A Matter of Momentum: Challenges facing the UN’s New Envoy to Yemen
Peace negotiations in Yemen appear to have benefitted from the appointment in March 2018 of the British career diplomat, Martin Griffiths, to succeed Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Yemen. His dynamism and tact in dealing with the various parties to the conflict during his first trip to the country left a positive impression in political and diplomatic circles.
Given recent events in Yemen, therefore, what is the potential for Griffiths to achieve progress in reviving peace talks? What will be the major determinants of success in this considerable task? and what scenarios might the newly appointed UN diplomat’s mediatory efforts generate in this war-torn country?
The first tour
According to official statements, Griffiths established three core goals that would be fulfilled in consecutive phases:
- To focus current efforts on listening to, and engaging with, all parties in Yemen whilst also gathering timely information on the crisis.
- To work toward ending hostilities and resuming peace talks. Griffiths seeks a return to the ‘Kuwait phase’ of the peace process ‒ a goal his predecessor failed to achieve. He argues that a negotiated peace is still a viable option in Yemen, but this may only be established by ending hostilities across the country; withdrawing troops; relinquishing heavy arms and military positions; and forming an all-inclusive government.
- To pursue the peace-building process and resume the country’s democratic transition – a goal that Jamal Benomar pursued but failed to secure as UN Special Envoy. Griffiths concedes that this will be the most complicated phase; however, he maintains that the outcomes of Yemen’s national dialogue can serve this purpose.
During his first trip to Yemen, Griffiths sought to promote and implement the “Yemenis first” principle that he outlined in his initial briefing to the UN Security Council. As such, he launched his mediatory efforts on two parallel fronts – humanitarian and political.
The new envoy’s first trip to Yemen served to sustain hopes that the political process may be re-established after having stalled for nearly two years. According to informed diplomatic sources, Griffiths enjoys greater European and US support than his predecessor.
Nevertheless, his latest meetings in Yemen have not succeeded in deescalating the military situation. The Houthis have continued their ballistic missile attacks against targets deep inside Saudi Arabia, while intensified Arab Coalition air strikes led to the death of Saleh Al-Sammad, the president of both the political council of the Houthi movement and Yemen’s Supreme Political Council ‒ a development that is expected to have a significant impact on UN mediation efforts.
Determinants of success
The new UN envoy appears to have all the tools required to propel the political process toward a settlement. However, success on the path to peace in Yemen depends on a variety of conditions, and will likely rest on three major determinants:
- Attitudes of the warring parties toward renewed UN engagement. The Houthis appear to have benefited from Griffiths’ visit and the renewed UN engagement in Yemen, both of which signify implicit recognition of their de facto authority. This may help them further consolidate their power in the country following the death of their ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The new channel of communication with the UN may serve as an effective means to pressure Riyadh, and the Houthis may also be able to shake off their label as ‘rebels’ and acquire some legitimacy as actors in Yemen’s political equation. Therefore, Abdul Malik al-Houthi was quick to accept direct talks with Griffiths ‒ the first meeting of its kind since the war began. While the legitimate Yemeni government and the Arab coalition both welcome the UN’s renewed mediation efforts, they continue to insist on a formula based on a direct dialogue between the Houthis and the government. Unable to meet in Aden, the Southern Transitional Council secured UN recognition as a key actor in Yemen’s political scene following an successful meeting with Griffiths in Abu Dhabi. This was confirmed in his briefing to the UN Security Council, during which he stated that there would be no peace in Yemen without the involvement of the south and fair consideration of its demands.
- Domestic and regional events. According to the new UN envoy, there is an urgent need for creative solutions to insulate the peace process from the fallout of peripheral events. Thus, successful UN mediation will remain vulnerable to renewed hostilities, including:
- Renewed military confrontation between the Houthis and coalition-backed government forces following the Al-Hudaydah offensive.
- The potential for intensified Saudi military action owing to increased regional competition between Riyadh and Tehran in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. In such a scenario, Iran may retaliate by ramping up its presence in Yemen to further erode Saudi resources.
- Developing Yemen’s national dialogue and renewing the basis for conflict resolution. Griffiths promised to present the Security Council with a “framework” for conducting negotiations within two months. However, if it fails to consider the multi-faceted nature of the struggle in Yemen or to involve all key actors, its chances of success will be limited.
Given the prevailing conditions, this new attempt at mediation by the UN will likely develop in accordance with one of the following three basic scenarios:
Scenario 1: Invigorated negotiations. This scenario foresees no political role for the new UN envoy beyond listening to all parties, developing a basic understanding of the nature of the political crisis and trying to build the best formula for dialogue. In this case, Griffiths’ initiatives will likely remain focused on the political and humanitarian aspects of the conflict. The longevity and ultimate success of this scenario will depend on two factors: how long the crisis remains at its current level of intensity; and the political outcomes the UN envoy is able to secure during his meetings with the protagonists.
Scenario 2: A new round of talks. This foresees Griffiths’ success in ending the deadlock in the peace process and engendering a new appetite for negotiations. In this case, he would seek to achieve his second stated goal (to end hostilities, form an all-inclusive government and return to peace talks). This scenario presupposes that Griffiths has already succeeded ‒ where his predecessor failed ‒ in presenting a comprehensive new framework for negotiations that considers the entire Yemeni theatre. Moreover, the various political groups must be convinced of the need to resume political dialogue. This scenario will not necessarily lead to a final solution to the crisis; however, it would guarantee either a direct or indirect de-escalation of military operations. The UN envoy would continue to focus on political and humanitarian aspects in this scenario, but he would also attempt to turn his initial perceptions of the crisis into practical solutions for a compromise.
Scenario 3: Nominal UN engagement in the crisis. This scenario envisages a process of UN mediation that is limited to humanitarian aspects owing to Griffiths’ inability to grasp the complexities of the fluid military‒political situation in the country. UN engagement under this scenario ,therefore, would be less effective than in 2017.
UN mediation efforts in the short- to medium-term will likely blend elements of the first and third scenarios, and Griffiths will gain credibility should he make progress in the humanitarian domain and in building confidence among the parties; but whilst the significant momentum generated by his first trip to the country was encouraging, the situation now calls for an urgent transition from building initial perceptions to proposing opportunities for consensus that may form the grounds for negotiation.
Prevailing local and regional circumstances may yet threaten these mediation efforts ‒ renewed hostilities would marginalize the role of the UN envoy, while any large-scale military confrontation would necessarily lead to the collapse of mediation efforts, particularly if it were to create different political and military realities on the ground.
Nevertheless, the new approach to the crisis that Martin Griffiths will present in the next two months remains important, as this will ‒ to a great extent ‒ determine the success of his entire mission.