Time to Rethink International Intervention in Yemen

Ten years ago, youth-led peaceful protests spread in Yemen demanding political reforms and the removal of the corrupt regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. March 2021 marked the sixth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in the country. Today, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Eighty percent of the population is in need of humanitarian or protection assistance and four million internally displaced people (IDPs) live under harsh conditions.

The many international interventions in reaction to the Arab Spring and beyond have inadvertently helped create conditions that led to the civil war in Yemen. With the aim of containing instability and preventing “state failure,” international actors provided ready-made blueprints for peace that focused on reconstructing the central government through macro-level power-sharing agreements. Ignoring local dynamics and failing to respond to emerging realities on the ground, these solutions have reinforced patterns of marginalization, empowered the corrupt national political elite, and rewarded violent actors. Recognizing past flaws in international approaches is key to ending the conflict in Yemen. At the very least, it could help stop the cycle of deterioration and mitigate humanitarian suffering.

The Arab Spring and the GCC Initiative

In 2011, the United States and the international community were alarmed as protests spread across the capital Sanaa and other cities in Yemen to demand the removal of the Saleh regime. Concerns were that the protests might further destabilize the country, already classified as a “fragile” and “failing” state years before. For two months, the Obama Administration limited its critique of the Yemeni regime. Only months later did it become clear that Saleh could not survive the revolts and that US interests were better served by a new government that could be reliable in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Months of shuttle diplomacy led by ambassadors of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union resulted in a transitional deal, commonly known as the GCC Initiative. It was signed in Riyadh by Saleh and the Islah-led opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). It outlined a two-year political transition process in which Saleh relinquished power to his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and a new government was set up with power divided between Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition. In a statement, President Barack Obama welcomed the signing of the GCC deal, describing it as a “historical transition.” Hadi was then elected in uncontested elections and became president in February 2012. Yemen then went through a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in which different Yemeni political factions and social groups discussed a roadmap for Yemen’s future that would lead to a referendum on a new constitution.

The GCC Initiative was highly ambitious but deeply flawed. While it provided a roadmap that looked good on paper, it overlooked the underlying causes of the conflict and assumed that Saleh and other signatories were genuinely interested in reform. Although most Yemeni actors, including youth and women, participated in the NDC, Saleh, Hadi, and the Islah-led opposition were more interested in settling scores and grabbing more power than in instituting political reforms. Although Saleh stepped down, the initiative granted him immunity and he maintained control over most of the armed forces, including the Republican Guard and Elite Forces which were the main recipients of US counterterrorism support and training since the early 2000s. Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to Yemen between 2011 and 2016, confessed1 in a recent interview on Al Jazeera TV that “There was no transition of power at all. Saleh’s party had control of half the government, predominantly in the parliament and local councils. Military restructuring was largely fraudulent and inadequate.” He added that granting immunity to Saleh and those who worked with him was one of the reasons that caused the war to break out.

Although Saleh stepped down, the GCC initiative granted him immunity and he maintained control over most of the armed forces, including the Republican Guard and Elite Forces which were the main recipients of US counterterrorism support and training since the early 2000s.

Soon the government was paralyzed as it became trapped in the power struggle between Saleh’s party and the opposition coalition, which now controlled half the government. Tension escalated and services and the security situation deteriorated as a result. Saleh still had sufficient military power and allied with the Houthi rebels, who started expanding militarily south of their stronghold of Saada since 2011. The Saleh-Houthi forces were able to capture Sanaa by force in September 2014, marking the end of the political transition and the beginning of a devastating civil war.

The Civil War and UN-led Mediation

To prevent further escalation, on September 21, 2014, UN Envoy Jamal Benomar negotiated the Peace and National Partnership Initiative (PNPA). Building on the outcome of the NDC, the PNPA outlined yet another transition process that includes forming a new “competency-based” government, increasing power-sharing by appointing advisors to President Hadi from the Houthis and the southern peaceful movement that preceded the current Southern Transitions Council (STC), and formulating detailed sequential steps to draft and administer a referendum on a new constitution. A “security annex” to the agreement outlined steps to de-escalate and resolve conflicts through negotiations. The agreement was signed by the Houthis, President Hadi, and leaders from the JMP coalition. It was welcomed by the UN Security Council, which considered the “commitment by all the key parties to cease hostilities and work together for a new democratic Yemen a positive step towards political stability and peace in the country”—never mind that Hadi and JMP leaders signed it at gunpoint.

The UNSC failed to describe the Houthis’ and Saleh’s incursion into Sanaa and the toppling of the government as a coup. In the following months, Houthi-Saleh forces pushed into other parts of Yemen, stormed President Hadi’s home and killed 11 of his bodyguards, and placed him and his entire cabinet under house arrest, prompting the resignation of Hadi and the cabinet in January 2015. Hadi escaped about a month later and relocated to Aden, where he announced the city as the interim capital of Yemen. Soon after, Houthi warplanes bombed the presidential palace in Aden, where Hadi resided, and their forces advanced inside the city, forcing him to flee the country to Saudi Arabia. On March 25, 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily based on a request from Hadi. The goal of the Saudi-led coalition, which was formed mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in addition to other Gulf and Arab countries, was to restore the government of President Hadi to power and reverse the Houthis’ coup. Three weeks later, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, placing Yemen under Chapter VII to restrict arms flow and sanctioning some spoilers. However, the international community failed to put an effective mechanism in place to enforce its own decree. It has also justified the Saudi-led military intervention without holding the coalition accountable for violating international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

On March 25, 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily based on a request from Hadi. The goal of the Saudi-led coalition was to restore the government of President Hadi to power and reverse the Houthis’ coup.

The Saudi-led coalition, mainly the Emiratis, managed to push the Houthis from most areas they occupied in the south and on the western coast of Yemen. But the divergent agendas of Saudi Arabia and the UAE fueled internal tensions among the different forces fighting the Houthis. In the south, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) and forces clashed with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and successfully drove it out of Aden in August 2019. In December 2020, a new government was formed and returned to Aden per the Riyadh Agreement, a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia to ease the tension between the STC and Hadi. Critical elements of the agreement—including the withdrawal of forces from Aden and the integration of those forces under Yemen’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense—remained unimplemented. Indeed, the government in Aden continues to be largely at the mercy of the STC and allied forces.

The Stockholm Agreement

Starting in August 2011, the United Nations appointed three special envoys to help resolve the conflict in Yemen. Since 2016, there have been four unsuccessful rounds of UN-led negotiations between delegations from the Yemeni government and the Houthis. Two rounds took place in Switzerland in June and December 2015 and a third in Kuwait between April and August 2016. The fourth round was held in Stockholm in December 2018, resulting in the Stockholm Agreement, which was brokered between the Hadi government and the Houthis. The agreement came as a result of months of political pressure on the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition to prevent Yemeni forces from advancing into the seaport of Hodeida, still under the control of Houthis; this was due to humanitarian concernsthat the destruction of the seaport could cause a major humanitarian disaster. The international community then celebrated the agreement as a significant diplomatic success toward peace in Yemen. The agreement demanded an immediate cease-fire in the ports of Hodeida, Salif, and Ras Isa; mutual redeployment of forces in Hodeida and ports under the supervision of a joint Redeployment Coordination Committee chaired by the UN; and the channeling of revenues from Yemen’s Central Bank in Hodeida to pay for government salaries in the city and throughout Yemen. Over two years later, the agreement remains largely unimplemented and intense sporadic clashes continue to take place.

While the United Nations and the international community were able to stop the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition from advancing into Hodeida, they did not exercise the same pressure on the Houthis.

While the United Nations and the international community were able to stop the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition from advancing into Hodeida, they did not exercise the same pressure on the Houthis. In May 2019, the Houthis staged a ploy, handing the three ports to themselves and thus making a mockery of the agreement and of UN intervention altogether. Major General Patrick Cammaert, the chairman of the Redeployment Committee, expressed his disappointment and stepped down three weeks later. The Houthis continued to target Yemeni forces in the Red Sea port city of Mocha, killing hundreds of soldiers. In April 2020, a Houthi sniper shot dead a government liaison officer, who was part of the cease-fire monitoring team, at a checkpoint in Hodeida. In a bold breach of the agreement, the Houthis withdrew 35 billion Yemeni riyals from Yemen’s Central Bank in Hodeida, funds that were supposed to cover government employees’ salaries.

The Stockholm Agreement has “normalized Houthi military gains,” as Ibrahim Jalal notes, at the expense of the Yemenis while failing to force the rebel group to make concessions. It has rewarded their violence and inadvertently enabled them to achieve more military gains. The agreement removed the military pressure on the Houthis in Hodeida, and they exploited the situation by repositioning their forces and making significant military gains east of Sanaa. They continue to escalate militarily while disregarding calls by the United Nations as well as by the United States and other western governments. In February 2021, they intensified military operations to capture the city of Marib, home to three million Yemenis including one million IDPs.

Diplomacy vs. Reality

Since mid-2020, UN Envoy Martin Griffiths devised a new initiative, the Joint Declaration (JD), whose purpose is to establish a nationwide cease-fire and prepare for peace talks. The JD was the basis of a current cease-fire proposal carried by Griffiths, the US envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking, and European leaders. The plan was rejected by the Houthis, who simultaneously continued to escalate their offensive to capture the city of Marib.

Since his appointment on February 5, 2021, Lenderking has made three visits to the region in coordination with Martin Griffiths. He met with Saudi and Gulf officials and Yemeni government and Houthi leaders in order to put pressure to “promote a lasting ceasefire and peace agreement in Yemen,” according to his statement.

The Houthis define the war in Yemen as one between them and Saudi Arabia. They consider themselves the only legitimate representatives of Yemenis.

Western diplomacy, however, is unlikely to succeed for several reasons. First, it has not built any leverage over the Houthis, who are determined to expand militarily and have so far failed to demonstrate any signs of a commitment to de-escalation, much less peace. The Houthis define the war in Yemen as one between them and Saudi Arabia. They consider themselves the only legitimate representatives of Yemenis, labeling the Yemeni government and all forces opposed to their hegemony as “Saudi mercenaries” and “ISIS.” International mediation might succeed in ending Saudi military intervention, but that will allow Houthis to expand militarily inside Yemen. In a recent interview, Marib’s Governor Sultan Al-Arada noted that the Houthis would easily take the city if air strikes stopped. This poses a moral dilemma to the international community, which so far has failed to protect civilians from Houthi violence.

Even under the unlikely scenario where Houthis agree to make concessions, negotiations would likely result in a political settlement between the Hadi government and the Houthis that would repeat past mistakes, when power-sharing among the political elite exacerbated conflicts. As Yemeni analyst Maysaa Shuja al-Deen states, “Every power share in Yemen led to a war”—a situation that has become a recurrence in Yemen, thanks to the international community.

Beyond elite bargains, the situation in Yemen has evolved a good deal over the past years, during which the goal has been to reinstate a national government in Sanaa or elsewhere in the country. This is a tall order. Yemen is currently divided into at least five cantons of political and military control with emerging political and armed actors, and most have animosity toward both the Hadi government and the Houthis. These actors could spoil any future agreement if it does not address their interests or grievances.

Stitching Yemen back together is yet another overly ambitious goal that is divorced from the reality on the ground. As Abdulghani al-Iryani explains, “centralization is what destroyed Yemen, not the lack of it,” noting that for 2,940 of 3,000 years of Yemen’s history of statehood, Yemen was a highly decentralized federated nation. A centralized form of government presented a new experience for Yemen, one that lasted for only a few decades and that never really worked. In some areas, the collapse of the central government has actually offered an opportunity for local authorities to provide better governance, compared to the situation before the war. For example, Marib went from being a remote underdeveloped area, where 50,000 locals lived, to become a metropolis and a beacon of stability. The international community needs to come to terms with this reality. A similar evolution happened in neighboring Shabwa. The stability achieved in the two governorates was not the result of central government support but a byproduct of its collapse.

Yemen was a highly decentralized federated nation. A centralized form of government presented a new experience for Yemen, one that lasted for only a few decades and that never really worked.

It is time for the international community to revisit its approach in Yemen. Unintended consequences of past interventions did more harm than good. Carrying on with the same mentality and tools will further destabilize the country and create more incentives for violence. The international community needs to look beyond elite bargains and think of ways to help Yemen realistically. Importantly, the current negotiations must expand to include more actors that have emerged during the past six years. In particular, civil society and local women’s groups should take part in the dialogue. In lieu of using their influence to push through a quick deal that will likely benefit the Houthis at the expense of the country, the United States and the international community should work to mitigate the impact the conflict has had on civilians and critical infrastructure by increasing development aid. To reverse the cycle of deterioration, the international community should try to stabilize the Yemeni currency, support the local economy, and strengthen governance and security, where possible, in a way that is consistent with the aspirations of the Yemeni people for a more secure, just, peaceful, and democratic Yemen.

Finally, as with any war, ending the one in Yemen might take a long time. The international community must be committed to engaging in Yemen for the long term in order to help create conditions for peace to materialize. Reflecting on and learning from past mistakes, coupled with drawing on a reserve of steadfastness and patience, are crucial elements that will help bring forth positive results.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a Yemeni conflict analyst and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute.

1 Source is in Arabic.