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The President’s Take | Syria and Venezuela in CrisisWatch
The President’s Take | Syria and Venezuela in CrisisWatch
Prospect of Talks and Threat of Escalation Both Rise in Yemen
Prospect of Talks and Threat of Escalation Both Rise in Yemen

The President’s Take | Syria and Venezuela in CrisisWatch

Our President Robert Malley’s monthly column to accompany the CrisisWatch conflict tracker for February/March 2018 looks at how outside actors are now openly fighting over Syria, not for Syria. He also flags more bad news from Venezuela, and our upcoming report on what to do about it.

Had I been writing this monthly column since 2011, Syria could well have figured every month since. Many bear responsibility for what’s become a war without end for a people without hope – myself included, in my former official capacity in the U.S. White House. It begins with the brutality of a regime intent on maintaining power at all costs, and ranges from the projection of regional and international power struggles, to outside actors’ inability or unwillingness to separate humanitarian (civilian protection) from political (regime change) ends, to the mingling of rebels and jihadists.

This past month, the tragedy took two more bloody turns: on the one hand, the siege and pummeling of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Eastern Ghouta; on the other, the pivot to a now open confrontation among outside actors fighting not for Syria, but over it – Israel against Iran and Hizbollah; Turkey against the Kurds; the U.S. against Russians (and against Iran, and the regime). Moscow could, should, but (as of this writing, the UN Security Council resolution notwithstanding) appears unlikely to do much to end the former or defuse the latter. As for the U.S. current role in lowering risks of violence, our CrisisWatch entry doesn’t say much about it, because for now there is not much to say, which of course is saying a lot.

The humanitarian disaster afflicting Venezuela is the second crisis that struck me this month. Here, a regime also desperate to maintain its hold on power has visited a different type of misery on its people. The economy is collapsing, millions have fled, hunger is spreading, diseases once thought to be things of the past have been resurrected – all in a country that boasts one of the world’s largest oil reserves. A forthcoming Crisis Group report details the humanitarian toll and how it threatens neighbouring countries. It suggests a way forward: both for getting aid into the country despite the regime’s reluctance to allow in humanitarian groups; and for Latin American governments, for the most part united in condemning the regime, to up pressure and force it back into meaningful talks with its opponents. Short of that, the economic free-fall and regional spillover will endure and worsen, with devastating consequences for all.

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Prospect of Talks and Threat of Escalation Both Rise in Yemen

As the Yemen war enters its fourth year, prospects for military escalation are growing between Saudi Arabia and its allies, particularly the United States, and Iran. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2018 – First Update, Crisis Group warns European policy makers of the risks of a looming Saudi-led coalition invasion of Hodeida. We urge the European Union to take a clear public position against it and assist the UN envoy in reviving a more inclusive and realistic political process.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – First Update.

As the Yemen war enters its fourth year, prospects for military escalation and greater regional spillover are growing. The Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign along the Red Sea coast and in the Huthis’ home governorate of Saada, coupled with intermittent missile barrages fired by the Huthis at Saudi Arabia, threaten to quash the opportunity to revive the political process presented by the appointment of a new UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. Military escalation could trigger direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and its allies, particularly the United States, and Iran, which Riyadh accuses of assisting the Huthis in developing their missile program.

In this environment, the EU and its member states should:

  • As an urgent priority, help prevent the looming Saudi-led coalition invasion of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which would compound the already acute humanitarian crisis and could spark a wider war; such efforts would involve diplomatic engagement with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, ideally in coordination with the United States; and publicly opposing such an invasion, while condemning and pressing the Huthis to end their missile attacks against Saudi Arabia. Quiet outreach to Tehran could help, urging Iran to use what influence it has with the Huthis to discourage such missile attacks.
     
  • Assist the UN envoy in reviving a political process that is more inclusive and realistic. EU member states on the UN Security Council (France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom) could promote a new Security Council resolution that better supports the UN envoy’s efforts than the April 2015 Resolution 2216, which is outdated and places unrealistic demands on the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen is well placed to assist the new envoy if talks materialise, notably by encouraging the Huthis’ cooperation.
     
  • Adopt a clear, public policy line on south Yemen, where separatist sentiment is increasing; such a line would oppose a unilateral move toward independence but recognise southern Yemenis’ grievances and the importance of revisiting the question of state structure and decentralisation.
     
  • Continue urgent efforts to alleviate the war’s humanitarian fallout, including by demanding from the coalition unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all seaports, including Hodeida, as well as the Sanaa airport.
     

Risks of Escalation and an Opening for Diplomacy

On 4 December 2017, the Huthis killed their former partner, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies have acted as if the military and political tides have shifted in their favour. They have tried to pull former Saleh supporters to their side, encouraged rifts within the Huthi movement, stepped up efforts to target the group’s leadership and pressed the Huthis on a number of war fronts.

In these endeavours they have had some success. Between December 2017 and February 2018 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and aligned Yemeni fighters won important tactical victories in Hodeida and Taiz provinces. Since then coalition-aligned forces have made small but steady gains, though not enough to shift the overall military balance. As in the past, the coalition has overestimated its ability to harm the Huthis in their northern highland strongholds. On 19 April, a coalition airstrike killed the head of the Huthi Supreme Political Council, Saleh Sammad, the de-facto president of the north and the highest-ranking Huthi killed thus far. Known as a moderate within the movement who could work with the late President Saleh’s party, his death is unlikely to reap significant military gains for the Saudi-led coalition but is a blow to peace prospects. Internal divisions within the anti-Huthi front continue to be its Achilles heel: some pro-Saleh fighters have joined the war against the Huthis, but many refuse to support President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his partners in Islah, an Islamist party. Islah and Hadi affiliates are at particular odds with UAE-aligned groups in areas such as Taiz and in south Yemen, which was an independent state prior to 1990.

After killing Saleh, the Huthis are simultaneously more open to diplomacy and more willing to up the military ante in response to coalition offensives. They have stated publicly and privately that they are ready to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and to re-engage with the UN process under the new envoy. It is unclear if this readiness is a product of military pressure or an increased sense of security, as in the past the Huthis had cause to worry that Saleh would strike a deal behind their backs. Either way, their increased interest in talks offers hope of a political breakthrough.

For the Huthis, coalition attacks on Hodeida, the main port in the territories they control, and Saada, their home governorate, represent existential threats.

That said, 2018 has seen an unprecedented uptick in Huthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. There is growing evidence of Iranian supply of Huthi weapons, including missile and drone technologies. For the Huthis, coalition attacks on Hodeida, the main port in the territories they control, and Saada, their home governorate, represent existential threats. Hodeida in particular is a red line. The coalition’s blockade, ostensibly to prevent weapons smuggling to the Huthis, has made the port a chokepoint for goods entering the north; prolonged fighting there could compound Yemen’s humanitarian disaster manifold. The Huthis have proclaimed they are willing to sink commercial ships to deter an attack. In April, Saudi Arabia accused the Huthis of firing on a Saudi-flagged oil tanker in the Red Sea, the first attack of its kind.

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

To avoid this scenario and the regional escalation it could trigger, the EU should take a clear public position against a coalition attack on Hodeida for both humanitarian and political reasons, and engage in vigorous diplomacy, in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington, to help prevent it. Diplomatic efforts also should be directed toward encouraging both sides to de-escalate the conflict ahead of a possible resumption of talks. This could include the Huthis halting missile strikes at Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea in return for the Saudi-led coalition stopping their offensive moves into Saada and along the Red Sea coast in Hodeida and Taiz provinces. The new UN envoy, with the help of the EU delegation and member states, could broker such an agreement.

If military escalation can be held at bay, the envoy will have a chance to revive negotiations over a cessation of hostilities and a return to an internal Yemeni political process. To be successful, these efforts will need a new framework that improves the one set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2216. That resolution sets out a bilateral structure for talks between the Hadi government and the Huthi-Saleh bloc, which has become outdated and which never represented the range of Yemeni forces with influence on the ground. It also places unrealistic preconditions for a political settlement on the Huthis, including requiring them to withdraw from territories gained and hand over weapons. The EU, and in particular Security Council members France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom – the latter being the penholder on the Yemen crisis – should press for a new resolution that would support the UN envoy’s efforts based on his plan for reviving the political process, which he will present in June 2018.

The EU delegation is uniquely placed to assist the UN envoy in improving the structure and substance of potential negotiations [in Yemen].

The EU delegation is uniquely placed to assist the UN envoy in improving the structure and substance of potential negotiations. As a non-belligerent in the Yemen war, the EU has access to all sides, including the Huthis. The delegation could assist in communicating with and encouraging Huthi cooperation at the various stages of talks. Information and lessons from EU-sponsored Track II events during the course of the war, particularly with local security stakeholders, could help guide the process of improving intra-Yemeni negotiations. The EU and its member states should work with the UN envoy to produce a negotiating framework that more effectively includes women and other civil society representatives in decision-making roles early in the process, a deficiency during the last three rounds of UN-sponsored talks.

South Yemen, where separatist sentiment is strong and the UAE is supporting separatist-leaning groups, is a critical flashpoint. In effect, the south is moving toward independence, but not all southern stakeholders support the idea. Nor do Yemenis in the north. The EU and its member states should have a clear, public policy line that opposes a unilateral move toward independence but recognises southern Yemenis’ grievances and the need to revisit the question of state structure and decentralisation, which remained unresolved in Yemen’s 2014 National Dialogue Conference. The EU delegation and member state representatives should also prioritise engaging with the UAE-supported Southern Transition Council and other southern political groups, and support their inclusion in intra-Yemeni negotiations.

Finally, ameliorating the war’s humanitarian impact should remain a top priority. The numbers are staggering. Over 22 million Yemenis – three quarters of the population – need humanitarian assistance. Of those, 8.4 million are at risk of starvation. Three million are internally displaced, mostly women and children.

The EU and member states should continue to demand unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all seaports, including Hodeida, as well as Sanaa airport. To assist in their full opening, the EU is well placed to offer assistance to the UN in negotiating and possibly implementing security checks that address the Saudi-led coalition’s legitimate concerns regarding arms smuggling. They should also press the Huthis to allow unhindered humanitarian access to areas they control and to ease restrictions on aid workers operating in these areas. Beyond physical access, the EU should work with the Yemeni Central Bank to stabilise the value of the Yemeni riyal and promote a political compromise by which the Hadi government pays salaries to all civil servants nationwide, including in Huthi-controlled territories.