Six months into the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the situation inside the southwestern Arabian peninsula country remains as fluid as it is deadly. Pro-government forces allied to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi — thanks in large measure to the willingness of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar to deploy special operations and enabling forces on the ground — have made significant inroads in Yemen’s southern provinces, areas that are far away from the Houthis’ historical stronghold in the north. While the Houthis are in firm control of the capital Sanaa and remain entrenched in the cities of Taiz and the port of al-Hudaydah, the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states has managed to recapture the southern port city of Aden and are operating successfully in the oil and gas rich province of Marib. After five months of stagnant fighting and repeated air strikes that seemed to have little effect on the ground, Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign is beginning to take a toll on the Houthi movement.
Yet as so often occurs in warfare, whenever a side to the conflict is experiencing a series of successes on the battlefield, they have less of an incentive to sit down at the negotiating table and begin discussions on a peaceful resolution. In the early summer, the Houthis’ consolidation of control across a wide swath of territory served as a key obstacle to getting all parties to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which the Hadi government insisted should be the basis of discussions on a way forward. Three months later, the tables have turned: it is now the Gulf Arab coalition and President Hadi who hold a position of strength, or at least a position that is much stronger than it was earlier in the year.
In the Crucible of Geopolitics
To Yemenis who have no stake in this war, neither of these situations is much comfort. The United Nations estimates that at least 2,355 civilians have been killed since the Saudi intervention began in late March 2015. A country that already held the troubling label of the Arab world’s poorest in terms of GDP before the conflict started has now regressed in terms of virtually every development indicator. Health care, life expectancy, and economic growth in Yemen are now so bad that the United Nations recently labeled the entire situation as reaching “catastrophic proportions”. The numbers speak louder than any statement that the U.N. could release: four out of every five Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance; millions are internally displaced; 1,000 children have been killed as a result of the violence; food insecurity is rampant.
How the belligerents have chosen to fight the conflict, according to extensive research by Amnesty International, is nothing short of criminal. Saudi bombardment have killed entire families in their homes, children are beginning to be actively recruited by the Houthi movement in order to replace the men that have been lost, and civilian objects as diverse as hospitals, clinics, and refugee camps have been struck from the air. Even weddings haven’t been spared: in just the span of two weeks, two separate strikes on wedding parties have killed an estimated 151 people. “Many of the strikes that Amnesty International has researched were unlawful,” the group writes, “in that they deliberately targeted civilian objects or disproportionately harmed civilians and civilian objects in relation to the expected military gain from the strike…Researchers documented scores of cases of civilians – not directly participating in hostilities – who were killed or injured while asleep, carrying out their daily activities in and around their homes or in their workplace.”
The solution to all of this death and suffering has been the same ever since the Houthis first swept into Sanaa in September 2014: a serious, internationally-facilitated dialogue that includes all of the major Yemeni political factions who are either party to the war or will be involved in a significant way during post-conflict governance and reconstruction efforts. News that the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General Peoples Congress have finally agreed to cooperate with a U.N.-sponsored diplomatic initiative is a welcome first step — one will hopefully soften President Hadi, who has long insisted on the unrealistic demand that the Houthis first agree to disarm and demobilize before entering into negotiations. But, like previous efforts at peace talks, this one could fail just as quickly as it sprang up.
A Path Forward
There are several action items that the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League can and should consider to ensure that the latest U.N. diplomatic effort is immune from the quick collapse that occurred last June.
Drop UNSC Resolution 2216
While the text of the resolution itself is an impressive product (it calls on the Houthis to disarm, withdraw from all of the cities it holds, hand over weapons to the legitimate Yemeni Government, and demands that all parties refrain from violating international humanitarian law), the Yemeni Government has to date insisted that the Houthis agree to each point in the resolution before even agreeing to negotiations.In an ideal world, the Houthis would accept all of these demands without preconditions, sign up to a permanent ceasefire, and transition their movement from a militia into a political party. But the real world doesn’t function that way: No opposition movement with tens of thousands of men under arms, let alone one like the Houthis who continue to hold considerable territory, would agree to any of these conditions up-front. What President Hadi is essentially asking for is a complete surrender by his opponents before talks get underway — a demand that essentially dares the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists to walk away from the negotiating table. President Hadi should thus drop these preconditions and instead view Resolution 2216 as a goal at the end of negotiations rather than a starting point.
Support an international inquiry
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has expressed his support for the establishment of an independent, international inquiry for the Yemen conflict–authorizing investigators and human rights officials under a U.N. mandate to freely travel across Yemen to determine whether war crimes or crimes against humanity have been conducted during the course of the conflict. This would presumably include full access to the victims, questioning of government officials overseeing the war, and interviews with government soldiers, pro-government militias, and Houthi militants fighting on the front-lines.
Similar to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a commission on the Yemen conflict would not only inform the Human Rights Council and the U.N. Security Council of any crimes that may have been committed, but could begin to draft a master list of individuals, commanders, or militia units that directed, supported, facilitated, ordered, or knew about violations of international humanitarian law. To date, those efforts have been blocked with the apparent acceptance of the United States and European powers in favor of an inquiry formed and conducted by the Yemeni Government — a combatant in the war. Washington and its European partners should reconsider that position and instead support a Dutch proposal for an IICI for Yemen. The establishment of an independent commission would not only serve as a mechanism for accountability, but as a deterrent to similar incidents in the future at a time when preliminary discussions about peace talks appear to bearing some fruit.
Stop the transfer of munitions and mid-air refueling to Gulf Arab states party to the conflict
The United States and the United Kingdom are extremely important supporters to the Saudi coalition flying in Yemeni airspace. In addition to providing intelligence support to coalition warplanes, and mid-air refueling to Saudi jets so pilots can stay in the air for a longer period of time, Washington and London have continued to refurbish Riyadh and its Gulf Arab partners with munitions like GBU “smart bombs,” which provide Saudi Arabia with the ability to maintain its current tempo of operations. Yet those transfers also happen to be continuing the war at a time when the civilian population is essentially under siege from multiple directions.
This policy may be changing, at least in Washington. Al-Monitor has reported that “Democrats on a key Senate panel are holding up bomb sales for the Saudi air campaign in Yemen amid growing concerns over the rising death toll.” Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are increasingly concerned about the scale of the civilian death toll. As Sen. Ed Markey (D – MA) said, “If reports are accurate, the Saudi indiscriminate targeting in the air campaign and an overly broad naval blockade could well constitute” violations of international humanitarian law. Under U.S. statute, the United States is forbidden from providing military support to any foreign military unit who may be implicated or suspected of engaging in abuses of human rights.
Placing a hold on further weapons sales to acquire more information about the U.S. role in the Saudi campaign is one thing — enacting a State Department policy that prohibits the sale of munitions to Gulf Arab allies if those munitions are to be used in the Yemen conflict is something else entirely. While such a policy change would certainly be controversial in Washington (particularly when U.S.-Arab ties remain strained over the signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran), the option should be reviewed at the highest levels of the Obama administration as a way to demonstrate to the entire joint Arab coalition that protection of civilians is not only a duty but a requirement. As long as the U.S. is unsure that the laws of armed conflict are being adhered to, it would be irresponsible for Washington to authorize further weapons sales if there is a reasonable belief that those very same weapons could be used to strike civilian objects.
Sticks and Carrots for the Houthis
On Capitol Hill, the Houthis are generally portrayed as a sectarian movement that takes orders and strategic direction from the Iranians. But ultimately, whether the U.S. likes it or not, the Houthi movement will remain a key powerbroker and political player in Yemen at the end of any political resolution.Policymakers should provide the Houthis with a simple choice: if its leaders negotiate in a constructive way and are willing to exhibit the kind of flexibility that is required for a successful settlement, Washington will fully support the group’s transition into a legitimate Yemeni political party, with all the rights and protections entailed thereby. If, however, the Houthis stonewall diplomacy or continue to use violence as their first method to accomplish their political goals, the United States will not only press the U.N. Security Council to add further banking and financial sanctions on its leaders — it will begin discussions within the U.S. national security bureaucracy about possibly designating the entire movement as a foreign terrorist organization.
Carrots and Sticks for the Yemeni Government
Whether President Hadi admits it or not, his actions over the previous three months strongly indicate a pattern of being wedded to a military, rather than diplomatic, solution for the conflict. Hadi’s repeated insistence that the Houthis return their weapons to the legitimate Yemeni authorities and withdraw from territory that the group has taken since last year is one of the major obstacles — in addition to the horrific violence being conducted both on the ground and in the air — to the formation of a U.N.-sponsored series of peace talks. With a broad-based Arab coalition at his side, Hadi likely believes that he has more staying power than the Houthis, who are hurting for allies as pro-government forces make further advances, and who remain exposed to attacks from coalition warplanes. Yet as the U.N. Secretary General, the U.N. Security Council, the United States, the E.U., and the Yemeni Government itself have all argued, there is no military solution to the multi-factional war that Yemen is currently engulfed in.
As a primary financial and economic supporter to Hadi’s administration, the United States possesses leverage that should be put to greater use in order to move the Yemeni Government towards a more flexible position. Washington’s message to President Hadi should be nearly identical to its message to the Houthis: if you continue to block the progress of a worthy U.N. diplomatic initiative, the United States will be far more aggressive at the U.N. Security Council in ways that the Yemeni Government would not appreciate. This could either include expanding financial sanctions under previous resolutions on Yemeni officials who are preventing a Yemeni peace process from being scheduled in the first place, or the drafting of a new Security Council resolution that would mandate more severe consequences in the event of a breakdown in negotiations. If past conduct is any guide to future behavior, President Hadi will not feel compelled to negotiate with his enemies unless something far more serious is held over his head.
If there is anything that can be said about the six-month civil war in Yemen today, it is that the current diplomatic track is not working quickly enough. And, the slower the process becomes, the more civilians die, infrastructure is destroyed, and the sectarianism sets in—it will only become more difficult to generate the compromise critical to ending the conflict and to restore governance in its aftermath.