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Air Strikes, Political Intrigue, and Al Qaeda: The UN's Envoy to Yemen Explains Why He Quit

Jamal Benomar tried stepping down five times, but UN boss Ban Ki-moon needed him in Yemen. He finally stepped down this week and told VICE News what he witnessed in the country gripped by turmoil.
Photo by Hani Mohammed/AP

The UN's beleaguered envoy to Yemen announced this week he will step down, convinced — under a hail of Houthi militia shells, Saudi air strikes, and al Qaeda expansion — that his place in its shattered national dialogue is no longer tenable.

In an interview with VICE News, Moroccan-born diplomat Jamal Benomar said he has wanted to depart his post since January 2014. Five times he asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to allow him to do so. Evidently rebuffed, Benomar remained in Yemen, until fighting forced his team to leave late last month.


"When I took this job it was in a different context, it was in the context of the Arab spring," Benomar explained. "What motivated me at that time was the fact I was able to be part of a process to assist these youth who had descended and occupied all the squares in Yemen, these youth who were demanding democracy, human rights, and change."

He added, however: "The situation has now changed. The spoilers I've been warning about for several years prevailed and derailed this transition, and the country is in a state of civil war. I thought this was the appropriate time for me to step down and move to another assignment."

Benomar began his term as UN special advisor on Yemen in April 2011. At the time, it was becoming increasingly clear that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's longtime strongman president, would not be able to resist an opposition burnished by the protests sweeping the Arab world. The following February, Saleh handed power to his former vice president, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. But what was meant to be a dynamic national process, bringing together the country's myriad parties, never got off the ground.

Related: 'My enemy's enemy': In Yemen chaos, al Qaeda may be the biggest winners. Read more here.

In September 2014, Shia Houthi militants, seizing on growing discontentment with talks that the group claimed were not inclusive, took control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa. Benomar oversaw an ephemeral deal that relied on the forming of an inclusive government and a new constitution, and negotiated a partial Houthi withdrawal. Critics contended that Benomar rewarded the Houthi's strong-arm tactics, and that he oversaw talks, in essence, at gunpoint.


In January, as dialogue over the constitution faltered, Houthi forces seized the presidential palace and placed Hadi, who stepped down from the presidency in protest, under house arrest. The next month, the president fled to the southern city of Aden, where he rescinded his resignation.

In March, seemingly unsure of what to do with their newfound power, the Houthis and their allies began a lightning southward march towards Aden. A Saudi-led coalition, of mostly Sunni Arab countries, responded with an air campaign to repulse the group's advances. According to the UN, more than 360 civilians, including at least 84 children, have been killed since air strikes began three weeks ago. Yemenis, already among the poorest people in the Arab world, now face drastic food shortages and only intermittent access to electricity and medical care.

Speaking from his office in New York City, Benomar singled out Saleh, who remained a powerful behind the scenes actor and eventually threw his lot in with the Houthis, as Yemen's primary "spoiler." He said he had warned the UN Security Council to rein in the former president and that the sanctions levied on Saleh in November arrived two years late. This week, the Security Council approved an arms embargo on Saleh, his son, and top Houthi leaders, a move Benomar also said was belated.

'It would be naïve to think that everything was smooth and going fine and the Houthis came and spoiled this transition.'


The Houthis, whose leaders practice a strain of Shia Islam called Zaydism, have long been players in Yemen's north. Hardened by a series of wars that Saleh waged against them in the 2000s, the group last year again reverted to arms when they felt their demands for political inclusion weren't being met.

Benomar criticized the Houthi decision to move towards "achieving political aims through violence," but added: "It would be naïve to think that everything was smooth and going fine and the Houthis came and spoiled this transition."

"The national dialogue conference agreed that the government needed to be more inclusive, meaning the Houthis would need to be brought in," he said. "The government did exactly the contrary. There was a reshuffle, it excluded them."

Western and Gulf officials have stressed alleged Iranian support of the Houthis, painting them as a proxy of Tehran. But many analysts say it was mostly their alliance with Saleh that allowed them to gain so much ground, so quickly.

Related: Why Yemen is like Scotland — and could be a choke point for a lot of the world's oil. Read more here. 

"They didn't need Iranian backing to get what they got," Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at the Middle East Institute, told VICE News. "They fought six wars against the Saleh regime and in doing so built up many tribal and family alliances — they put together a sort of coalition."

Already well-armed from years of fighting, Schmitz said the Houthis benefited from army factions loyal to Saleh that broke off to join their cause, bringing weapons stockpiles with them.


Benomar was guarded when asked about reports of Iranian arms shipments, calling investigations taken up by the Security Council in response to these claims "not conclusive." He added that he never saw officials from Tehran in Yemen.

"Throughout the region there has been positive support for the transition, but there have also been nations that undermine this transition," said Benomar. "The end result is that Yemen is now in a state of turmoil."

Gulf States have reportedly angled for Benomar to be replaced, who they saw as too close to the Houthis, or at least duped by them. "A lot of people thought that Benomar gave cover to the Houthis, that he would keep negotiating no matter what the Houthis did," added Schmitz.

'My guess is we will see the black flag of al Qaeda flying over many areas around the country.'

Benomar played down those reports, saying he met amicably with Saudi Arabia's UN ambassador on Wednesday, the day that news of his departure leaked.

In a statement, Ban's spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric thanked Benomar, and said a successor would "be named in due course." Whoever is chosen —Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Cheikh Ahmed is said to be a candidate — will have a task even greater than that which Benomar inherited.

For his part, Benomar said Saleh's retention of the leadership of his party — the General People's Congress — and loyalty among legislators, governors, and local councils, made the task of envoy verge on impossible. Yemeni leaders, he added, failed by not checking Saleh's influence in the country.


"The lesson here is that a transition cannot be expected to proceed smoothly without thinking hard about what can be done to pursue a form of destabilization," he said.

Related: Yemen: A Failed State. Watch here.

Amid Yemen's chaos, al Qaeda's affiliate in the country has been able to expand its base of operations in the south and east.

On Thursday, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) overran an airport and military base on the outskirts of Mukalla, the country's fifth largest city. Earlier this month fighters from the terror group captured the city. Unchecked by Saudi air strikes and with their Houthi foes distracted, AQAP appears poised to gain more territory.

"My guess is we will see the black flag [of al Qaeda] flying over many areas around the country," said Benomar.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford