How Biden can help Yemen
In the countryside and in his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden has vowed to end the conflict in Yemen. Reflecting a Washington bipartisan consensus, its approach was based on support for the UN-led negotiation process and pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its active military engagement inside Yemen. To that end, he quickly overturned an ill-conceived decision by the Trump administration to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization and appointed Tim Lenderking, a seasoned diplomat familiar with the Yemeni issue, as the special envoy tasked with supporting the UN negotiations.
Five months later, however, negotiations lead nowhere. The military situation on the ground is deteriorating and the humanitarian crisis in the country continues to worsen. Perversely, the very fact that the international community has redoubled its efforts to negotiate can I have encouraged the Houthis to believe that a military victory is within reach.
Biden, to his credit, seems to have recognized the need for a revised approach. The administration has sharpened its rhetoric on human rights violations by the Houthis and has took action aimed specifically at hampering their finances and banning its supply of arms from Iran. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Washington suggests a belated realization that pressure on Saudi Arabia to suspend military operations in Yemen has had negative consequences for the balance of power. forces there.
An effective strategy to end the civil war in Yemen should combine a renewed commitment to push back the Houthis militarily with a new approach to negotiations that attracts a wider range of Yemenis and builds on ongoing local initiatives. With UN negotiations currently on hold pending the appointment of a new UN special envoy, the UN and its international partners should reassess their top-down approach. Rather than seeking to end the conflict on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the Saudis and the Houthis, the United Nations should do more to build on the work that the Yemenis themselves are already doing. Washington and Riyadh, in turn, must persevere in this tragic but necessary conflict in order to achieve a lasting and just peace for all Yemenis.
Continue the fight
The Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, represents part, but not all, of the Zaidi Shia population based in the northwest corner of Yemen. By launching its assault on the transitional government of Abdurrabo Mansour Hadi in 2014, the Houthi movement claims respond to popular grievances, including the persistence of corruption in government as well as the deterioration of economic and social conditions. In practice, however, the Houthis sought to forcefully impose their radical ideology which was widely contested by the Yemenis. Despite their participation in the National Dialogue Conference, which explicitly worked to answer Grieving the Houthis, they refused to accept the outcome of the conference, instead launching an assault on the government that is at the root of the current conflict.
In June 2021, the Houthis rejected a cease-fire proposal and subsequently refused to meet with the UN envoy in Muscat. In response, the Biden administration should make it clear to the Houthis that the international community will not accept them as the de facto government of Yemen or even the legitimate rulers of a northern rumped Yemen. To be clear, the goal should not be a decisive defeat for the Houthis on the ground. After years of stalemate, this seems unachievable. Instead, the United States should seek to pressure the Houthis to stop their expansion and turn to negotiations. The Houthis must understand that if they will not be defeated, they will also be unable to achieve victory. This means that the administration must reassure Riyadh that it will support Saudi Arabia’s increased efforts to block Houthi advances in the currently disputed Mareb region.
A new negotiation strategy
The international community must also ensure that a transition and a political agreement are based on equal rights for all Yemeni citizens. Almost seven years of conflict have raised new barriers to a secure and lasting peace. Specifically, the increasingly sectarian view of the Houthis during the conflict produced a backlash among non-Houthis, making it essential that a future government accommodates all communities. The sectarian tendencies of the Houthis metamorphosis from long-standing traditional Zaidi values, aligned with Shiites but closer in practice to Sunni Islam, to a more militant form of Zaidism aligned with Iranian Twelver Shiism. Further, claiming that they are the descendants of the Muslim prophet, Houthi leaders believe that governing Yemen is a exclusive privilege of their lineage. These sweeping views generated a backlash in Yemeni society, including among non-Houthi members of the Zaidi faith. who believe that the Houthis have sought to co-opt their religion in continuing to collaborate with Iran.
With the UN-led process currently on hold pending the appointment of a new Special Envoy to replace Martin Griffiths, now is the time to revisit the basics to end the conflict and return to the political process that was interrupted in 2014. Indeed, Griffiths final report at the UN Security Council, released last month, clearly underscored the failure of the top-down approach to resolving the conflict in Yemen. UN mediation has often missed the greatest dynamic of conflict in favor of small victories that contributed to the military expansion of the Houthis.
A new approach to the negotiations should do more to involve the entire Yemeni population. While the negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are encouraging and that resolving the disputes between Riyadh and the Houthis can certainly improve the environment for progress, that alone cannot end the conflict. In fact, an exaggerated focus on the regional conflict diminishes the voices and experience of Yemenis. As a result, international negotiators have at times undermined efforts on the ground in dangerous ways. For example, a the exchange of prisoners facilitated by local mediators became impossible when the 2018 Stockholm Accord introduced a separate prisoner exchange. The introduction of heavy international bureaucratic procedures ended the role of local mediators and delayed the release of many prisoners. In another example, civil society groups reported that Houthi authorities arbitrarily arrested civilians during the Stockholm negotiations. In an unpublished interview, Nourna al-Jarwi, president of the Coalition of Women for Peace in Yemen, argued that this was done in part to have more prisoners who could be used to negotiate a more favorable exchange.
Fortunately, Yemenis themselves are stepping forward to promote Yemen-centric initiatives to end the conflict and promote comprehensive peace negotiations. A recent civil society initiative led by a Yemeni women’s organization, incorporates many of the basic principles and components of the UN proposals, but engages key groups such as women, youth, tribes, southerners and others. The proposal was developed through bottom-up consultations with Yemenis in critical conflict-affected areas, including Mareb, Aden, Taiz and Abyan. In addition, the initiative reflects the experiences that women have had on the ground in negotiating the releases of prisoners and on behalf of detainees.
Empower Yemenis to end the conflict
The Houthi aggression in Mareb urgently requires immediate humanitarian intervention and a firm military response from Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, the Houthis will continue to expand violently into other parts of Yemen. Meanwhile, recognizing the Houthi movement is not a monolith, the Biden administration should engage competing factions within it, especially those that promote participation in a political process to end the civil war. By demonstrating unmistakably that the military faction cannot succeed, Biden can further strengthen those who favor negotiations. To this end, the US administration and the international community should commit to supporting the military campaign of the Saudi-led coalition. It does not mean defeating the Houthi movement. This means preventing a takeover by the Houthis of Mareb and neighboring al-Jawf governorates.
At the same time, the United Nations and the international community should take advantage of the interregnum following Griffiths’ departure as special envoy to revise his negotiating strategy. There is several local initiatives who succeeded in reaching agreements on some of the essential elements of an eventual peace, including the release of prisoners and the end of political detentions. Yemeni groups are working hard to promote realistic approaches to end the conflict. The new UN special envoy should do more to integrate these efforts into the broader negotiating process.
Gerald Feierstein is senior vice president of the Middle East Institute. From 2010 to 2013, he was United States Ambassador to Yemen.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a non-resident researcher at the Middle East Institute and specializes in Yemen, Iran and the Gulf. She tweets @YemeniFatima.