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After Progress in Sweden, Yemen Needs a UN Security Council Resolution
After Progress in Sweden, Yemen Needs a UN Security Council Resolution

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

U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths shakes hands with Yemeni delegates at the opening press conference on U.N.-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg castle, in Rimbo, Sweden December 6, 2018. Stina Stjernkvist /TT News Agency/via REUTERS

After Progress in Sweden, Yemen Needs a UN Security Council Resolution

Talks in Sweden between the warring parties in Yemen may be yielding positive results. But the UN Security Council should not wait for an outcome to applaud. It should pass a new resolution now protecting the key port of Hodeida to ward off approaching famine.

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has brought together representatives of the internationally recognised government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Huthi rebels for a week of daily meetings in Sweden in what he cautiously billed as pre-peace talks consultations. Now there is a possible sign that progress has been achieved: UN Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to attend the 13 December closing ceremony. Things could continue to go well, but they could also still go off the rails, either now or in the next few weeks. The UN Security Council should prepare for every eventuality. It should draft a new resolution aimed at stopping a battle for Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeida. Such a resolution will either help consolidate gains made in Sweden or prevent backsliding before the next round of talks, tentatively slated for the end of January.

The Security Council held off on voting on a resolution focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen earlier in December. The stated reason was to give the UN envoy the space he needed to achieve through negotiation what they had planned to accomplish through international writ. Griffiths and his team say they have come close to achieving a deal on Hodeida but may need a little more time to finalise details. Either way – in the event of a deal or a delay – he will need the Council’s help.

The port accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of all food, fuel and medicine shipped into Yemen.

Failure to act on Hodeida at this fragile moment could mean allowing famine to unfold. UN humanitarian agencies are outspoken about how bad the humanitarian situation in Yemen is. The UN reckons that as many as 20 million people are living in pre-famine conditions – with so little food or money to buy it that they are one economic shock away from starvation – while as many as 250,000 are already wasting away.

Huthi rebels have held Hodeida since 2014. The city is now surrounded by fighters backed by a Saudi-led coalition seeking to capture it. The port accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of all food, fuel and medicine shipped into Yemen, a country that is as import-dependent as it is poor. In November, anti-Huthi forces cut off all but one road that connects the city with the Huthi-controlled northern highlands, where the majority of the population resides. More than 10 million of Yemen’s 28 million people depend almost entirely on Hodeida for staples like bread and rice. The humanitarian fallout of the port’s loss would be cataclysmic.

The Saudi-led coalition’s rationale for an attack on Hodeida is clear. It has concluded that capturing the port is the only way to force the Huthis into settling for a compromise by which the rebels would hand over territory and heavy weapons in exchange for a say in the country’s future government. The coalition calculates that if it takes the port, it will deliver a symbolically powerful blow to the Huthis, cut off a major source of the rebellion’s revenue (through customs fees) and shift the narrative on a war that many have long considered a stalemate. It believes that the Huthis would suffer a defeat so severe that they would feel compelled to sue for peace on the coalition’s terms.

That logic may sound straightforward but it is likely flawed. The coalition may well be both overestimating the mettle of the Yemeni forces it oversees and underestimating the Huthis’ resilience. It may also not recognise the operation’s probable human cost: coalition officials are betting on a quick win, after which they say they will let goods enter the country for onward shipment into Huthi-held areas; if the Huthis block these goods, the responsibility for famine would fall on them, not the coalition.

The loss of Hodeida can only precipitate mass starvation among a population that already is severely malnourished.

But the Huthis have proven to be a far more effective fighting force than the coalition-backed Yemenis. The rebels demonstrated their prowess in lightning raids from hills overlooking open terrain on the low-lying coast; in the hills, they found not only the higher ground but also a shield from the coalition’s aerial firepower. The Huthis are deft practitioners of asymmetrical warfare, trained as some of their commanders reportedly are by Lebanese Hizbollah, which steeled itself in combat in Lebanon and Syria.

It is thus likely that a fight for the city would incapacitate the port for an extended period, during which no ship would be able to enter or leave Hodeida, and no insurer would place its money on a cargo company willing to defy the odds, even if the port remained open. The loss of Hodeida can only precipitate mass starvation among a population that already is severely malnourished. When, in 2017, the Saudi-led coalition used naval power to blockade Hodeida for several weeks, food prices increased by 20 per cent while fuel prices in some parts of the country doubled, precipitating the current humanitarian crisis. World opinion could very well hold the coalition responsible for deepening the suffering.

The last problem with the coalition’s logic is that, even if it eventually prevails in a battle for Hodeida, the rebels may not see losing the port as the end of their prospects. Their military leadership may still be determined to hold on to the country’s mountainous heartland, including the capital, Sanaa.

The UN has been overseeing talks in Sweden between the Huthis and the Hadi government since 6 December. Hodeida has been at the centre of these discussions, which have achieved progress on a plan that would see the Huthis hand over the port to the UN and placed under joint management. But fine-tuning details and getting both sides to agree on a final deal may take longer than the announced cutoff date for the talks – 13 December – allows for.

The UN is likely to soon announce a new round of talks, with a possible late January start date. Some diplomats think that the prospect of continued diplomacy will suffice to persuade the coalition to delay a final Hodeida offensive, and that Guterres’ presence will underscore how important the UN thinks the talks are. But many things could go wrong between mid-December and late January, even if the UN announces a preliminary deal in Sweden. The Huthis, the coalition and the Hadi government all have plausible incentives to derail the process by sparking a battle for Hodeida. Huthi military hardliners may oppose a deal and want to fight on; the coalition may wish to change the facts on the ground before a new U.S. Congress with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is seated in January; and the Hadi government may find the Hodeida compromise impossible to stomach.

The Security Council should therefore act expeditiously to minimise the risk of a fight for Hodeida while supporting Griffiths’ peace plan. Since October, the UK, the “penholder” responsible for shepherding all Security Council statements on Yemen, has been drafting a resolution that would call for a permanent ceasefire in Hodeida and demand that all parties to the conflict protect vital civilian infrastructure and commercial corridors. The draft resolution should not be controversial: the UK took much of its language from a list of “asks” from the UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, who has sounded the alarm about impending famine in Yemen. The draft has since been revised to include a call for a cessation of hostilities around Hodeida.

The Security Council faces a clear choice: act now to prevent famine and support the peace process, or delay and assume responsibility for humanitarian disaster.

A vote on the resolution has been delayed repeatedly, most importantly by the U.S., which argued in the run-up to the Sweden talks that a resolution would ease pressure on the Huthis. Diplomats at the UN in New York now worry that Washington may attempt to stall debate on the resolution further, perhaps until the new year. The positive noises emanating from Sweden may lull other Security Council members into a false sense of security. But there is still a small window to demonstrate international resolve on preventing further violence in Hodeida.

Griffiths will update the Security Council on his plans on 14 December, and the UK now says it will push for a vote on the resolution by the end of the following week. The Security Council faces a clear choice: act now to prevent famine and support the peace process, or delay and assume responsibility for humanitarian disaster, undermining the UN’s credibility, already damaged by the Syria fiasco, with its inaction. If negotiators announce an agreement on Hodeida at the conclusion of the Sweden talks, the Security Council should endorse it publicly; and if no deal is forthcoming, it should move promptly to protect the port and city.