After Years Of Conflict, Finding A Sustainable Peace In Yemen

In 2015, Saudi Arabia began a military campaign to unseat the Houthis, an indigenous Yemeni insurgency group. They ousted Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Yemin’s interim president since 2012, who was meant to serve as a transitional leader. The Saudi-led coalition began this campaign for several reasons, mainly because they wanted to maintain control in the region and prevent the spread of Iranian control. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia, upon making this decision, called on the United States for support, as well as ten other countries in the region (most importantly the United Arab Emirates). The U.S. readily offered support in hopes of protecting foreign policy goals in the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis are the main two actors in this conflict. The Houthis have consistently opposed Saudi involvement in Yemen and do not support Hadi, while the Saudis helped install him as an interim president. This was intended to help them maintain control in the region. After the beginning of the Saudi campaign in Yemen, the economy and governance weakened, frustrating the Houthis, which capitalized on the weak state to expand their control, as stated in Al Jazeera. Now, after six years of fighting, the conflict between both parties has only worsened, and left Yemen with one of the worst humanitarian disasters. 

This conflict is inherently international, so the response to it has also necessarily been international-with responses coming from other countries and international organizations like the United Nations. The most common response has pressed for Saudi involvement to pull out, but the Houthis continue their attacks. Since the conflict persists, given that neither party can or will completely extricate itself, the response that most commonly follows is calling for a ceasefire. This is ostensibly most common because it is the most logical: if there are two warring parties, it would make sense to suspend that conflict to create more holistic solutions. What is most logical, however, is not always what will work in pressing conflicts like this. 

One of the core issues with this response is that ceasefires are “top-down.” Calling for a ceasefire may have been a good idea if it was accepted or (somewhat) enthusiastically received from the beginning, but it was not. Moreover, a ceasefire would not create a sustainable peace because it fails to consider how peace can be created and maintained on a local level. Most “top-down” peace and development efforts do not work because they force local actors to fall in line with something that they may not agree with or find useful. “Top-down” efforts thus disintegrate over time because the local social fabric cannot or does not wish to support them. 

Furthermore, calls for a ceasefire fail to address the persisting tensions. A ceasefire stops the violence, which is good in theory, but as the war has continued, local and political tensions within Yemen have only deepened. Truthfully, a ceasefire is too optimistic in a way that is too simplistic and reductionist. Expecting a ceasefire under these circumstances is ignoring the entrenched conflict that neither party is willing to forgo. It reduces the conflict to only two factions-in this case, the Saudi led-coalition and the Houthis. Despite being the main two actors, they are not the only ones. There are many localized tensions-tribal and political (north versus south dynamic) and religious (Shi’a versus Sunni sects of Islam)-that are not represented in a “top-down” approach like a ceasefire. It would have been ideal to recognize from the beginning that a ceasefire was not realistic or very beneficial. The gravest unintended consequence of this persistent response, therefore, is that it has only prolonged the conflict. 

The most promising solution would be eliminating all Saudi involvement in Yemen, which would not happen easily, but is necessary. Expecting the Houthis to stop waging violence is probably not idea to a lasting peace process, as the Houthis are actually Yemeni, not an international force. Instead of a ceasefire, having the Saudis be the sole party to remove itself would be more beneficial because once this happens, the Houthis would probably stop too. The facts are that throughout the conflict, Saudi Arabia has only lost an extreme amount of money, and Iran only gained traction in the region.

The Houthis should be included in international peace talks, but they should be focused on ensuring the Saudis stop using Yemen like a pawn in a proxy war. These internationally-led peace talks must reckon with Saudi Arabia in a way, that they can accept the facts. The Houthis are obviously not exempt from the violence that has occurred, so the tensions caused by the Houthis within Yemen should be solved in a localized manner, rather than on the international stage. 

Making a mutual agreement, such as a ceasefire, is of course pragmatic-it ensures that ending violence comes from both sides. Unfortunately, what is ideal is not always realistic. There has not been ample discussion about the aftermath of this conflict. It is necessary to be wary of the implications of completely extricating influence from a country. External powers have been involved in Yemen for years, so it will most likely be left in a very fragile state with little consideration of what comes next. To mitigate this problem, a transitional government should be installed to prevent matters from becoming more politically polarized, while local tensions are resolved and the economy stabilizes. The government should be composed of multiple demographics to help address the tensions that persist. The focal leader should be as neutral as possible, to prevent disagreement in all parts of governance. 

At least for the near future, international actors should not be completely absent from the process of redevelopment post-conflict in Yemen. Help from international organizations could prove quite useful if they act as mediators in an unbiased manner. One of the most useful tools for healing communities is restorative justice, which requires bringing community leaders and members together, to voice their beliefs and what they have experienced. This can occur in a way that allows for accountability, remorse, and healing, but is a lengthy process and would probably take years. It is, however, crucial to appeal to local actors to ensure that their voices are incorporated into the future of Yemen.

The U.S., considering the role it played in prolonging Saudi involvement in Yemen, should probably help fund any needed resources for restorative justice efforts in Yemen. Ultimately, it is clear that Yemen’s road to a sustainable peace is a long one, but it is urgent. Now on the brink of a man-made famine with depleted resources and a weakened social fabric, it is now of utmost importance that this conflict is addressed in a realistic way with tangible results. Calls for ceasefire time and again have proven unsuccessful, so it is time for the response to change.

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