The United Nation envoy's efforts to revive chances for a political solution to Yemen's longstanding crisis are overshadowed by major challenges and a recent uptick in military operations in Nehm, Al-Jawf and Marib. This paper sheds some light on the future of UN mediation in the war-ravaged country, especially UN envoy Martin Griffiths's pursuit of a new round of talks between the warring parties as well as active Western diplomatic moves to jump-start negotiations after the Riyadh agreement failed to deliver the intended outcome and the very slow implementation of the Stockholm Agreement.
A New UN Approach?
As part of the UN envoy's efforts, a number of Yemeni public and political figure held in February this year a consultative meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman. Although the Office of the UN envoy organized a number of meetings between the Yemeni parties in the last period, the Amman meeting was of a special importance tackling the best approach to kick off peacemaking efforts. These and past moves, including the UN envoy's visit to Marib, suggest that the international organization is in the process of changing its Yemen policy or approach. The new bottom-up approach seems to focus on resolving partial issues and building on them towards ending the conflict and achieving a final peace. However, such approach has proven to be futile and has not yielded concrete results. For more than a year and a half, for example, the Stockholm Agreement consumed up the efforts of the UN and its envoy without ending up providing an important service to a final peace, and perhaps it even helped complicate matters further. The new approach appears to be pursuing a more comprehensive solution to the conflict, something the UN envoy has previously emphasized on several occasions, most recently at the conclusion of the Amman meeting, when he said that sustainable peace can only be achieved through a comprehensive and inclusive solution.
On the other hand, the past few weeks saw a remarkable Western diplomatic activity, and just last week, the foreign ministers of Sweden and Britain visited the region and met with the Yemeni President and officials from the Arab coalition countries. These moves are coordinated with the international organization and its envoy and in support of its efforts. According to statements and media reports, the UN is about to adopt an international initiative in coordination with the Europeans and Americans. Those moves and coordination indicate that international efforts are gaining stronger international support, and that the international organization may be one step from overcoming one of the most significant obstacles to its efforts in the past period, i.e. the lack of strong international support. Despite the increasing interest in the Yemeni issue and an international consensus on peace, this interest remained modest and insufficient to establish a political situation upon which peace can be based. Rather, weak international support and positions obstructed, in one way or another, international efforts and pushed for the continuation of the conflict.
In sum, if the international organization adopts a holistic approach to peace and works on a new initiative in coordination with international powers, and if it receives sufficient international support, it will mean that its efforts to bring about peace in Yemen may see a quantum leap and will have greater opportunities.
Challenges to UN Efforts
Embarking on a new approach to peace in Yemen and securing robust international support are crucial to ensure UN efforts deliver the intended outcome. However, although this approach and support may pave the way to resume the political process, they do not necessarily guarantee success in stopping the conflict. The intricacies of peace in Yemen are greater than they were at the start of the Kuwait (2016) and Sweden (2018) consultations. Also, the developments on the ground and the positions expressed by the parties to the conflict run counter to peace efforts and opportunities.
1. Military Escalation
Since mid-January, the country has seen a major military escalation on a number of fronts, such as Marib, Al-Jawf and the countryside of Sana'a. The truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis also collapsed, with the Houthis resuming missile and drone attacks against the kingdom. The military escalation is dangerous because it encourages the victor or whoever achieves field gains to continue and pushes them away from peace. After the Houthis succeeded in taking over Nehm and Al-Jawf, and reached the outskirts of Marib, the important center for the legitimate authority, they now believe that the balance of power is in their favor, and that they are able to achieve a military solution. They have already begun deploying military reinforcements to fronts that have remained inactive.
In general, the competition between field operations and movements and between UN and peace efforts does seem to serve the latter. The UN envoy, as well as international actors, warned on several occasions that the military escalation puts peace efforts and opportunities in Yemen at risk.
2. Failure of Past Agreements
On the political level, there are stumbling blocks in the implementation of previous agreements, some of which are conditions for peace. Thirteen months after the signing of the Stockholm Agreement, the deal does not seem to have achieved significant successes, and has thus been unable to represent a step towards a final peace, but its stumbling is putting some obstacles to UN efforts. The government of President Hadi has repeatedly announced its refusal to engage in any new negotiations unless the previously agreed upon is implemented. On the other hand, the peace process in Yemen will remain subject to settling the relationship between the government and the Southern Transitional Council, but the Riyadh agreement signed between the two parties under Saudi auspices runs the risk of collapse four months after its signing.
In sum, the failure to implement the agreements harms the confidence of the parties and their ability to fulfill their obligations in any peace agreement, and sacrifices the confidence-building efforts of the United Nations, its envoy and some international powers in the past period.
3.Local Conflict Parties' Lack of Interest in Peace
The local parties to the conflict do not share a belief in peace and political settlements, and this is largely based on a lack of trust in one another. Peace for the Hadi government and its local allies is nothing but that which guarantees the return of state institutions and their monopoly over arms. They believe that there is no use in any dialogue with the Houthis and that they will not submit to peace without changing the balance of the military forces on the ground. And if they have shown interaction with peace efforts, this is only a matter of maneuvering and to achieve tactical goals or gain more time.
On the other hand, the Houthis prefer a national reconciliation contract - according to their terms - over any political agreement with foreign sponsorship. In August 2019, they even formed a special team called the "National Reconciliation Team". On February 27, this team renewed their call to the rest of the Yemeni parties for a comprehensive national reconciliation. As for the peace that the Houthis can accept, it is that which guarantees them survival and control of the state and political decision. They believe that the attainment of peace will not come according to the current circumstances, and that force is the only way to compel the other party to peace.
4. Iran's Continued Obstruction of Settlement Efforts
In light of the broad influence that the regional actors involved in the Yemeni conflict have on the local parties, their incompatible peace agendas stand at the top of the challenges to peace efforts. Those actors, some of whom want the conflict to continue, seek to ensure that any peace agreement must fulfill their conflicting interests. This regional complexity has been exacerbated by the escalation of the situation on the ground and the mounting tension between Iran and the United States and its allies.
As for Iran, it today needs to employ the Yemeni card and the Houthis to confront its opponents and the international pressure imposed on it. Therefore, Iran's alliance with the Houthis, and the Yemeni conflict consequently, has gained increasing significance, especially since the Houthis have many advantages that make them the best option to serve the Iranian regime. They are geographically distant from Iran and close to its Gulf rivals, and are the least costly and ready to carry out the tasks that Tehran proposes. In any case, Tehran will continue to use the Houthis in one way or another, such as carrying out or claiming to carry out military strikes against the Gulf States and threatening navigation, among others. For their part, the Houthis believe that engaging in serious peace negotiations before their Iranian allies recover and gain a better position will not help them secure a peace agreement they favor.
The magnitude of Tehran's influence on the Houthis, and consequently on the chances for peace, is evident in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's statements in mid-February, in which he said that Yemen is the most important outstanding issue between his country and Saudi Arabia, and set conditions for "the situation to become prepared for mutual dialogue and peace”. The conditions include Saudi Arabia's halt of the war and paying compensation for the losses caused. The Iranian-Houthi alliance is expected to be revitalized and strengthened in light of the growing influence of Iran's conservatives and their landslide victory in the recent elections.
The United Nations tends to adopt a comprehensive approach to stopping the conflict and bringing peace to Yemen, and is working on an international initiative in coordination with Europeans and Americans. Its efforts seem to have stronger international support than before, and it may succeed in resuming talks between the parties. But its success in stopping the conflict and bringing about peace is not certain, as the complexities of peace are more today than they were when the Sweden talks were launched. The fact that the parties involved in the conflict will not share a unified vision of peace remains one of the most serious challenges facing the efforts of the international organization.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 24 Sep 2020
Ahmed Zaghloul Shalata | 21 Sep 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 21 Sep 2020