The U.N. Needs a New Framework for Yemen

Three months into a Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthi militia and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Republican Guard, Yemen has degenerated into a terrible cycle of misery, fratricidal violence, and nationwide suffering.  Already the poorest country in the Arab world before the Houthis captured the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last September, air operations by the Saudis and urban combat on the ground have combined to render a country of 30 million people devoid of any government and at the goodwill and mercy of the international community.

President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his top officials have bunkered down inside Riyadh for the past three months, operating on the false notion that Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign will inflict such pain on the Houthis that the movement will eventually swallow its pride and negotiate its power away.  The Yemeni people, in the meantime, just want compromise — any compromise, whatever it looks like — to stop the bloodshed, the bombing, and the miserable humanitarian conditions that they have been forced to experience for nearly a year.

One only needs to hear the words of Stephen O’Brien, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, to grasp just how bad the situation inside Yemen has become: “On the evidence of our own eyes I am deliberately raising the alarm about the looming humanitarian catastrophe facing Yemen where over 21 million Yemenis, 80% of the country’s population, are in need of some form of aid…” And the situation seems to be dissolving—U.N. brokered humanitarian ceasefire, set to take effect today and remain in place for a week, has already failed. This is a tragedy for those Yemenis desperate for an immediate reprieve—but it also bodes ill for the future:

Cease-fires can often be confidence-builders towards a negotiated settlement. The inability to establish a pause in the fighting suggests that a solution will remain out of reach for some time. Despite the fact that virtually every combatant in the Yemeni civil war recognizes the necessity to initiate a nationwide dialogue, no one seems willing to make the required concessions to render one viable.

no military solution

One of the Obama administration’s favorite lines to use in a press conference or a briefing is that “there is no military solution to this conflict” (see Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine)–but, in the case of Yemen, the administration is exactly right: the Houthis are too stubborn to admit defeat and too strong on the ground to lose outright, while the recognized Yemeni Government has too much at stake and too many international supporters to pack up and accede their authority.  Diplomacy is indeed the only way out of this terrible war—an attempted military solution would accomplish nothing but heightening the death toll, destroying what little infrastructure Yemen has left, and empower ISIS and al-Qaeda—while pushing tens of thousands more Yemeni refugees across the Bab al-Mandeb strait into Djibouti.

Thankfully, the United Nations Security Council has been in relative harmony on the issue of Yemen.  Unlike the civil war in Syria where Russia remains one of the biggest military supporters of the Assad regime, Moscow (and Beijing) is in agreement with Washington, London, and Paris that the camps of President Hadi, the Houthis, and Saleh all need to sit down at the same table to begin another a political transition process that will be implemented fully and without exception.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, are using all of their facilities to work for precisely this objective — going so far as to organize and initiate an opening round of U.N-facilitated talks last week in Geneva between the major sides.

Yet despite the noble efforts of both men, the opening round of the diplomatic process cannot be described as anything but disastrous.  Once the several days of shuttle-diplomacy was over (the Houthis and the exiled Yemeni Government cannot even stand to be in the same room with one another), the only thing that the Houthis and Hadi delegations could agree on was that the discussions were a failure. The optimism of Mr. Ahmed aside, the Geneva consultations terminated without an agreed date for a second round; with the Yemeni Foreign Minister accusing the Houthis of not taking the consultative process seriously; and with the Houthis attempting to expand their operations along the Yemeni-Saudi border at the same time that the delegations were traveling to Geneva.  “We were not able to even exchange any ideas,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyad Yassin told Asharq al-Awsat after the deliberations, “nor did we come any closer in terms of agreeing on the [basic] principles.”

A diplomatic non-starter

The United Nations has two choices: they can either continue to base their negotiating process on a flawed assumption that the Houthis will implement UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2216, or they can switch tact and draft a new framework that treats both sides as equal participants with legitimate interests at stake.

UNSCR 2216, passed with Russia’s abstention, imposes sanctions and an arms embargo on the Houthis; it also mandates that they unilaterally withdraw all of the territory they gained, and hand over all of the weaponry they captured over the previous nine months. This is clearly not something that the movement will agree to;  pretending otherwise is banking on a formula that is guaranteed to fail.

As much as the internationally-recognized and legitimate Yemeni Government won’t like to admit it, the blunt reality is that President Hadi and his cabinet-in-exile do not have the upper hand in this conflict — and they should stop pretending like they do.  Despite months of persistent bombing from Saudi aircraft, Houthi militiamen continue to hold onto Sanaa, the port city of Hodeida, Lahj, Saada, Jawf, and the outskirts of Aden, and have no compunction to shoot rounds into Saudi Arabia.  If the Yemeni Government wasn’t losing the war, they wouldn’t be hunkered in Riyadh as this very moment.  It is therefore puzzling why U.N. mediators would use as a starting point a Security Council resolution that would require the Houthis to withdraw from all of these areas.

As of this year, the United Nations has accumulated seven decades of experience in organizing, facilitating, and leading negotiations–which makes the current “strategy” of the Secretary-General and his Yemen Special Envoy all the more vexing: there is no foreseeable future in which their aspiration point can be realized.

Given the situation at hand, it makes no sense to rely on UNSCR 2216 as the blueprint for what a successful negotiated resolution should look like. The only possibility to salvage these talks would be to drop the demand that the Houthis unilaterally disarm themselves before a political formula for a transitional government of national unity is reached. This isn’t about being pro-Houthi or pro-Hadi, rather, what is doable in the current environment.  The Houthis may eventually have to disarm and recognize the Yemeni authorities, but the international community cannot — and should not — expect this to happen in the very beginning.

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