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Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Yemen Should be a Factor in U.S. Yemen Policy
Yemen Should be a Factor in U.S. Yemen Policy
UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths makes a speech during the UN Security Council meeting on Yemen at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States on 14 December 2018. Atilgan Ozdil / Anadolu Agency

Crisis Group Yemen Update #9

This is the ninth briefing note in Crisis Group’s Yemen Campaign. Notes are published fortnightly. This week, we return to the UN’s efforts to make the Hodeida agreement stick.

Trendline: Holdup in Hodeida

It is almost a year since an anticipated battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida became the centre of gravity in Yemen’s civil war, as well as international efforts to end it.

In June 2018, Crisis Group described the conflict as having reached an inflection point. Along with other observers, we feared that a bloody battle between Huthi fighters in Hodeida and UAE-backed forces outside it would push the war into a new, more perilous phase and likely trigger a devastating famine. We argued instead for a UN-brokered deal to prevent the fight and, possibly, to lay the groundwork for a nationwide peace process.

The good news, ten months later, is that the battle for Hodeida has not occurred. But the threat of renewed fighting still looms. In December 2018, UN-sponsored talks in Sweden between the northern Huthi rebels, who prefer to be known as Ansar Allah, and the internationally recognised government of Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi put the battle on ice, shifting the focus of fighting elsewhere in Yemen as the UN struggled to implement the terms of the Hodeida ceasefire and military redeployment there.

Some pronounced the December Stockholm Agreement as a breakthrough deal. Following two years of no talks and no agreements, in some ways, it was. But from the start it was clear that turning the agreement to demilitarise Hodeida and the Red Sea trade corridor into reality on the ground would be an uphill battle (Crisis Group’s analysis of the deal is here). One challenge has been ambiguities in the deal itself. The agreement was brokered in a rush, with the Huthis and Hadi government accepting it at the very last minute and under intense international pressure. As a result, the language is vague on some crucial details and the two parties have radically different interpretations of its meaning. A UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), made up of Huthi and Hadi government representatives, meanwhile, was tasked with turning the accord’s “mutual redeployment of forces” into a technical agreement on who would move what, when, where and in what order – a huge task in and of itself.

The main political sticking point for both sides has been the question of the “local security forces” meant to secure Hodeida port and city, along with two nearby ports at Saleef and Ras Issa, once redeployments are completed. The Hadi government generally sees the agreement as stipulating that these forces should be drawn from pre-2014 police force and coast guards and fall under their interior ministry’s supervision. The Huthis’ interpretation is that current security forces – which include many of their supporters – will remain in the city and ports, with minimal changes, once military forces have been removed. They view discussion of changing the local security forces as a Trojan horse – a way for the Hadi government to use the cover of agreed-upon military redeployments to claim sovereignty over the city and prejudice any future peace settlement. In fairness, both readings of the written agreement are defensible. That said, many who were present in Stockholm say the spirit of the agreement was to prioritise military redeployments, not sovereignty questions, which are to be addressed later, during national political negotiations.

A series of holdups over the past four months have seen the early euphoria of Stockholm dissolve into deepening impatience among international and Yemeni players.

Over the past four months, the RCC’s two chairs, Patrick Cammaert and his successor Michael Anker Lollesgaard, have worked to resolve technical disagreements over redeployments by working with the military-security representatives of the two sides on the committee, while Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy, pushes the political leadership to reach a deal on the local security forces issue. Some progress has been made within the RCC. In February, they agreed to the outlines of the two-phase redeployment plan. Phase one, step one involves Huthi redeployment from Ras Isa and Saleef ports; phase one, step two involves simultaneous redeployments from Hodeida port and an area called Kilo 8; and phase two involves mutual redeployments from the city and its surroundings, with the local security forces taking over control. On 13 April, the RCC finalised technical details of phase one almost to the metre. Yet the thorny issue of local security forces remains unresolved.

The announcement of agreement on the details of phase one redeployments at the 15 April UN Security Council meeting buys time, but frustration is growing. A series of holdups over the past four months have seen the early euphoria of Stockholm dissolve into deepening impatience among international and Yemeni players. In a Security Council meeting on 15 April, the UK’s Permanent Representative Karen Pierce channelled this sentiment, describing the lack of follow-through as “very worrying” and warning of “stronger measures” the next time the Council meets if the impasse persists.

Diplomats working on Yemen face a dilemma. They are searching for new ways of pressuring the Yemeni parties, particularly the Huthis, over whom they have the least leverage, to compromise. But they have a limited toolkit at their disposal for doing so and do not want to inadvertently cause the collapse of a process that, while painfully slow-moving, has yielded progress since December. They also understand that the Hodeida plan’s failure would have far-reaching consequences, including renewed hostilities between the Huthis and their rivals in Hodeida and on other fronts, rapid deterioration of what is already the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and a return to the political paralysis that plagued the peace process between 2016 and 2018. 

In recent weeks, diplomats, some UN officials and even some leaders of the Saudi-led coalition had come to quietly acknowledge that the best-case scenario for the Stockholm Agreement in the medium term is that the first phase of redeployments comes off as planned. This minimum achievement would stave off the threat of a battle for Hodeida. It could precede a much slower march toward agreements on the second phase and the composition of local security forces, with the latter likely becoming part of a broader political process.

Yemen's Red Sea trade corridor: Hodeida port and city, Ras Issa and Saleef Ports. CRISISGROUP

But there is no trust between the Huthis and the Hadi government, and neither side is willing to move forward without greater clarity on what comes afterward. The Huthis worry that they will be militarily vulnerable after the redeployments’ first phase, which will leave the Red Sea ports and Kilo 8 triangle on the eastern edge of the city undefended, patrolled only by UN monitors, while the city would still be encircled by the numerically and technologically superior UAE-backed force. The Huthis do not want a gap between the phases, which they fear that their foes could exploit to seize the ports and city. For its part, the Hadi government, fearful that the process could leave Hodeida under effective Huthi control, wants to resolve the local security forces issue before implementing redeployments.

The technical plan for the redeployments’ second phase, which would be even more intricate than the first, could take months, as could talks about local security forces. Thus the parties and international officials will either have to wait even longer for any movement on the ground, or ram through initial redeployments that would leave the UN monitors forced to act as a de facto security cordon between rival fighters on either side of the Kilo 8 triangle. This is something the Huthis are unlikely to trust as it provides no guarantee against their rivals exploiting the vulnerability in their defences created by the first phase of redeployments. Guarantees that the international community will not allow this to happen may be needed.

The final conundrum for international policymakers is that of leverage.

The final conundrum for international policymakers is that of leverage. Western diplomats acknowledge that they can apply only calibrated pressure on the Hadi government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They have fewer tools available to them when it comes to the Huthis, and there is a perception that the northern rebels came to the table in December only because they were on the verge of losing Hodeida – an assertion the Huthis dispute. In effect, a Western diplomat says, international actors’ main source of leverage with the Huthis is the implicit threat that they will allow the Hodeida assault to go ahead – something that would cause international outcry and further convince the Huthis that the UN and Western powers are working against them and cannot be trusted.

Although both the Hadi government and the Huthis have delayed the negotiations with regular nitpicking, many Western diplomats perceive that the Huthis are the proximate barrier to progress. It is true that the Huthis are required to move first in the first phase of redeployments. But both the Huthi and government delegations at the RCC seem to be taking turns raising issues they know their rivals will find unpalatable.

Under mounting pressure from the Hadi government and the coalition to acknowledge the perception of Huthi stubbornness, and have the UN do so, some Western embassies are now tempted to push for public statements calling the Huthis out. But while doing so may satisfy diplomats and the coalition, it is unlikely to help turn the Stockholm Agreement into a reality. Indeed, it could cause backlash from the Huthis and be used as a pretext by Hadi or the coalition to declare the process dead. At the same time, failure to apply pressure in the face of further delays is likely to undermine the credibility of the UN, confidence among the parties and faith that the international community is capable of brokering a solution to the Yemen war.

Bottom Line: Progress of some kind on Hodeida is needed – and fast. But full implementation of the Stockholm Agreement is some way off. Ideally, the two sides would reach agreement on phase two redeployments and the local security forces within the next few weeks, so that implementation could start and proceed as a package. More diplomatic pressure on the Hadi government from the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and on the Huthis from Oman is probably necessary if the difficult issue of local security forces is finally to be resolved. But if past is precedent, negotiations may drag on, risking renewed violence and the agreement’s collapse. If negotiators see this happening, one option could be to focus on unilateral Huthi redeployment from Saleef and Ras Issa ports at a minimum (and possibly Hodeida port as well), something the Huthis have offered in the past, before returning to the thornier issue of the city and local security forces. Something needs to happen on the ground to build at least a little trust that the agreement still stands.

Political and Military Developments

The Hadi government and the Huthis both made plays to demonstrate their political legitimacy this week, with the government inaugurating a parliamentary session in the eastern city of Seiyun and the Huthis describing this meeting as “illegitimate”, while holding parliamentary elections in the territory they control. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which had threatened to derail any attempt by the Hadi government to host parliament in the southern city of Aden, also criticised the meeting. 

Some 141 members of the 301-member House of Representatives met in Seiyun, where they nominated a new speaker and deputy speakers, and ratified a budget for 2019. Those present elected Sultan al-Barakani, a senior member of the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s historical ruling party, and a long-time loyalist of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as speaker. Members also discussed a proposal to name the Huthis a terrorist organisation.

Parliamentary elections were last held in 2003, and since then an estimated 34 elected members have died. The government argues that a parliamentary quorum, the minimum number of members needed to debate and pass legislation, is therefore now 134 members. The Huthis, who have held sessions of parliament in Sanaa and in 2015 announced a “constitutional declaration” that they say overrides the authority of parliament, dismiss this argument. By holding elections for vacant seats, they believe they have further undermined the Hadi government’s claim to parliamentary legitimacy. The STC vice president, Hani bin Breik, also described the meeting as illegitimate, going on to say that the Hadi government held it in “Islah-held” southern territory that is yet to be liberated. (Islah is a predominantly Sunni Islamist party, which encompasses Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.) As Islah is a political force nominally backing Hadi, some in the Hadi government regarded this remark as a veiled threat that STC-aligned forces might be sent to attempt a takeover of Seiyun.

Violence continued around Hodeida, with the Huthis reporting repeated attacks on the eastern side of the city and the coalition alleging Huthi attacks in Durayhimi district to the south. Fighting has also escalated up and down the Red Sea coast, in particular in Tuhayta and Hays districts. Elsewhere, heavy fighting has been reported in Hajja governorate, continuing a recent trend, and along the border and in al-Jawf governorate. A number of coalition airstrikes hit Sanaa on 10 April, causing what is reported to be the highest number of civilian casualties in the capital in over a year.

Bottom Line: As the Stockholm Agreement falters, the power struggle that has consumed the country continues unabated elsewhere. While the push for political legitimacy could be seen as a positive signal that Yemen’s power centres see a political process in the offing, in practice it may trigger renewed violence among purported allies in the anti-Huthi camp.

Hodeida port and city: Key frontlines, roads and infrastructure. CRISISGROUP

Regional and International Developments

On 16 April, President Donald Trump announced his veto of a joint resolution of Congress that would have directed the removal of U.S. forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen, with certain exceptions relating to counter-terrorism operations. 

In his veto message, the president suggested that U.S. support for the coalition helps protect U.S. nationals in Saudi Arabia and other coalition countries that have been subject to attack by Huthi insurgents in Yemen. He also suggested concern that the resolution would, among other things, tread on his constitutional prerogatives as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, damage U.S. bilateral relations with coalition participants and embolden Iran in “malign activities” in Yemen.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signalling that he will not pursue an override of the president’s veto, the question is what additional measures Congress may take in an effort to curtail U.S. support for the war. In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer issued a response to the presidential veto message stating that “the fight is not yet over, and the House will explore further legislation and conduct rigorous oversight”. It is not clear, however, what this might entail. Because of procedural challenges in pursuing stand-alone legislation, the best path forward for enacting legislative restrictions on U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict may be to include them in must-pass legislation like the annual defence authorisation legislation. Whether or not this is politically feasible, however, remains to be seen.

For Crisis Group’s comprehensive assessment of U.S. involvement in the Yemen war – both the origins of that involvement and how it has evolved under the Trump administration – see our new report, Ending the Yemen Quagmire: Lessons for Washington from Four Years of War.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the Security Council issued a press statement on 17 April underscoring its “grave concern” at the lack of progress in Hodeida. The Council welcomed the agreement on a first phase of redeployments and called for the parties to implement the plan as quickly as possible and “not to seek to exploit the redeployment process” – a slightly opaque attempt to address the Huthis’ concerns that they could be attacked in the period between the two redeployment phases. Diplomats say that the Security Council will be forced to take some kind of action if no progress has been made in one month’s time, although it has limited options beyond public criticism and perhaps the threat of new sanctions, which members like Russia are likely to reject.

The debate around military sales and assistance to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen continues to rage in Europe. Germany's National Security Council, consisting of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her chief ministers, has reportedly approved shipments of weapons parts to countries directly involved in the war in Yemen. The approvals come two weeks after the German government extended a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. On 15 April, France-Inter and Disclose revealed classified information from the French Military Intelligence Directorate that seemed to confirm the use of French military equipment and weapons in the war in Yemen – something Paris denies.

Bottom Line:  While advocates of the war powers legislation had hoped that President Trump’s non-interventionist tendencies might lead him to overrule his advisers and sign it into law, his veto ended any such hope. The question now is twofold: first, whether the administration will use the Congressional action to persuade its Gulf partners that, while the president protected them, domestic anger at the war is growing and thus the time has come to end it or, alternatively, lend its support to more aggressive coalition action against the Huthis in the name of countering Iran. And, second, whether Congressional opponents of the war will be able to find a new vehicle for applying meaningful pressure on both the administration and the coalition to focus their efforts on bringing the conflict to an end.

Click here for the latest CrisisWatch entry for Yemen.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Irqah Palace in the capital Riyadh on 20 February 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP
Commentary / United States

Yemen Should be a Factor in U.S. Yemen Policy

The Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Huthi movement as a terrorist organisation, in response to allies’ appeals and as part of the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The idea seems unlikely to reduce Tehran’s influence and could harm diplomatic prospects for peace.

The Washington Post reported on 25 September that U.S. officials are considering a potentially consequential new step in Washington’s approach to Yemen: either designating the Huthis – the term used by most Yemenis to describe the rebel group that controls the capital Sanaa and much of north-western Yemen and calls itself Ansar Allah – as a foreign terrorist organisation or naming particular Huthi leaders as specially designated global terrorists. When Washington designates a group as a foreign terrorist organisation, it makes material support for that group a crime, freezes its assets and bars its members from entering the U.S. The consequences of an individual designation are similar but slightly less onerous. Although there are technical criteria for designation, which officials say the Huthis largely fulfil, the decision to name a group or individual is ultimately a political one – and extremely hard to reverse. In line with the Post’s reporting, U.S. officials and non-U.S. diplomats tell Crisis Group that the move is being framed in internal deliberations as an expansion of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Others say discussions of a designation were prompted by direct requests from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Gulf monarchies leading the coalition that has intervened against the Huthis, who seized control of Sanaa from the internationally recognised government in September 2014, triggering the current civil war. 

Support for a designation within the U.S. government is not unanimous. A number of officials across the executive branch are said to oppose the movearguing that it could impede fragile diplomatic efforts in Yemen, push the Huthis further into Iran’s arms, worsen the humanitarian crisis and cause an escalation in the conflict. While it is hard to imagine that proponents of a designation have not considered the knock-on effects it would have on diplomacy or the course of Yemen’s war, they at least seem not to be bothered by those consequences. 

Yemen’s officials see a designation as a way of reiterating their stance that they are the sole legitimate authority.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government has its own reasons to seek a designation, which it made clear in a 6 October op-ed by information minister Moammar al-Iryani. Its officials see a designation as a way of reiterating their stance that they are the sole legitimate authority in Yemen – the Huthis, an official says, are an “illegitimate authority” and a designation would further codify this judgment. These officials also think a designation would hurt the Huthis’ efforts to convert their de facto control of northern Yemen into some sort of internationally recognised status. The Huthis appear to have the military upper hand, having tightened their grip on Yemen’s populous highlands and Sanaa, and, in recent months, begun to seize new territory in the north. The government believes that designating them as a terrorist organisation would create leverage for its side by signalling to the Huthis’ allies that the group has no political viability in the long run, and that it would provide the UN with more leverage, allowing it to offer the Huthis a path to declassification in exchange for political and military concessions. 

Saudi Arabia likely sees similar advantages in a designation. Over the past five years, Saudi officials have at different times urged the U.S. to increase its military support for their war effort, arguing that doing so will turn the tide against the rebels. For the most part, however, there has been little appetite within either the Obama or Trump administrations for expanded involvement in another costly and potentially unwinnable regional war, especially in the face of bipartisan Congressional resistance. Over time, the Saudis have concluded that a purely military approach is unlikely to work. But with the Huthis in a dominant military position, they have struggled to find a way to press the rebels to agree to a solution to Riyadh’s liking – namely, one that allows Riyadh a face-saving way out of the war and addresses its concerns over border security, the Huthis’ relationship with Iran and the group’s access to ballistic missiles. Like the Yemeni government, the Saudis appear to believe that a designation might weaken the Huthis’ position and so force them into bigger compromises. Several Gulf officials have made similar points to their Western counterparts, diplomats tell Crisis Group. 

The U.S. has a leverage problem of its own in Yemen, with which working-level officials are deeply frustrated.

The U.S. has a leverage problem of its own in Yemen, with which working-level officials are deeply frustrated. As Saudi Arabia’s main security guarantor and arms supplier, the U.S. can pressure officials in Riyadh to make compromises, especially as they can credibly cite Congressional outcry and desire to end the limited U.S. role in the fighting. In contrast, Washington has little to no purchase with the Huthis, who are already politically and economically isolated, and understand that the U.S. has no appetite for deeper involvement in the war. 

These considerations may or may not have traction with more senior U.S. policymakers, but it is likely a moot point. The administration’s main motivation seems to have very little to do with Yemen and a great deal to do with Iran. The Trump administration has sought since its early days to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East through pressure and punitive action. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, reportedly sees a designation as another lever to pull as part of the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran – a campaign that has seen Washington levy a wide array of unilateral sanctions against Tehran in an attempt to curtail its influence in the Middle East. Designating the Huthis as a terrorist group, or senior Huthis individually, could allow the administration to display yet again its determination to go after Iran and its regional allies.

A designation would likely have negative consequences for Yemen’s peace process.

But a designation would likely have negative consequences for Yemen’s peace process. At a practical level, terrorist designations create legal impediments that can make it difficult for mediators to do the kind of diplomacy that is required to bring about a peace deal. For example, under the material support restrictions that flow from designating a group as a foreign terrorist organisation, it becomes a crime to provide the organisation or its members with any property or service – including transportation, lodging, expert advice or assistance. Although there may be workarounds in some cases, these prohibitions could still have a chilling effect on the efforts of the UN and other external mediators. 

A designation of the group would also damage the economic and transport ties that sustain Yemen’s hungry and allow at least limited diplomatic contact with senior Huthi leaders in Sanaa. The Huthis sit in Yemen’s busiest port, Hodeida, and the capital, including the only functioning airport in the country’s north west, and exert considerable control over commercial entities like banks and telecommunications firms. By exposing businesses that deal with the Huthis to U.S. criminal liability or economic sanctions, a designation could severely dampen or even come close to halting international trade with Yemen, where most of the population lives, thereby deepening what is already the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. It could make it harder, for example, for the UN to charter aid flights in and out of Sanaa. 

There could be other unintended consequences. Diplomats working on the Yemen file have pinned their hopes for an end to the war on a Huthi-Saudi rapproachment, something that is hard to imagine if Saudi pressure leads to a Huthi designation. Some Huthi officials already see the UN as an executor of U.S. policy, and might blame the UN for complicity in the move, plunging Yemen into a diplomatic vacuum. Coupled with the recent U.S. decision to freeze funding for aid in northern Yemen, it would also deepen the impression among the Huthis and their supporters that the U.S. is a willing or even enthusiastic participant in the economic war they say the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition has been waging against them. The rebels will likely use a designation as another rallying cry against what they term a war of external aggression.

At the same time, designation would not shift the Huthis’ assessment of the balance of power. The group sees the war not as a five-year conflict, but as the latest phase in the sixteen-year battle it has been fighting. It believes it has the stamina to wait out the current U.S. and Saudi postures. In an interview with Crisis Group in late September, a senior Huthi official, Mohammed Ali al-Huthi, argued that a designation would be a purely political move by the U.S. to justify its and Saudi Arabia’s role in the war. He noted that the U.S. was eventually forced to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban almost two decades after designating some of its leaders as terrorists. 

When it comes to Iran, Huthi leaders have repeatedly told Crisis Group and others that they see two paths for their side: a deal to end the war, after which they will enjoy “normal” relations with Saudi Arabia and other regional and international powers (including Iran); or more war and a continued shift on their part toward the self-proclaimed “axis of resistance” led by Iran. A designation would confirm Huthi suspicions of the U.S. and its allies’ intentions, and could push them deeper into an Iranian embrace. 

The war’s brutality makes ending it and returning to politics a more urgent matter – and a designation seems more likely to prolong than curtail the conflict.

The Huthis are not the innocents they often paint themselves as being. The government is correct to say that the rebels seized control of the territory they hold by force, overturning a UN-led political transition. The Huthis run something akin to a police state in northern Yemen and, like all parties to the conflict, have likely committed a series of violations of international humanitarian law over the course of the conflict. But the war’s brutality makes ending it and returning to politics a more urgent matter – and a designation seems more likely to prolong than curtail the conflict. 

Deepening Huthi isolation and economic deprivation has not, to date, eased the rebels’ stranglehold upon the territory they control, forced them into a compromise or changed their attitude to the U.S. and its regional allies. Doubling down is unlikely to produce different results other than degrading what little influence the U.S. has had with the Huthis to start with. And if the U.S. wants to end Iranian influence in Yemen, making the Huthis even more reliant on Tehran for political and economic support does not seem like the most sensible way of going about it. It is a strange thing to have to argue, but Yemen should be a factor in U.S. Yemen policy.