Bringing Peace to Yemen

By: Dr Noel Brehony 

The inauguration of President Biden in January 2021, recent reports of Saudi moves to seek a ceasefire, an agreement for a prisoner exchange and a step towards allowing the UN access to the stricken oil tanker Safar might suggest that the time is ripe for a renewed push to end the war in Yemen before it enters its seventh year on 26 March 2021. The human costs are starkly visible: over 230,000 people have died either as a result of the fighting or from the impact of damage to the physical, social and health infrastructure; millions have been displaced; 80 per cent of Yemenis are food insecure. UN agencies refer to it as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and assert that it is in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. Peace is an urgent necessity.

The UN Envoy, Martin Griffiths and his team, have worked assiduously and patiently with all the combatants and a wide range of political and civil society contacts to find a road map to peace but have been frustrated by the unwillingness of Yemeni political leaders and the regional supporters to implement even limited agreements - such as the Stockholm accords of December 2018 on access to Hodeida port. The difficulties have been compounded by the fracturing of Yemen into localised political entities, often powered by war economies, creating vested interests in continuing conflict and threatening to sabotage any peace deal. Attitudes to war and peace have been coloured by a growing sectarian discourse and the hatreds that all wars inspire.

The balance of military power has tilted towards the Huthis in the last two years. They can no longer be defeated on the battlefield and are in control of much of the former Yemen Arab Republic. However, they are under intense economic pressure which could undermine their control in the medium term. Opposition is ruthlessly repressed but appears to be growing. The Huthis need a deal but think they are strong enough to demand concessions and impose conditions in advance of talks.

The military position of the internationally recognised government (IRG) of President Hadi and its allies has weakened. Much may depend on the outcome of a major battle for control of Marib governorate that has been raging for much of 2020 causing significant casualties to both sides not just in Marib but in the neighbouring governorates of Al Jawf and Al Bayda. If the Huthis can take Marib city and Marib’s oil and gas fields they will inflict a major defeat on the IRG and could potentially threaten areas of central and southern Yemen under IRG nominal control. Military pressure is already exacerbating tensions within the IRG between Hadi and his supporters from the rump of the General People’s Congress and Islah, which is rooted in Yemen’s political structure but includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah is a principal power in IRG-controlled Marib and Ta’izz city, whilst its influence in the military is important to Saudi Arabia in the war. Fragmentation is most visible in South Yemen where the Southern Transition Council (STC) aspires for the restoration of an independent southern state (that existed 1967-1990). The STC controls Aden and surrounding areas but is weaker in Abyan, Shabwah and Hadhramaut, where the Yemeni military – particularly elements linked to Islah – are influential.

Local leaders have acquired greater powers to control their own affairs and do not want to give this up to any new government in Sanaa or Aden. A powerful force led by ex-President Saleh’s nephew Tariq controls much of the southern Tihama and the Bab al Mandab. Any peace deal requires the acquiescence of these localised centres of power. The UAE through its support of the STC and Tariq Saleh has considerable influence but from the outset of the war has refused to co-operate with Islah because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and has no wish to see the south fall under the control of Islah.

Saudi Arabia wants a way out of a very expensive war at a time when it needs to devote more spending on internal economic development. But not at any price: Riyadh does not want to reward what it regards as an Iranian proxy that poses a direct threat to Saudi territory through cross border incursions and the firing of missiles and drones towards Saudi cities. Iranian support for the Huthis has increased since the start of the war and is visible in the more advanced missiles and drones used by the Huthis but Iran appears to see Yemen as one theatre on its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, where for a relatively small investment it can damage Saudi interests. The Huthis are a client of Tehran, not a proxy.

Saudi leaders have been talking to the Huthis for some time and contact was recently raised to a more senior level but so far without any result. The Huthis want negotiations directly with Saudi Arabia that fits with the narrative that the war is one against foreign aggressors. It seeks to exclude the IRG. However, Hadi and his government cannot be marginalised not least because their UN-endorsed legitimacy grants them legal, administrative and financial devices that along with the coalition-imposed blockades of sea and airports greatly exacerbate the financial stresses faced by the Huthi regime.

Most Emirati forces were withdrawn in 2019 though the UAE remains a member of the coalition and continues to finance the STC and provides weapons to the STC-aligned forces that it helped recruit, train, equip and mentor as bulwarks against Al Qa’ida ( which has been degraded but not eliminated) and potentially to counter the influence of Islah. Saudi forces have moved into the south in small numbers and seem to recognise the strength of the STC and the need to take account of the more localised forces elsewhere in the old PDRY. However, as the delay to implementing the Riyadh Agreement illustrates Saudi Arabia has found it difficult to cajole the STC and IRG to work together and will have to strive even more to ensure that commitments made in the agreement are fully implemented. .

Martin Griffiths operates to three references. The first UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of 2015 calls for the restoration of the Hadi regime and the withdrawal of the Huthi forces from the territory they have seized since 2014 and to hand over their heavy weapons. President Hadi and Saudi Arabia insist it must be implemented but the facts on the ground have changed so much that is no longer feasible. The second is the GCC deal that prevented a civil war in 2011 but led to a political transition that marginalized the Huthis and Southern nationalists. Finally, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference must be taken into consideration – and could provide a basis for further discussions on the future shape of Yemen.

Within these constraints, no one could have done more than Griffiths to seek solutions and to consult all Yemeni voices and interests. If there had been a scope for a peace deal, he would surely have found it. There is a basic lack of will by all parties to make the essential compromises. That could change if there was a major shift in the status quo. Three seem possible:

  • Designation of the Huthis as a terrorist group. The Trump Administration is considering this move which would clearly put much greater pressure on the Huthi economy and undermine its military campaign but with the risk of greatly exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe. It could adversely affect the ability of international humanitarian organisations to work in the Huthi areas and undermine the commercial arrangements whereby Yemeni companies buy and import essentials – around 60-65 percent of Yemenis live in the area controlled by the Huthis. The presumed motive is that the Huthis might be more amenable to a peace deal in exchange for lifting of the designation and it would clearly benefit the Hadi regime. It is a stick best alongside incentives to persuade the Huthis to compromise. Designation could be targeted at individual leaders ( as already happened) rather than the Ansar Allah , the Huthi political organisation, or the Supreme Political Council through which it governs; exemptions could be introduced to allow humanitarian organisations and food importers to operate
  • Greater pressure on Saudi Arabia. The Biden Administration is likely to review US policy on Saudi Arabia and reduce US support for the war in Yemen whilst seeking to induce Iran into signing a revised JCPOA. It remains to be seen how much would be done and what priority a President Biden might attach to the issue, but it may not get much attention in the early months. It might weaken Saudi resolve and undermine the IRG but by weakening one side it is unlikely to encourage the other - the Huthis - to make concessions unless it is part of a package of arrangements.
  • Huthi victory in Marib. That would bolster Huthi morale and undermine that of its opponents. But it will not end the war. The IRG would fight on elsewhere and use its tools as the legitimate government to put pressure on the Huthis. Marib’s LNG plant is of little use unless the LNG can be piped through Shabwah to the terminal at Bal Haf giving an additional incentive for a possible Huthi move into this governorate. Huthi leaders talk of seeking to unite the whole of Yemen under their control. On the other hand, if the IRG can hold on to Marib the situation will revert stalemate. It is possible that at that point both sides could conclude that there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the war.

Options for the UK government

The war will not end until all involved are ready to make the essential compromises. The options for the British government are limited beyond what it is already doing in giving maximum support to Martin Griffiths and his team, engaging with a wide range of Yemen and regional actors, and providing substantial financial support though donations to international relief organisations.

The UK regularly consults the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE on Yemen where it can use its influence to nudge the parties to recognise the realities of the situation on the ground and the strength and weaknesses of their individual bargaining positions. It can work closely with the Biden administration in exerting pressure on the combatants to start serious peace talks and take greater action to relieve humanitarian suffering. The urgent need is to focus on what can be done to enable a greater flow of humanitarian aid through Hodeida and ensure that it then gets to those that need it inside Yemen.

As penholder on Yemen in the UN Security Council the UK can work for even greater international support for Martin Griffiths and to outline a process that might lead to the replacement of UNSC Resolution 2216 with one that reflects the current situation and balance of power in Yemen – but as part of a package of arrangements that sees compromises by all. London can consider how the potential return of the US to the JCPOA can be used to persuade Iran to reduce its support for the Huthis and use whatever influence Teheran has in Sanaa ( and that may not be all that much) to engage in negotiations not just with the coalition but with the IRG.

More drastic action such as the designation of the Houthis as terrorists or putting greater pressure on Saudi Arabia might be considered but again as part of a wider bargaining process designed to bring the combatants into meaningful negotiations. Yemen will need sustained economic support for many years for reconstruction and the states with the greatest ability and motive for providing the bulk of that assistances are Yemen’s wealthy neighbours. Even the Houthis understand that – and money will not flow unless the donors believe it is in their long term security interests.

Beyond that the UK and its partners can start thinking about how they might help Yemeni implement any deal they reach, taking note of the fragmentation of power and examining how the interests of locally powerful groups can be accommodated in a post conflict political settlement to prevent them sabotaging it. Britain can also look at how it can support the increasing number of initiatives at local level, for example in Taiz, where groups notionally supporting different sides in the conflict work together to deliver relief and services needed by all. Above all the UK must ensure that the search for a settlement continues. The difficulties are immense but doing nothing is not an option.

* The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of LFY.