The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) hosted a panel on 16 October, entitled, “Yemen at a Crossroads: Are New Conflict Dynamics Reshaping the Country’s Future?” The speakers worked through this complicated and intractable conflict, trying to make the current situation understandable.
First to speak was Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni socialist and Political and Development Consultant on Yemen. In terms of where the war is going, Al-Iryani said that the Saudis have been willing to make peace for a long time, but felt they needed to “knock the Huthis down a peg or two” before the terms were worked out. This has turned out to be impossible, indeed humiliating, and laid bear many of the issues with the Saudi system.
Next, Elana DeLozier, a Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said that Yemen had proven so immune to settlement because there are really three sets of negotiations to get through: (1) between the recognised government of Abdrabu Hadi and the Iran-backed Ansarallah, better known as the Huthis; (2) between the Huthis and the Saudi government, which leads the Arab Coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to reverse the Huthis’ coup against the recognised Yemeni government; and (3) between Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement in the south of the country that was until recently allied with Hadi against the Huthis.
The problem in even making a start was illustrated in Hudayda, says DeLozier, where the international community tried to start a confidence-building process. Instead, all the parties—namely the Arab Coalition and the Huthis, in this case—had to meet on a ship because they could not even agree which patch of territory to meet on. As she put it, they “can’t even decide on the table, let alone what the conversation at the table is about”.
The final speaker was Charles Schmitz, a Professor of Geography at Towson University, who was much more optimistic that a deal was possible at the top levels of the political factions, but external actors, like Iran, can still spoil things.
There have been recent moves by the Huthis apparently in the direction of peace—offering prisoner releases, for example—but Al-Iryani says this should be seen as a measure of their (belief in) their strength. The Huthis feel they have won, since they have captured the state institutions of the Ali Saleh regime, have annexed the technical bureaucratic and diplomatic skills of the old regime, and have remade the elite in their “own” Zaydi-majority areas in the north. So they feel secure, and these offers of concession are from a position of self-perceived strength; a diplomatic overture meant to win Huthis political sympathy from the international community by being seen as the more reasonable party.
It can be added, and was by DeLozier, that the Huthis’ (false) claim that it attacked ARAMCO at Abqayq on 14 September 2019 was hardly indicative of a force prepared for peace.
DeLozier notes that the Hadi government has found it difficult to get to the table, and has been perceived by some as obstinate, because it stands on principle—namely that it is the legitimate government, and U.N. Security Council resolution 2216 (passed in April 2015) calls for a recognition of this fact before negotiations can begin, an ask too far for the Huthis. Hadi has little choice but to continue on this path, however, since he has no military or popular base, DeLozier says, so he has to hold on to his international recognition “card” and he will not trade it away.
DeLozier goes on to say that the Huthis present a terrible problem of credibility. Whatever issues there are in getting the Hadi government to the table, once it is at the table and agrees to something, it sticks to it. The Huthis, by contrast, have frequently violated their pledges, despite their willingness always to talk.
This failure of the Huthis to make peace has to be understood as a centralized policy, not the result of rogue elements. Al-Iryani describes the fact that the Huthis, whatever divisions might exist in the ranks—of age, class, or other socio-economic cleavages—this is all covered over by ideological discipline. The Huthis are loyal to Abdulmalik al-Huthi and more precisely to his office, al-wali al-faqih, the supreme religious authority, which means even if he is killed they will remain loyal to his successor. As such, the Huthis could implement an agreement if they agree to one—they simply have not agreed to one so far.
Outside powers can play some role in peace, the panellists agreed—for good and ill.
DeLozier notes that most Yemeni factions do in fact speak to one-another, and the U.S. has agreed to speak to the Huthis. But other outside powers have complicated these moves toward peace.
The United Nations can facilitate talks, says Al-Iryani, yet it has no power, strictly speaking, and if the parties do not want to work this out it cannot work. The U.N. is also not involved with the STC track of peace talks since this is outside its mandate, a rather large gap.
On the American role, Schmitz says that the U.S. has lacked a coherent policy in Yemen, though their role would be largely reconstruction after a peace deal. DeLozier wondered if, given the Huthis’ belief that the U.S. is behind the entire campaign against them, it would not help for the U.S. to enter the peace talks, even if symbolically.
Al-Iryani said the U.S. can do a number of small things to help push towards peace, particularly by pushing the Arab Coalition to engage more moderate elements of Al-Islah and negotiating directly with Ansarallah, rather than through Iran, in order to pull Ansarallah towards Saudi Arabia, rather than putting them “in the lap” of Iran.
In closing, the panellists considered the future.
DeLozier said that the unexpected should be expected—allies becoming enemies, as happened with the Huthis and Saleh and more recently with Hadi and STC. Al-Iryani slightly dissented, saying that surprises were possible, but on present trajectory there would be peace in the sense of a cessation of hostilities at the national level, albeit that Yemen would continue to be wracked with warlords, sectarian and political divisions, and even violence.