Peaceful solutions are direly needed in Yemen as the Civil War stretches into its fifth year. Since March 2015 the country has deteriorated into what the United Nations (UN) has labelled the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Figures released by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) show that the death toll has reached over 70,000. According to UNICEF, another 24 million – about 80% of the population- are in need of humanitarian aid. A naval blockade has led to a substantial increase in the price of food and fuel, leaving 20 million in need of help securing food – half of which the UN says are on the brink of famine. Due to a lack of fully functioning medical facilities, access to clean water or adequate sanitation, disease is also rampant. Cholera especially is affecting the population: the largest ever recorded outbreak has resulted in 724,405 suspected cases and 1135 associated deaths since January 2018, according to the World Health Organisation.
The conflict in Yemen has its roots in the internationally backed transfer of power from long-time authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, following the Arab Spring in 2011. As President, Hadi struggled to bring stability to a country facing mounting challenges arising from decades of political marginalization, weak institutions, corruption, economic disenfranchisement and food insecurity. Taking advantage of Hadi’s weakness, the Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former President Saleh and supported by many disillusioned ordinary Yemenis, seized the capital Sanaa in September 2014. Forced out of office, Hadi first fled with his government to the southern port city of Aden, before escaping abroad to Riyadh to appeal for help in March 2015, as the Houthis continued to expand across most of the country.
Heeding Hadi’s calls for assistance, Saudi Arabia launched an international military coalition against the Houthi rebels helping to restore the recently ousted government. While the coalition troops managed to take back much of the south, reinstating the government in Aden in August 2015, the Houthis and their allies were able to keep control of key provinces in the north, including the cities Sanaa and Taiz.
The United Nations Security Council responded by issuing Resolution 2216 in support of the intervention and calling for peace talks to follow immediately. However, attempts to mediate a ceasefire and political settlement have been slow to progress. Initial rounds of peace talks in Geneva in June and December 2015 and in Kuwait City from April to August 2016 all failed to produce a roadmap to peace, stalling further negotiations for over two years. Not until December 2018, in Rimbo, Sweden, did the Houthi militia and internationally recognized Yemeni government finally begin compromising to find a solution. The two parties agreed to a prisoner exchange, a plan to de-escalate tensions in Taiz, and redeployment from the port city of Hodeidah, which is the main entry point for 70 percent of imports and humanitarian aid to Yemen.
After an initial delay, the Houthis began withdrawing from the port city in May 2019 – a first step towards ending the civil war and a major one in staving off famine for millions of Yemenis. However, this in itself will not bring peace to all of Yemen, especially as other aspects of the deal begin to unravel. The prisoner-exchange has stalled and ambiguities about how order will be maintained in Houdeidah, as well as which central bank (controlled by which party) will receive port revenue, are complicating matters. The reduction in violence in the city has also been counteracted by escalations in violence in other parts of the country, as well as into Saudi Arabia. The agreement signed in Taiz between the Houthis and the government has also ignored the numerous other forces fighting in the city.
A more holistic approach is needed to address both the internal and external factors that are preventing peace. Internally, both sides have much to gain by not finding a political solution. According to a UNSC expert report, the Houthis are using the conflict to their advantage to develop a wide range of income streams – through smuggling and other illicit activities, as well as through their control over Sanaa taxation and finances. Additionally, they are excelling in their military capabilities, having previously gained extensive experience during the six wars between 2004 and 2010 against the former Yemeni government, and so are looking towards military victory as a realistic solution. This makes one of the preliminary demands of Resolution 2216 – the call for the complete disarmament of the Houthis – an unviable proposition, as it would mean them giving up anything they might leverage during talks.
Issuing a resolution so determined to have Yemen’s government succeed reflects the biased role of the UN as a mediator. Firstly, the Yemeni model — comprised of a rapid transition, national dialogue, and constitutional drafting process — was regarded as a template for the post–Arab Spring Middle East and so its failure considered detrimental to wider peace-building efforts. Secondly, UN member states remain strongly against state fragmentation, and fear the Houthis and other groups breaking away from Yemen’s government. In turn, UN backing has provided Hadi with an impetus to renege on negotiations, avoiding any deal that would mean his removal from power or the sharing of power in a unity government with the Houthis.
The UNSC’s Resolution 2216 must be revised to reflect the changed situation in the country and the region since it was adopted in 2015. A new resolution supported by the UNSC’s five permanent members (the P5) should call for a comprehensive ceasefire and adopt language that takes into account the desires and goals of the main parties in the conflict equally. A secure vision of the future of both parties is needed.
However, the notion that a political agreement can be found between only the two main factions – the Hadi government and the Houthis – is too simplistic and only represents the politics and divisions within the northern Yemeni elite fighting for power. It ignores the multitude of local non-state actors involved in the war, particularly in Taiz, Mareb, Baydha, and the loose coalition of southern groups seeking independence for south Yemen – the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The exclusion of the STC is a particular impediment to peace. In 2015, the group entered into an uneasy alliance of convenience with troops loyal to Hadi, to drive the Houthis out of Aden. However, it has since turned against Hadi, taking over all government buildings aligned to the president following clashes in Aden in January 2018. Currently the STC enjoys de facto leadership in all provinces of the south. Any peace agreement that does not account for the grievances of the STC and other local actors will not be sustainable. Their inclusion in negotiations will be critical for a post-civil war settlement and long term peace.
The role of external actors impeding peace also needs to be considered. The conflict can be seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia looking to expand their influence. Yemen is strategically important due to its position on a strait linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass. Although it denies its involvement, Iran has been widely accused of supporting the Houthis both financially and militarily. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is openly supporting Hadi, leading a 10-nation coalition of mostly Sunni Muslim majority nations in continuous airstrikes on Yemeni soil against the Houthis. It has been reported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, that “the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together.” Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a UN panel of experts accuse the coalition of war crimes. Conflict has also spilled over the border, especially escalating as of late with a number of Houthi missiles and drone attacks targeting Saudi cities. It can no longer justifiably be thought of as a Yemeni-Yemeni war. As a major player in the conflict, future talks and agreements on a peaceful political solution must include Saudi Arabia, or otherwise ensure the country’s continued aggression.
Additionally, the positions taken by Western countries have slowed progress towards peace. The U.K. and U.S. particularly have backed the coalition through billions of dollars in arms sales, logistical support, and intelligence. Concerns over business contracts continue to outweigh any concerns about the humanitarian crisis, even amidst widely publicised reports about the unlawful use of weapons on Yemen. Such an approach will only ensure the conflict continues. Rather these states should be using their power and relationships to put pressure on the Saudi regime and other sides to end the conflict.
Indeed, it was following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s orders that international public opinion was galvanised against Saudi Arabia’s role in the war. A U.S. Senate vote in November 2018 to end its military support of Saudi Arabia indirectly put pressure on the Saudi-backed Yemeni government – who feared it could lose its main pillar of support – to come to a compromise with the Houthis in Sweden. Unfortunately, President Trump’s veto of the bill has since lifted this pressure. This is a step in the wrong direction. The U.S. along with the U.K. should be using their leverage to persuade the Saudis to pressure their Yemeni proxies to participate in UN-brokered ceasefire negotiations, which could build trust toward a more comprehensive peace agreement involving all parties. A continued Western policy of unconditional support for the Saudi-led coalition will only worsen tensions and make peace more distant.