Yemen’s peace process needs ambition and international pressure
Following a two-year hiatus, official UN-led talks involving representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthis were expected to resume on Thursday in Geneva. But the Houthi delegation did not show up on the day, alleging a lack of means of transportation to reach Geneva and accusing the UN of failing to meet their conditions. Friday’s meetings were canceled. According to Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani, differences among the Houthi leadership explain their absence so far.
These talks, during which the high-level delegations of the warring parties were not expected to sit in the same room, are better described as an attempt to test the waters rather than peace negotiations. The consensus is that for now, the aggravated status of the tragic conflict does not allow for much more.
To increase the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough, the scope of the peace process should widen to include the most complex issues and drivers of the conflict. Skeptics would say widening the scope of the talks and making them more inclusive, when trying to bring the two main parties to the table is already a challenge, would reduce the chances of reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Too many disagreeing voices, the argument goes, will only add more complexity to a problem that already looks like mission impossible. But without more ambition in the peace process, any agreements between the warring parties are unlikely to go beyond momentary pauses for humanitarian purposes, and the endless cycle of fighting will not be broken.
The conflict is not defined only by the Houthis versus the Yemeni government, and betting on these unreliable pauses to get the proper peace negotiations going has not worked so far. The present focus of the team led by the capable Martin Griffiths, the UN special representative for Yemen, is on confidence-building measures that can translate into specific opportunities to mitigate the human cost of the war.
A few matters seem to be on top of the list: Potential prisoner exchanges, a resumption of flights into Sanaa and, most relevant, the status of Hodeidah port, the entry point for the great majority of supplies of food, medical aid and fuel to the more populous north of the country. Hodeidah is held by the Houthis, and after a pause in the fighting, it is again under attack by the Yemeni Army.
A deal on Hodeidah, which would see the Houthis hand over the port to an international administration and withdraw their forces from the city, wound be ground-breaking and could have significant ripple effects. The chances of it happening, however, look slim to none without discussions on broader issues.
Since 2014, when the conflict began, the Houthis looked to expand their geographical reach and saw Hodeidah as a coveted prize. The group’s leadership rejected the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference and its six-region federation, and highlighted access to the sea and distribution of natural resources as major concerns.
The possibility of a Hezbollah replica in Yemen with ballistic missile capabilities is naturally seen as an absolute red line.
The creation of a national unity government would be a difficult but natural place to start. Guaranteeing relevant seats for the main warring factions, especially the internationally recognized government and the Houthis, would be inevitable. But this process cannot be focused only on satisfying the desires of the two main parties to the conflict, which are themselves fragmented. Other groups, such as factions within the General People’s Congress, should be included.
The same applies to the reinvigorated southern separatist movement, now called the Southern Transitional Council, which was formed in May 2017 and is headed by Aidarus Al-Zubaidi, former governor of Aden. Plus, a major priority should be to appoint capable technocrats to key posts to guarantee basic governance levels.
Deeply interlinked with wider participation in the process is the need to revive plans for a federal Yemen. This is the only mechanism that can address the root causes of the conflict, including fair representation for all major factions, distribution and access to resources, and other critical matters such as the southern question.
Then there is the regional dimension and Iran’s role in the conflict. The very nature of the Houthi militia — including ideology, rhetoric, tactics and history — all point to evident and strong links to Iran and its allies in the so-called axis of resistance, namely Hezbollah.
The public meeting between Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and Houthi representatives just two weeks before the scheduled Geneva talks was yet another evident signal of close alignment between the two like-minded militias.
Downplaying the importance of the close Iran-Houthi ties has come at a cost. From Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the possibility of a Hezbollah replica in Yemen with ballistic missile capabilities is naturally seen as an absolute red line.
The Saudi-led intervention against the Houthis did not trigger the conflict, but it is undeniably a critical dimension of it. Without fundamental guarantees that address this critical security concern of the Gulf states, a solution will continue to be far away.
In early August, UN experts revealed that Iran could be willing to play a “constructive role” in efforts to end the war in Yemen. However, the only role all relevant parties to the conflict bar the Houthis would allow Iran to play would be to stop its support to the militia — in the form of weapons, cash, missile parts and drones — and call on Hezbollah to do the same.
Influential outside players, including Russia, could and should do more to exert real pressure, with associated incentives and penalties for non-compliance. With too many crises at home and in the region dispersing the attention of global powers, Yemen’s tragedy will not get the attention it warrants.
Manuel Almeida, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research focuses on social contract in the Arab state and its impact on governance and sustainable development. He is also partner at Firma, covering emerging markets and geopolitical risk. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida