by Alireza Ahmadi
Despite meager progress in United Nations-led negotiations between the warring sides in Yemen, a cessation of hostilities, never mind a durable peace, is not likely to follow soon. After all, political barriers still stand. As Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury states, “What was agreed to in Sweden, then, does not constitute a major political breakthrough but, rather, ramped-up international pressure that is by no means guaranteed in the future, and a degree of pragmatism from the Yemeni parties and their international backers that may not last.”
A recent opinion piece from the Saudi ambassador to Yemen in The Wall Street Journal doubles down on the kingdom’s maximalist demands in the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia will not cease its military operations without something it can advertise as a military victory. Meanwhile, reports of bony faces and emaciated bodies as well as the specter of “the worst famine in 100 years” emphasize the imperative to act. Simply put, Yemen needs immediate relief, and the progress made in faraway Scandinavian hotels does not address the desperate urgency of the moment.
Thus far, the UN-facilitated talks have understandably focused on the people with the guns. After all, the negotiations are structured to achieve a halt of military violence that could then facilitate a legitimate political process. But the two sides represented in Stockholm are ill-equipped for that next phase. The Houthis, a political-military movement representing the Shia minority, have limited national legitimacy, and the Yemeni government has no actual base of support inside the country and is largely beholden to its foreign military backers. Experts have noted that the Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, has no practical legitimacy in Yemen, and press reports suggest that he is living under some form of “house arrest” in Saudi Arabia.
Eventually, success in military de-escalation is expected to give way to a negotiated process that could facilitate a political transition, the writing of a constitution, and the formation of an inclusive interim government. But as the famine threat becomes a terrifying reality and the UN-facilitated process gingerly takes “baby steps,” there is a growing imperative to employ some diplomatic creativity to alter the political realities around the conflict and pressure foreign influencers and hardliners in the warring sides. This can be achieved through amplifying the voices of the people of Yemen.
To that end, the political process needs to start now, in parallel with the military de-escalation talks. Leaders from the Zaidi Shia community, the tribal leadership, the southern secessionists, the different Salafi groups, civil society groups, women’s groups, NGOs. and other stakeholders need to be invited to hold national dialogue events to formulate the framework of a political path forward. Rather than hoping for military de-escalation to lead to political dialogue, dialogue among Yemeni parties needs to shift weight away from military means and change political realities underlying the effort to end hostilities.
Ideally, the UN special envoy would facilitate the talks. But since the dialogue’s legitimacy does not require an international mandate, any actor of high repute can volunteer to convene such a congress. It could be the high representative of the European Union or concerned governments who are not co-combatants such as Germany.
American and Saudi officials claim that pushing Riyadh to end its military campaign would hand Yemen over to Iran. To be clear, experts have repeatedly said that Iran’s aid to the Houthis is limited, that it does not determine the conflict’s dynamic, and that Iran’s influence over the Houthis is overstated. Iran, for its part, denies providing military support. In any case, a political process that shapes the governance structure of a post-conflict Yemen is the best possible way to alleviate American and Saudi concerns.
The central disagreement that has stymied the UN-facilitated talks still remains. The pro-Saudi government insists that the Houthis abide by the Saudi-championed UN Security Council resolution 2216 and withdraw from the areas they have captured and effectively disarm before the political marginalization of their Zaidi Shia community is addressed. The partisan orientation of the Security Council resolution, which provides the mandate for the UN special envoy for Yemen, has actually complicated the task of reaching peace in Yemen. As Salisbury states, in an assessment for the International Crisis Group, “[t]he fact that this resolution continues to frame the mainstream debate allows the government to approach negotiations as if it were deciding the terms of a Houthi surrender.”
The Houthis are not interested in complying. In 2012, the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, led by Saudi Arabia, promised to set up an inclusive Yemeni government in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolt that toppled autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, the Saudi-backed Hadi government that came to power sought to marginalize and weaken the Zaidi community with a local government administrative regime that blatantly attempted to divide areas under its control into separate regions. This drew the Houthi military response that the Saudi-led coalition has unsuccessfully sought to roll back. A national dialogue that could initiate dialog between the Zaidi and other major groups as well as produce a framework for future governance can also nurture confidence in that community.
This will certainly not be simple. The Saudis might oppose such a scheme because it might generate pressure on their military operations. But the Saudi standing in the world has deteriorated in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, so that would likely complicate efforts to thwart a dialogue. Making political progress, once the parties are convened, will also be arduous. There are few successful models to be followed. But any progress in formulating a framework for political reconciliation can have a profound moral effect by shifting the focus to the Yemeni people, their hopes and aspirations, rather than fixating on the tactical interests of Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen, a president with no constituency, and geopolitically ambitious royals from afar.
Alireza Ahmadi is a researcher and analyst focused on U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Hill, and Al-Monitor. @AliAhmadi_Iran