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The Sana’a Center Editorial: Diplomacy May Pause the Fighting; It Cannot Impose the Peace

International stakeholders to the Yemen conflict have pursued a rush of diplomatic initiatives in recent months that are unprecedented in the war to date. Consensus among regional and international actors to achieve a cease-fire appears closer now than ever before – with the right efforts made to gain buy-in, this could help create a framework for talks among Yemeni parties focused on ending the ongoing war. Simultaneously, events in Yemen itself, specifically the ongoing battle for Marib, threaten to derail prospects for peace for years to come should the armed Houthi movement seize this northern stronghold of the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

Underlying the international moves of late have been the shifting dynamics between Washington, Riyadh and Tehran. Washington’s political and military support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervention in Yemen – during both the Obama and Trump administrations – has been instrumental in sustaining the protracted conflict, now in its seventh year. Also instrumental has been Iranian support for the armed Houthi movement – politically, strategically and militarily, with the latter in direct violation of UN arms sanctions.

It was largely Saudi fears that Iran would establish a foothold in Yemen through the Houthis that drove Riyadh to launch its military intervention in Yemen in 2015. At the time, the US backed the intervention in large part to limit Saudi opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Washington was then finalizing with Tehran to limit the latter’s nuclear program. While in the first years of the Yemen conflict the Houthi forces benefited domestically from their alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as the conflict escalated the group also sought more outside assistance from the sole sources willing to offer it – Tehran and its regional proxy forces. Over the subsequent years, Iranian assistance has helped Houthi forces attain increasing battlefield sophistication, gain the upper hand on Yemeni rivals, impose increasingly higher costs on Saudi Arabia and establish its unrivalled dominance across most of northern Yemen. For Tehran, supporting the Houthis began as a relatively low-cost, high-impact avenue by which to harass its arch-rival Saudi Arabia. As the Houthis’ position on the ground has strengthened, so too have Iranian interests and investments in the group.

It has become among the war’s tragic ironies that today, thanks to Saudi Arabia, the Houthis and Iran have never been closer. Meanwhile, Riyadh has become trapped in a military quagmire and is paying dearly in riches, reputation and clout. It has been clear for some time that the kingdom wants out of Yemen. And Washington, after the Trump administration tore up the Iran nuclear deal, has been left paying the cost of the deal – being a primary backer of an unwinnable war that has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe – without any of the payoffs the Obama administration had sought.

Among the factors driving the new international dynamics regarding the conflict is the about-turn in the US approach since the Biden administration took office. The new US president has explicitly called for an end to the Yemen war, appointed an envoy to lead this diplomatic charge and halted some US arms sales to Saudi Arabia – importantly, the latter comes after billions upon billions of dollars worth of previous US arms sales have left the kingdom already armed to the teeth. Also important to note is that neither the US, nor any of the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have yet brought forward a new framework for negotiations beyond Resolution 2216, which the US and United Kingdom pushed through the security council in 2015 to give international legitimacy to the Saudi-led intervention.

The fate of the Yemen conflict now appears to be increasingly linked with larger efforts toward regional deescalation. The US, Iran and other world powers met in Vienna in March and April for talks on bringing Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the JCPOA. In recent months, Oman has been hosting a flurry of diplomatic meetings, with representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia, the armed Houthi movement, Iran, the United Nations and others brushing shoulders in Muscat with increased frequency. In April, Baghdad then played host to a discreet meeting between Saudi and Iranian security officials, at which they discussed regional flashpoints between them, including Yemen. This was followed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman giving a television interview in which he said the kingdom sought to build a “positive relationship” with Iran. Officials from Oman, the UN, the US and others have also been gathering for talks in Riyadh in recent weeks. For Saudi Arabia, however, a precondition for any agreement to end the Yemen conflict is security along its southern border, particularly in the face of regular Houthi drone and missile attacks into the kingdom.

In any conceivable future, the Houthis’ ties with Tehran, with whom the group has exchanged ambassadors, will remain prized – which should worry every stakeholder who cares about peace in Yemen. As international dynamics have been realigning toward peace, Houthi forces on the ground in Yemen have continued to press an assault on Marib city. For the Yemeni government to maintain relevance in the country and in any future peace negotiations, it must not lose this stronghold. The dynamics at play among the various stakeholders inside and outside Yemen would change dramatically if the city falls into Houthi hands, with the prospects for a UN-mediated peace likely to vanish and not return for years. With Marib, the Houthis would consolidate control over northern Yemen, as well as oil and gas fields that could offer an economic base for a new Houthi state; the group’s leaders would feel little compulsion to make concessions. Rather, Houthi demands for ending their military conquest would likely grow astronomically and entail terms that neither Saudi Arabia nor any other Yemenis could stomach.

Even if the emerging international and domestic dynamics end up bringing the parties to the table, peace will continue to face many challenges. A durable cease-fire and post-conflict environment will depend on finding a stable balance among the domestic forces in Yemen, with regional and international actors providing mechanisms to guarantee the arrangement. The danger here, however, would be if international priorities came to dominate those of Yemenis; we have already seen how the results of such played out in Yemen’s post-2011 failed “transition process” – dubbed the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, aptly reflecting its priorities – that helped bring on current conflict. As well, hardliners within the Houthi movement will almost certainly push to keep an inordinate share of power during negotiations – which would be unacceptable to any other portion of Yemeni society – and seek to usurp any agreement the group’s more moderate and pragmatic negotiators might make. Similarly, divisions within the anti-Houthi coalition could easily undermine its side in the negotiations.

It would be dangerous for international actors to push for an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire prior to the basic prerequisites of a post-conflict state being agreed. Such an arrangement would create an incentive for armed groups that are currently reaping handsome profits from the populations under their control to maintain the status quo by obstructing a power-sharing deal. Rather than giving Yemen the best chance to find a path toward sustainable peace, a more likely scenario would be a relapse into war and a slow and final disintegration of the Yemeni state into warlord-run fiefdoms. Instead, a conditional, limited cease-fire, focused on freezing frontlines in place, should be sought to allow the opportunity for negotiations on the basic prerequisites of a post-conflict arrangement. This should entail identifying basic end goals for political power sharing, social equality and revenue sharing under a unified Republic of Yemen.

This editorial appeared in A Decade After the Uprising – The Yemen Review, March-April 2021.

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The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.