The conflicts in Syria and Yemen are in many ways, polar opposites and therefore, the goals of a peace conference regarding these conflicts would be entirely different. In Syria, one faces a situation of various agents of anarchy ranging from Takfiri terrorists, to inauthentic proxy political movements, to Kurdish secessionists movements, to the United States military–all working towards destabilising the rule of Syria’s government. In spite of these attempts to destroy Syria, the Syrian government remains the sole legitimate ruling body in the country. Attempts to hoist legitimacy on proxy groups loyal to a variety of countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Egypt, have failed miserably. The Syrian government proved time and again that not only is it the only force capable of ruling Syria, but that it is far and above the most competent, modern and progressive. The government therefore has no reason to do anything else other than to continue governing.
With this in mind, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress taking place in Sochi has the following practical goals
1. Push for a nationwide ceasefire
The Syrian Arab Republic correctly rejects the legitimacy of any other political or occupier body in the country. Damascus has said time and again that its justification for participating and welcoming both the Astana peace process and the related Dialogue Congress is because Damascus seeks a broad ceasefire that can accompany a political amnesty for all actual Syrian citizens who make a genuine commitment to either laying down their arms permanently or otherwise joining the Syrian Arab Army and helping the fight against terrorist groups who remain outside of the peace process, such as Daesh and al-Qaeda affiliates.
2. Forcing the so-called “opposition” to accept reality
At first the main Takfiri/Sunni extremist “opposition” groups boycotted the Sochi Congress, but after throwing a 24 hour tantrum, they are finally in the conference centres at Sochi and ready to sit at the table. This represents a success for the Congress’s guarantors, Russia, Iran and Turkey. All three states are keen to show the so-called “opposition” that their longstanding goal of toppling the Syrian government is now futile and that therefore more humble demands must replace an impossible one. While Turkey seeks different concessions for arriving at this position than Russia and Iran who always supported Damascus–all three countries are nevertheless on the same geopolitical page in this respect.
While theoretically, all groups participating in the Congress including the government agree that “only the Syrian people can decide who governs Syria”, many Takfiri “opposition” groups also add to this sentiment that “Assad must go”. This precondition has been slammed by the Astana partners as unacceptable and in finally agreeing to come to the table, the Takfiri groups are tacitly acknowledging the futility of their own outdated anti-Assad precondition.
Therefore, one of the diplomatic goals of the conflict is to get the “opposition” to embrace reality one way or another and aim to reach a realistic compromise which does not threaten the secular and pluralistic nature of the Syrian Arab Republic.
3. Turning a sectarian matter into a pan-Arab matter
Russia extended an invitation for participation in the Congress to the Iraqi government in a move which helps to clarify the fact that the conflict in Syria has never been a “civil war”, but has instead been the most focused theatre in a wider war pitting stable, secular or pluralist Arab states against various agents of chaos and anarchy. Inviting an Egyptian and Jordanian delegation has only made this message more apparent. In Arabising the conflict, the Congress’s organisers have subtly demonstrated that the primary goal of the Congress is to restore stability to the Arab world and the wider Middle East, rather than engage in vulgar sectarian horse-trading.
4. Buying time for the Syrian Arab Army’s war against terrorism
Finally, one of the unspoken yet unmistakable goals of the Congress is to buy time for the Syrian Arab Army to cleanse reaming parts of the country from terrorist occupation. The Congress will by no means be a rapid process and as things in Sochi and possible future venues slowly trudge along, Syria continues to make important gains against terrorism.
This will help so-called “opposition” groups to see that there is little to fight for and that their wisest move would be to express some humility due to being invited to a respectable political dialogue conference, in spite of losing any claims to an actual legitimate position.
Yemen is facing an entirely different conflict. In reality, the Yemeni conflict is several conflicts which all intersect when under the microscope of international observers. These ‘micro-conflicts’ include:
1. Houthi forces of “North Yemen” versus Saudi Arabia
Now that the forces of the Ansar Allah or Houthi movement are in charge of the area largely corresponding to the pre-1990 border of North Yemen, a de-facto Houthi state is at war with its vastly more powerful and wealthier neighbour, Saudi Arabia. In spite of this, the richest state in the Arab world seems unable to defeat a force representing the most besieged part of the poorest state in the Arab world.
Violence continues as recently as this morning with reports of a Houthi rocket striking Riyadh, something which whether true or not, may elicit yet another disproportional Saudi airstrike on Sana’a and other Houthi controlled cities in the north.
2. Houthi forces versus the General People’s Congress of slain President Saleh
Ali Abdullah Saleh had been president of North Yemen since 1978 and President of a united Yemen from 1990 to 2012. In the early days of the present conflict, Saleh and his political party the General People’s Congress (GPC) united with the Houthis in defiance of the pro-Saudi government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who in 2015 fled from the united Yemeni capital of Sana’a to the old South Yemen capital of Aden.
Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was always an alliance of convenience rather than one of conscience and when Saleh extended an apparent olive branch to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, allegedly without consulting the Houthi leadership, he was assassinated by the Houthis.
This caused a rift between Saleh’s GPC supporters and the Houthi movement. While many GPC supporters remain loyal to the Houthis and while others have been political or diplomatically pacified by the Houthis, there is still a chance that Saleh’s powerful family could rally GPC forces in the “North” against the Houthis, possibly with the support of Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE.
3. The Southern Transitional Council versus the Hadi government
Just as Saleh’s faction and the Houthis formed an alliance of convenience in the “North” in the former “South Yemen”, the UN recognised President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi began governing “all” of Yemen from Aden, though practically he only governs the former South.
Hadi’s Aden government had been supported both by his party loyalists and by the forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) (sometimes still called the Southern Movement). The Southern Movement has long sought the reestablishment of a formal state of South Yemen and during the present conflict, support for Southern secessionists has only grown.
Hadi’s insistence that he must remain the legitimate leader of a united Yemen, combined with allegations of corruption, have led the Southern Resistance (the STC’s armed wing) to occupy many buildings of the Hadi government in central Aden. Hadi’s Prime Minister, Ahmed bin Dagher has accused the Southern Resistance of staging a coup though he has reportedly fled Yemen. At present, both Hadi’s security services and the Southern Resistance continue to exchange fire on the streets of Aden. The STC ultimately seeks an independent country that would see North Yemen and its Houthis go their own way. It would appear that the STC has the upper hand against Hadi and his authorities.
4. Saudi Arabia versus Iran
While Saudi Arabia has bombed Houthi targets without mercy since 2015, Iran has offered them political support, although because of the Saudi naval blockade, no one is able to resupply the Houthis. In fact, on many occasions the Saudi ships will not even let UN aid deliveries to pass through.
Nevertheless for Saudi Arabia it is a matter of ego and for Iran it is a matter of pride. Iran’s comrades, the Houthis are thus far holding off the most richly funded armed forces in the region, and they are doing so with a combination of very old modified Soviet, old DPRK and old Iranian weapons that are no match for Saudi Arabia’s brand new American weapons.
If Saudi Arabia cannot even beat a poorly armed Houthi resistance force, how could they expect to “take on Iran” as many Saudis brag about? This is one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia refuses to exit without some means of plausibly calming a victory. While Iran cannot win the war in Yemen because it is not directly involved, Saudi Arabia can lose a moral war against forces who clearly admire and are loyal to the concepts of the Islamic Revolution.
5. Saudi Arabia versus the United Arab Emirates
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are technically allies in Yemen, the recent events in Aden threaten to create a schism in this alliance. While Saudi Arabia has spent millions on trying to defeat the Houthis, the UAE has spent its payload on creating what amounts to a restored South Yemen. Because of this, the UAE has grown increasingly supportive of the STC, while Saudi has thus far clung onto a Hadi Presidency which could fall at any moment.
While this schism is not yet irreconcilable, it could widen if the Saudis face the embarrassment of seeing ‘their man in Aden’ violently deposed.
The need for dialogue
The conflict in Syria is the most clear cut battle between ‘good and evil’ on the world’s stage since the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. On the one hand there is a secular, anti-colonial, Arabist, pluralistic, tolerant government versus a mish-mash of throat cutting Takfiri groups, invading armies (particularly that of the United States), Kurdish ethno-nationalists backed by the US and finally the long standing Zionist occupation of the Golan Heights.
In Yemen, there are many bad guys but no real good guys. It is true that the Houthis are the closest thing to a faction fighting for principles rather than greed, but the Houthis have time and again exposed themselves to be a far less unified and principled group than for example the Lebanese Resistance, Hezbollah.
Because of this, a genuine dialogue is needed between all of the aforementioned factions in Yemen, and yes, both Saudi Arabia and Iran should be at such a conference. However, given the volatility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this remains a remote possibility at best. Because of this, a GCC authored solution involving Qatar remains the best possible solution. It may well be the only realistic solution.