The war in Yemen, which escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government against Huthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has turned a poor country into a humanitarian catastrophe: hunger and fighting could provoke mass famine and waves of refugees; the conflict could destabilise Saudi Arabia; and both sides appear locked in a cycle of escalating violence, derailing UN peace talks. Crisis Group’s focus is on the negotiations: introducing ourselves at key points, shaping the debate, proposing solutions and encouraging stakeholders to modify positions based on our analysis. Concerted effort is required to convince the parties to accept the UN’s roadmap as the basis for a compromise that would end foreign intervention and allow Yemenis to make peace.
Heavy fighting has started again in Yemen after one of the war’s quietest months. Battles on the northern front lines highlight the flaws of the piecemeal approach to negotiating an end to the war – and the pressing need for a coordinated multi-track effort.
Originally published in Foreign Affairs
Suspected Huthi missile strike on govt forces in north led to intensification of fighting on several fronts including across Yemen-Saudi border, which could spread and escalate further in Feb; govt and southern separatists agreed on new roadmap to implement 5 Nov Riyadh Agreement; and troop build-up in Taiz province in south could augur escalation in Feb between Sunni Islamists and Salafists. In north, talks between Saudi Arabia and Huthis continued and for first half of month both sides largely refrained from cross-border violence. But Huthis increased tempo of fighting along key front lines in north and strike on govt forces’ base in Marib province 18 Jan that reportedly killed over 100 soldiers led to escalation between Huthis and their allies on one side and Saudi-led coalition on other in Al Jawf, Marib and Sanaa governorates. Both sides suffered heavy losses. In south, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, govt and separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) 9 Jan agreed on “Phase 2” plan to implement Nov Riyadh Agreement; parties had failed to fully implement deal within initial 90-day timeframe disagreeing on how to sequence security and political aspects, with clashes erupting early Jan. New plan requires govt-affiliated forces to redeploy from Aden to front lines in al-Dhale and Abyan provinces, and for STC forces to move from Aden to Lahj governorate within twenty days from 11 Jan. As part of “Phase 2” agreement, govt and STC exchanged 53 prisoners 12 Jan. Rival Yemeni groups 24 Jan completed transfer of heavy weapons in Aden to Saudi-controlled base in city within fifteen-day timeframe. After early redeployments from Aden, process again stalled late Jan, with local appointments still not made. In Taiz governorate, tensions mounted between Sunni Islamist Islah forces, which control Taiz city centre, and United Arab Emirates-backed forces based in Turbah south of city and on Red Sea coast. Islah reportedly building up forces near Turbah late month raising risk of major confrontation there.
The UN General Assembly kicks off on 17 September amid general scepticism about the world body’s effectiveness in an era of rising great-power competition. But the UN is far from paralysed. Here are seven crisis spots where it can make a positive difference for peace.
Yemen’s anti-Huthi coalition has begun to splinter, with sharp fighting between Saudi- and Emirati-backed elements in the country’s south. With UN assistance, the Gulf monarchies should urgently broker a ceasefire as a prelude to an expanded peace process encompassing southern secessionists and others now excluded.
The UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement to stop fighting around Yemen’s Red Sea city of Hodeida is faltering as violence on other front lines and across the Saudi border escalates. The UN and P5 should stabilise the Stockholm Agreement and push conflict parties toward national peace talks.
Two successive U.S. administrations have backed the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen, helping deepen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Congress should continue pressing the White House to end this support, while working to strengthen its war powers role in the future.
A Saudi-led coalition attack on the city of Hodeida risks plunging millions of Yemenis into famine and will meet fierce resistance from Huthi rebels. The U.S. should stop enabling coalition offensives and international stakeholders must quickly place Hodeida under UN control.
More than three years into Yemen’s war, a bloody battle looms for the Huthi-held port city of Hodeida. International leaders should work for a UN-led negotiated settlement to stop the offensive and, if this fails, take steps to avoid deepening what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
For now, neither the Houthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.
A successful agreement [between the Yemeni government and southern secessionists] would keep a lid on violence long enough to allow progress in other parts of the country.
It has been politically more convenient to lay the blame for Houthis at Iran’s door than to say that the Houthis’ rise was the product of a series of internal political miscalculations and misplaced international priorities.
Without a political settlement, Yemen threatened to play a role as a trigger or to become embroiled in a wider regional conflict, in particular if a Houthi or Houthi-claimed attack was successful.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have allied with distinct Yemeni partners. Yet to this point in the conflict, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have worked to maintain a relative detente between competing interests in the south.
The problem right now from the perspective of ending the [Yemen] war is that Saudi Arabia and to an extent the Trump administration are unwilling to do so without a tangible ‘win’ for Riyadh.
Since the September attack on Saudi oil facilities, Riyadh and the Houthis have taken a step back from all-out war. All parties, including the United States, should seize this rare opportunity to resolve the conflict.
Originally published in Foreign Policy
Watch List Updates complement International Crisis Group’s annual Watch List, most recently published in January 2019. These early-warning publications identify major conflict situations in which prompt action, driven or supported by the European Union and its member states, would generate stronger prospects for peace. The third update to the Watch List 2019 includes entries on Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Sudan and Yemen.
On 14 September, strikes of uncertain provenance hit Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities, taking some 50 per cent of the kingdom’s oil production temporarily offline. Crisis Group offers a 360-degree view of the attacks and their implications for Middle Eastern and international peace and security.