Yemen in 2018: Beyond the Brink

Yemen in 2018: Beyond the Brink

The Sana’a Center Editorial

Yemen is no longer “on the brink” of catastrophe. Rather, it has already been pushed into the abyss and therein continues to fall. After four years of war, Yemen has suffered the destruction of its infrastructure, economy, social fabric, and much more. Yemenis are a nation traumatized by human loss and starvation. In the past year, photos of malnourished children have become synonymous with Yemen worldwide. Yet, as much as it deserved the media attention, the story of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at times concealed the fact that this is not a natural disaster that has befallen Yemen. It is an accumulation of political conflicts within the country, exacerbated by reckless regional interference backed by the world’s Western powers.

Aid organizations are now preparing for another year of humanitarian suffering. The United Nations has announced plans to raise funds amounting to $US4 billion – a third more than last year’s appeal for roughly US$3 billion – with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates funding about a third of the appeal. However, humanitarian organizations are reaching their capacity limits, while the immense looting and confiscation of humanitarian supplies in which belligerent parties are engaged – the Houthi forces far more than any – means aid itself is at times helping to finance the war instead of reaching those in need. Neither the coalition powers nor the Western countries backing them should therefore content themselves with pouring aid into Yemen. Yemen desperately needs political decisions to be made.

At a closer look, developments last year demonstrated clearly that the crisis in Yemen is political at its core, and that’s how it needs to be addressed. It was new geopolitical dynamics that encouraged decisions to contain Yemen’s downward spiral toward the end of 2018 – even if decisions came late, unexpectedly, and at times resulted from events that on face value had little relation to the Yemen conflict.

At the epicenter of the conflict and its shifting dynamics were the city of Hudaydah and the nearby ports – the last access Houthi forces have left to the Red Sea. These ports are also the entry point for most of the basic commodities feeding a nation descending into mass famine. For some two years the Saudi-led military coalition has been pushing for a military campaign to take Hudaydah. However, international concern – that cargo shipments would be interrupted and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe – has been intense, and the coalition was waiting for a green light from its main backers, the United States and the United Kingdom, to pursue the offensive. Near the midpoint of 2018, Washington gave what amounted to a “yellow light”, according to a US government official who spoke with the Sana’a Center at the time.

The strategic and military preparations for the campaign changed the calculations of various groups in the anti-Houthi coalition. For instance, the UAE had for the past several years built proxy militias in areas the Yemeni government is meant to control, with these militias often challenging the government’s authority and some seeking to partition the country. In 2018, however, unity among anti-Houthi ground forces was seen as paramount for the battle for Hudaydah. With UAE prompting, these disparate groups closed ranks and put differences aside for the military campaign. Symbolic of this were the visits to Abu Dhabi by Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Islah party leaders in 2018.

Through the latter half of 2018, the coalition’s efforts to drive the Houthis from Hudaydah progressed slowly and effectively stalled at the southern edge of the city, threatening to become a battle of attrition. Simultaneously, international pressure was building on Saudi Arabia – pressure that was then key to facilitating the UN-led peace consultations in Sweden and the Stockholm Agreement that halted the battle for Hudaydah. It was, however, not the possible starvation of millions of Yemenis that created the international momentum for peace consultations and a ceasefire. Rather, it was the media spectacle around the murder of one man, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at his country’s consulate in Istanbul that provoked international outcry and prompted Washington and London to force Riyadh’s hand. Many Western leaders had been growing increasingly uncomfortable over reckless Saudi foreign policy and were embarrassed by reports of war crimes in Yemen committed by their ally, including bombing buses full of school children and siege tactics that have helped push the country toward mass starvation. However, while Western countries, above all the US and the UK, had enabled the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, they had no hand in Khashoggi’s murder, which allowed for an opportunity to criticize Riyadh while claiming the moral high ground.

The Stockholm Agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council, came about thanks to international pressure, Saudi influence over the Yemeni government and the belligerent parties each wanting to avoid blame for the peace process’ failure. At the same time both sides were hoping to gain an advantage. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths secured the warring parties’ commitments not through compromise, but by watering down the language in the deal to the point that what the parties actually committed to is widely up to their own discretion. In the short time it has been since the talks, it is apparent the parties are interpreting their commitments quite differently. Neither regarded the talks as a stepping stone to a greater accord, but rather a localized accommodation.

President Hadi – technically still a ‘transitional president’ who was meant to leave office in 2014 – also knows his exit from power is almost assured if and when a peace deal is signed. Hadi’s choice to send a delegation to Sweden was, however, not his to make, given that he is beholden to his Saudi patrons. Indeed, Hadi has attempted to govern his country from Riyadh since 2015. The armed Houthi movement likewise attended the talks under duress. Their leadership is keenly aware that the greatest “victory” they could possibly achieve at this point is to survive. The pummeling Houthi forces have been sustaining on the battlefield has left them smarting and looking for a way to ease the pressure.

There is, however, little to no chance that the Houthis will cede a military defeat to their opponents. And while they have been militarily pressured, in the territories they control they have acted increasingly paranoid and continued to craft their own police state: persecuting minorities, staging show trials and executions, banning civil society groups and launching arrest campaigns to purge undesirables – such as free-thinking journalists, human rights advocates and others – institutionalizing the extortion of businesses, workers and aid organizations, conscripting children into combat roles, and propagating religious zealotry upon the masses. Before the Houthis took over, there was more than 20 daily and weekly independent newspapers publishing from Sana’a. Today, there are only Houthi publications. Meanwhile, the ongoing war also pushed them closer to Tehran, which is ironic given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched their military intervention in Yemen to prevent what they saw as Iranian encroachment in their backyard.     

Thus, the war has become increasingly complex as it has proceeded, entrenching the clout of warlords and armed groups as it goes and advancing the country’s fragmentation. This trend is likely to continue in the absence of a broader settlement to end the conflict. The details of what a political settlement would look like remain elusive, but some of the parameters are clear.

That the UN-led consultations began only after the US and UK – Saudi Arabia’s primary military and political backers – made it incumbent on Riyadh to facilitate them is telling: a final peace agreement will almost certainly require continued US, UK and wider international pressure to keep Riyadh and other foreigner actors on course.

Economic recovery and price stabilization – such that the population can afford to feed itself – would be foundational for political and social stability. The rapid reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen – currently divided between competing headquarters on either side of the frontlines – would be the first step to contain the economic deterioration and bring back basic public services across the country. Saudi Arabia must also stop the mass expulsion of Yemeni expat workers it is currently undertaking, given that their remittances help support millions of family members in Yemen.  

Political and social stability would be fleeting while myriad armed actors continued to challenge the government’s authority, and thus reining them in would be a prerequisite for peace. In this respect, local instruments of mediation and negotiation should be favoured over UN textbook procedures. In practical terms, the UAE will need to desist from empowering secessionist groups in southern governorates and begin to decommission their armed wings. In the north it would require that Houthi forces withdraw from cities and hand over their heavy weapons to a third party. Indeed, all non-state actors in the country would need cede their military leverage, as the Yemeni state – whatever shape it eventually may take – must have a monopoly on the use of force.

None of these groups will agree to disarm unless they are reasonably assured that their long-standing grievances, which predate the war, would be addressed in the country’s post-conflict political arrangement. The planning of how the state is reconstructed will thus have to be an inclusive affair, though one that learns from the failures of the country’s 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that precipitated the current conflict.

Among these lessons: agreed-upon trust-building measures must be fully implemented prior to the talks. While international pressure must be brought to bear on all parties to reach an agreement and to limit spoilers, reaching this agreement must involve genuine compromises regarding points of contention. Diluting the commitments until the belligerents find them acceptably vague is the road back to war. Unconditional amnesty from prosecution for war crimes for any party is also a nonstarter. Rather, any transitional justice process must be conditional relative to the parties adhering to their commitments.

Most parties to the original NDC saw some form of federalization as necessary to address regional grievances – whatever final form this takes must be mutually agreed through negotiation. It will necessarily require revenue sharing arrangements between the various regions to allow basic public services to be delivered nationwide.   

The success of any political arrangement will depend on external factors as well. Yemen’s poverty is unfortunately likely to continue in the medium term, as will long-standing political rivalries between the various local stakeholders. These factors will leave Yemen susceptible to foreign influence and fertile ground for proxy confrontations between the region’s polarized power centers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran. Thus, similar to other countries around the Middle East and North Africa enduring civil strife, while relative peace and stability can be achieved in Yemen, it will remain under constant threat from outside factors in the absence of regional de-escalation. International stakeholders should recognize this, and see the opportunity that ending the Yemen conflict presents in this regard: an achievable localized outcome that has the potential to unlock far broader geopolitical shifts across the region.

 

This editorial appeared in Starvation, Diplomacy and Ruthless Friends: The Yemen Annual Review 2018.