Will US-led Negotiations in Yemen Be Successful?

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the United States will try to establish meaningful lines of communication with the Houthi rebels in hopes of bringing an end to the four-year war in Yemen. The report also states that the Trump Administration aims to urge Saudi Arabia to join the Houthis for the negotiations, which would likely be mediated by Oman.

Indeed, there are signs that the White House is more ready now than at any time since President Donald Trump took office to push Riyadh to take seriously a negotiated peace agreement with its Yemeni rivals. US officials have acknowledged the fact that the Saudi-led coalition is unlikely to change the status quo in Yemen by military means, especially since the United Arab Emirates scaled down its presence in the country. This is perhaps why Saudi Arabia’s Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister and younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is visiting Washington this week. He is scheduled to meet with several members of the Trump Administration about the situation in Yemen to discuss potential paths forward, and it is probable that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will raise the prospect of negotiations with the minister.

However, there are many contentious issues separating the disparate actors in the Yemen conflict; up to this point, the Trump Administration has been reluctant to expend significant capital to resolve the situation. More specifically, the administration has not pressured Riyadh in a serious way to enter negotiations. This begs the question: does the United States have any realistic chance of kick-starting substantive peace talks?

Issues Dividing the Yemeni Camps

The United States, or any other entity, will have difficulties at the outset trying to secure negotiations simply because of the sheer number of stakeholders in the conflict. Most notably, there are the Houthis who oppose the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and receive tactical support from Iran. Hadi’s main patrons are the Saudis and he also has the backing of the larger coalition aligned with Riyadh. There are separatist factions in what was formerly the independent South Yemen and, more recently, these groups have received support from Abu Dhabi and have pushed Hadi’s forces out of Aden. However, Hadi’s forces have over the last few days regrouped and retaken the city and surrounding areas, in effect ending the secessionist movement for the time being. Finally, there are numerous tribal leaders who would realistically need to be consulted if any countrywide peace agreement were to be reached and upheld.

The concerns driving these groups’ actions are equally complicated. The Houthis argue that they are fighting corruption and foreign intervention in Yemeni affairs. They also want a greater stake in government. Hadi and his supporters seek to regain the territorial integrity of a unified Yemen and, because he hails from the same Yemeni elite as former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, he wants that same group of longtime politicians to maintain power. The Saudis are—and have long been—skeptical of the Houthis and have repeatedly supported the central Yemeni government in its military campaigns against the Houthis and their Zaydi supporters. Even after four years of war, Riyadh appears unwilling to allow a government in Yemen to include strong representation by the Houthis.

Iran and the UAE could play spoilers to any potential peace process between the Houthis on one side and the Saudi-backed Hadi government on the other. Many believe that Iran’s influence on the Houthis has generally been overstated in the United States, but there is no disputing that Tehran has provided the tactical support needed to strike inside Saudi Arabia. Any negotiated settlement Iran finds disadvantageous could push it to meddle and undermine the process, thus keeping Yemen in chaos.

Abu Dhabi, for its part, once backed Riyadh and the Hadi government. When it became more apparent that Hadi’s forces and its supporting coalition were at a stalemate militarily, the UAE opted to abandon the larger project and pursue its narrower interests instead. For Abu Dhabi, little else is of import if it can secure a foothold in southern Yemen, especially in Aden. The coastal portion of the south is of economic interest to the Emiratis and they are invested in being aligned with whomever is in control of that territory. It remains to be seen how Hadi will deal with the UAE after his forces retook the south, but it is likely that he may simply stop at defeating the secessionists without ending the UAE’s hope in a friendly Yemeni state.

Is the United States Prepared to Mediate?

These competing desires would be overwhelming even for the most committed of mediators. However, for the entirety of the conflict—but even more since the inauguration of President Trump—the United States has been deferential to Saudi Arabia’s policies regarding Yemen. Further, it is unclear if the US administration, despite urging negotiations, is any more committed to exerting the political will to force Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the Yemeni actors to seriously pursue peace. It is also important to remember that President Trump is easily persuaded, and he revels in the idea of looking like a dealmaker. With that in mind, it is not difficult to imagine the president giving his blessing to a plan that appears to be substantive but realistically does little to resolve the conflict. If this happens and the president consents to a vague or symbolic agreement, it could actually cause both sides to believe he has affirmed their positions and ultimately entrench the warring parties and prolong the conflict.

Even worse, the current decision-makers in the Trump Administration perceive the conflict in black and white terms—as one between Saudi Arabia and its partners against the Houthis, who are viewed solely as a proxy for Iran. It is difficult to imagine the administration pushing Riyadh to make the necessary compromises if both sides regard any bargain as ceding influence to Tehran.

Washington’s past support for the Yemen war gives little reason to view the US administration as willing or prepared to exert substantial political capital to make sure that all sides take the negotiating process seriously. As of now, the conflict is extremely complex and the dearth of US leadership, as well as Washington’s unwillingness to challenge Saudi policy, only compound the problem. It is admirable that the United States now wants to do something, but observers are hard pressed to see anything substantive coming from this exercise.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Sens. Scott and Braun Meet with Netanyahu. Republican Senators Mike Braun (Indiana) and Rick Scott (Florida) recently concluded a trip by meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. They attended a number of security briefings on the threats Israel says it faces. The two affirmed their commitment to US-Israel relations and the security support that entails.

Congressional Leaders Oppose MIFTAH Delegation but Are Quiet on USIEA Trip. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama) recently penned an op-ed for a local Alabama newspaper outlining all the reasons he believes the United States should remain supportive of Israel. His message was prompted by a congressional trip to Israel that took place at the same time Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) were denied entrance to the state (though Tlaib was granted—but she subsequently declined—permission to enter the Israeli-controlled West Bank on “humanitarian” grounds).

Byrne and his peers traveled with an outside group called the US Israel Education Association (USIEA), one that “helps educate US Members of Congress about Israel by sponsoring and leading … experiential tours of Israel featuring Judea, Samaria, and the undivided city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” The group is often criticized for pushing a message held by the most right-wing elements in Israel that “Judea and Samaria”—the biblical nomenclature they often use for the West Bank—are part of a “Greater Israel” and will never be relinquished to a potential state of Palestine. USIEA also tries to legitimize illegal West Bank settlements by taking lawmakers to visit settler businesses. In short, the congressional delegation in which Byrne and his colleagues participated was extremely one-sided on the issue of occupation and Israeli control of the West Bank—an ironic situation, since this was similar to charges levied against Tlaib’s and Omar’s decision to attend a visit sponsored by the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy-MIFTAH.

Rep. Barr Sends Letter to Treasury on BDS. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Kentucky) tweeted this week that he and his colleagues have written a letter to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control seeking “an update on the federal government’s oversight of non-governmental organizations engaged in anti-Semitic hate against our allies in Israel.” The letter seeks information about nongovernmental organizations’ participation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Former Israeli Security Officials Applaud Congress for Two-State Solution Resolution. Twenty-five former members of Israel’s security apparatus penned a letter to members of Congress this week to thank them for a recent resolution that condemned BDS and reiterated US support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This letter is in response to another sent by Israeli members of the Knesset earlier this month that chastised those same US lawmakers for supporting a two-state solution.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Peace Proposal Could Come before Israeli Elections, Says Trump. President Trump flip-flopped once again this week on the timing of his release of the long-awaited “peace plan” his administration has crafted for solving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Most recently he said that the plan would be withheld until after Israel’s September 17 elections, though he conceded that some parts could be made public. This week, however, Trump told reporters he may release the plan ahead of the elections, although Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt confirmed that the administration will not release the plan before next month’s Israeli elections.

France’s Macron Pushes for Trump-Rouhani Meeting in “Next Few Weeks.” At this week’s G-7 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron was working feverishly to lay the groundwork for a potential face-to-face meeting between President Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Both leaders sounded open to the idea, though they stressed that the timing and circumstances needed to be right. In Rouhani’s case, this meant that Washington would have to freeze its sanctions against Iran before any meeting, a precondition unlikely to be met under this administration. Nonetheless, Macron hopes a meeting could come to fruition in the “next few weeks” and some have already eyed the gathering of the UN General Assembly as a possible time.

2) Department of State and USAID

US Diplomat in Iraq Summoned over Israeli Strikes. According to a tweet by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, the US chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Baghdad was summoned in response to Israeli military strikes on Iran-supported militias in Iraq (though the State Department denied he was summoned). Unconfirmed Israeli strikes in Iraq have roiled the relationship between Washington and Baghdad. Domestic opposition to the US presence in Iraq is increasing as many understand that the US military under Central Command likely had at least foreknowledge of the Israeli plans to strike. Iraqis view Israel’s actions as an affront to their sovereignty and the United States as an abettor to Israel’s violations.

Benjamin Netanyahu Meets with Mark Green, Speaks with Secretary Pompeo. This week Mark Green, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), was in Israel where he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Israel Katz. Green spoke to both about a recently signed memorandum of understanding between USAID and its Israeli counterpart MASHAV. Green and Netanyahu also spoke about threats in the region from Iran.

Later in the week, Netanyahu and Secretary of State Pompeo spoke about recent attacks Israel has carried out in Syria. The Israeli government has said the attacks there and in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq were meant to neutralize threats from Iranian missiles. Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have assured Israel that the administration supports its right to defend itself and its assets from any threats.

State Department Removes Listing of “Palestinian Territories” on Its Website. This week it was reported that the State Department has removed the “Palestinian Territories” from its list of countries under the purview of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. This decision seemingly breaks with the practices of the previous administration—though the State Department claimed the website is simply undergoing an update. A number of observers argued that it is just one more attempt by the current administration to “erase” Palestinians and their cause from US policy considerations.

3) Department of Defense

AFRICOM Commander, US Ambassador Meet with Libyan PM. On August 26, the commander for US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, and the newly confirmed US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, visited Tunis, Tunisia to discuss the situation in Libya. They met with Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the United Nations’ special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. In both cases, Townsend and Norland offered continued support for diplomatic processes to end the conflict in Libya.

III. Other News of Note

Iran Sanctions FDD, Dubowitz. This week, Iran formally levied sanctions against the influential think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and its CEO Mark Dubowitz. Tehran assailed the CEO and his organization for “heightening the impact of the US sanctions” on Iran. The FDD has advised the Trump Administration on its Iran policy and is influential among the more hawkish, largely conservative elements of the Washington foreign policy establishment. It is so well known that the State Department issued a statement in its defense, warning Tehran against threatening the think tank and its chief executive.