Yemen: Engaging, Not Isolating


Main Image Credit Courtesy of katiekk2


Five years of war in Yemen have caused one of today’s worst man-made humanitarian crises. To resolve the conflict the Biden administration will have to grasp the nettle of subnational governance reform and be prepared to work with – not against – the Houthis in finding a sustainable political settlement.

The cause of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, the war in Yemen was listed as one of 10 conflicts to watch in 2021 by the International Crisis Group. The Biden administration has pledged to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition and to help usher in a resolution of the conflict. This goal has been made much harder – if not impossible – to achieve with the designation by  the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo  of the Houthi movement as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ (FTO). Labelled ‘pure diplomatic vandalism’ by David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, the move is unlikely to be reversed before a review of Pompeo’s decision has been completed – to which the designated new US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, committed during his Senate confirmation hearings. Until then, the conflict and the grave humanitarian situation are likely to worsen further.  

As shown by past efforts, any political settlement process that fails to accommodate the Houthis or any of the other major conflict parties is destined to collapse. Even in the unlikely event that Pompeo’s actions would weaken the Houthis and tilt the balance of power in favour of the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, only temporary stability can be achieved in the absence of a long-term solution that can foster sustainable peace through the accommodation of all segments of Yemeni society. Born out of a genuine desire by people to participate meaningfully in democratic governance and to determine their own future, Yemen’s war has its origins in the Arab uprisings of 2010 which led to the overthrow of authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.

Historically at the fringes of Yemeni politics, the Houthis have gained significant strength since the 2011 uprising. Their inclusion in the UN-mediated National Dialogue in 2013–14, which laid the foundations for a constitutional drafting process, has bestowed recognition on them as a major political actor. This, together with support from Yemenis that have grown disillusioned with the transition process and a subsequent military alliance with forces loyal to Saleh, has cemented the Houthi’s status as one of Yemen’s most powerful groups.

Despite their status, the Houthis’ core demands were rejected in a January 2015 constitutional draft. The proposal for a federal system based on six regions fragmented the Houthi community between different administrative areas and denied them access to the Red Sea and to natural resources. This triggered a swift southwards advance by the Houthis and their allies, which allowed them to establish control over the capital Sana’a and large parts of the rest of Yemen. Although Saleh was subsequently killed by the Houthis after apparently attempting to double-cross them by aligning himself with Saudi Arabia in December 2017, the Houthis have held on to most of these initial territorial gains.

After six years of civil war and foreign intervention fuelled by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia –backing, respectively, the Houthi movement and the Hadi government – Pompeo’s claim that his designation of the Houthis as an FTO will ‘advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen’ is deeply misleading. It flies in the face of the deal that the US struck with the Taliban in Afghanistan less than a year ago – hardly less of a terrorist organisation than the Houthis. It also contradicts a significant body of academic research on peace processes.

In our recent book for the World Bank, Subnational Governance and Conflict, we explore what conditions are necessary for successful peacemaking in deeply divided and fragmented societies like Yemen. When designed well and embedded in a robust structure of intergovernmental relations, subnational governance can accommodate the demands of different factions for retaining local control, while balancing the need for a viable overall state. This is particularly crucial in the case of Yemen where a dismissal of Houthi demands for an appropriate subnational governance arrangement was the key factor in triggering the current war.

The most critical conclusion we reached is that subnational governance reform is inherently politicised. Any re-definition of a state’s subnational and intergovernmental arrangements brings with it a formal and institutionalised recognition of the shift in the political power balances reflected in the violent conflict it seeks to end. As subnational governance reform seeks to transfer power away from the centre to the periphery, re-defining the state at the negotiation table requires the resolution of competing claims of factions fighting to consolidate power at the centre and those striving to gain more autonomy and control over political and financial administration at the regional and local level.

In Yemen, this never was, and certainly is not now, just a question of accommodating Houthi demands. There has long been a powerful southern separatist movement, now organised in the Southern Transitional Council (STC). In the course of the current war, the STC has always been opposed to the Houthis but it has also been at odds with President Hadi, leading to open hostilities in August 2019. This episode of violence was brought to an end with a Saudi-brokered peace deal in November, which the STC broke in April 2020 with an announcement of self-government in Aden. A further three months on, the STC, however, agreed to join a ‘unity government’. As the new cabinet arrived at Aden airport last month, it fell victim to an attack that killed over 20 people and injured many more, which has been blamed on the Houthis.

The persistent fighting along numerous frontlines throughout the six-year war has led to yet more fragmentation beyond the Saleh–Houthi–Hadi–STC split. Local branches of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and of the Islamic State control some territory in Yemen, as do numerous local warlords associated with various Yemeni tribes. Moreover, civil society and other political groups that reject violence have distanced themselves from the main conflict parties. All of these groups have different aspirations when it comes to future governance arrangements.

For any peace settlement to endure it will need to be built on compromises that reflect the power constellations and competing political incentives of these factions. In turn, for these compromises to lead to sustainable peace, it is critical that negotiations over the form of the new institutional structure have to be inclusive of all major conflict parties, while also giving a voice to those who have not engaged in violence. This, rather than the proposed sanctions, will usher in long-term stability and regional security.

The track record of Yemen, and its international partners, in brokering such sustainable compromises is not good. There is no magic formula to manage war-to-peace transitions in the aftermath of civil conflict. But past experience, from Yemen and beyond, clearly suggests that a policy of excluding major power brokers from negotiations, as implied in Pompeo’s designation of the Houthis as an FTO, is not a viable route for peacemaking.

Simona Ross is a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, focusing on constitutionalism and political settlement processes in the Middle East and North Africa. Previously, she worked for the UN in Libya and Iraq.

Stefan Wolff teaches political and international studies, and specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges at the University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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Stefan Wolff

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