Abu Dhabi // A “national salvation” government announced by Yemen’s rebel alliance is unlikely to gain international legitimacy and will undermine the prospects of negotiations, observers said on Monday.
The Iran-backed alliance of Houthi rebels and military and political forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh formed a “supreme political council” in July that was described as unconstitutional by the United Nations. The decision to set up the council in part led to the collapse of peace talks in August.
On Sunday that council appointed Abdel Aziz bin Habtoor, the former Aden governor, to form a government of “national salvation” aimed at rivalling the internationally-recognised administration of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, which is based in Aden.
The formation of a parallel rebel government in the north of the country comes after the Hadi government said it would move Yemen’s central bank from Sanaa to Aden.
“The move to form a government is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat escalatory steps taken by both sides as a result of the collapse of peace talks in Kuwait,” said April Longley Alley, the International Crisis Group’s Yemen analyst. “The decision is clearly unhelpful for the prospects of a compromise settlement.”
The UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is in Riyadh for consultations on the stalled talks. There had been some optimism around a plan presented privately by the US secretary of state John Kerry to other members of the so-called “quad” of countries that back Mr Hadi – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States and Britain.
The Houthi-Saleh delegation to the Kuwait talks had balked at a plan by Mr Ahmed based on a UN Security Council resolution that would have the rebels hand over heavy weapons and withdraw from territory ahead of the formation of a unity government. Mr Kerry’s plan would see the security measures and the political process take place simultaneously.
“At this point, there is a reasonable compromise solution on the table through the quad initiative ... This settlement could provide wins to both sides and end an increasingly devastating war,” Ms Alley said. “But, its shelf-life is limited, and could be overcome by the lack of diplomatic momentum and by events on the ground.”
As the Hadi government initiates an economic siege of the rebel-controlled north, and the rebel alliance attempts to bolster their claim to legitimacy, fighting has increased and the geographic split has widened.
“Now they’re going to appoint ministers, and they are going to take that government to the parliament for a vote a confidence, and try to take more steps toward having a superficial legitimacy within their territory,” said Mustapha Noman, a former deputy foreign minister of Yemen. “It’s just creating more of a mess rather than helping.”
The Houthi revolutionary councils that have acted as de facto administrators in territory outside government control could be dissolved and new councils with greater representation by Mr Saleh’s General People’s Congress party formed as a result of the move, Mr Noman said.
Mr Bin Habtoor, the man appointed to form the new rebel government, was chosen by Mr Hadi as governor of Aden in December 2014 – after the Houthis had taken Sanaa but before the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the war in late March of last year.
“There is a YouTube video making the rounds of an interview from March 2015 where [Bin Habtoor] said that there must be a foreign intervention in Yemen against the Houthis,” Mr Noman said.
After the Houthis were defeated in Aden by coalition and local forces last year, Mr Bin Habtoor was dismissed from his post and he moved to Sanaa. The fact that he does not have a power base in Sanaa, and is a southerner who can help give the appearance of a national government, were likely why he was chosen, Mr Noman said. “The so-called ‘chairman’ of the council is a northerner so they could not appoint another northerner in the post,” he added.
As fighting continued on Monday, the United Nations humanitarian operations chief visited rebel-controlled areas of Yemen, including the port of Hodeidah.
Stephen O’Brien, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, was shown infrastructure damaged by air strikes and met aid workers in the port, the biggest in northern Yemen.