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Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Progress in Sweden, Yemen Needs a UN Security Council Resolution
After Progress in Sweden, Yemen Needs a UN Security Council Resolution

Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition

Flawed as it is, Yemen’s political settlement avoided a potentially devastating civil war and secured President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation, but now the challenge is to address longstanding political and economic grievances.

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Executive Summary

As messy as it has been and unfinished as it remains, Yemen’s transition accomplished two critical goals: avoiding a potentially devastating civil war and securing the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the impoverished country for over three decades. It also cracked the regime’s foundations, while making it possible to imagine new rules of the game. Still, much remains in doubt, notably the scope and direction of change. The nation essentially has witnessed a political game of musical chairs, one elite faction swapping places with the other but remaining at loggerheads. Important constituencies – northern Huthi, southern Hiraak, some independent youth movements – feel excluded and view the transition agreement with scepticism, if not distain. Al-Qaeda and other militants are taking advantage of a security vacuum. Socio-economic needs remain unmet. The new government must rapidly show tangible progress (security, economic, political) to contain centrifugal forces pulling Yemen apart, while reaching out to stakeholders and preparing the political environment for inclusive national dialogue.

On 23 November 2011, following eleven months of popular protest, Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and an accompanying set of implementation mechanisms. Boiled down to its essentials, the GCC initiative provided the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in return for his stepping down. The UN-backed implementation document added flesh to the bones, providing valuable details on the mechanics and timetable of the transition roadmap.

The agreement outlined a two-phase process. In the first, Saleh delegated powers to his vice president, Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi. Feuding politicians then formed an opposition-led national consensus government with cabinet portfolios split equally between the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The president established a military committee tasked with reducing tensions and divisions within the armed forces, which had split between pro- and anti-Saleh factions during the uprising. Phase one ended with early presidential elections, on 21 February 2012, in which Hadi was the uncontested, consensus candidate.

In phase two, Hadi and the government are given two years to, among other things, restructure the military-secu­rity apparatus, address issues of transitional justice and launch an inclusive National Dialogue Conference with the goal of revising the constitution before new elections in February 2014. It is a laudatory program, but also plainly an ambitious one. Already the scorecard is mixed, as implementation has fallen short.

Indeed, although much has changed, a considerable amount remains the same. Begin with the most important: the settlement failed to resolve the highly personalised conflict between Saleh and his family on the one hand, and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, as well as, the powerful al-Ahmar family, on the other. As both camps seek to protect their interests and undermine their rivals, the contours of their struggle have changed but not its fundamental nature or the identity of its protagonists. Likewise, the underlying political economy of corruption has remained virtually untouched. The same families retain control of most of the country’s resources while relying on patronage networks and dominating decision-making in the government, military and political parties.

For frustrated independent activists, the struggle at the top amounts to little more than a political see-saw between two camps that have dominated the country for some 33 years, a reshuffling of the political deck that has, at the party level, hurt the GPC and helped the JMP. This has serious policy implications. As politicians squabble in Sanaa, urgent national problems await. Humanitarian conditions have worsened dramatically since the uprising, with hunger and malnutrition levels growing at an alarming rate. A year of political turmoil has resulted in severe shortages of basic commodities; aggravated already high poverty and unemployment rates; and brought economic activity to a virtual halt.

The army is still divided, with warring commanders escaping the president’s full authority. Armed factions and tribal groups loyal to Saleh, Ali Mohsen or the Al-Ahmars remain in the capital; elsewhere the situation is far worse. The government’s writ over the periphery, already tenuous before the uprising, has contracted sharply since. In the North, the Huthis have vastly expanded their territorial control. In the South, the government must contend with challenges from the Hiraak and its affiliated armed groups. Most worrisome is the spread of Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction. The government, fighting alongside local popular committees, has recaptured territories in the South, but the battle with al-Qaeda is far from over.

Yet, despite these multiple crises, partisan politics and jockeying for the most part persists in the capital. Encumbered by infighting and lacking capacity, the new government has yet to articulate or put forward a political and economic vision for the transitional period. What is more, it has done too little to bring in long-marginalised groups and is sticking to a largely Sanaa-centric approach. Reformers are concerned that vested interests in both the GPC and JMP are seeking to maintain a highly centralised, corrupt state that favours northern tribal and Islamist leaders, thus further deepening the divide with the rest of the country.

Securing Saleh’s peaceful exit from the presidency was hard enough; implementing the remainder of the agreement will be harder still. Neutralising potential spoilers – competing elites associated with the old regime as well as the divided military/security apparatus – is a priority. This cannot be done too abruptly or in a way that privileges one side over the other, lest it trigger violent resistance from the losing side. Instead, Hadi should gradually remove or rotate powerful commanders in a politically even-handed fashion and end their control over individual army units, while forcing them to demonstrate respect for the military chain of command under the president and defence minister. In like manner, the influence of powerful political parties and interest groups should be diluted in a way that ensures no single one finds itself in a position to dominate the transitional process. Equally important, the national dialogue needs to be broadly inclusive, requiring immediate confidence-building measures and continued outreach efforts toward sidelined groups: the youth, the Huthis and the Hiraak.

Implementation also is suffering from its overall opaqueness. No one – not the government, parliament, or military committee – has publicly kept score so as to shed light on who is violating the agreement and how. Nor has Hadi formed the interpretation committee, even though it is mandated by the agreement, and even though it could usefully settle disputes over the meaning of the initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The political settlement has numerous flaws. It was an elite compromise that excluded many original protesters as well as marginalised constituencies. It failed to adequately address issues of justice, and it kept in power leaders and parties at least partially responsible for the country’s woes. But, at a minimum, it offers the chance for a different future. If politicians in Sanaa fail to resolve, or at least contain, the ongoing elite confrontation and move forward with an inclusive dialogue, the country risks experiencing further violence and fragmentation. Yemen has long run away from critical decisions. It should run no more.

Sanaa/Brussels, 3 July 2012

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.