Main Image Credit Destroyed buildings in Marib. Courtesy of dinosmichail
If the Biden Administration wishes to broker peace in Yemen it needs to reconcile its contradictory policies towards the country and recognise that offensive military action is a necessary component to meaningful negotiation.
Between April and June 2018 Yemeni forces backed by the UAE were advancing on the port city of Hodeidah. The international community rushed to apply pressure and succeeded in halting the offensive days before Yemeni forces would likely have taken the city. The basis for this intervention was that any disruption to food supply through the port would lead to a humanitarian crisis and jeopardise efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. There was, as diplomats chorused ad infinitum, no military solution.
The subsequent diplomatic process has failed to deliver peace or much by way of humanitarian relief. Indeed, for the past year the Houthis have been conducting a sustained and gruelling assault on Marib governorate. Marib has become a refuge for internally displaced people as one of very few areas in Yemen to enjoy a modicum of security. Yet, in contrast to the attack on Hodeidah, the international community has imposed no serious pressure on the Houthis to desist from their assault beyond the UN’s habitual incantations of ‘concern’.
The disparity in treatment of the sides arises from the fact that the international community has no leverage over the Houthis, and so long as the international community safeguards them from any practical military setbacks they will continue to negotiate in bad faith. The Houthis show up at talks but so far, they have made no meaningful concessions. The war may be detrimental to the Yemeni people, but it is not hurting the Houthis; indeed, it sustains them. There is no purely military solution to the war in Yemen, but until diplomats appreciate that force is a critical source of leverage, there will not be a diplomatic solution either.
Western governments often talk about the importance of a ‘whole of government’ approach. In Yemen, external powers have persistently pursued a completely disaggregated effort. Defence departments have focused on continuing a counterterrorism campaign against Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, preferring to minimise publicity. Foreign ministries have tried to facilitate back channels between the parties. Aid organisations have desperately tried to raise the publicity of the conflict to curtail violence, but their efforts have only constrained one side. No state with the power to make progress towards a settlement feels it has sufficient interests in Yemen to have developed a coherent strategy. Until that coherence comes Yemen will continue to be afflicted by a panoply of external actors pursuing conflicting and competing agendas, whose activities will stifle local initiatives and the war will go on.
Much of the public discussion of the war in Yemen has centred on the ineptitude of Saudi targeting and the civilians killed in its air campaign. The argument is made that withdrawing support for the Royal Saudi Air Force will reduce civilian suffering. This is doubtful. Saudi Arabia has been fighting with the Houthis from the mid-2000s. Since the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in 2014 they have also occupied Saudi territory and have subsequently conducted extensive ballistic and cruise missile attacks on Saudi economic and civilian infrastructure, including the Saudi capital city of Riyadh. While the Houthis were not created by Iran and are not directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they are enabled by them and the relationship has strengthened significantly from 2018 onwards.
To be clear, the Saudis have demonstrated a callous disregard for civilian lives in Yemen. There is a valid moral debate about enabling the Saudi air campaign. However, proponents of withdrawing support should not do so under the illusion that it will contribute to ending the conflict. On the contrary, Riyadh will continue to need to find and strike Houthi ballistic missiles and to break up Houthi units penetrating Saudi territory. Their desire to prevent a hostile non-state actor from holding significant territory will remain.
Furthermore, since the withdrawal of enablement to their forces would hamper their deterrence posture against Iran, the Saudis would likely rush to acquire other, less precise systems and demonstrate that they can use them. After an initial disruption to their air campaign withdrawal of enablement may in fact cause them to expand their efforts. It certainly would not see an end to the blockade or funding to anti-Houthi groups, policies that have killed far more civilians than airstrikes.
It must also be recognised that while the Houthis were excluded from previous political settlements in Yemen their current position is unsustainable outside of conflict. The Houthis managed to seize Sana’a with significant assistance from tribal leaders who backed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Once they had access to state arsenals and the instruments of state security, however, the Houthis clamped down on medical and food supplies, have conducted a brutal reign of terror on independent voices in the territories they control, and have taken hostages from leading tribal families. They do not hold the loyalty of the population.
When Saleh broke his alliance with the Houthis he did so on the assumption that the sheiks around Sana’a would take up arms alongside him. Without the prospect of any external support, however, many tribal leaders held back, fearful of the consequences for their own people if they sided with Saleh and lost. Without their support Saleh was killed and the Houthis held Sana’a. Since the foremost duty of any sheikh is to safeguard their people, they are unlikely to challenge Houthi power. They are prevented from coordinating at scale by the Houthi control of vital resources, and the threats against their family members.
These dynamics are important because if the Houthis release their hostages, lose control of humanitarian and medical supplies, or their ability to resort to violence, as a result of a political settlement their political power will be substantially diminished. While the war is therefore detrimental for Yemen’s people, a settlement would weaken the Houthis and, in their view, quickly see them shut out from any promises made in a political deal. There is therefore no mutually harmful stalemate in the conflict and consequently the Houthis are not prepared under current conditions to bring an end to the fighting.
Yemenis Need to Get a Vote
A persistent structural flaw in the peace process is that UN Resolution 2216 forced all diplomatic efforts to aim at the restoration of President Abdrabbuh Hadi, framing all negotiations as between the Houthis and the internationally recognised Yemeni government. Beyond fixing negotiators to demanding conditions the Houthis will not accept, there is the problem that Hadi – never elected in Yemen – has since remained in exile in Saudi Arabia and has neither legitimacy nor control across the country.
There are political actors with local legitimacy across Yemen. Governor Al-Arada in Marib, tribal sheikhs in Al-Mahra and Al-Bayda, and leaders of the Southern Transitional Council have constituencies. In most cases these individuals are excluded from framing a settlement. In others, as in Al-Bayda where the tribes have fought alongside Al-Qa’ida in a bitter unsupported struggle with the Houthis, the US has been actively conducting strikes against their communities in collaboration with the UAE. The UAE meanwhile has waged its own covert and dirty campaign against Al-Islah.
Any viable peace process with international support that seeks to engage those with local legitimacy requires some coordination in approach. At present – with different external actors backing and attacking different local groups – there is little basis for constructive engagement. Realistically it would take the US to force a degree of coordination since it alone has sufficient leverage over Gulf Cooperation Council states to maintain a strategy. But it is doubtful that the US is sufficiently interested in Yemeni voices to look beyond the close familial ties with many local powerbrokers and Al-Qa’ida.
Beyond slogans and political point scoring, if the US, the UK and European allies are serious about bringing peace to Yemen then there needs to be a coherent strategy. There must be an attempt to align the objectives being pursued by different departments and combatant commands. There must be a more nuanced appreciation of the military instrument as a necessary component in threatening Houthi interests sufficiently to bring about meaningful negotiation. Failure to achieve this coherence is a concession that, for many international actors, Yemenis are a regrettable but nevertheless bearable casualty of their disinterest.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare