by Peter Salisbury
In September, the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, failed to bring the parties to the table in Geneva after last-minute wrangling. This time he hopes to have better success. The Houthis arrived in Sweden on December 4, with the internationally recognised government due to arrive the next day.
The talks in Sweden are preliminary consultations to set the stage for eventual negotiations. Griffiths hopes that the two sides will agree on some basic confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps, the reopening of Sanaa airport and perhaps an agreement to stabilize Hodeida, as well as a broad roadmap for future talks. The two Yemeni delegations – representatives of the Huthi Ansar Allah movement and of the government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi – are not scheduled to meet face-to-face on this occasion; instead, the UN will shuttle between them. But given that every round of talks has collapsed – the last meaningful negotiations took place in Kuwait more than two years ago – even these limited goals may prove to be a stretch.
Has anything happened since September to suggest talks in Sweden will make progress?
What has changed is that, over the past three months, the world has become more aware of the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen and of the need to stop it. Leaders in Europe and the U.S. have spoken out with greater clarity about the need to end the war. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul in early October, has bolstered the ranks of Congressmen trying to force a change in U.S. policy on Yemen, opening the war and the U.S.’s role in it to wider public debate. On November 29, the Senate voted by a 63-37 margin to advance a resolution that would require the Trump administration to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen.”
The Senate is also considering a second bill that aims to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – as much a rebuke to the Saudis for the Khashoggi killing as it is to Trump for giving the Saudis seemingly unconditional support – despite the Trump administration’s efforts to ward off any action that might damage U.S. relations with the kingdom. In the wake of the CIA director’s testimony before select members of Congress on 4 December on the Khashoggi murder and Saudi responsibility for it, resolve to end U.S. support for the war appears to be growing. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has become an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that he would work to build support for a bill aimed at cutting off military support for the Saudis’ war effort in Yemen in response to the killing.
In an attempt to preempt strong congressional action, the U.S. secretaries of defense and state, Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo, last month had called for a cessation of hostilities and for all parties to attend the Sweden talks. They subsequently announced an end to American in-air refueling of Saudi aircraft operating in Yemen. A number of European countries have halted arms sales to Riyadh in protest of the indiscriminate way in which it has been waging its air war in Yemen, and the UK has introduced a draft UN Security Council resolution to address Yemen’s downward humanitarian spiral. But the U.S. position may not have changed as much as its public rhetoric might suggest. While publicly calling for an end to the war, the Trump administration has been vocally supportive of Riyadh’s policy in Yemen and quietly maneuvering to block the draft UK resolution, suggesting that senior officials’ public statements of concern are less than genuine. In a November 20 statement, Trump wrote that Iran was directly responsible for the Yemen war, while Pompeo said on December 1 that “we intend to continue” military support for Riyadh.
What are the chances of success?
Griffiths might be able to fulfill his limited aim of getting the Houthis and Hadi to agree to confidence-building measures, sign up to a broader framework for negotiations with some tweaks, and schedule substantive peace talks in the near future. But unfortunately, the odds are high that the consultations will break down amid mutual recriminations, as has happened during all previous rounds.
Both sides are disinclined to compromise. The coalition and the Hadi government think that the tide has turned against the Houthis on the ground and are willing to wait to improve their position. The Houthis for their part are unlikely to demonstrate much flexibility, and view the current mood in Western capitals against Saudi Arabia as shifting in their favor. They might even see a battle for the port of Hodeida and the ensuing famine as a way of turning the narrative against the coalition and government, bolstering their bargaining position as Western governments ramp up the pressure to end the war.
Despite these negative dynamics, Griffiths nonetheless should use the meeting to try to build momentum behind his peace plan and line up more substantive talks for 2019. If he can get the parties to at least agree to confidence-building measures – and follow up on them in the weeks and months after the talks – then he will be able to credibly claim that the UN-led process has new relevance.
Most importantly, he needs to obtain an agreement on Hodeida that would spare it from a coalition-led offensive. The Houthis have said they are willing to hand the port over to the UN. Getting the Yemeni government – and by extension the coalition – to agree to this and then taking steps to demilitarize the city would be a major success.
What is the situation around Hodeida today and why is it so critical?
In the past three months, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led Yemeni forces have tightened the noose around Hodeida, cutting off the main road into the northern highlands where the majority of Yemen’s population resides. This leaves open only the road along the coast from Hodeida northward, lengthening the journey of critical supplies to millions of people. This further raises the cost of goods for people who are already poorer because they have not received their public sector salaries in months. Moreover, the main milling facility east of Hodeida is held by UAE-backed forces who have not permitted the UN to enter it, preventing the processing of grain. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has warned of “a great big famine” affecting 14 million people (half the country’s population) if the fighting does not stop immediately.
If fighting breaks out inside the port (let alone the city), the Houthis can be expected to dig in. Fighting and insecurity around the port inevitably would mean further disruption of the last remaining import supply line out of Hodeida. The result: a desperate, hungry population in the highlands could be pushed into outright starvation.
Why are UAE-led forces targeting Hodeida?
The UAE-led campaign for the Red Sea coast, which has been ongoing for almost two years, is an attempt to cut off the Houthis’ access to the sea and to customs revenues from the port. The UAE and Saudi Arabia believe that the loss of territory and a valuable revenue stream will force the rebels to make significant concessions. They may also hope to shift the moral burden for the humanitarian catastrophe to the Houthis: once the Saudi-led coalition controls the port, they say, any hindrance on humanitarian access will be due to the Houthis’ actions, not their own.
The UAE says its campaign is meant to force the Houthis to adopt a more realistic position at the negotiating table. But there are indications that it is intent on capturing Hodeida’s port regardless of the outcome of talks, and possibly the city as well, viewing such a seizure as a key, indispensable step in changing the Huthi’s outlook and the overall balance of power. UAE policymakers openly state that they expect the talks – which they claim are the Houthis’ “last chance” before they push toward Hodeida port – to fail.
The Houthis’ fourteen-year history of armed insurgency suggests that the coalition’s logic is flawed. If they lose Hodeida, the Houthis are unlikely to surrender. Nor would they be entirely dispossessed of revenue streams: they could levy taxes on trucks passing from Hodeida into the north west of Yemen. Finally, they will blame the coalition for the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue, given that it will be their decision to take the port (notwithstanding the Houthis’ agreement in principle to hand the port over to the UN) that would have caused it. They are confident that much of international public opinion will agree.
What impact might the talks have on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis?
For international actors, finding a way to end the conflict has become increasingly urgent. The war has caused what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than 22 million people, out of a population of 28 million, require some sort of assistance. Some 14 million are severely food insecure, living in what the UN calls “pre-famine” conditions. About 10,000 people contract cholera every week; there have been more than 1.2 million cases of the disease, and more than 2,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have already died of hunger and preventable diseases since the civil war evolved from an internal power struggle into an internationalized conflict in early 2015. Millions of Yemenis are one economic shock from starvation. But there is still a chance to prevent worse. The consultations in Sweden could be an important first step to that end.
What will be the main sticking points in this new attempt at talks?
The Houthis and the Hadi government will arrive in Sweden looking to advance their respective agendas. Getting them to align on even basic issues is likely to be difficult. A recent agreement on swapping prisoners was a good step forward, but had been the subject of UN-mediated and back-channel negotiation for months before these talks. Reopening Sanaa airport or coming to an accommodation on Hodeida is likely to be much harder work, as neither side will be inclined to give anything up to the other.
As the Hadi government sees it, it shouldn’t have to make any concession at all. It believes it should be restored to power under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis to lay down their arms and for Hadi – named as the “legitimate president” of Yemen – to return to the capital and oversee the completion of the transitional process that ran from 2012 until the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014. The 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. While the Hadi government has said it will allow the Houthis to participate in future governments in some capacity, it wants a future deal to affirm its legitimacy and sanction the Houthi “coup.”
The Houthis, meanwhile, describe their coup as a people’s revolution, and argue that the war they are fighting is not against the Hadi government but against the Saudis and Emiratis (as well as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). For this reason, they argue that the war began in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition entered the fray, not the preceding September when they took the capital by force. They frame the negotiations as an opportunity to stop Saudi-led “aggression” and argue that talks should be held between them and the Saudi government.
How are the Hadi government and the Huthis currently faring?
Although the Hadi government is presented as a major party to the conflict, in reality its position is relatively weak. Nominally, Hadi oversees a large array of groups, generally described as the National Army and National Resistance; in reality, the groups fighting the Houthis on the ground are deeply divided and often mutually antagonistic. Hadi doesn’t spend much time in Aden, the city that he named temporary capital in 2015, because many districts are controlled by UAE-backed fighters who have developed a rivalry with forces loyal to Hadi.
Hadi is currently in the U.S. for treatment of a heart condition, triggering speculation as to what might or should happen if he were incapacitated or died. Elections are not a possibility and the uncertain process of appointing of a new president would likely prompt a government reshuffle and a change in negotiating strategy; it could also trigger a new conflict among anti-Houthi groups. Southerners, for example, are unlikely to accept the authority of the current vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who under constitutional rules would take over from Hadi for a two-month period in the event that he died, because of his role in Yemen’s 1994 civil war over the south’s attempt at secession.
The Houthis themselves are not in a very strong position. After killing their erstwhile ally Saleh in December 2017, they swiftly consolidated their control over Yemen’s north-western provinces. But they are being squeezed economically and gradually losing territory. That said, they have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to sustain the destructive grind of what has become a war of attrition. They know that any future military gains by coalition-backed groups are likely to come at a high human cost that they can pin on the coalition and the Hadi government; they plan to maintain pressure on the coalition by attacking urban centres in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones and ballistic missiles.
So as we go into talks, the old maxim rings true: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
Peter Salisbury is a consultant for the International Crisis Group, where this article first appeared.