Yemen’s Critical Moment

Tim Lenderking, the American special envoy for Yemen, recently attended a meeting in Germany with representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Along with the United Nations’ special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, Lenderking stated that the purpose of the meeting was to express to the members of the UNSC that negotiations for peace in Yemen were at a critical stage that requires the assistance of the world’s big powers.

The new diplomatic initiative launched by the Biden Administration during its first week in office presents a unique opportunity for ending the war in Yemen. The situation on the ground as well as the regional balance of power, however, are in flux and present serious risks of escalation. It is crucial at this juncture for both the US and UN envoys to secure the full cooperation of all UNSC members in their effort to end the war in Yemen and to issue a new and binding resolution to that effect. It is equally critical for the two envoys to announce a plan of action that clarifies to the warring parties what steps should follow a comprehensive cease-fire.

Where Things Stand

With the meeting in Germany, Lenderking has now met with all the principal parties to the Yemen conflict: the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (though not directly with the forces it sponsors in Yemen, mainly the Southern Transitional Council, STC), and the Houthis. The meetings were held under the auspices of Oman, which fully oversaw the talks. Contacts with Iran were made via the UN envoy’s visit to Tehran and continue with messages exchanged through Omanis and others. UN envoy Griffiths reiterated the four points of the Joint Declaration to move the country toward a durable peace. He complained during his recent briefing to the UNSC that the parties to the conflict have yet to agree on the implementation of suggested ideas. He failed to specify where the gap was in how the principal players viewed the four points, which comprise “a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures and the resumption of a comprehensive, inclusive political process.”

The US entry into this mediation process must now make a difference precisely on closing that gap; otherwise, it will risk being folded into the fruitless cycle of negotiations undertaken by the UN envoy for the past three years. Bold action is needed.

Bridging the Gap

To prescribe an end to the Yemen war, one would do well to recall an old adage: if you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging!

To prescribe an end to the Yemen war, one would do well to recall an old adage: if you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging! It is understandable for international mediation to be focused on prisoner swaps and humanitarian aid to the millions of Yemenis trapped and starved by this war. However, no amount of foreign assistance will save the civilians of Yemen as long as the war continues. The priority should then rightly be achieving a comprehensive cease-fire to enable both the delivery of vital humanitarian assistance and the advancement of peace talks in a more conducive environment. But given the importance of the battle for Marib for both sides, it is imperative for mediators to identify the next steps toward the final goal so the warring parties will feel secure in ceasing hostilities and accepting a comprehensive cease-fire.

The Saudis have indicated full support for the American mediation effort and presented their initiative: a proposal for a full cease-fire, provided the Houthis commit to it, and the partial reopening of Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport—specifically to allow for the dozen or so fuel-laden ships at that port to unload their cargo for the fuel-starved north of the country.

In discussions with the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Houthis expressed their appreciation for Muscat’s mediation and made their own counter-proposals, though they are being deliberately vague in public about details. They continue to assert that the Saudi proposal presented nothing new and to demand the end of the siege fully and unconditionally. The Houthis consider the Saudis’ recent proposal to be too limited. The details discussed with the Houthis apparently included a mechanism to limit the flights in and out of Sanaa and to control what comes into Hodeidah port. From the Houthi perspective, the plan seems designed to be in line with the originally announced goal of the Saudi-led Arab coalition, i.e., to roll back the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and return the government of President Hadi to the nation’s capital.

Mutual Security

American mediation must be based on a comprehensive plan and a clear vision, even if notional at this point, to indicate a path from the current situation to ending the war. Before either side takes a bold first step, it must be reassured of next steps as well as the end-goal. To wit, Saudi Arabia needs to have a guarantee that rockets will no longer be fired across its borders from Yemen, and that Iranian military assets will not be deployed on that border by the Houthis or any future Yemen government. The Houthis need to know that a partial lifting of the siege will be administered by a neutral force and not by their current enemy, the government of President Hadi. From their point of view, the Hadi government will only represent one side in future comprehensive negotiations and that Hadi is not accepted, a priori, as the president of Yemen.

From the Houthis’ point of view, the Hadi government will only represent one side in future comprehensive negotiations and that Hadi is not accepted, a priori, as the president of Yemen.

The plan must specify further that follow-on steps will include a complete lifting of the siege and that regional and international powers will push for an all-inclusive government that would represent the interests of both the northern and southern regions of the country. A president and government would accordingly be decided after elections, organized and supervised by the United Nations. Additionally, and even at this early stage in the negotiations, some thought has to be given to what form a future government of Yemen might take. After initial agreement by all sides to the constitutional provisions of the National Dialogue Conference in 2014, the question of a federal structure in the country did not receive formal agreement. In addition, the decisions made by President Hadi at the time were not acceptable to either the southern Hirak movement or the Houthis an important stumbling block to avoid this time around.

International Intervention

Iran and the five permanent UNSC members have indicated their willingness to help, but none of them has come up with any concrete suggestions or interventions. It is time for the American envoy, jointly with his UN counterpart, to present a plan to fill the gaps between the opposing positions and to place the full weight of the United States and United Nations behind it.

UNSCR 2216 is now out of date and needs a fresh look. Issued in the immediate aftermath of the Arab coalition’s entry into the war against the Houthis, and fully seven months after the latter’s takeover of Sanaa in September of 2014, its provisions are inadequate in dealing with all that has transpired in more than six years since. The resolution condemned the coup and called for the return of President Hadi’s legitimacy (surprisingly, it misspelled his name as “Abdo Rabbo”) while ignoring the fact that his mandate had expired by then. To be sure, Hadi has a legitimate claim to the presidency by virtue of international recognition, but his own people have not had a chance to renew their trust in him because of the ongoing war. On the ground, his forces have been evicted from the north and kept at bay in the south by the STC and others. Their last holdout is Marib, currently under contestation by Houthi as well as tribal forces that fight for and against the Houthis. In effect, Hadi and his forces constitute only one of the warring parties and currently hold on to very little ground inside Yemen. The Houthis acquired Sanaa and its government institutions by force and have not been chosen in any legitimate elections; nevertheless, they control at least a quarter of the country and rule over roughly 80 percent of its population. The STC controls a sizeable portion of the south but shares power with several other leaders in the Tihama region, Hadramawt, and al-Mahra.

A new Security Council resolution is needed because a sense of urgency has to be injected into the peace process to get all the big powers to act; indeed, Yemen can wait no longer as millions of its people’s lives are at stake.

A new Security Council resolution is needed because a sense of urgency has to be injected into the peace process to get all the big powers to act; indeed, Yemen can wait no longer as millions of its people’s lives are at stake. Just as the war in 2015 was lent legitimacy via a Chapter VII resolution (based on the UN charter), the current peace effort deserves at least as much. The permanent members of the UNSC must be exhorted to stop fueling the war with arms sales and to join their diplomatic efforts to those of the UN and US envoys. Additionally, what is called for at this juncture is an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire, followed by a conference of the principal parties to the conflict to build the future of Yemen—socially, politically, and economically. The US and UN envoys can be empowered only with unanimous support from the UNSC.

Houthi and Saudi visions of peace are clearly not in tune and must be reconciled for the war to end. On the surface, both parties say they seek an end to violence and a national reconciliation among Yemenis, leading to a genuinely representative government. It is noteworthy that as early as 2016, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubair stated that in addition to restoring the legitimate government of Yemen and preventing the Houthi movement from taking over the country, Saudi goals include the provision that the Houthis be represented in a future Yemeni government.

Arms Imports

Yemenis have always maintained arms in their homes, obtained via a black market that has historically operated and will likely continue to do so after the war ends. What fuels the war, however—and what all sides legitimately worry about—are heavy weapons including rockets, tanks, and armored vehicles. Despite a strong siege around Yemen, Iran has managed to keep arming and training Houthi fighters. The re-export of arms—supplied by the West to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and then to armies and militias established, supplied, and trained by them inside Yemen—has also continued despite congressional objections and a halt to sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia by the Biden Administration. The members of the coalition have justified their actions as consistent with operating under the legitimacy of UN Security Council resolution 2216. It is uncertain if they are complying with re-export licenses, as ordained by American law. It is also questionable in all cases of the use of force by all sides in Yemen if the rules of war, and specifically the protection of civilian lives, are being observed.

The Urgent Promise of Diplomacy

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the worst it has ever been, and presents arguably the most ruinous humanitarian catastrophe the world has known in the past hundred years. With over half of the population of 30 million suffering from poverty, disease, and starvation, Yemenis are quite simply unsafe anywhere in their own country. The battle for Marib brings a new fluidity to the balance of power on the ground. After a few years of stalemate, recent battles raise the possibility of land changing sides, fueling hopes among factional leaders in the conflict that a military victory is once again possible. Such hopes can only lead to additional years of misery for the population. Meanwhile, continued chaos provides the space for more terrorism and random acts of violence, with renewed evidence of a resurgent Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Oman, the only Gulf Cooperation Council state not to get involved in the Arab coalition’s war in Yemen, is currently at the center of peace efforts and has again offered its good offices to local, regional, and international diplomats toward that end. Oman’s involvement is a sign of optimism. An Omani foreign ministry official told this author, during a pre-pandemic visit to Muscat, that his country does not normally take the initiative in peacemaking and does not present ready-made peace plans. Rather, the Omanis’ preferred stance is to respond to requests for mediation when it seems there is a genuine opportunity for peace. Indeed, the last time Oman was at the center of negotiations was in 2015 when former US Secretary of State John Kerry took an eleventh-hour stab at achieving peace in Yemen. Muscat once again sees an opportunity in the recently rejuvenated diplomatic efforts and is ready to engage. Meanwhile, reports of new Saudi-Iranian talks in Baghdad on April 9, against the backdrop of US-Iran negotiations in Vienna, raise the prospect of regional détente, the realization of which can only boost hopes for peace for Yemen.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.