The Only Way to End the War in Yemen

Saudi Arabia Must Move First

By Jeffrey Feltman
A fighter jumps off a truck on the road between Sana'a and Marib in Yemen, June 25, 2012
A fighter jumps off a truck on the road between Sana'a and Marib in Yemen, June 25, 2012

The war in Yemen has been a disaster for U.S. interests, for Saudi interests, and above all for the Yemeni people. It has sparked the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe: tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and 14 million people are at risk of starvation. It has been a strategic blunder as well, producing the exact results the Saudi-led military campaign was designed to prevent. The Houthis are more militarily sophisticated and better able to strike beyond Yemen’s borders than they were at the start of the war; Iranian influence has expanded; and the relationship between the Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has only deepened. Although the United Arab Emirates has waged an effective battle against al Qaeda in Yemen, terrorism remains a grave threat.

For three and a half years, Saudi Arabia has insisted, with diminishing credibility, that military victory was imminent; and for just as long, the United States and other powers have largely turned a blind eye to the intervention’s consequences. But the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s reckless conduct—including its disastrous war in Yemen.

However belatedly, in October 2018, Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, and James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, both called for an end to the fighting and publicly expressed support for peace talks proposed by the United Nations. But to bring a complex war such as Yemen’s to a cease-fire through talks will take time, during which the country’s agony and the strategic crisis in the Gulf will only deepen.

There is only one expeditious way for Saudi Arabia to end this counterproductive war, and that is to stop its military campaign unilaterally and challenge the Houthis to respond in kind. Doing so will not end all of the fighting inside Yemen. But it will create the conditions necessary for peace talks to gain traction and for Yemeni leaders, supported by regional and international partners, to address the country’s domestic troubles and the growing influence of Iran. The United States should lead an alliance of powers in pushing Saudi Arabia to move first, rather than letting it drag out talks as the war rages on.

Charged with the difficult task of getting meaningful peace talks off the ground, Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen since February 2018, has focused his efforts on several fronts at once. He seeks to secure humanitarian access to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, through which more than 70 percent of Yemen’s imports flow. At the same time, Griffiths is seeking to persuade the Saudi-led coalition to refrain from air strikes in response to Houthi restraint from cross-border missile and rocket attacks. The envoy is working to build confidence on both sides through steps such as prisoner exchanges, and he is leading political talks addressing transitional arrangements and the threat of southern secession.

Griffiths’ approach seems sensible. Leaders on both sides can more easily accept (and the UN can more easily monitor) a quid pro quo cessation of Houthi missile strikes and Saudi air strikes than a comprehensive cease-fire. Griffiths is wise to begin political discussions without waiting for a cessation of hostilities or an answer to the “who goes first” question. Further, he has set forward his agenda for Yemen at exactly the moment the United States was most receptive. He seems to have won support from Trump administration officials during his recent consultations in Washington, including one with Mattis just days before the secretary of defense announced his support for peace talks at the Manama Dialogue, an annual high-profile security forum in Bahrain, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But the problem with Griffiths’ step-by-step negotiation strategy is that it will take too long. In Yemen, a catastrophic war drags on, and nearly half the population faces a potential famine. This is no time for bickering, yet bickering is precisely what Griffiths’ process is likely to invite. That is in part because any of the belligerents could hold the negotiations hostage to unreasonable demands; and attempts to negotiate a cease-fire could easily get tangled up with the question of transitional leadership.

Unpopular and in poor health, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen, is widely considered dispensable. He knows that his patrons—Saudi Arabia and the United States—would happily trade him for a solution to the conflict, and this knowledge makes him a difficult and paranoid negotiator. But replacing Hadi will be complicated. His vice president, General Ali Mohsen, is hated by the Houthis for his role in the brutal wars against them from 2004 to 2009 and distrusted by the Emiratis for being a member of Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood party. Without an obvious candidate for transitional leadership who could win support of a broad spectrum of Yemenis and their outside patrons, conditioning a cease-fire on a succession agreement prolongs the fighting.

Unilaterally ending its military campaign would serve Riyadh’s interests as much as it would everyone else’s. Not only would such a halt stanch the bloodshed in Yemen, it could slow or stop the slide in Saudi Arabia’s global reputation. If Saudi Arabia waits to end the conflict through talks aimed at a cease-fire, the Houthis may decide that the kingdom loses more in a continuation of hostilities than they do. The Houthis could gain the upper hand in negotiations and hold them hostage by making unreasonable demands on the Saudis.   

Yet the Saudis do not seem to be moving in this direction. They answered the calls for peace from Pompeo and Mattis with more air strikes. The Trump administration’s November cessation of midair refueling of Saudi-coalition flights does not seem to have changed Saudi calculations. Clearly, the United States needs other means to persuade them. There have been frequent calls to suspend arms sales to Riyadh. But Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out that suspending the sale of military spare parts to Saudi Arabia would quickly ground the Saudi air force and be more effective. The U.S. Congress is currently willing to take punitive actions against Saudi Arabia, and the Trump administration can use this as leverage.

A unilateral Saudi cessation is risky. The Houthis—who sparked the war with their military takeover in 2014—would undoubtedly exploit it to trumpet the victory of their “resistance” against the greater firepower unleashed against them. And there is a chance this could be construed as a victory for Iran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates exaggerated the degree of Iranian influence on the Houthis at the beginning of the war as part of their justification for intervening. But today, even though the Houthis are still not quite a subsidiary of Iran in the same way as, say, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranian influence in Yemen has grown significantly.

The threat of expanding Iranian influence is not a reason to delay a cease-fire, however. While ending the war unilaterally and focusing on UN-sponsored political talks will not eliminate Iranian influence, such steps could halt its expansion. A drawn-out war in Yemen, on the other hand, will only produce the same result as the wars in Iraq and Lebanon: a permanently entrenched Iranian presence that operates through military proxies and is eventually able to direct domestic policy.

A Saudi cease-fire is not a panacea. There is no guarantee that the Houthis would respond by agreeing to share power with Saudi-backed Yemeni leaders or that the south would stop trying to secede. Lower-level domestic fighting would likely continue, even if the Saudi-Houthi war ends. But Saudi Arabia stands to benefit from ceasing its military operations even if the Houthis respond by continuing to fire missiles across the border: the role reversal would be in the Saudis’ favor. The world would turn its attention to the Houthis as the aggressors and spoilers, and Saudi self-defense would be widely tolerated. 

Yemen’s war has deep roots in a politics laced with distrust. From 2004 until his ouster in November 2011, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, backed by Saudi Arabia, instigated multiple military campaigns against Ansar Allah, the Houthis’ political movement. Saleh promised quick victories but was repeatedly undercut by surprisingly strong Houthi resistance, foreshadowing the Saudis’ fate in the current war.

In 2011, the Houthis participated in popular protests against Saleh, convincing the Gulf Cooperation Council countries—concerned with maintaining stability—that he had to go. The GCC, with strong encouragement from the United States, helped nudge Saleh aside in favor of Hadi, his vice president at the time. Hadi took control of a transitional government that eventually morphed into the internationally recognized but virtually powerless one he leads today.

The UN convened a 2013–14 conference charged with ending the transition period and reaching agreements on elections and power sharing. The Houthis were wary participants, and since then it has become clear that the Houthi delegation either failed to negotiate in good faith or never had the support of its political leadership. In September 2014, the Houthis exploited the opportunity of popular demonstrations against fuel prices to seize power by force. In February 2015, they fully occupied Sanaa. Saleh, the Houthis’ former adversary, provided critical assistance in this effort. Probably nursing a grudge from having been pushed aside in favor of Hadi in 2011, Saleh infuriated his former Saudi patrons by aligning himself and armed forces loyal to him with the Houthis, whom he had demonized and fruitlessly pummeled, with Saudi help, for years. (Saleh, in turn, was killed by the Houthis in December 2017 when he tried to switch sides again and join the Saudi fight against the Houthis.)

The avowed purpose of the Saudi-led military campaign that began in March 2015 was to restore the internationally recognized, but now exiled, Hadi government to Sanaa. The United Kingdom and the United States pushed a resolution that provided cover to Saudi Arabia through the UN Security Council (Russia, presciently, abstained). Resolution 2216 demanded that the Houthis “immediately and unconditionally” withdraw their forces from all areas they had captured; relinquish arms seized from the state; and “cease all actions that are exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen.”

Resolution 2216 demanded something close to unconditional surrender from a movement that had repeatedly proven its military resilience. Rather than providing a formula for a negotiated end to the conflict, Resolution 2216 became an unhelpful litmus test in Saudi and Emirati hands: if a UN envoy, for example, did not sufficiently emphasize the terms of the resolution, the Saudis and Emiratis would darkly hint that he or she held Houthi sympathies. If an envoy did emphasize the terms of 2216, on the other hand, it would play into Houthi suspicions and provoke Houthi boycotts of UN meetings. If Saudi Arabia decides to endits military operations, the Security Council should pass a new resolution in support of that decision, which would provide Griffiths and his UN team with a more realistic mandate for talks.

After three and a half years, the Saudi-led coalition’s goals remain elusive, while conditions on the ground deteriorate: the humanitarian situation is worsening, disease is spreading, the Houthis are more entrenched than ever, and Iranian influence has grown. Yemen desperately needs good-faith negotiations on long-term political and security arrangements. Support from Pompeo and Mattis for UN-sponsored political talks is a welcome development.

But negotiations will not outpace the coming humanitarian calamity or distract the world from Saudi Arabia’s questionable conduct in this war. The security risks to Saudi Arabia from an increasingly sophisticated Hezbollah-like militia and growing Iranian military presence just across the Saudi border are clear and become more acute as the war continues. A unilateral Saudi cease-fire will save lives and could change the narrative of the war to focus on these very real threats. But Saudi Arabia is unlikely to make this move unless the United States demonstrates to it that continuing the war will come at a cost to the relationship between the two countries.

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