The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a webinar on 16 July, entitled, “Can a New U.N. Envoy Produce Peace in Yemen?”
The first speaker was Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Non-Resident Fellow at MEI. Al-Dawsari said that the United Nations should not be relied upon to solve Yemen’s problems; it is contending with “huge forces”, local and regional, which are “beyond the U.N.’s ability to control”. That said, the U.N. approach to the peace process in Yemen has created specific problems, says Al-Dawsari, by being “too fixated on a political settlement within the elite”, between the Hadi government and the Iran-backed Houthis, which is to be “disconnected from the reality” as it has developed over the last seven and more years of warfare. Al-Dawsari discussed this in a recent report, nothing that the parties the U.N. has chosen to recognise as legitimate control—as a matter of simple fact—much less territory when combined than some other armed actors who are excluded from the process; there is no way to make peace with such an approach.
The “lack of inclusivity” is only one problem with the U.N. peace process, says Al-Dawsari. Another problem is leverage: Al-Dawsari points out that the U.N. has several times brought pressure on the legitimate government of Yemen and its supporters in the Arab Coalition, but they have never brought any effective pressure against Iran or its Houthi proxy. Ultimately, this means the U.N. process has “done more harm than good”, says Al-Dawsari, because it does not take account of the military realities on the ground.
The classic instance of the U.N.’s unreality over Yemen—and really the turning point of the war—was the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, under which, as Al-Dawsari explains, the Arab Coalition was forced to abandon an offensive that would have taken the port city of Hudaida away from the Houthis, which would have seriously weakened them and provided more favourable conditions for peace. Instead, the U.N.’s intervention over Hudaida allowed the Houthis to reposition their forces, to make major gains east of Sanaa, and in recent months to launch a full-scale offensive against Marib, the last stronghold of the Hadi government. “So, inadvertently, the U.N. peace process helped the Houthis militarily”, says Al-Dawsari. Despite the fact “many Yemenis warned against it, the U.N. didn’t listen.” (It is also rather notable that the U.N. has barely even protested about the recent Houthi offensive, let alone taken effective action to stop it.)
Al-Dawsari mentions—as EER has covered in detail—that the Houthis have been clear about what they want: they refuse to recognise the Hadi government, viewing themselves as the sole legitimate authority in Yemen; they define their war as a jihad, their opponent as Saudi Arabia, and their intention as one of expelling the Saudis and ruling all of Yemen.
In short, “diplomacy without leverage does not work,” says Al-Dawsari, and nobody has—or is willing to gain—any leverage over the Houthis. As such, what the U.N. can do is “very limited” and it is “important that we don’t have high expectations of the incoming U.N. envoy or the U.N. peace process”.
The second speaker, Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, began by saying that she believed that the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 was not only the end of the transitional process that had been begun after the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012; it was the end of the Yemeni state that had been put in place in 1994 after the socialists had been defeated.
Since 2016, if not before, the Houthis—with the help of Saleh—have co-opted large parts of the old state and created their own state, ruling over at least a plurality of the Yemeni population. This is a radical change, Al-Deen goes on, and the Houthis are “unwilling to make a deal with anyone”—and there is nobody to force them to. The U.N. cannot make up the difference for the Hadi government militarily.
“There is now a war economy”, says Al-Deen, which is effectively sustainable and disrupting it is risky to the humanitarian situation. Meanwhile, the Houthis are using their control to “spread their ideology … and change everything”: Al-Deen sums up: Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has supreme power over a de facto state that makes it difficult to dismantle and the old Yemeni state is fragmented in a way that cannot be reversed.
The final speaker, a Senior Analyst at the Crisis Group, Peter Salisbury, notes that the problem with the U.N. peace plan is the disconnect between its vision of its mission, namely a template of conflict resolution wherein a power-sharing deal is struck between a government and a rebel group to re-establish the legitimate state, and the ground reality that governance actors have proliferated and the governance capacity of one of these two main parties has collapsed. It would benefit everyone, says Salisbury, to acknowledge that this kind of deal “just isn’t going to happen”; there is not the incentive structure to get there.
Moreover, if such a deal did happen, it could be “pretty disastrous”, says Salisbury, and almost certainly would simply set up a new round of conflict. To create a Hadi-Houthi “unity government” now would be to subsume the legitimate government under the Houthis, who control the most functional state institutions and have layered over them a formidable security structure. It is deeply problematic in itself to, in effect, give an international stamp of legitimacy to the Houthi dictatorship, but it would not even “work” in the narrow sense. “The results would be predictable: we would see people at the local level fighting back,” says Salisbury, and this would spiral into another civil war.
The U.N., says Salisbury, needs to change its approach to try to deal with a wider circle of Yemenis, such as women’s groups and other pro-peace organisations, and it needs to lay out a “vision for a political process … that deals with [the above-mentioned] realities,” rather than rushing for “peace” defined simply as a ceasefire in the way that has been happening, because to continue on its present course is to create an environment that is in many ways the “perfect excuse” for the Houthis to continue their relentless military aggression, and leaves the Hadi camp with only the option of trying to hold on.
Question and Answer
Asked how many parties should be brought into peace talks—Should it be four (Hadi, Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council, and Tareq Saleh) rather than just the current two (Hadi and Houthis), or should all the hybrid actors in the country get a seat?—Al-Dawsari says that it is difficult to specify a number of seats, especially because some non-hostile parties can be included under the Hadi government’s banner. But the U.N. needs to be engaging many more, even if it is not all, of the actors in Yemen, to give itself a better sense of ground reality and thus of how to proceed towards peace: who are the players, who are the spoilers, how would they be spoilers, what are they willing to do or to settle for, etc.
Asked about the durability of the Houthi de facto state, Al-Deen says that the Houthi support base is far smaller than the previous government. Under Saleh, the corruption tended to trickle down among the population generally, while the Houthis’ corruption benefits a very narrow layer of its loyalists, meaning the Houthis have to rely much more heavily on violence to control the society. Latently, this means there is more opposition to the Houthi regime than the former government, but unlike under the former government it is nearly impossible to organise any serious opposition to the Houthis: their intelligence apparatus and secret police are too efficient and they are too willing to use violence to allow any space for opposition to emerge—the fear of the Houthis stops most people even trying, without the Houthis having to act to suppress them.
Most of the Hadi government believe that a deal with the Houthis is a suicide pact: How can this be changed? Salisbury says that this is where the U.N. process has been at its most damaging: by fixing the political process on two actors, it has divorced that process from the conditions on the ground. What is needed is to merge this political track with the military situation inside the country, i.e. expand the circle of people at the table at the U.N. to include people who hold both actual and legitimist power in Yemen, and this will shift the incentive structure toward the creation of political coalitions. As Salisbury notes, for all of the descriptions of Yemen as “fractious,” what is notable is that political agglomerations happen rather frequently—enemies like Saleh and the Houthis turn on a dime to create an alliance that upends the entire fabric of the country’s politics. There is no reason, under the right conditions, this cannot happen again; the problem at the moment is particularly one for Hadi, ironically because of something in his favour, namely that his seat at the U.N. table is guaranteed. This means Hadi has no incentive to set about coalition-building in order to maintain his seat, which paradoxically weakens his position. If the sections of the Yemeni body politic that have joined with the Houthis for opportunistic reasons could be convinced that their interests—whether values, or power and patronage—aligned better with Hadi, it could get them to change direction; the incentive structures would have to change to get there, though.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 passed in April 2015 is the foundation of the international community’s approach to Yemen. All speakers agreed that fundamentally this resolution has been rendered irrelevant by developments over the last few years since “negotiations happen using violent tools,” as Al-Dawsari put it. Salisbury said that a new resolution might be useful as a ratification of a deal, should a serious one ever be reached, says Salisbury, but this would be a retrospective act of political expediency; a new resolution would not affect the ability to get to such a deal.
Al-Dawsari says that the key factors needed to get to peace is to better organise the anti-Houthi coalition and—though there is no appetite for this—“ideally” force would be used to weaken the Houthis.
The Houthi attack on the tribal system might end up being one of the most important aspects of this war, says Al-Dawsari. It removes a key intermediary that limits the state’s power—even under Saleh, the government had to work with the tribes, it could not simply control them. And if the tribal system collapses, it will not only bring tyranny but chaos; it would mean there were no building blocks to reconstitute order, even if the Houthis could be removed.
Al-Deen says that the future of Yemen is one of likely fragmentation, even though the Houthis believe they can conquer the whole country—and, indeed, all the way to Mecca—which means that the war will continue while they attempt this, and without an outside power to check them they can perhaps make further advances.
Salisbury concluded on a more positive note, saying that the conditions now made a “national dialogue” somewhat more realistic—it was no longer nominally national, while taking place among elites—but the risk factors and downsides have been dramatically scaled up.