A New UN Envoy is an Opportunity for a New Approach in Yemen
A New UN Envoy is an Opportunity for a New Approach in Yemen
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, flanked by senior Swedish, Swiss and UN officials, addresses a news conference after the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen, in Geneva, Switzerland, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

A New UN Envoy is an Opportunity for a New Approach in Yemen

The UN is recruiting a new envoy to broker peace in Yemen. More important than who gets the job is how UN member states and the mediator perceive its purpose, interpretations of which have limited the UN to the flawed two-party framework adopted since 2015.  

Martin Griffiths, the outgoing UN envoy to Yemen, gave his final briefing to the UN Security Council on 15 June, painting what he said was a “bleak picture” of stalled efforts to broker a ceasefire and initiate talks over ending the country’s six-year civil war. Elite Yemeni and diplomatic circles are now abuzz with speculation about who will replace Griffiths, whom the UN has named as its new top humanitarian official. Yet the better question is not who the envoy will be, but what job description the new person will have. The situation in Yemen has changed significantly since the war broke out, and it is time for mediation efforts to catch up.

In 2011, Ban Ki-moon, then secretary-general, dispatched the UN’s first representative, the veteran British-Moroccan mediator Jamal Benomar, to Yemen’s capital Sanaa with a broad remit to shape the UN’s response to popular street protests and regime infighting. Since then, the country has undergone a precipitous, heart-rending transformation. Having overseen an abortive political transition between 2012 and 2014, Benomar was succeeded by a Mauritanian UN official, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in early 2015, shortly after the civil war erupted; he, in turn, was followed by Griffiths, a British diplomat and mediator, in 2018, a year and a half after the only major round of face-to-face Yemeni peace talks to date, led by the UN and held in Kuwait, collapsed.

Yemen has fragmented into numerous zones of military and political control over the course of the war.

Yemen has fragmented into numerous zones of military and political control over the course of the war. The Huthis, who control Yemen’s populous north west, are lined up against a wide array of local forces, from northern tribesmen and formerly allied military units to southern secessionists and Salafi militias, across several fronts. As these armed and political factions have proliferated, they have turned to regional actors for arms, money and political support, and have often devoted as much of their energy to fighting each other as the Huthis. The UN has not kept up with the pace of change, despite having ways to do so. The crux of the issue is the dominant interpretation of an April 2015 Security Council resolution. Resolution 2216 names the Huthis, who had seized Sanaa the previous September, along with the Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi that they ousted, as the conflict’s two primary belligerents. In effect, it also demands that the Huthis and their allies surrender to Hadi, whom it affirms as Yemen’s legitimate president. Hadi, his backers in Riyadh and the Huthis argue that the resolution restricts the UN’s mandate to a two-party negotiation framework, which they all favour. The president and his allies further contend that the war can end only with their return to power in Sanaa, but few foreign officials seem to believe this goal is realistic.

The two sides’ interpretation of Resolution 2216 has spread among UN and diplomatic circles, and 2216 is increasingly viewed as a barrier to progress. Some politicians and commentators in the U.S. have called for it to be replaced outright, albeit without providing much detail as to what a new resolution would consist of. There may be no need for another text, however, as 2216 already provides the necessary flexibility: it calls for an “inclusive” and “consultative” process to resolve Yemen’s many political crises. The UN has yet to test more expansive interpretations of this language than the one prevailing at present. Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Griffiths each calculated that trying to change the UN approach, in particular by engaging more parties than just the Hadi-Riyadh axis and the Huthis, was more trouble than it was worth. Both envoys decided to stick to the two-party model rather than spend their time dealing with pushback from those it favours.

But this approach has not worked. Since early 2020, Griffiths has sought to broker a nationwide ceasefire between the Huthis and Hadi, an agreement upon humanitarian and economic confidence-building measures such as an end to restrictions on trade entering Hodeida port and the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, and a return to national-level political talks, with Riyadh given a de facto veto over negotiations. In early 2021, the incoming Biden administration threw its weight behind this initiative. In response, the Huthis and Hadi government have alternately quibbled with and excoriated the UN plan, taking turns, in Griffiths’ telling, to try blocking it. The Huthis, who have the military edge on the ground, calculate that they stand to gain by stalling; they have pushed for the deal to come into effect piecemeal, to their benefit. The government views compromise on Hodeida port and Sanaa airport – which the Huthis say must come before ceasefire negotiations can start – as the beginning of the end for its side. Because each party can shoot down UN proposals and because each sees the war increasingly in zero-sum terms, neither has a strong incentive to moderate its stance or even negotiate. Other powerful armed and political factions on the ground, meanwhile, have repeatedly declared that they will reject any settlement in which the UN has given them no say.

Some UN member states expect the next envoy to continue the current approach and make it work, but say they are open to a shakeup of a moribund process if and when an opportunity presents itself. But hanging on to a framework that has failed is wrong-headed, as is passively waiting for change to come. Instead, UN member states should see the changing of the guard as an opportunity to proactively push the new envoy to articulate a realistic vision for ending the conflict and create space for carrying it out. This view is not just Crisis Group’s. In his valedictory speech, Griffiths himself noted that Yemen needs an inclusive political process and a settlement that reflects the interests of local conflict parties and peace advocates alike.

Crisis Group has long advocated for the UN to expand the talks beyond the two-party framework.

Crisis Group has long advocated for the UN to expand the talks beyond the two-party framework. It should include militia leaders and politicians who can make a ceasefire stick, as well as organisations, particularly women-led groups, that have negotiated local truces and helped stabilise the areas where they live. The UN could add some of these groups to the main negotiations and/or establish a parallel track to provide them with a venue to inform an initial political settlement. Doing so would signal to the Huthis and Hadi that they can no longer approach negotiations as a winner-takes-all proposition. In order to achieve at least some of their aims in a multiparty process, the government and the Huthis would have to build alliances with other Yemeni groups, and hence make compromises. An expanded process, in other words, would encourage deal-making. It would also help prevent attempts by either of the two main parties to spoil negotiations or to ram through provisions detrimental to the other side, which would all but guarantee a return to conflict.

To make such a shift work, UN member states, the five permanent members of the Security Council in particular, would need to work in concert, as they did before the war broke out. Since 2015, international coordination has been spotty at best, leading to infrequent meetings at which diplomats discuss tactics far more than strategy. To be successful, the next envoy will need consistent international support in word but also, crucially, in deed. A good way forward would be for key countries, starting with the Security Council’s permanent five, to form a contact group that works with the envoy to ensure that issues like the economy, for example, or women and civil society’s inclusion in talks receive proper attention. The Council would need to assemble such a group while the new envoy engages in wide-ranging consultations with the Yemeni parties. It would then need to convene with the envoy to discuss a diplomatic course correction if the envoy had decided on a better approach. A statement from the contact group to that effect would help counter any resistance from any of the conflict parties.

Beyond overhauling the framework, the UN will also need to change its modus operandi in mediation. Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Griffiths spent much of their time travelling around the Middle East, making only brief stops in Sanaa and Aden. They did that in part because the Hadi government and its regional backers were reluctant to allow the UN free rein to meet whomever they pleased; and because the Huthis often refused to meet the UN envoy in Sanaa. Yet progress in Yemen is not made in formal meetings but through steady relationship building in the sitting rooms (majalis) of influential leaders. UN member states should press the new envoy to spend as much time in Yemen as possible, consulting widely among, and even mediating between, a range of groups. (Doing so may have the additional benefit of giving the envoy much-needed leverage with parties that have become accustomed to asserting control over the conflict narrative.)

The envoy’s scarcest resources will be time and space.

The envoy’s scarcest resources will be time and space. Whoever takes the job will need time to develop a new approach, but with the Huthis bearing down on Marib, the Hadi government’s last bastion in northern Yemen, the new UN representative could well need to expend much energy trying to prevent a battle for the governorate and its eponymous capital. The government, the Huthis and Riyadh, meanwhile, are likely to try to box the new envoy into continuing with the narrow two-party approach.

In sum, the next envoy will have to find new ways to mediate not just between Yemen’s rival parties, but within their ranks, before articulating a vision for peace that includes a much wider range of players than the current UN framework allows for. Just as important, key UN member states will need to give the envoy space and time to hone a new approach, and then get behind a more expansive vision for peace – and demonstrate the will to execute it working in harmony.

A car travelling from Yemen’s Taiz city to Aden via the Hajjat al-Abd road. This route is prone to car and truck accidents which can be deadly. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Toward Open Roads in Yemen’s Taiz

Taiz, a city in central Yemen, is besieged by Huthi rebels and practically cut off from the rest of the country. Restored road access would save lives and build trust that could help bring peace to Yemen, but time is short.

More than a month has passed since the UN announced a truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Huthi rebels it has been battling for the past seven years with backing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the truce itself has held, if somewhat shakily. But the UN has been able to secure partial implementation of only two of the three confidence-building measures it attached to the deal that has halted the fighting: passage of fuel shipments into the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopening of the Huthi-held Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights for the first time since 2016. There has been little if any progress on the third measure – reinvigoration of efforts to restore road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen that the Huthis have besieged since 2016. UN officials are now in a race against time to ensure that the Sanaa airport remains open in the hope of prolonging the truce and starting political talks. Important as that task is, they must not forget Taiz. What happens there could either accelerate a shift away from violent confrontation to political negotiations, or become an impediment that derails UN-led efforts to finally end Yemen’s destructive war.

A Fragile Opportunity

Recent developments present a moment of opportunity in Yemen. The two-month truce came into effect on 2 April. It is an informal, self-policed agreement by the parties to stop fighting. In theory, it is renewable. The UN’s hope is that an extended truce can be a springboard for political talks about a formal ceasefire and a negotiated way out of the conflict.

Less than a week after the UN announced the truce, Yemen’s president of ten years, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, announced that he was ceding power to a new eight-member presidential council led by the former interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi. Hadi reportedly stepped down under pressure from Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to reorganise the anti-Huthi bloc. Anti-Huthi Yemenis had heavily criticised Hadi for exercising too little leadership in the disparate anti-Huthi alliance. The Huthis publicly dismissed the new council as a mere “reshuffling of mercenaries” that underscores what they see as the government’s lack of legitimacy. Yet the council is broadly representative of the range of military and political factions opposing the Huthis. It has since been inaugurated in Aden, along with a prime minister and cabinet.

The truce and the council’s formation ... present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process.

The truce and the council’s formation – and the latter’s public declarations that it will pursue peace with the Huthis – present an important, if limited opportunity to kickstart a political process, particularly given the decline in the Huthis’ battlefield dominance as a result of renewed Emirati support for anti-Huthi forces. It is probably an exaggeration to say peace is an immediate possibility, and many Yemenis see the truce as an opportunity for the rival parties to regroup rather than to cease hostilities. Still, prospects for a move from violent combat to meaningful political negotiations are better now than they have been in years.

In order to capitalise on the opportunity for a truce extension, the parties need to make sustained progress on all three of the related confidence-building measures. The UN appears already to be pushing hard on fuel shipments and reopening Sanaa airport. The Taiz issue, however, requires closer attention.

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Taiz and the Truce

That the truce has held up so far, if a bit tenuously, is an achievement in and of itself given the depth of distrust between the Huthis and their rivals, who have exchanged recriminations over delays in taking the agreed-upon steps. Yet nowhere does distrust of the Huthis’ intentions run higher than in Taiz, where residents greeted the truce announcement with protest instead of celebration. Many residents saw the agreement’s provisions for their city as unrealistic. For many in the anti-Huthi camp, Taiz has become a symbol of what they see as a lopsided international approach that gives short shrift to their grievances while seeking to appease the Huthis. 

Taiz governorate has been isolated from the rest of Yemen since battles in 2015 left the Huthis holding its economically and strategically important northern regions and encircling Taiz city, whose centre remained under the control of government-aligned forces. Fighting has cut off all the main overland routes linking Taiz with Huthi- and government-controlled areas. No matter where they travel, Yemenis who live in the city are forced to navigate single-track mountain roads with perilous hairpin bends and checkpoints manned by armed groups. 

The consequences have been debilitating for civic life and commerce. Travel time to and from Taiz has increased dramatically. A trip from Huthi-controlled Hawban, Taiz governorate’s industrial hub where many residents work, to government-controlled Taiz city centre once took between 5 and 15 minutes by car and now takes 5 to 6 hours along a poorly maintained one-lane road. Travelling from Taiz to the southern port city of Aden takes from 6 to 8 hours by car; it took 2 to 3 hours before 2015. Moving basic goods like food and fuel by truck between the two nominally allied cities can take anywhere from 14 hours to several days. Higher transport costs and checkpoint fees, combined with other costs of operating in a war economy, have driven up food and fuel prices inside the city, making it one of the most expensive places to live in Yemen. It is not uncommon for sick Taizis to die on their way to Aden or Sanaa for urgent medical care. Thus far, the Huthis have had little incentive to improve road access to the city: they control the governorate’s economic heart and are keeping their main local rivals boxed in. Further complicating matters, parts of Taiz governorate not controlled by the Huthis are heavily contested by rival groups within the anti-Huthi bloc, sometimes violently.

Hawban to Taiz
Aden to Taiz

Failed Precedents

A series of local and international initiatives has failed to improve access to Taiz city – a failure that many residents see as the product of a UN and international bias in favour of the Huthis. In explaining their frustration, they point to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which staved off a battle for Hodeida, and was intended to set the stage for broader peace talks. That agreement contained a vague sub-agreement on Taiz: it called on both sides to select representatives to a joint committee, which would work toward the goal of reopening humanitarian corridors into the city centre. The committee was also to submit a single report on movement toward improving road access into the city in the run-up to future consultations.

But the sub-agreement yielded no meaningful progress on restoring Taiz residents’ access to the rest of the country. Although the UN held individual meetings with each of the parties’ representatives, the delegations never met jointly as a committee, much less reached agreement on how to achieve the goals articulated in Sweden. Anti-Huthi Yemenis criticised the UN for failing to expend the same energy on reopening Taiz – which residents see as a humanitarian issue – that it did on ending the siege of Hodeida. Many of the Yemenis who have worked on the Taiz road issue since the start of the war believe the UN should not have made it part of the Stockholm deal and instead should have negotiated access on a separate track. In their view, placing Taiz in the Stockholm framework made it too easy for the Huthis to make progress on this issue contingent on implementation of other aspects of the agreement. There is also a widespread perception that the UN gave up too quickly when negotiations over the roads faltered and other pressing issues took precedence.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components.

The Taiz situation plays into tensions among the anti-Huthi bloc’s various components, which Riyadh has been trying to unify under a single umbrella. Many Taizis believe that the Saudi-led coalition – and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has an expressly anti-Islamist domestic and regional agenda – wishes for Taiz to remain isolated in order to keep Islah, an Islamist group dominant in Taiz, weak. Yemenis in this camp point to the ability of UAE-backed forces to mobilise troops and retake territory in other parts of the country, as they did in three districts in southern Shebwa and Marib earlier in 2022. They believe that the Saudi-led coalition could, if it wished, provide more military assistance to anti-Huthi forces in Taiz to push the Huthis back from the roads around the city at the very least. Some anti-Huthi Yemenis also perceive the truce as a signal that Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the war. They believe that the Saudis agreed to include progress on Taiz issues as one of the three confidence-building measures only to mollify the Hadi government, which reportedly had resisted the deal.

But this anti-Saudi sentiment, and a sense that Riyadh acted imperiously in pushing for formation of the new presidential council, could wind up working in Taiz’s favour. The council, whose head, al-Alimi, is himself from Taiz, is under pressure to demonstrate that it is working at least as much with ordinary Yemenis in mind as with Riyadh’s desire to be done with Yemen. Thus, it is possible that the council will seek to underscore its bona fides by making road access a central pillar of its negotiating strategy in much the same way that the Huthis have done with Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, namely by refusing to allow talks on other issues to progress without movement on the roads in Taiz.

Thus far, however, there has been very little progress of any kind. As part of the truce agreement, the Huthis and the government committed to form a joint negotiating committee to tackle the Taiz roads issue, as they did previously under the Stockholm Agreement. Yemeni government officials say they have named their candidates for the committee and provided proposals on reopening the Taiz-Hodeida, Taiz-Sanaa and Taiz-Aden roads. They claim that the Huthis have yet to nominate their own negotiators, casting the rebels as the main barrier to progress. In fact, the Huthis have laid out new demands to reopen roads in Taiz, the first of which are to halt fighting in the governorate and remove military equipment from its main arteries.

The currently closed Hawban road which used to connect government-controlled Taiz city and Huthi-held Hawban. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

Building Confidence Goes Both Ways

Whatever happens next, the Taiz road access issue is likely to become increasingly contentious, particularly as the UN ramps up efforts to sustain progress on the other two confidence-building measures in an effort to extend and expand the truce. To date, according to a Yemeni government official who spoke with Crisis Group, at least eleven fuel ships have arrived at Hodeida port. Moreover, the first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years departed for Amman shortly after the government announced it would allow people carrying Huthi-issued passports to travel. Despite such progress, rumours are spreading of a military build-up as the parties prepare for the possibility of the truce either buckling or expiring.

The risk is that the truce may not survive beyond its current two-month timeframe if there is no meaningful progress on all three of the confidence-building measures. Pushing Taiz to the side would jeopardise prospects for renewal. As noted, some in the government camp may advocate making negotiations over fully reopening Sanaa airport dependent on progress on Taiz, thus undermining the possibility of the truce being extended if the Huthis continue to delay on the latter. The Huthis, for their part, continue to be dismissive of the Taiz roads issue and show signs of slow-walking negotiations, giving the government a perfect excuse to stall efforts to move toward talks.

Resolving the Taiz roads question is thus closely linked to the fate of the truce overall, as well as of any future talks between the belligerents. Outside powers should employ a two-pronged approach to reaching a resolution. First, as part of a broader diplomatic push with the Huthis in Sanaa, they should focus the rebels on the need to make progress on Taiz, signalling that the issue is high on their agenda. The absence of sustained, serious diplomacy around the Taiz question can only have contributed to the lack of action to date. Secondly, mindful of the risk of mixing the road access file with other political and military issues, diplomats should raise Taiz in their discussions with Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom has its own channels with the Huthis. Involving Saudi Arabia in advocacy to reopen Taiz can enhance the kingdom’s credibility, since many Yemenis believe (and resent) that it wishes to keep Islah on the back foot in one of the country’s most economically important areas. It would also serve Riyadh’s aim of helping bring the war to a close.

The parties should not miss this opportunity for progress. The partial reopening of Sanaa airport has rekindled hope among Yemenis that they will once again be able to travel outside the country. Likewise, the reopening of Taiz roads would bring great benefits for the city’s residents whose freedom of movement has been curtailed for too long. If there is no movement on Taiz, the chances of a truce extension beyond the two-month timeline, and peace in Yemen, will only grow slimmer. Despite widespread scepticism, the truce, the first countrywide halt in fighting since 2016, has held thus far. Yemenis should not be made to wait six more years for another opportunity for peace.

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