What’s new? A COVID-19 outbreak has injected new energy into diplomatic defforts to end Yemen’s regionalised civil war, now in its sixth year. But the parties remain stubbornly opposed to compromise and the UN’s two-party mediation framework no longer provides a realistic pathway to peace given the country’s political and military fragmentation.
Why does it matter? The war has killed more than 112,000 people and has left 24 million in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. The pandemic could further decimate a population lacking access to health care and particularly vulnerable due to malnutrition. The worst may be prevented if the war can be halted.
What should be done? The Yemeni government and Huthis should rightsize expectations regarding a political settlement and accept inclusion of other political and armed factions in UN-led negotiations. The UN Security Council should draft a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and inclusive settlement and table it if the parties stick to their positions.
After five years of war, the parties to the Yemen conflict face a stark choice: accept a ceasefire and an imperfect political settlement, particularly in light of fears of a growing COVID-19 outbreak, or continue a war that will produce more human suffering but no clear nationwide military victory for any group. A political settlement between the internationally recognised government and the Huthis – the de facto authorities in Sanaa – might once have been able to end the war and return the country to a political transition. But subsequent shifts in the military balance, political and territorial fragmentation, and heavy-handed regional intervention have changed peacemaking requirements. A more inclusive UN-brokered, multiparty settlement is needed, along with interim governance arrangements that avoid rapid recentralisation of power in Sanaa to the benefit of just one or two groups.
One of the biggest barriers to a settlement is an outdated international approach to ending the war. The government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi holds that any deal must build on the foundations of an April 2015 UN Security Council Resolution (2216) that it interprets as a form of legal summons for the Huthis to surrender, hand over heavy weapons and allow the government to return to rule Yemen from Sanaa. UN-brokered talks in Kuwait in 2016 produced a draft agreement built around Resolution 2216 that has become the framework for subsequent negotiations. The agreement would have led to a power-sharing arrangement that included a minority Huthi role in government and opened a pathway to national elections.
Much has changed since 2016. The Huthis have consolidated their control over the north west and are threatening the government’s last stronghold in the north – in Marib. They have become increasingly confident of their hold on power in Sanaa and now want a deal that bypasses the Hadi government and recognises de facto realities on the ground, which they believe favour their rule. Aware of its territorial weakness, the government has clung to its legal status and become increasingly resistant to any agreement that might provide its rivals with legitimacy.
Other shifts on the ground have further complicated matters. Yemen is now roughly divided into five cantons of political and military control: the Huthi-controlled northern highlands; government-aligned areas in Marib, al-Jawf, northern Hadramawt, al-Mahra, Shebwa, Abyan and Taiz city; the pro-separatist Southern Transition Council-dominated territories in Aden and its hinterland; districts along the Red Sea coast where the Joint Resistance Forces are the chief power; and coastal Hadramawt, where local authorities prevail. The war rages along multiple fronts, each with its own political dynamics and lines of command and control. Local groups, some of which are loosely in the government camp but in practice function independently, reject the idea that they may have to cede newfound autonomy to a recentralised government, as the UN’s Kuwait framework suggests and both the Hadi government and Huthis would like to happen, albeit under different rule. Absent their buy-in, a peace settlement will not be sustainable.
A successful political process will require two things. First, the parties will need to be persuaded that it is in their own interest to abandon maximalist demands. The military balance favours the Huthis, but not to the extent that the group might think. They appear to believe they can broker a deal to end the war directly with Riyadh, but they are fighting an array of adversaries who are unlikely to accept a settlement that does not protect their core interests or to honour one simply because Riyadh demands it.
An outright military victory for any party, including the Huthis, is highly unlikely. Moreover, the Hadi government, however weak, is still Yemen’s internationally recognised authority. For these reasons, the Huthis should accept that a UN-brokered deal will not simply transfer authority to them and convert territorial realities into international recognition of their rule. In turn, the government should accept that its demands for a return to power in Sanaa through an effective Huthi surrender are wholly unrealistic. For its part, Saudi Arabia will not be able to declare victory in Yemen as leaders in Riyadh may hope. Its demand that the Huthis decouple from Tehran may have to be a longer-term goal rather than a condition of a political settlement.
Secondly, Yemen’s political and territorial fragmentation demands a rethink of the negotiation framework and the substance of an achievable agreement. There is growing international and Yemeni consensus that the two-party settlement the UN has attempted to broker over the course of the war is unlikely to translate into lasting peace. It is increasingly clear that the UN must open talks up, at a minimum to ensure the buy-in of powerful groups such as the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which are capable of upending any settlement. The current approach also leaves out tribal groups, local authorities and a range of political parties, women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors whose support will be invaluable in sustaining an agreement.
The content of an agreement will need to address new realities and acknowledge past mistakes. Local groups prize autonomy won over the course of the war and will resist a rush to recentralise the state in Sanaa. Failure to address the social and economic grievances that sparked Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising, and contributed to the Huthis’ rise, would invite future instability and war.
All combatants can point to reasons for delaying a turn toward peace. The Huthis appear to believe that time is on their side. But the factors that have forced Saudi Arabia into a more conciliatory stance – financial pressures at home amplified by the COVID-19 fallout and collapsing oil income, and the desire to shed a war that has damaged the kingdom’s standing with Western allies – may not last. As the battle for Marib – reignited in early 2020 – shows, the Huthis face stiff local resistance with or without Saudi intervention. The Hadi government may be tempted to wait for a decisive shift in its favour, driven by Saudi support. But by resisting negotiations, it risks further erosion of its position on the ground and being labelled a spoiler by outside powers it depends on for its status as the recognised authority. Anti-Huthi groups that are not aligned with the government, such as the STC and Joint Resistance Forces, may see a longer conflict as an opportunity to create facts on the ground that improve their bargaining position. But doing so would mean gambling that regional support will continue – an uncertain wager, particularly during a pandemic.
At one time or another over the course of this war, each side has overestimated its ability to achieve maximalist aims, only to suffer major setbacks. Finding a mutually acceptable deal today will not lead to any party’s preferred settlement, but will almost certainly be better than what may be available after years more of conflict.