Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Report 145 / Middle East & North Africa

也门的南部问题:避免崩盘

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也门正处在一个关键的十字路口。原定于9月18日闭幕,为期6个月的全国对话会议(National Dialogue Conference, NDC)本应完成宪法的起草和公投,并举行新的选举 。但时间表发生了改变,虽然没有确定一个结束的时间,很多国际和国内参与者都敦促各方要严格遵守商定的最后期限,结束NDC的协商,并完成转型进程的各项任务,这种态度是可以理解的。然而,尽管取得了一些进展,关于国家未来的政体,各方还未达成具有广泛基础的、可操作的统一意见,在关于南部地位的问题上也是如此。更糟糕的是,目前进行的对话不太可能使各方达成这样的统一意见,即使在短期之内延长对话也不可能实现。急于宣告胜利并清点转型各项任务的完成情况,有可能意味着在缺乏必要的合理性或统一意见的前提下强行得出一个结论。更好的办法是:同意有限地延后一段时间举行全民公投,落实改进后的转型安排,保证下一轮磋商不仅要配合信心建设的措施,而且要让更多、更具代表性的南部代表参与进来。

采取哪种政体已经变成也门最复杂和最具有争议的政治问题,这是任何一部新宪法和持久的政治解决方案的关键部分 。各个党派已经提出了广泛的建议:从现有的单一制,到多州联邦制,再到两州联邦制(一个是北部州,另一个是南部州)。即使是这么广泛的选择都没能涵盖南部提出的立即独立的要求——这个要求已经变成一个越来越具吸引力的战斗口号。

的确,也门的政体问题不可避免地会同所谓的南部问题联系在一起,南部问题是对南部地区在政治、经济和社会方面提出的诉求的简称,1990年之前南也门就已经是一个独立国家。“南部运动”(Hirrak)是由多个机构和活动家组成的松散联盟,它呼吁实现南部的独立,或者至少先实现两州联邦制,然后就南部的未来举行全民公投。分裂主义情绪高涨,且随着转型进程的推进似乎愈演愈烈。

NDC在一定程度上取得了进展。它协助开展了一场虽迟来但有益的公共辩论,讨论关于南部问题的根源,同时它也开始考虑可能会出现的一些结果。但是NDC也存在着严重的局限性。在萨那进行的讨论远离分裂情绪日益高涨的南部人民。NDC内部关于解决方案的讨论只在协商的最后两个月里才匆忙进行,且没有关于细节的讨论。虽然看起来各方正在达成共识要选择联邦制政体,但是一些关键问题仍未得到解决:如何定义行政界线,如何重新分配政治权力,以及如何分享资源。即便是要达成一个总体的协议都很难,需要拉近Hiraak代表和单一制坚定支持者之间的巨大分歧:前者要求在两州联邦制的框架下进行历时3年的转型,以便重新建立南也门,之后就南部的未来地位进行一个尚不明确的全民公投;后者则强烈反对这一建议。

要使最终的协议获得公众的支持更加具有挑战性。Hiraak代表团声称协商各方对他们有偏见,因而中止参与协商近3周的时间;即便是这个代表团本身也没有反映Hiraak中更广泛、更好战的情绪。只有一小部分Hiraak成员——大多与总统阿卜杜勒-拉布·曼苏尔·哈迪关系密切——同意加入NDC,大部分成员认为协商不合法,决定不参加协商。

南部地区必然会对NDC进程缺乏信心,然而,缺乏真正可以提高南部安全和经济状况的措施更加重了这种情况。尽管政府作出了承诺,但是情况几乎没有改善,因而进一步降低了南部人员参与协商的意愿,也为那些认为独立是唯一出路的南部人员提供了素材。

随着达成协议的时间的临近,各方看来都很坚守自己的立场。参加NDC的Hiraak代表团要求另一方作出大量妥协,表示不接受任何不包含两州联邦制和/或对南部的未来地位进行全民公投的承诺的条件;前执政党全国人民大会(General People's Congress,GPC)的领导人和主要的伊斯兰党派Islah的领导人断然拒绝了上述两个条件,坚持要实行多州联邦制。两方都把赌注押在了政治影响力的较量上:前者相信,以他们更多的兵力可以强迫北部妥协;后者则把宝押在哈迪总统身上,认为他想要监督一个成功的转型进程,这会促使他强迫其Hiraak盟友作出让步。双方的想法都不正确,中间地带仍然很渺茫。

然后是那些局外人。多数Hiraak成员寄希望于谈判失败,因为双方无法达成真正的妥协,或者即使达成妥协也无法真正得以实施。他们发誓,不管NDC作出什么样的决定,他们都要使示威活动升级,并进行民众抗议运动,直至获得独立。宪法公投会为他们的对抗行动提供一个聚焦点,对公投的抵制行动并很有可能引发暴力事件。这种后果可能会进一步削弱转型的合法性。

如果也门希望创造一个更稳定的未来,就迫切需要在国家政体这个基本问题上达成一致性意见。这点毋庸置疑。但这并不意味着要在缺乏基本信任、合法性和共识的情况下匆忙达成一个最终的解决方案。这是目前这个脆弱的政体、分崩离析的国家和四分五裂的政治阶层所无法应对的。这可能会进一步破坏协商进程,助长南部地区更好战的观点,导致危险的边缘政策和流血事件。相反,达成具有广泛基础的协议才应该是要实现的目标,要在改善安全和经济状况的前提下继续进行更兼收并蓄的协商,才有可能达成这样的协议。

萨那/布鲁塞尔,2013年9月25日

Executive Summary

Yemen is at a critical juncture. Its six-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was to have closed on 18 September, ushering in constitution drafting, a constitutional referendum and new elections. The timetable has slipped, and, though no end date has been set, there is an understandable urge among many international and some domestic actors to stick closely to agreed deadlines, wrap up the NDC negotiations and finish the transition to-do list. But despite progress, there is no broad-based, implementable agreement on the state’s future structure, and thus on the South’s status. Worse, such a result is unlikely to emerge from the current dialogue, even with a short extension. A rush to declare victory and complete the transition checklist could mean forcing through an outcome without necessary legitimacy or buy-in. It would be better to agree to a time-limited delay of the referendum, put in place modified transitional arrangements and ensure the next round of negotiations is in concert with confidence-building measures and includes a wider, more representative array of Southern voices.

How to structure the state arguably has become the most complicated and divisive political issue and must be a key component of any new constitution and durable political settlement. Parties have presented a wide array of options: from the current unitary system, through multi-region federalism, to two-state federalism (one entity in the North, the other in the South). Even this broad spectrum fails to include what, in the South, has turned into an increasingly attractive rallying cry: the demand for immediate independence.

Indeed, the question of the state’s structure inevitably is tied to the so-called Southern issue, shorthand for the political, economic and social demands emanating from the South, which had been an independent state prior to 1990. There, a loosely aligned mix of organisations and activists, known as the Southern Movement (Hiraak), is calling for separation or, at a minimum, temporary two-state federalism followed by a referendum on the South’s future. Separatist sentiment is running high and appears to have strengthened over the course of the transition.

To an extent, the NDC has made advances. It helped launch a healthy and overdue public debate over the roots of the Southern problem and began the consideration of potential outcomes. But the conference faced severe limitations. Debate in Sanaa is far removed from the increasingly separatist Southern street. Within the NDC, discussion of solutions, bereft of detail, was squeezed into the last two months of negotiations. Although consensus appears to be forming around a federal structure, critical elements remain unresolved: how to define administrative boundaries; redistribute political authority; and share resources. Even a general agreement will be hard to achieve. It will require bridging the yawning gap between Hiraak delegates, who demand a three-year transition under two-part federalism in order to rebuild the Southern state in advance of an ill-defined referendum on the South’s future status, and staunch pro-unity advocates, who passionately reject this option.

Garnering popular support for any eventual agreement will be more challenging still. The Hiraak delegation suspended its participation for nearly three weeks, complaining that negotiations were biased against it; even that delegation hardly is representative of broader and more militant Hiraak sentiment. Only a small slice of the Hiraak – many enjoying close ties to President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi – agreed to join the NDC. The bulk of the movement chose to stay on the sidelines of talks they deemed illegitimate.

The South’s lack of faith in the NDC process perhaps was inevitable, but it has been exacerbated by the absence of genuine measures to improve security and economic conditions in the region. Government promises notwithstanding, little has changed, further undercutting those Southerners willing to negotiate and providing fodder to those for whom the only way out is separation.

As the time for reaching an agreement nears, all parties appear to be digging in their heels. The Hiraak NDC delegation demands significant concessions, arguing that anything short of two-state federalism and/or a promise to organise a referendum on the South’s future status is unacceptable; leaders from the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and from the predominant Islamist party, Islah, flatly refuse either prospect, clinging to the notion of a federal model with multiple administrative units. Each has made bets on the effect of competing political pressures: the former believe that their more militant rank and file will force the North to move toward them; the latter wager that Hadi’s interest in overseeing a successful transition will lead him to impose a compromise on his Hiraak allies. Both cannot be right, and middle ground remains elusive.

Then there are those on the outside. Most Hiraak members bank on the negotiations’ failure, due to inability to reach a substantive compromise or, if it comes to it, lack of implementation on the ground. They vow to escalate protests and a civil dis­obedience campaign, regardless of NDC decisions, until they achieve independence. A constitutional referendum would provide a focal point for their opposition, triggering a boycott and likely violence. The result would be to further undermine the transition’s legitimacy.

If Yemen hopes to forge a more stable future, it desperately needs to agree on the basic question of its state structure. That much is clear. But it does not mean forcing through a final settlement in circumstances where basic trust, legitimacy and consensus are lacking. That would be more than a fragile state, fragmented country and fractured political class could handle. It likely would further discredit the process, strengthen more militant Southern views and provoke dangerous brinkmanship and bloodshed. The goal instead should be a broad-based agreement that only continued, more inclusive negotiations in the context of improved security and economic conditions potentially can achieve.

Sanaa/Brussels, 25 September 2013

A car travelling from Yemen’s Taiz city to Aden via the Hajjat al-Abd road. This route is prone to car and truck accidents which can be deadly. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Taiz, a city in central Yemen, is besieged by Huthi rebels and practically cut off from the rest of the country. Restored road access would save lives and build trust that could help bring peace to Yemen, but time is short.

More than a month has passed since the UN announced a truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Huthi rebels it has been battling for the past seven years with backing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the truce itself has held, if somewhat shakily. But the UN has been able to secure partial implementation of only two of the three confidence-building measures it attached to the deal that has halted the fighting: passage of fuel shipments into the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopening of the Huthi-held Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights for the first time since 2016. There has been little if any progress on the third measure – reinvigoration of efforts to restore road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that the Huthis have besieged since 2016. UN officials are now in a race against time to ensure that the Sanaa airport remains open in the hope of prolonging the truce and starting political talks. Important as that task is, they must not forget Taiz. What happens there could either accelerate a shift away from violent confrontation to political negotiations, or become an impediment that derails UN-led efforts to finally end Yemen’s destructive war.

A Fragile Opportunity

Recent developments present a moment of opportunity in Yemen. The two-month truce came into effect on 2 April. It is an informal, self-policed agreement by the parties to stop fighting. In theory, it is renewable. The UN’s hope is that an extended truce can be a springboard for political talks about a formal ceasefire and a negotiated way out of the conflict.

Less than a week after the UN announced the truce, Yemen’s president of ten years, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, announced that he was ceding power to a new eight-member presidential council led by the former interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi reportedly stepped down under pressure from Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to reorganise the anti-Huthi bloc. Anti-Huthi Yemenis had heavily criticised Hadi for exercising too little leadership in the disparate anti-Huthi alliance. The Huthis publicly dismissed the new council as a mere “reshuffling of mercenaries” that underscores what they see as the government’s lack of legitimacy. Yet the council is broadly representative of the range of military and political factions opposing the Huthis. It has since been inaugurated in Aden, along with a prime minister and cabinet.

The truce and the council’s formation ... present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process.

The truce and the council’s formation – and the latter’s public declarations that it will pursue peace with the Huthis – present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process, particularly given the decline in the Huthis’ battlefield dominance as a result of renewed Emirati support for anti-Huthi forces. It is probably an exaggeration to say peace is an immediate possibility, and many Yemenis see the truce as an opportunity for the rival parties to regroup rather than to cease hostilities. Still, prospects for a move from violent combat to meaningful political negotiations are better now than they have been in years.

In order to capitalise on the opportunity for a truce extension, the parties need to make sustained progress on all three of the related confidence-building measures. The UN appears already to be pushing hard on fuel shipments and reopening Sanaa airport. The Taiz issue, however, requires closer attention.

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Taiz and the Truce

That the truce has held up so far, if a bit tenuously, is an achievement in and of itself given the depth of distrust between the Huthis and their rivals, who have exchanged recriminations over delays in taking the agreed-upon steps. Yet nowhere does distrust of the Huthis’ intentions run higher than in Taiz, where residents greeted the truce announcement with protest instead of celebration. Many residents saw the agreement’s provisions for their city as unrealistic. For many in the anti-Huthi camp, Taiz has become a symbol of what they see as a lopsided international approach that gives short shrift to their grievances while seeking to appease the Huthis. 

Taiz governorate has been isolated from the rest of Yemen since battles in 2015 left the Huthis holding its economically and strategically important northern regions and encircling Taiz city, whose centre remained under the control of government-aligned forces. Fighting has cut off all the main overland routes linking Taiz with Huthi- and government-controlled areas. No matter where they travel, Yemenis who live in the city are forced to navigate single-track mountain roads with perilous hairpin bends and checkpoints manned by armed groups. 

The consequences have been debilitating for civic life and commerce. Travel time to and from Taiz has increased dramatically. A trip from Huthi-controlled Hawban, Taiz governorate’s industrial hub where many residents work, to government-controlled Taiz city centre once took between 5 and 15 minutes by car and now takes 5 to 6 hours along a poorly maintained one-lane road. Travelling from Taiz to the southern port city of Aden takes from 6 to 8 hours by car; it took 2 to 3 hours before 2015. Moving basic goods like food and fuel by truck between the two nominally allied cities can take anywhere from 14 hours to several days. Higher transport costs and checkpoint fees, combined with other costs of operating in a war economy, have driven up food and fuel prices inside the city, making it one of the most expensive places to live in Yemen. It is not uncommon for sick Taizis to die on their way to Aden or Sanaa for urgent medical care. Thus far, the Huthis have had little incentive to improve road access to the city: they control the governorate’s economic heart and are keeping their main local rivals boxed in. Further complicating matters, parts of Taiz governorate not controlled by the Huthis are heavily contested by rival groups within the anti-Huthi bloc, sometimes violently.

Hawban to Taiz
Aden to Taiz

Failed Precedents

A series of local and international initiatives has failed to improve access to Taiz city – a failure that many residents see as the product of a UN and international bias in favour of the Huthis. In explaining their frustration, they point to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which staved off a battle for Hodeida, and was intended to set the stage for broader peace talks. That agreement contained a vague sub-agreement on Taiz: it called on both sides to select representatives to a joint committee, which would work toward the goal of reopening humanitarian corridors into the city centre. The committee was also to submit a single report on movement toward improving road access into the city in the run-up to future consultations.

But the sub-agreement yielded no meaningful progress on restoring Taiz residents’ access to the rest of the country. Although the UN held individual meetings with each of the parties’ representatives, the delegations never met jointly as a committee, much less reached agreement on how to achieve the goals articulated in Sweden. Anti-Huthi Yemenis criticised the UN for failing to expend the same energy on reopening Taiz – which residents see as a humanitarian issue – that it did on ending the siege of Hodeida. Many of the Yemenis who have worked on the Taiz road issue since the start of the war believe the UN should not have made it part of the Stockholm deal and instead should have negotiated access on a separate track. In their view, placing Taiz in the Stockholm framework made it too easy for the Huthis to make progress on this issue contingent on implementation of other aspects of the agreement. There is also a widespread perception that the UN gave up too quickly when negotiations over the roads faltered and other pressing issues took precedence.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components, which Riyadh has been trying to unify under a single umbrella. Many Taizis believe that the Saudi-led coalition – and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has an expressly anti-Islamist domestic and regional agenda – wishes for Taiz to remain isolated in order to keep Islah, an Islamist group dominant in Taiz, weak. Yemenis in this camp point to the ability of UAE-backed forces to mobilise troops and retake territory in other parts of the country, as they did in three districts in southern Shebwa and Marib earlier in 2022. They believe that the Saudi-led coalition could, if it wished, provide more military assistance to anti-Huthi forces in Taiz to push the Huthis back from the roads around the city at the very least. Some anti-Huthi Yemenis also perceive the truce as a signal that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the war. They believe that the Saudis agreed to include progress on Taiz issues as one of the three confidence-building measures only to mollify the Hadi government, which reportedly had resisted the deal.

But this anti-Saudi sentiment, and a sense that Riyadh acted imperiously in pushing for formation of the new presidential council, could wind up working in Taiz’s favour. The council, whose head, al-Alimi, is himself from Taiz, is under pressure to demonstrate that it is working at least as much with ordinary Yemenis in mind as with Riyadh’s desire to be done with Yemen. Thus, it is possible that the council will seek to underscore its bona fides by making road access a central pillar of its negotiating strategy in much the same way that the Huthis have done with Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, namely by refusing to allow talks on other issues to progress without movement on the roads in Taiz.

Thus far, however, there has been very little progress of any kind. As part of the truce agreement, the Huthis and the government committed to form a joint negotiating committee to tackle the Taiz roads issue, as they did previously under the Stockholm Agreement. Yemeni government officials say they have named their candidates for the committee and provided proposals on reopening the Taiz-Hodeida, Taiz-Sanaa and Taiz-Aden roads. They claim that the Huthis have yet to nominate their own negotiators, casting the rebels as the main barrier to progress. In fact, the Huthis have laid out new demands to reopen roads in Taiz, the first of which are to halt fighting in the governorate and remove military equipment from its main arteries.

The currently closed Hawban road which used to connect government-controlled Taiz city and Huthi-held Hawban. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Building Confidence Goes Both Ways

Whatever happens next, the Taiz road access issue is likely to become increasingly contentious, particularly as the UN ramps up efforts to sustain progress on the other two confidence-building measures in an effort to extend and expand the truce. To date, according to a Yemeni government official who spoke with Crisis Group, at least eleven fuel ships have arrived at Hodeida port. Moreover, the first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years departed for Amman shortly after the government announced it would allow people carrying Huthi-issued passports to travel. Despite such progress, rumours are spreading of a military build-up as the parties prepare for the possibility of the truce either buckling or expiring.

The risk is that the truce may not survive beyond its current two-month timeframe if there is no meaningful progress on all three of the confidence-building measures. Pushing Taiz to the side would jeopardise prospects for renewal. As noted, some in the government camp may advocate making negotiations over fully reopening Sanaa airport dependent on progress on Taiz, thus undermining the possibility of the truce being extended if the Huthis continue to delay on the latter. The Huthis, for their part, continue to be dismissive of the Taiz roads issue and show signs of slow-walking negotiations, giving the government a perfect excuse to stall efforts to move toward talks.

Resolving the Taiz roads question is thus closely linked to the fate of the truce overall, as well as of any future talks between the belligerents. Outside powers should employ a two-pronged approach to reaching a resolution. First, as part of a broader diplomatic push with the Huthis in Sanaa, they should focus the rebels on the need to make progress on Taiz, signalling that the issue is high on their agenda. The absence of sustained, serious diplomacy around the Taiz question can only have contributed to the lack of action to date. Secondly, mindful of the risk of mixing the road access file with other political and military issues, diplomats should raise Taiz in their discussions with Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom has its own channels with the Huthis. Involving Saudi Arabia in advocacy to reopen Taiz can enhance the kingdom’s credibility, since many Yemenis believe (and resent) that it wishes to keep Islah on the back foot in one of the country’s most economically important areas. It would also serve Riyadh’s aim of helping bring the war to a close.

The parties should not miss this opportunity for progress. The partial reopening of Sanaa airport has rekindled hope among Yemenis that they will once again be able to travel outside the country. Likewise, the reopening of Taiz roads would bring great benefits for the city’s residents whose freedom of movement has been curtailed for too long. If there is no movement on Taiz, the chances of a truce extension beyond the two-month timeline, and peace in Yemen, will only grow slimmer. Despite widespread scepticism, the truce, the first countrywide halt in fighting since 2016, has held thus far. Yemenis should not be made to wait six more years for another opportunity for peace.

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