading position. They Saudis accepted their defeat. The Houthis will be thrown out of the capital Sanaa and return to their northern areas. Yemen is devastated and will need to rebuild. Everyone who participated in this war has lost. The only winner is Russia."

But the celebrations were premature. The coup attempt failed and two days later Saleh was dead – killed by the Houthis.

Flirting with separatists

With its calculations thrown awry by Saleh's death, Russia's attention has now turned to the south of Yemen where it has historical connections. Following the British withdrawal in 1967, southern Yemen became a Marxist state – the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen – and remained so until 1990 when it merged with the north. The Soviet Union and the PDRY were officially friends, though it was not a particularly happy or fruitful relationship.

One figure from the past being eyed by the Russians as a "potentially legitimate political actor", according to Semenov, is Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas. Now aged 78, Attas formerly served as the PDRY's prime minister and later as chair of its Supreme People's Council. He also holds the unusual distinction of having been prime minister in three states. In addition to the PDRY, he was prime minister of the unified Republic of Yemen (1990-1994) and the Democratic Republic of Yemen (an attempt a southern secession which lasted for only a few weeks in 1994). In more recent years, Attas has been a fierce critic of Saleh and a supporter of Saudi policies in Yemen.

Last weekend serious clashes broke out in Aden between southern separatists and forces loyal to Hadi. The Saudis favour Hadi as the "legitimate" president though the Emiratis – the Saudis' main partner in the military alliance against the Houthis – are far less enamoured with him and have been supporting the separatists.

In an article on Tuesday, Andrew Korybko, described as "a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia", wrote excitedly about "impressive progress" made by the separatists:

"The news just broke that the Southern Resistance Forces (SRF), the armed wing of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) ... just liberated the former South Yemeni capital of Aden from Hadi’s government following three days of intense clashes ..."

Korybko went on to draw parallels between the separatists' struggle in Yemen and Crimea's Russian-orchestrated secession from Ukraine in 2014:

"The Southerners are seeking international support for the restoration of their independence since they want to return to the community of nations like they previously were for decades ...  

"Although many arguments and historical precedents can be referenced in their favour, one of the most intriguing is the comparison that South Yemen has to Crimea.

"Both identity-separate territories were merged with a neighbouring one to which they had no serious affiliation with beforehand apart being located in the same geographic region ..."

Unfortunate as this Crimean analogy might seem, in one respect it is perfectly apt. Any "independent" state in southern Yemen is likely to depend on the UAE as much as Crimea now depends on Russia.

The latest fighting in Aden has certainly brought significant gains for the separatists, but Hadi isn't finished yet. Reportedly, the warring sides have now agreed a truce. It's also important to note that what happens in Aden doesn't necessarily reflect the rest of the south, and separatists-versus-Hadi is not the only conflict. Bruce Riedel writes:

"Much of the south is under the control of local tribal militias bankrolled by either the Emirates or the Saudis or both. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also has significant pockets of control in the south. Loyalties are flexible and ever changing. Law and order is flimsy at best. Al-Qaeda is a big winner from the chaos and confusion of the Aden battles."

One intriguing sidelight on the Aden clashes is that Russia's Sputnik News published what were claimed to be details of the truce agreement. This, at the very least, shows how closely Moscow is watching developments but also suggests Russians were in contact with at least one of the parties involved.

As reported by Sputnik (though not independently confirmed) the agreement recognises the separatists' Southern Transitional Council as "a political entity representing the southern people" and allows them to nominate governors and ministers in the south who will then be approved by Hadi.

The reported version also further consolidates the de facto partition of Yemen. It talks about reconstituting a "national southern army" under Emirati auspices and formally establishes a supervisory role for the UAE in the south.

In Yemen, agreements of this kind tend to survive only until the next outbreak of fighting. But if Sputnik's report is accurate it shows which way the wind is blowing. 

But where, exactly, Russia's renewed interest in the south may lead is still a puzzle. Will it help mediation efforts or hinder them? Besides dealing with the Houthi problem, any would-be mediator must also try to reconcile Saudi-Emirati differences – and the closer the Russians get to the separatists the more likely they are to alienate the Saudis.

Recognising the separatists' demands has other repercussions too. It's impossible to create a separate state in the south without also creating a separate state in the north – and the effect would be to help the Houthis consolidate their position. That, basically, would be the opposite of what the Saudis and Emiratis set out to achieve, though for Iran it would no doubt be a welcome development.