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As Trump Alights in Israel, Palestinians are Descending into Darkness
As Trump Alights in Israel, Palestinians are Descending into Darkness
Palestinians walk on a road during a power cut in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, 12 January 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

As Trump Alights in Israel, Palestinians are Descending into Darkness

President Trump plans a 22-23 May visit to Israel and Palestine in pursuit of the “ultimate deal”. But behind the scenes, rising tensions between Palestinian factions may be drawing Gaza and Israel closer to a new war.

President Donald Trump makes a 26-hour visit to Israel on 22 May to discuss the “ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians — with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. With his eyes on the big prize, Trump risks neglecting a critical element of any agreement: the Palestinian territory of Gaza, where a new bout of war is potentially brewing.

Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians are administered by a third force, Hamas, labeled a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and others, and the isolation of the territory, imposed by Israel and Egypt, is pushing the population dangerously into dire straits. At the end of April, the inhabitants of the narrow coastal strip saw electricity supplies drop to only a few hours a day. The economic lifeline of government salaries has been sharply cut. Access to the internet is slow and irregular. Medicines are critically short.

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One reason for this is the policy of “closure” exercised by Gaza’s neighbours, Israel and Egypt, who are trying to make the other take responsibility for one of the planet’s most overpopulated, oppressed and traumatised places. This policy prevents the vast majority of the territory’s residents from leaving, and greatly increases their sense of entrapment and desperation.

Tensions are being aggravated by an intra-Palestinian feud over taxes, salaries and legitimacy between Hamas, rulers of Gaza since 2007, and President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, administrators of parts of the West Bank. This month’s change of leadership in Hamas, and its attempt to put a softer face on its armed struggle with Israel by publishing an ambiguous new political document, is unlikely to change its isolation. The general Palestinian mood is also turning rebellious, with West Bankers and Gazans united in overwhelming support of a hunger strike of over 1,500 Palestinian detainees for better conditions in Israeli prisons.

It is unclear what President Trump can do to mitigate any of these inter-related conflicts. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have now visited Trump at the White House, and both are in discussions with the new U.S. administration about its still nascent plans to restart peace negotiations. Though Israelis and Palestinians are sceptical that anything can come of such negotiations, Abbas and Netanyahu feel obliged to show goodwill toward the new and highly unpredictable U.S. president.

The perception that Trump is capricious offers him some leverage that other U.S. presidents might not have had. He is feared by leaders of both sides.

The perception that Trump is capricious offers him some leverage that other U.S. presidents might not have had. He is feared by leaders of both sides. Palestinians worry that he could radically alter, to their detriment, U.S. positions on the core issues of a peace settlement. Trump has been extraordinarily vague about his vision of what he calls “the ultimate deal”, has given the impression that he is not particularly concerned about the details of a would-be accord, and has gone so far as to state that he could “live with” either one state or two.

Trump’s ambiguity concerns the Israelis too. They worry that if he approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like a real-estate transaction, he may, in order to close the deal, apply pressure on them. After all, he has proclaimed political partiality to the Jewish state, but not demonstrated visceral affinity for it. Another concern, for both sides, is what Trump will do if and when he decides that one of them is the primary obstacle to his achievement of a deal that he has prioritised. Could he turn vindictive and isolate, even punish, one or both of the parties?

The ticking time bomb of Gaza

While Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas position themselves for the next round of discussions, a time bomb is ticking. A number of Israeli security analysts and former Israel Defence Forces generals are warning that Gaza’s misery is reaching intolerable levels, as was the case prior to the summer 2014 war that killed 2,139 Palestinians, 64 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians. In fact, the situation in Gaza today is worse than it has been at any time since Israel conquered the territory in 1967, fifty years ago next month.

[The] situation in Gaza today is worse than it has been at any time since Israel conquered the territory in 1967.

In “normal” times, Gaza suffers electricity blackouts of roughly twelve hours per day. Its chronic power shortages have worsened considerably in recent months to 20 hours per day. In January, residents turned out in very large numbers to protest the blackouts and the horrible effects they had on hospitals, water, and sewage. To alleviate the crisis, Qatar and Turkey donated fuel to Gaza for a three-month period, which expired in April.

There are three main sources of electricity for Gaza: about one-tenth comes from Egypt, on three power lines that have been repeatedly shut down in recent years; about one third from the local Gaza power plant, currently working at half its capacity (in part due to fuel shortages); and the rest from Israel. Together these add up to 207-212mw, which is less than half of the power Gaza needs.

Gaza’s electricity supply is complicated by internal Palestinian feuding over who should pay for it and how, and the end result merely underlines how powerless the Palestinian sides are compared to Israel. Days before Abbas’s visit to Washington, the PA said it would stop paying for part of Gaza’s electricity. But the PA cannot actually carry out its threat to stop paying for electricity in Gaza without Israel’s permission.

That’s because goods entering Palestinian territory — including fuel for the Gaza power plant — are taxed by Israel, on behalf of the PA, for a 3 per cent collection fee, which is then transferred to the PA. But before the transfer is made, Israel deducts what the Palestinians owe for electricity in both Gaza and the West Bank. In May, to the PA’s chagrin, Israel carried out its usual deductions for electricity from PA tax revenue and continued to supply Gaza with the same amount as in previous months.

Israel does this not only because it is obliged to do so under existing agreements, but also because it has little incentive to see Gaza descend further into darkness. Israel recognises that the territory’s worsening humanitarian situation might drag it and Hamas toward a new war.

Little help from the neighbours

Keeping up basic services to Gaza’s population is further complicated by the way the territory’s two neighbours, Egypt and Israel, have engaged in a years-long struggle to foist responsibility for Gaza onto the other. Egypt has largely won. Almost all of the goods entering and exiting Gaza now go through Israel, as do most of the small number of Gaza’s residents whom Israel allows to leave (the majority of them are merchants, and the next largest category, which is much smaller, is medical patients). Egypt does not wish to revert to a situation in which it has relatively more responsibility for Gaza, and it is not interested in helping Hamas establish a successful, nearby model of Islamist rule by the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel fears that improving conditions in Gaza could strengthen Hamas and undermine the authority of the [Palestinian Authority].

Israel’s Gaza policy is the outcome of several conflicting interests. First and foremost, it wants to keep Hamas weak so that it does not come to pose a greater military threat to Israel and, as importantly, does not grow in power in the West Bank at the expense of Fatah, which is the largest political faction in the PLO (the umbrella organisation for the Palestinian national movement) and the most influential force in the Palestinian government, known as the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel fears that improving conditions in Gaza could strengthen Hamas and undermine the authority of the PA, by stabilising Hamas rule and making the PA appear less unattractive. Second, and in tension with the first, Israel wants to avoid a new war, which means ensuring that conditions do not become so dire that Hamas believes that violence is its only means of escaping from slow suffocation. Third, Israel wants to avoid reoccupying Gaza. Doing so is seen as too costly in blood and treasure, and there does not appear to be any viable exit strategy. None of the potential alternatives to Hamas appears strong enough to take and retain power in Gaza – not the PA or Fatah, and not Salafi-jihadist groups, which, even if they weren’t too weak, would be seen as too dangerous.

Palestinian feuds

The humanitarian crisis is not just aggravated by Israel and Egypt, but by the Palestinians’ own internal divisions. The latest move in the PA’s campaign to squeeze Gaza was a decision by the PA health ministry to stop supplying Gaza with medicines and baby formula. There is a severe shortage of medicine in Gaza, and over 90 per cent of cancer medicines are totally absent. The PA, which typically ships medicine to Gaza every two months, has not sent medicine in three months. The PA claims that whatever shortages exist in Gaza also exist in the West Bank, though there is no comparing the state of health in the two territories, and it says a new shipment will be sent in the coming days.

The [Palestinian Authority] has consistently tried to leverage its relationship with the U.S. to sideline Hamas.

The PA has consistently tried to leverage its relationship with the U.S. to sideline Hamas, partly by attempting to show itself to be a useful weapon against Hamas. Ahead of Abbas’s latest visit to Washington, this took a dangerous turn: the PA decided to drastically cut payments to its employees in Gaza. These were cuts of at least 30 per cent in each employee’s total compensation. Since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, many of these employees have been paid to sit at home, as the PA hoped that it could topple the Gaza government by forcing civil servants, who are largely identified with Fatah, to refuse to work.

Ten years on, this strategy has failed. Hamas hired its own employees, as well as some who had worked for the PA, and many of the PA employees took second jobs. Others sat at home, where their idleness and in some cases drug addiction often had destructive effects on their families. But though these people were not productive, their government salaries were critical to the functioning of the Gaza economy. The PA constituted Gaza’s single largest funding source, with far more “employees” than those hired by the actual, Hamas-run government or by the UN.

When the largest employer in Gaza removes at least one-third of the compensation to its employees, the effects are disastrous, especially when the second-largest employer, the Hamas-led government, has been paying half-salaries for several years. Palestinians refer to the PA pay cuts as the “salaries massacre”. In Gaza, many protesters contend that Abbas’s primary motivation for the cut was simply to show Trump that he was doing what he could to weaken Hamas and bring Gaza to heel. The PA was also motivated by Hamas’s March 2017 decision to set up a formal, parallel administrative committee for overseeing Gaza. Doing so appeared to undermine the 2014 agreement between the PA and Hamas to form a “government of national consensus”, which has only been partially implemented.

The PA justified the cuts by stating that donor aid to the PA had dropped, which is true. But it is also a rather partial and -in this context-  misleading account of PA finances. Before President Sisi took power in Egypt in 2013 and shut nearly all the tunnels under the fences on the Gaza-Sinai border, goods that entered Gaza through the tunnels were taxed by the Hamas-run government. Now that the flow of goods entering Gaza has moved to routes through Israel, Hamas has lost its main source of revenue, while overall PA revenues have increased.

Hamas struggles to evolve

Hamas won general Palestinian elections in 2006, lost a struggle for control of the West Bank to the Western-backed Palestinians now running the PA, and then seized effective control of Gaza in 2007. It is now trying to present a new face to the world. It unveiled a long-expected, more moderate-looking new political document just before Khaled Mish‘al stepped down as leader of Hamas in early May. (Internal Hamas bylaws prevented him from running for another term.)

The specific timing of the press conference to announce the new document does seem to have been influenced by Abbas’s meeting with Trump. Prior to heading to Washington, Abbas had threatened to take new and unspecified steps against Gaza, and, just like Abbas and Netanyahu, Hamas has every reason to fear what the new U.S. administration’s policy toward it might be. Most worrisome is the possibility that Abbas could further squeeze Gaza, with the approval of the U.S. and its Arab allies. The day after Abbas’s meeting with Trump, U.S. Special Representative Jason Greenblatt attended a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a group that coordinates development aid to the Palestinians, and placed sole responsibility for Gaza’s electricity crisis on Hamas. Israeli security officials, by contrast, put much of the blame for the humanitarian situation in Gaza on the PA.

Hamas had been trying for many years to downplay the significance of its charter and dissociate itself from it, but a full renunciation was apparently a bridge too far.

The political document does not contain Hamas’s 1988 founding charter’s anti-Semitic or conspiratorial elements, it denounces ethnic and sectarian extremism and bigotry, and it places greater emphasis on Hamas’s nationalist, rather than Islamist, character. During his remarks at the launch press conference, Mish‘al clearly tried to suggest that the political document, and not the charter, now represents Hamas’s vision. But Hamas has not said it is a new charter, and nor does it abrogate or supplant the founding charter. Hamas had been trying for many years to downplay the significance of its charter and dissociate itself from it, but a full renunciation was apparently a bridge too far.

Even so, the document contained no surprises. It is highly cautious, hinting at moderation while still adhering to Hamas’s hardline tenets. It clearly rejects the so-called Quartet principles, the three conditions on diplomatic and financial support to any PA government: recognising Israel; renouncing violence; and abiding by past agreements (the document explicitly rejects the Oslo agreements). At the same time, Hamas wanted the document to be interpreted as a sign of moderation and a potential opening for engagement with governments that have boycotted it.

In attempting to please all, the document risks pleasing none. It hints at compromises in such a tepid manner that, on one hand, hardliners were not too angered, and, on the other, Western and Arab governments were not too impressed. The document fell short of expectations that the movement had itself helped set: dissociating Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood (which would have been a positive signal to Egypt); accepting a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines without recognising Israel; and endorsing so-called “popular” or more-or-less unarmed resistance as a legitimate tool.

The document’s ambiguous circumlocutions are open to many interpretations. Despite the lack of explicit dissociation from the Muslim Brotherhood, some see significance in the fact that the words Muslim Brotherhood do not appear in the document, or the vague affirmation that “Hamas stresses the necessity of maintaining the independence of Palestinian national decision-making. Outside forces should not be allowed to intervene”. The much-promised acceptance of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines was not an acceptance but rather an assertion that “Hamas considers” the establishment of such a state, without recognising Israel, “to be a formula of national consensus.”

The document emphasises continued armed resistance to Israel, and offers less than expected to those hoping Hamas might embrace nonviolent tactics and accept a two-state settlement. The text only makes a weak allusion to non-military methods: “Managing resistance, in terms of escalation or de-escalation, or in terms of diversifying the means and methods, is an integral part of the process of managing the conflict and should not be at the expense of the principle of resistance”.

Senior Hamas leaders had publicly made far more explicit statements in support of compromise than the ones appearing in the document. More than five years ago, Mish‘al himself offered more clearly and strongly worded support for both popular resistance and a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders: “Now we have a common ground that we can work on … the popular resistance, which presents the power of people .... We have political differences [with Fatah and the PLO], but the common ground is the state on the ‘67 borders. Why don't we work in this common area?”

For years, political forces seeking engagement with Hamas and those seeking its continued boycott and isolation have screamed past one another without changing many minds. Those in favor of engagement remain a minority, and the new political document is unlikely to boost them. They will point to the document’s clauses on the pre-1967 borders, but those upholding the boycott of Hamas will point to the clauses on liberating all of Palestine, from the river to the sea. Those in favor of engagement will point to the allusion to “diversifying the means and methods of resistance”; their opponents will point to the document’s emphasis on armed resistance. The debate will continue, and the document will now be cited by both sides. It’s hard to see what will change as a result of it.

Trump’s trip

The majority of observers expect that when President Trump eventually encounters serious difficulties, as he inevitably will, he will give up and turn to another issue. For now, though, it is deeply troubling to both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships that unpredictable outcomes are even possible.

What that means for the Trump administration is that he may have more coercive power than other U.S. presidents have had in getting the parties to agree to talks and accompanying confidence-building steps. In March, when Netanyahu threatened to dissolve the current government, the Israeli press was rife with speculation that one of his primary motivations in considering early elections was to buy time — from the moment an election is called until the next government is formed can take over half a year — in order to forestall a new Trump-led peace process. This might include demands on Israel that would be difficult for the present government to accept but also risky to reject, since Trump’s reaction to Israeli intransigence is wholly unknown. Elections could also potentially allow Netanyahu to form a governing coalition that would give him greater freedom to meet challenging U.S. requests.

When Trump was first elected and during the early weeks of his administration, the PLO leadership (it is the PLO, not the PA, that engages in negotiations with Israel) appeared quite nervous because, as was widely reported, it had difficulty establishing contact with senior members of the new administration. Those fears subsided considerably after Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo’s visit to the West Bank in mid-February, the March visit to Israel and the West Bank by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, and, especially, the phone call in which Trump invited Abbas to the White House.  

The other important thing for the Palestinians is to show goodwill to the U.S., to assure this administration of the PA’s utility to the U.S., and to make sure that the PLO is not seen as the obstacle to Trump achieving a historic agreement. The Palestinian leadership is keenly aware that U.S. officials view the PA primarily through a security and counter-terrorism prism. The U.S. spends a large portion of its aid to the Palestinians on training, equipping and otherwise supporting its security forces in the West Bank, and the primary aim of this support is to thwart attacks against Israel and more generally minimise friction between Israelis and Palestinians. When talking to U.S. officials, PA leaders typically emphasise their close and ongoing coordination with Israeli security forces, as well as the fact that the Palestinian security forces are praised and valued by Israel. PA leaders also contrast the PA and PLO with Hamas and argue that support to the PA can strengthen self-identified Palestinian moderates and help the U.S. achieve its broader counter-terrorism aims in the region.

Trump seems determined to start a new peace process and, for now, the parties seem determined not to openly upset him.

For his part, Trump seems determined to start a new peace process and, for now, the parties seem determined not to openly upset him. On 9 May, Abbas said that he told Trump that the Palestinians “were ready to collaborate with him and meet the Israeli PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] under his auspices to build peace”. It took President Obama nearly two years to get Abbas and Netanyahu to launch a very short-lived set of direct negotiations. If Trump’s visit secures that alone, it will be a success for him.

Whether Abbas and Netanyahu are any more likely to reach a peace agreement once they do start negotiations is another matter, as is the question of whether a new war over Gaza may overtake them all.

Members of the Yemeni Iran-backed Huthi rebels military police parade, Sanaa 2020 MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Preventing a Deadly Showdown in Northern Yemen

A Huthi offensive threatens to engulf Marib, a province controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognised government and full of internally displaced people. Outside powers should act now to halt the fighting, which could deepen the existing humanitarian crisis and ruin peace efforts elsewhere in the country.

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What’s new? A showdown looms in Yemen’s Marib governorate between the Huthis, who control much of north-western Yemen, and forces allied with the internationally recognised Yemeni government.

Why does it matter? An all-out battle for Marib could precipitate an enormous humanitarian disaster, as the province hosts at least 800,000 Yemenis already displaced from homes elsewhere. It could also scotch already dwindling chances of a nationwide de-escalation that in turn could lead to talks to end the war.

What should be done? Outside powers should urgently convene an international contact group under UN auspices to press for a comprehensive ceasefire and inclusive negotiations to stop the war. The Huthis and Yemeni government should drop maximalist demands, and Saudi Arabia should work with the U.S., UN and others to halt the hostilities.

I. Overview

The Huthis (who call themselves Ansar Allah) are moving on Marib, the last stronghold of Yemen’s internationally recognised government in the country’s north. A battle for Marib city and the eponymous governorate could trigger mass civilian displacement, shift the war for the north decisively in the Huthis’ favour and open new rounds of combat along the border with Saudi Arabia and in the south. When battles began in January, Crisis Group called for a coordinated international initiative pushing for nationwide de-escalation and comprehensive UN-led political talks, warning that otherwise the belligerents would throw away an opportunity to end the war through a negotiated settlement. No such initiative has occurred. Now the situation is more urgent, and a new chapter of conflict may be taking shape. Before a political settlement becomes even more difficult, outside powers should form a UN-chaired international contact group based in Riyadh to orchestrate efforts to stop the fighting and bring the parties to talks.

Map of Yemen

II. Marib, the Imperilled Province

Since January, the Huthis have seized strategic government military bases to the north east of Sanaa, the rebel-held capital, and swathes of territory in al-Jawf governorate bordering Saudi Arabia, including the provincial capital, al-Hazm. The fighting broke a four-year-old stalemate along the northern front lines that had been sustained in part by locally negotiated non-aggression pacts between the Huthis and their domestic rivals.

Huthi officials say their commanders believe that they can capture Marib. Yet doing so may take a bloody battle.

Huthi fighters are advancing east across multiple fronts toward Marib, a once sleepy city that is now an economic hub and a rare bastion of government control. If they capture oil and gas production facilities to Marib’s east, they will be able to cut off the city’s main economic lifeline and the eastbound highway to Seiyoun in neighbouring Hadramawt. A Huthi victory in Marib governorate would give them access to vital resources after years of war-restricted trade in their areas, while largely ending the war with the government for the north – at least for now, and barring a coalition-supported counterattack. Huthi officials say their commanders believe that they can capture Marib.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi representatives, 10 March 2020, 13 March 2020; Marib-based Yemeni government official, 8 March 2020; and Crisis Group review of audio message detailing Huthi deal offer, 3 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Yet doing so may take a bloody battle. To avoid one, the Huthis have offered local authorities a deal whereby they would halt their advance in exchange for some of Marib’s oil, gas and electricity and some administrative oversight in the governorate.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  But for the government and allied tribal groups in Marib, the battle is quasi-existential; they say they are preparing a stout defence, as well as a counteroffensive to retake al-Hazm and other lost areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pro-government sheikh from Sanaa governorate, 5 March 2020; senior Yemeni government military official, 6 March 2020; local tribal leaders, 5 March 2020.Hide Footnote

A fight for Marib, both the city and the governorate, would deepen what is already the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency. The governorate’s population has swollen from 300,000 before the war to as many as three million today, according to local authorities. The International Organization for Migration estimates that about 800,000 displaced people have moved to Marib since the war began and that an additional 4,800 families fleeing the fighting in al-Jawf have arrived in the governorate since January.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official from Marib local authority, 2 January 2020; “Displacement in Marib”, International Organization of Migration, 5 March 2020.Hide Footnote  If fighting around oil facilities were to cut off energy supplies and the eastbound highway, it would leave only a single tarmacked southbound road as an escape route. Those using this treacherous road would have to travel through Shebwa province, possibly with the Huthis not far behind them. Humanitarian organisations have a minimal presence in Shebwa and aid agencies are ill-prepared to deal with a million or more uprooted people on the move at the same time.

Some aid officials believe that Marib’s population would suffer more than people in the Red Sea port of Hodeida might have in 2018, had a battle proceeded there, citing the greater number of people in Marib and the inability of many to cover the cost of travel.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, three senior aid officials, 8 and 11 March 2020.Hide Footnote  In Hodeida’s case, political negotiations informed by fears of humanitarian catastrophe produced a UN-brokered deal between the Yemeni government and the Huthis that averted a fight for the city and its ports.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°203, Saving the Stockholm Agreement and Averting a Regional Confrontation in Yemen, 18 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Yet little outside help appears to be forthcoming in Marib. The situation is not exactly the same, as a battle for Hodeida would have cut off food and other basic supplies to two thirds of the population. Marib is a less important trade hub overall, but the government and locals are understandably resentful of what they perceive as international disinterest in the population’s plight, even after the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, visited the city and warned of grave consequences if a fight were to break out there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior government official, 8 March 2020; senior official from Marib local authority, 9 March 2020.Hide Footnote

III. The Stakes for Yemen as a Whole

A battle for Marib could spill over into other parts of the country. It could expand the Huthis’ border war with Saudi Arabia to the desert regions in northern al-Jawf, in the form of missile and drone strikes on targets inside the kingdom and/or ground combat with rival Yemeni and Saudi forces. In the south, the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) is already engaged in fierce fighting with the Huthis in al-Dhale and Lahij provinces, where clashes have intensified since January. Both the government and the STC have reported a build-up of Huthi forces near front lines in the southern governorates of Shebwa and Abyan as well.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior STC official, 6 March 2020; senior government official, 8 March 2020.Hide Footnote  The STC is preparing for a collapse of government positions and even a replay of the Huthis’ 2015 attempt to capture the southern port city of Aden.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pro-STC journalist, March 2020.Hide Footnote  Moreover, both the government and the Huthis may seek to reignite battles for Hodeida and along the Saudi-Yemeni border in hopes of strengthening their positions.

At stake in Marib is the narrow opportunity that opened in late 2019 to end Yemen’s devastating conflict through a negotiated settlement. In November and December 2019, a bilateral de-escalation track between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia brought calm to previously active fronts along the Yemeni-Saudi border and raised the possibility that the two could reach a deal, notably to secure the frontier and address Saudi concerns over Iran’s support for the Huthis. At the same time, the Saudi-brokered November 2019 Riyadh Agreement prevented a civil war within a civil war in the south and sparked hopes that a more representative Yemeni government could form to participate in future peace talks. By the end of 2019, prospects of bringing three negotiating tracks – Huthi-Saudi talks, the Riyadh Agreement and the 2018 Stockholm Agreement (which prevented the battle for Hodeida) – under a single UN-led effort to end the civil war seemed somewhat promising.

New homes are being built in the Jafaniya camp west of Marib city, Peter Salisbury, 3 January 2020 Peter Salisbury
As battles rage in the north and cross-border attacks resume, Huthi-Saudi talks have faltered.

Today, and especially with renewed fighting along the previously quiet northern front lines, all the above tracks are in jeopardy. As battles rage in the north and cross-border attacks resume, Huthi-Saudi talks have faltered. The Stockholm Agreement, too, is hanging by a thread, as violence intensifies along the Red Sea coast and a long-awaited prisoner swap continues to be delayed by wrangling among the Huthis, the government and Riyadh, despite recent progress in negotiations in Amman.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior government negotiator, Huthi official, 8 March 2020. The parties have agreed on the details of the multi-phase prisoner swaps but repeatedly put off an exchange.Hide Footnote  Finally, the STC’s military mobilisation and tensions between the secessionists and Saudi forces in Aden are placing the Riyadh Agreement under immense strain.

Yemen’s political map is set to change dramatically. Should the government lose Marib, it will forfeit much of its credibility as a counterpart to the Huthis in peace talks. Many on the government side fear that the Huthis would sue for a victor’s peace, becoming even less willing to accept some of the military/security and power-sharing compromises that their many opponents seek.[fn]The Huthis have until now accepted the need for both power-sharing and military/security arrangements in any political settlement, although not to the extent that the government demands.Hide Footnote  The government, despite its weakened position, would baulk at maximalist Huthi demands, likely preferring no solution to one in which the Huthis were so clearly dominant. Saudi-Huthi talks would also suffer. Riyadh likely had hoped to broker a deal that allowed it to declare success in Yemen and negotiate a settlement protecting its southern border. If the Huthis can consolidate control over al-Jawf, including its long border with Saudi Arabia, their leaders in Sanaa may feel that it is they who should dictate terms to the Saudis. Many Yemenis now fear a scenario in which the Huthis continue to extend their writ in large portions of Yemen as the government loses its remaining sway and the chances of an inclusive political process slip away.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, multiple anti-Huthi activists, government officials and local fighters, 5-10 March 2020.Hide Footnote

As part of this scenario, some Yemenis worry that the Saudis may bow to Huthi pressure and agree to a settlement that will protect their borders but not their Yemeni allies, leaving anti-Huthi Yemenis to fend for themselves.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  There is another possible scenario: a concerted coalition attempt to push the Huthis back through stepped-up bombing and mobilisation on multiple fronts, to include reopening the Hodeida front, where arguably the Huthis are vulnerable militarily.

IV. What Needs to Happen

The fighting needs to stop, something that will require international involvement and direct mediation. There is reason to doubt that the Huthis would accept a pause in fighting if they are convinced that they can strike a death blow to the government, at least absent meaningful incentives. Their own offer of a pause in return for primarily economic benefits indicates that, for them, breaking the financial siege of their areas is paramount. The government has not responded, making clear that it sees the proposal as impinging upon its sovereignty.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni government officials, 11 and 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The Huthis have suggested that, if local authorities reject their offer, the only solution will be a nationwide de-escalation agreement, arguing that regionally focused agreements like the one for Hodeida are ultimately unsustainable anyway.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi representatives, 13 and 14 March 2020.Hide Footnote  As part of such a process, they will want tangible economic benefits – such as free passage of ships into Hodeida, reopening of Sanaa’s airport and a unified national mechanism for revenue collection and salary payments.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi representative, 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote  This deal would not only lessen the Huthis’ economic woes but also spare them a drawn-out battle for areas long known for antipathy toward the Huthis and, for that matter, Sanaa’s rule.

A car waits for approval to travel north to al-Jawf at the main checkpoint linking the governorate with neighbouring Marib, Peter Salisbury, 4 January 2020. Peter Salisbury
In theory, both the Huthis and the government would welcome a comprehensive approach.

Halting a battle for Marib is a priority, yet recent experience has shown the limitations of a piecemeal approach to ending the war. It has also shown that the Huthis and Saudis cannot end the war alone, as both may have hoped they could at the end of 2019. Far more preferable would be a nationwide cessation of hostilities brokered by an effective mediator, namely the UN, backed by international stakeholders in Yemen, and followed by inclusive talks among all main Yemeni parties in pursuit of a realistic political deal. In theory, both the Huthis and the government would welcome a comprehensive approach. Both have repeatedly expressed resentment of regionally specific agreements that tamp down violence in one area, such as Aden or Hodeida, while allowing it to flare up in others, benefiting one side or the other while doing little to solve the political impasse that continues to drive the conflict or to stabilise the cratering economy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi officials, 8 November 2019 and 20 January 2020; government official, 8 March 2020.Hide Footnote

A comprehensive approach that seeks to meet the core interests of all sides would need to be backed by several groupings. First, as Crisis Group has argued in the past, a new contact group should be established that, at a minimum, includes representatives from the five UN Security Council members, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and the EU, with a mandate to support the UN envoy’s efforts to revive a peace process. Secondly, also as previously advocated by Crisis Group, the UN should help form a Yemeni national military body made up not just of government and Huthi representatives but of a wide range of Yemeni belligerents, including the STC, forces fighting under Tareq Saleh (nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh) on the Red Sea coast and others. This body, with close support from the international contact group, would be charged with negotiating and overseeing a national de-escalation.[fn]See Crisis Group Conflict Alert, “Breaking a Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen”, 24 January 2020. Hide Footnote  Under current circumstances, these two bodies could play a critical role in negotiating a halt to the fighting in Marib as part of a wider de-escalation effort and a push for national talks.

Absent coordinated international support, and particularly a stepped-up U.S. role in mediating a deal involving national de-escalation and economic benefits, a halt to the fighting does not look likely. Nor do peace talks. In 2018, the UN envoy was able to get a deal between the Huthis and the government thanks to direct U.S. diplomatic intervention with the Saudi leadership.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Saving the Stockholm Agreement and Averting a Regional Confrontation in Yemen, op. cit.Hide Footnote Yet since October 2019, the U.S. in particular seems to have pinned its hopes of winding down the war on the Saudis’ ability to manage both their talks with the Huthis and implementation of the Riyadh Agreement. Before these efforts go completely off the rails, Washington and others interested in ending the war should provide renewed backing for a UN process.

Washington is critical because it is best placed to encourage Riyadh, and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his brother Khalid, the deputy defence minister who holds the Yemen file, to engage constructively with all Yemeni parties and nudge them toward a deal. In parallel, and as part of a new international contact group, the U.S. could clarify for the Huthis the circumstances under which it would be willing to both pressure the Saudis to end the war and accept the Huthis as fully legitimate interlocutors. The U.S. should be realistic in this endeavour. Washington and Riyadh want the Huthis to sever ties to Tehran, but they will likely have to settle for gradual and partial disengagement rather than a complete break.

The Huthis, although feeling increasingly comfortable in their military position in Yemen, are squeezed and isolated economically. They want a break from the war, economic relief, international recognition, and a significant share of power for their movement and their allied de facto authorities in Sanaa. Through direct diplomacy, and by leading a coordinated international approach through a contact group, the U.S. could assist the Saudis in setting the terms for normalising their relationship with the Huthis as part of a wider power-sharing deal among all Yemeni parties that would need to be buttressed by significant outside economic support. Washington and Riyadh could also offer the government and anti-Huthi Yemenis reassurances that they are not rubber-stamping a Huthi takeover of the country as a quick fix to end the war and promise to hold the Huthis (along with all other parties) accountable for adhering to the terms of a signed peace accord.

For this approach to succeed, the various Yemeni parties to the conflict also will have to accept the need to compromise to end the war. The Huthis say they believe in a future Yemen that is governed equitably through power sharing. Now that they seem to have the military upper hand in the conflict, even in areas outside their northern highlands base, they should show other Yemeni groups, including but not limited to the government, that they are capable of accepting others and willing to compromise from a position of strength. Otherwise, opposition to their rule will fester and grow, notably in areas that they have captured by force of arms. The government should also move away from maximalist positions, including demands that the Huthis essentially surrender control of all Yemen to the internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi. This stance, which the Hadi government has upheld since it fled Sanaa in early 2015, is increasingly far removed from reality.

If there is no viable, inclusive political process soon, some of the government’s allies on the ground may see no choice but to cut deals with the Huthis, with or without the government. Rival anti-Huthi groups like the STC, which the government has sought to keep out of UN-led talks in the past, may take this path. Even if they do, however, fighting will likely grind on as the Huthis work to consolidate their control over the north while the anti-Huthi forces who have struck bargains with the Huthis carve up the rest of the country among themselves, with the government an increasingly marginal player.

During five years of war, Yemen has become poorer and more divided. A political resolution will require long, hard work and will leave most national and regional stakeholders unsatisfied. But it is better than the alternative: still more years of fighting, political and territorial atomisation, as well as ever deeper human deprivation. The opportunity to stop the fighting that opened at the end of 2019 is fading fast. It should not be allowed to disappear.

Marib/New York/Brussels, 17 March 2020