Yemen: Reasons for (Cautious) Optimism

UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths (UN photo by Manuel Elias)

by Derek Davison

For those who have been horrified by the humanitarian catastrophe that has been Yemen’s civil war, last week brought two welcome and long-overdue developments that could signify that this conflict is turning a corner. However, neither can be considered definitive. Indeed, only one promises to have any immediate impact on the war, and how much of an impact it will have still very much remains to be seen.

Progress in Sweden

When a Houthi delegation arrived in Rimbo, Sweden, on December 4 for a new round of peace talks with representatives of the Yemeni government, the development was treated with both surprise and skepticism.

Simply getting the Houthis to show up was something of a diplomatic coup. The last time United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths attempted to organize Yemen peace talks—in September—was a complete failure. The Houthis, claiming that they’d been denied guarantees of safe passage and insisting that the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government allow them to evacuate their wounded to Oman for treatment, simply refused to attend.

Prior to this attempt at talks, Griffiths convinced the Saudis—perhaps chastened by the ongoing Jamal Khashoggi scandal—to allow the medical evacuation, and Griffiths himself accompanied the Houthis to Rimbo as their guarantee of safe passage. So that ensured that this round of talks would be more successful than the previous one. Still, multiple past attempts at negotiations between the rebels and the Yemeni government had failed to reach any kind of accord. Would this round be any different?

As it turns out, it would. Perhaps in part due to U.S. pressure on the Saudis, the two sides left Rimbo on Thursday having made substantial progress on several fronts. They agreed on a major prisoner swap potentially involving more than 15,000 people in total. They agreed to reopen Yemeni capital Sanaa’s airport under close international supervision. They agreed to create a “humanitarian corridor” into the city of Taiz, whose remaining civilian population has been mired in a devastating stalemate for over three years. Perhaps most importantly, they agreed to a ceasefire in the crucial Yemeni port city of Hudaydah, which will ensure that the flow of desperately needed humanitarian aid into Yemen will not be interrupted and will reopen the main road between Hudaydah and Sanaa to facilitate the distribution of that aid. Assuming, of course, that the ceasefire holds.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the U.S. and Iranian governments agreeing on anything these days, but both effusively praised the Hudaydah ceasefire as a positive step toward peace in Yemen. And yet it took less than a day for the ceasefire to begin falling apart, as residents of Hudaydah reported sporadic clashes between Houthi and pro-government forces in and around the city. The fighting reportedly left at least 12 people dead on both sides over the weekend, and was serious enough that the UN called the diplomatic equivalent of a do-over, announcing that the previously “immediate” ceasefire would instead begin on December 18.

The results in Rimbo were undoubtedly positive, but there is a wide gulf between agreeing in principle on peace efforts and actually implementing those agreements. Until those prisoners have been exchanged there remains the possibility that their release will be called off by either side. Sanaa’s airport may reopen, but it can always be shut down again. The humanitarian corridor being opened into Taiz can be shut. And until the combatants have physically withdrawn their fighters from Hudaydah, the potential for violence remains.

The war, in other words, continues despite these promising developments. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Salisbury told Al Jazeera that the agreement “is welcome news and a step in the right direction but the hard part starts now … Turning this agreement into a reality on the ground will be a slog and a lot could go wrong. With luck and a tonne of hard work, this can build into a peace process but the momentum hasn’t yet shifted from war to peace.” Salisbury has called for a UN Security Council resolution to support the ceasefire and its implementation, but previous efforts at drafting such a resolution have been opposed by the United States, which is backing the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-linked Houthis.

The Senate Sends a Message

As the humanitarian toll wracked up by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government has increased, U.S. support for that war effort has generated growing opposition in Congress. That opposition kicked into a higher gear after Saudi journalist Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, an act that the Saudi government eventually admitted had been carried out by its personnel.

That opposition reached an apex on Thursday, when the Senate voted 56-41 to adopt a resolution, co-authored by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT), that invoked the War Powers Act to force the Trump administration to stop assisting the Saudi-led coalition. Oxfam, which has been providing humanitarian assistance in Yemen, said it “welcomes” the vote:

Today, 56 senators are standing up against an historic ally to demand a political settlement and a resolution of the world’s largest and most deadly hunger emergency. With the vote, the Senate is stating clearly that it values the lives of Yemenis and American ideals over politics and profit.

The Senate vote did send a powerful signal that Congress has lost patience with the brutality of the Saudi war effort and perhaps, in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, with the U.S.-Saudi alliance in general. But it did not materially impact the Saudi war effort or U.S. support for that effort. In order for the War Powers resolution to take effect, it would need to pass the House of Representatives and be signed by President Donald Trump.

In the House, Republican leadership resorted to a parliamentary trick to dodge the resolution, attaching a rule to consideration of the farm bill, aka the “Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” that barred the House from taking up any Yemen-related legislation for the remainder of 2018. On Wednesday evening, five House Democrats joined 201 Republicans in passing the rule in order to move to a vote on the farm bill. So the War Powers resolution will have to wait until the next Congress meets in January to be considered in the House. With Democrats controlling the chamber, it’s likely to pass. But then it will once more have to pass the Senate, and with Republicans having gained two seats in November’s election, the resolution may struggle to meet the 60 vote procedural requirement to overcome a filibuster. At any rate, it is highly unlikely that Trump would sign any legislation that forces him to cut off support for the Saudis.

Too Late for Symbolic Victories

In fairness, it’s difficult to imagine any president signing a resolution that threatens to restore some of Congress’s traditional war-making powers at the expense of the presidency. And while the only impact Thursday’s vote will have will be symbolic one, if Congress were to make that vote the opening salvo in an effort to finally rein in the “imperial presidency,” its symbolism could be quite important.

Likewise, if the agreements reached in Rimbo really do come to fruition, they could be vital confidence-building measures in a sustained Yemeni peace process. But there’s a long way to go before those agreements can be considered truly successful.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni people continue to suffer. As the civil war wracking their country approaches the end of its fourth year, one Yemeni child is dying approximately every ten minutes, if not from a U.S.-made Saudi bomb then from the epidemic disease and starvation those bombs have induced. Some 11 million Yemeni children are estimated to be at risk. For them, the time for symbolic victories, for taking tentative steps toward peace, has long since passed.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

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  1. Thanks for the moral and humanitarian perspective by the author which is much needed instead of articles issued by false-named war or peace institutions.

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