It has become possible to hope that the Yemeni civil war, now in its fourth year, could make headway toward a negotiated end in 2019. What would need to happen?
Most wars have a clearly identifiable cause, but it may become obscured as the conflict wears on, draws in new actors, transforms realities on the ground and gives rise to a war economy. Yet original drivers must be addressed if the conflict is to be brought to a peaceful conclusion.
In the case of Yemen, the cause was a faltering political transition that came out of the 2011 popular uprising, and unresolved governance challenges that triggered mass protests in the first place. The war’s proximate cause, or trigger, was the takeover of Sanaa, the capital, by the Ansar Allah (Huthi) militia assisted by forces associated with the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2014; and the movement’s subsequent coup against the transitional government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Had, followed by an attempt to control the entire country through force. The war was internationalized by the entrance of a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition seeking to reverse the Huthi/Saleh forces’ gains.
The start of the war had an enabling environment as well. The Obama administration might have been an effective arbiter in the conflict, but its need to appease its Gulf allies – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as it was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran led it to back the 2015 Saudi-led campaign against the Huthis. It supported a deeply one-sided and unhelpful Security Council resolution, Resolution 2216, which rather than calling for a negotiated end to the war laid down terms that demanded the Huthis submit to a complete surrender.
What is more, for almost four years the U.S. provided significant military support to the Saudi-led coalition, under Obama trying but failing to bring the war to an end. In withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration ramped up its support of its Gulf allies, making common cause against Iran. Ending the war, and the humanitarian disaster it engendered, took second seat to confronting Iran and what it saw as an Iranian proxy, the Huthis; on one notable occasion it effectively blamed the war on Iran.
If the U.S. made the war’s escalation possible, only its willingness to create an environment conducive to political talks could help lower the flames. In late 2018, this became possible when the mood in Washington changed. This was due to two main factors. One was the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul at Saudi hands in early October, and the Saudi government’s public dissembling about its responsibility. The other was the cumulative impact of a spiralling humanitarian crisis that placed half the Yemeni population at imminent risk of famine, while thousands had already succumbed to hunger and disease.
Bipartisan action in U.S. Congress led the Trump administration to start putting the brakes on the Saudi-led war effort. In late 2018, this enabled UN-mediated direct talks between representatives of the Hadi government and the Huthis in Sweden. The fact that the sides were able to come together was a big step forward in itself; the points they agreed to suggested that substantive progress toward the conflict’s peaceful resolution was no longer inconceivable.
If the road toward peace in 2019 remains long, it is because in four years of war the country has been destroyed, its economy ruined and its starving people driven to exhaustion. More, the political landscape has fragmented to the point of threatening to vastly complicate implementation of a peace deal and reconstruction. Instead, an array of armed groups is likely to control individual localities in the absence of any central authority able to impose its writ. Yet there is no better alternative.
Steps toward ending the war must begin with de-escalatory measures that bring swift relief to the suffering population. First and foremost, fighting must be halted in and around the port city of Hodeida, a critical chokepoint through which 70 per cent of Yemen’s imports find their way from cargo ships to shops in the northwestern highlands, where the majority of the population resides. Fighting must cease as well in the city of Taiz, one of the war’s less visible but more destructive flashpoints. And both the coalition and the Huthis must end, respectively, air and missile attacks against populated areas. These steps combined could lay the ground for more sustained talks about a political transition, and about Yemen’s future.
Next, negotiations should lead to a deal that would turn the Huthis from a military to a primarily political actor – a position from which they began some fifteen years ago – and give them a meaningful role in an inclusive political transition. Such negotiations may require a return to the national dialogue effort that foundered in 2014. And they would need to take into account not only the concern of actors such as the Huthis that have long been fighting their home areas’ economic marginalisation, but many others as well: Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, Islah, civil society, and of course representatives of the south who seek viable autonomy (and are threatening secession). The question of Yemen’s state structure will be paramount, as will be the composition of a coalition government that could shepherd the country toward a more stable peace.
These challenges may exceed the capacities of what remains of the Yemeni state, which was already weakened by decades of autocratic rule. They certainly are not realistic for 2019 alone. But mere progress on key components during the coming year would lay the basis, and create a glimmer of hope, for a better future for Yemen and its despairing people.