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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

Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb

Away from media headlines, a war has been raging on and off in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada since 2004, flaring up in adjacent regions and, in 2008, reaching the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa.

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Executive Summary

Away from media headlines, a war has been raging on and off in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada since 2004, flaring up in adjacent regions and, in 2008, reaching the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa. The conflict, which has brought about extensive destruction, pits a rebel group, known generically as the Huthis, against government forces. Today’s truce is fragile and risks being short-lived. A breakdown would threaten Yemen’s stability, already under severe duress due to the global economic meltdown, depleting national resources, renewed tensions between the country’s northern elites and populations in the south and the threat from violent groups with varied links to al-Qaeda. Nor would the impact necessarily be contained within national borders. The country should use its traditional instruments – social and religious tolerance, cooptation of adversaries – to forge a more inclusive compact that reduces sectarian stigmatisation and absorbs the Huthis. International actors – principally Gulf states and the West – should use their leverage and the promise of reconstruction assistance to press both government and rebels to compromise.

After two decades of relative stability that confounded foreign diplomats and analysts alike, the convergence of economic, political and secessionist challenges are testing the regime’s coping capacity. The Saada conflict might not be the most covered internationally, but it carries grave risks for Yemen’s political, sectarian and social equilibrium.

The war began as a quasi-police operation to arrest a former parliament member, Husein al-Huthi. Over five rounds, it has grown several-fold and become increasingly complex and multilayered. As mutual grievances accumulated and casualties mounted, the conflict metastasised, bringing in ever-growing numbers of actors, including local tribes and other members of the Saada population, covering a widening area and involving foreign actors under the backdrop of a regional cold war. It has violated two fundamental pillars of Yemen’s stability: a political formula premised on power-sharing and the gradual convergence of the two principal sectarian identities, Zaydism – a form of Shiism that in rites and practices is closer to Sunnism than to the Twelver Shiism predominant in Iran and Iraq – and Shafei Sunnism.

The war expanded because it became a microcosm of a series of latent religious, social, political and economic tensions. It can be traced to the decline of the social stratum led by Hashemites, who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and legitimised by Zaydism; lack of investment in Zaydi strongholds like Saada; failed management of religious pluralism; permeability to external influences and the emergence of new political and religious actors, particularly Salafis. It has variously and at times simultaneously taken the shape of a sectarian, political or tribal conflict, rooted in historical grievances and endemic underdevelopment. It also has been shaped by the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The 1962 revolution ended the imamate that Zaydi Hashemites ruled for over 1,000 years and overturned a social order with which they had been intimately associated. During the civil war that followed, Saada was the main opposition stronghold. Since then, the region has been largely ignored and marginalised. The religious dimension, long successfully managed, has resurfaced. Although differing on a number of theological and political issues, Zaydism and Shafeism are relatively close within the doctrinal spectrum. Over the last several decades, the gulf further narrowed, thanks partly to state educational efforts, and Yemen enjoyed cross-sectarian harmony. But a core of Zaydi revivalists remained, including the Huthis, who fought to retain Zaydism’s theology and symbolic rituals. Their cause was energised by the spread of Salafi influence, mainly from Saudi Arabia, and their sense that Zaydism was besieged. Some former rulers and Zaydi revivalists view the republic as fundamentally anti-Hashemite and anti-Zaydi.

There is a foreign dimension too, though it is hard to evaluate. As the government accuses the rebels of alignment with Iran and of loyalty to the Lebanese Hiz­bollah, Huthi leaders denounce its alignment with the U.S. They also claim Saudi interference, in particular funding of government and local tribes.

If history has left scars, the war aggravated them. The destruction of entire villages and infrastructure by army shelling, air bombardment and indiscriminate military and police violence exacerbated grievances among not only Hashemites generally and Zaydi revivalists in particular but, more broadly, civilians in all northern governorates. The rebels fuel anger by brutal acts, looting and kidnapping. Growing involvement of tribal militias beside government or rebel forces further inflames the conflict and contributes to its endurance. Competing tribes and their leaders vie for positions and resources; as some groups are marginalised, others receive government help in exchange for fighting the insurgents.

The conflict has become self-perpetuating, giving rise to a war economy as tribes, army officers and state officials have seized the opportunity to control the porous border with Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea coastline. Tribal leaders and senior officials have amassed military hardware and profit from illegal sales of army stockpiles. Continued operations have justified increased military budgets without government or independent oversight. As competition over resources intensified, the benefits of war exceeded its drawbacks – at least for the elites involved.

With only some exceptions, the international community has not recognised the Saada conflict’s destabilising potential or pressured the government to shift course. That is partly related to the West’s single-minded focus on Yemen’s struggle with al-Qaeda and the regime’s adroit portrayal of the Huthis as a subset of the so-called war on terror. It also is related to the regime’s denial of access to Saada to many if not most governments and humanitarian agencies.

Fighting ebbed as the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in July 2008. But it is far more likely a pause than an end. Observers and actors alike expect new violence; early months of this year already have witnessed recurrent localised fighting. There is no clear agreement between parties, accumulated grievances remain largely unaddressed, tensions run high, skirmishes persist and few principal belligerents appear willing to compromise. Internal mediation has repeatedly failed, as did Qatar’s well-intentioned endeavour.

But renewed war is not preordained. Local, national and international actors can do much to set the stage for durable peace. There is every reason to proactively intervene before more damage is done and to build on core Yemeni assets: a tradition of compromise between political, social and religious groups and the state’s tendency to coopt ex-foes. International help should be multilateral, involving Western and regional countries ready to exert diplomatic pressure, mediate and, most importantly, pledge reconstruction assistance as an incentive for peace. In duration and intensity, destruction, casualties, sectarian stigmatisation and regional dimension, the Saada conflict stands apart from other violent episodes in Yemen. It will need more than run-of-the-mill domestic and international efforts to end it.

Sanaa/Brussels, 27 May 2009

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.