During an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Sunday, the UN special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned that the country is fast approaching "the edge of civil war" and urged all parties to redouble diplomatic efforts before it is too late.
Speaking to the council via videolink, Benomar said that unless immediate steps are taken to save stalled peace talks between Houthi rebels, who are Shiite and now control the capital of Sana'a and the ousted Sunni-dominated government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which has taken up headquarters in the southern port city of Aden, the resulting situation could be similar or worse to the sectarian-violence and proxy-wars that have gripped other countries in the region.
"I urge all sides at this time of rising tensions and rhetoric to de-escalate and exercise maximum restraint, and refrain from provocation," Benomar said.
With tensions and violence escalating each day, Benomar said that neither faction could realistically take control of the whole country, but that with militants associated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State taking credit for a deadly series of bombings on Friday, he warned that if a negotiated settlement is not found soon or if one side is pushed too far in one direction or the other, it "would be inviting a protracted conflict in the vein of an Iraq, Syria, Libya combined scenario."
According to the Associated Press:
Yemen’s turmoil and political crisis has deepened since the Houthis seized Sana’a in September and put Hadi under house arrest and eventually dissolved the country’s parliament. The country’s al-Qaeda branch, considered by the United States the terror network’s most dangerous offshoot, has stepped up attacks against the Shiite rebels.
The Houthis newly announced move to take the rest of the country follows the suicide bombings of a pair of mosques in Sana’a that killed 137 people which were claimed by the Islamic State group. It also followed clashes around Aden’s airport and planes from Sana’a dropping bombs on the city’s presidential palace which Benomar said fortunately did not injure Hadi, who is strongly supported by the security council.
"Following the suicide bombings and fighting," Benomar warned, "emotions are running extremely high, and unless a solution can be found in the coming days the country will slide into further violent conflict and fragmentation."
He said Yemenis believed the situation was "on a rapid downward spiral," and were concerned that the conflict "has taken on worrying sectarian tones and deepening north-south divisions."
Benomar's address came as the Houthis seized parts of the southern city of Taiz and its airport on Sunday after clashes with forces loyal to President Hadi.
Tens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers carrying Houthi fighters had crossed into al-Dhalie and Aden governorates, Al Jazeera's correspondents said.
Ahmed al-Wafi, a Yemeni political activist told Al Jazeera that the Houthis had taken full control of Taiz military airbase, which lies around 180km north of Aden, and had deployed fighters to man checkpoints at the city's entry points and streets.
In a televised address on Sunday, the Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called on his supporters to mobilise towards the south of the country, a stronghold of Hadi's allies.
On Saturday, the U.S. military ordered the evacuation of approximately 125 special forces soldiers which had been acting as advisers to Yemeni Army forces loyal to Hadi.
"Due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the U.S. government has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement on Saturday.
The U.S. military presence in the country, including years of drones strikes by the CIA, has been consistently highlighted as a major source of the political instability and increasing levels of violence inside Yemen.
In an op-ed on Sunday, Farea Al Muslimi, a Yemeni human rights activist and currently a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East [Center], said western nations and regional powers like Saudi Arabia must take responsibility for the damage they have inflicted on Yemen, one of the poorest nations on the planet. According to Al Muslimi:
Violence and a declining quality of life have come to represent Yemen. The number of Yemenis now subsumed by the country’s continuing humanitarian crisis numbers 16 million. Basic functioning services have all become as rare as birthdays—a once a year event.
At the moment, Yemen’s once quiet streets and civic spaces have turned into spaces for militias and unknown suicide bombers. In Sana'a, no one but death walks freely or safely.
In order for peace to exist in Yemen, the ingredients of the political transition—its tools and its godfathers—should first admit that the path they have forced Yemen into has led to nothing but catastrophe and has taken the country directly into hell.
The world has walked Yemenis into this process and should take responsibility for that. They have broken Yemen and it is time to pay for it.
The Financial Times offered this breakdown of the stalled negotiations:
Both camps have called for peace talks but have quibbled over where they should be held and who should lead them. Mr. Hadi has described negotiations in Sana’a led by the UN envoy Jamal Benomar as “illegitimate,” demanding Saudi-sponsored talks be held in Riyadh.
The Houthis have called for talks with the country’s power brokers, but say they no longer view Mr. Hadi as the country’s legitimate president, accusing him of attempting to turn Yemen into a “puppet regime”. The Saudis have endorsed Mr. Hadi’s plan for talks, but have demanded the Houthis quit Sana’a as a precondition for their participation in negotiations.
And Middle East historian Juan Cole, offering context for the complex violence in Yemen, explains the importance of understanding how what's brewing in Yemen is not a "sectarian war" but a "political" conflict being fought along religious lines. According to Cole:
The Houthi movement has politicized Zaidi Islam, after the Saudis politicized hard line Sunni Islam. The Houthis have all kinds of enemies now– secular Arab nationalists loyal to the Aden government, Sunnis who resent Houthi dominance of largely Sunni cities like Taizz, southern secessionists, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Any of these could have hit the mosques, not because they hate Shiism but because they oppose the Houthi take-over of Yemen’s government in the north.
When religion is deployed for political purposes and there is no separation of religion and state, religion acts like a political movement and throws up political opposition. Where politics is violent, so is religious politics.
Countries were there is a separation of religion and state have much less religious violence, because there is no point in deploying religion for political purposes where religion is barred from attaining them.