Negotiations Going Nowhere Fast in Yemen

by Adam Simpson

After seven months of an intense civil war, resulting in a rapid deterioration of the already fragile humanitarian crisis and over 5,400 casualties, the Yemeni government should be eager to pursue a negotiated settlement. Both Houthi rebels and their ally former president Ali Abdullah Saleh committed to a seven-point peace plan arranged under UN auspices in Oman, including UN Resolution 2216 championed by the Yemeni government and the Gulf-led coalition. However President Abdarabbo Mansour Hadi’s government appears characteristically schizophrenic on whether or not they are interested in the prospect of negotiations. Though American and British allies have done little beyond publically note their concern for the immense collateral damage meted out across Yemen, now more than ever action is needed for the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government to act in their own interests and earnestly commit to negotiating a settlement to end the conflict.

On October 17, Hadi’s government announced that it had been invited to attend new UN-led negotiations with Houthi rebels. Though the government eventually accepted the invitation, several members of Hadi’s government indicated that the government might refuse. Minister of Human Rights Ezz al-Din al-Asbahi affirmed that dialogue with the rebels was “pointless” without disarming them first, and Yassin Makawi, one Hadi’s advisors, told al-Sharq al-Awsat that the government would not agree to new negotiations without “guarantees” that UN Resolution 2216 would be implemented. After news came that Saleh and the Houthis had agreed on 2216, Hadi initially dismissed the news altogether as a “maneuver.” Though negotiations are desperately needed, the Hadi government and its Gulf allies have few tangible incentives to proceed in good faith. Animated by gains in Aden, Taiz, and Mareb, they may now believe that they have more to gain from continued conflict. In September, the Yemeni government cancelled negotiations in Oman hours before an offensive was launched in Mareb. Even now, Sudanese forces have landed in southern Yemen to reinforce coalition forces in Taiz while reports persist of airstrikes on Houthi positions in Sana’a.

The previous Geneva talks in June broke down for a number of reasons that remain obstacles today. First, both parties showed little interest in any compromise whatsoever. President Hadi’s delegation arrived to talks as Saudi bombs continued falling on Houthi strongholds, including the homes of Houthi leaders and their allies. The Houthis destroyed the house belonging to one of Hadi’s negotiators. They also showed up with a delegation larger than agreed upon and refused to even meet with the Hadi camp.

The Houthis and their allies believed that they had more to gain on the battlefield than they did at the negotiating table. But that calculus has changed–evidenced definitively by recently leaked emails from UN negotiator Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. During the Geneva negotiations, the Saudi campaign was limited to a destructive but ultimately ineffective air campaign and the battle for Aden had yet to be decided. On the horizon, with the injection of ground forces comprised of both local Yemenis as well as Emirati armor, lies a nightmarish conquest of Sana’a and northern Yemen where the Houthis and Saleh have more local support. The tide is now reversed: it is Hadi and his Gulf coalition that believe more can be won militarily.

The Saudi coalition relies on the logistical support and resupply of munitions from the United States and United Kingdom. It’s in the U.S. best interest, and in the best interest of its Gulf allies, to stop resupplying the Saudi campaign without credible commitments to a negotiated settlement. Congress is already, perhaps belatedly, scrutinizing the campaign and the material role that American support is playing. Thirteen members of Congress recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama, noting their concern over the campaign and reiterating UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for an end to the bombings. Senator Patrick Leahy also suggested that providing support to the coalition may violate a law he authored making it illegal to sell arms to countries that use them to commit human rights violations. The U.S. commitment to broader Gulf security is largely irreversible, but it does not extend to the campaign in Yemen.

The UK government is also enduring increased scrutiny from concerned parliamentarians and human rights monitors. Moreover, continued attacks against civilians, ongoing reports of blocking humanitarian aid from the US Navy, and the exploitation of the conflict by violent actors like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will prevent an uncritical long-term commitment to resupplying and supporting coalition bombers. Should the United States and United Kingdom decide to act on their legal commitments–both international and domestic–the coalition would be forced to more seriously examine the prospect of a negotiated solution. The Gulf coalition will remain swayed by military options so long as their allies continue to guarantee their stockpile and operational efficacy.

The US and UK commitments to Gulf and Yemeni security should include playing a role in guaranteeing the outcome of negotiations, but the Yemeni government must commit to such negotiations first. The predictable human and social costs of a military solution preclude any rational American or British support, and that’s a message that’s worth sending now as political negotiations appear viable yet again. But the coalition still appears determined to continue the war. If the Kingdom’s allies truly wish to change the coalition’s calculus, now is the time.

Photo: Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (courtesy of UNMEER/Simon Ruf via Flickr)

Adam Simpson is a project assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

[Editor’s Note: Fareed Zakaria presented a rare — albeit short — feature on the destruction wrought by the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen on his GPS program on CNN this past weekend.]

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