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Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?
Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?
Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent
Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent
U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks to the media during a visit to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 23, 2018. Picture taken November 23, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?

Preliminary peace consultations on Yemen are scheduled to start in Stockholm on 6 December. This is the second attempt in three months to jump-start talks. Crisis Group consultant Peter Salisbury explains why the Sweden talks are so important and what could go wrong.

What are the talks in Stockholm expected to achieve?

In September, the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, failed to bring the parties to the table in Geneva after last-minute wrangling. This time he hopes to have better success. The Huthis arrived in Sweden on 4 December, with the internationally recognised government due to arrive the next day.

The talks in Sweden are preliminary consultations to set the stage for eventual negotiations. Griffiths hopes that the two sides will agree on some basic confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps, the reopening of Sanaa airport and perhaps an agreement to stabilise Hodeida, as well as a broad roadmap for future talks. The two Yemeni delegations – representatives of the Huthi Ansar Allah movement and of the government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi – are not scheduled to meet face-to-face on this occasion; instead, the UN will shuttle between them. But given that every round of talks has collapsed – the last meaningful negotiations took place in Kuwait more than two years ago – even these limited goals may prove to be a stretch.

Has anything happened since September to suggest talks in Sweden will make progress?

What has changed is that, over the past three months, the world has become more aware of the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen and of the need to stop it. Leaders in Europe and the U.S. have spoken out with greater clarity about the need to end the war. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul in early October, has bolstered the ranks of Congressmen trying to force a change in U.S. policy on Yemen, opening the war and the U.S.’s role in it to wider public debate. On 29 November, the Senate voted by a 63-37 margin to advance a resolution that would require the Trump administration to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen”.

Resolve to end U.S. support for the war appears to be growing.

The Senate is also considering a second bill that aims to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – as much a rebuke to the Saudis for the Khashoggi killing as it is to Trump for giving the Saudis seemingly unconditional support – despite the Trump administration’s efforts to ward off any action that might damage U.S. relations with the kingdom. In the wake of the CIA director’s testimony before select members of Congress on 4 December on the Khashoggi murder and Saudi responsibility for it, resolve to end U.S. support for the war appears to be growing. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has become an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that he would work to build support for a bill aimed at cutting off military support for the Saudis’ war effort in Yemen in response to the killing.

In an attempt to pre-empt strong Congressional action, the U.S. secretaries of defence and state, Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo, last month had called for a cessation of hostilities and for all parties to attend the Sweden talks. They subsequently announced an end to American in-air refuelling of Saudi aircraft operating in Yemen. A number of European countries have halted arms sales to Riyadh in protest of the indiscriminate way in which it has been waging its air war in Yemen, and the UK has introduced a draft UN Security Council resolution to address Yemen’s downward humanitarian spiral. But the U.S. position may not have changed as much as its public rhetoric might suggest. While publicly calling for an end to the war, the Trump administration has been vocally supportive of Riyadh’s policy in Yemen and quietly manoeuvring to block the draft UK resolution, suggesting that senior officials’ public statements of concern are less than genuine. In a 20 November statement, Trump wrote that Iran was directly responsible for the Yemen war, while Pompeo said on 1 December that “we intend to continue” military support for Riyadh.

What are the chances of success?

Griffiths might be able to fulfil his limited aim of getting the Huthis and Hadi to agree to confidence-building measures, sign up to a broader framework for negotiations with some tweaks, and schedule substantive peace talks in the near future. But unfortunately, the odds are high that the consultations will break down amid mutual recriminations, as has happened during all previous rounds.

Both sides are disinclined to compromise. The coalition and the Hadi government think that the tide has turned against the Huthis on the ground and are willing to wait to improve their position. The Huthis for their part are unlikely to demonstrate much flexibility, and view the current mood in Western capitals against Saudi Arabia as shifting in their favour. They might even see a battle for the port of Hodeida and the ensuing famine as a way of turning the narrative against the coalition and government, bolstering their bargaining position as Western governments ramp up the pressure to end the war.

Despite these negative dynamics, Griffiths nonetheless should use the meeting to try to build momentum behind his peace plan and line up more substantive talks for 2019. If he can get the parties to at least agree to confidence-building measures – and follow up on them in the weeks and months after the talks – then he will be able to credibly claim that the UN-led process has new relevance.

Most importantly, he needs to obtain an agreement on Hodeida that would spare it from a coalition-led offensive. The Huthis have said they are willing to hand the port over to the UN. Getting the Yemeni government – and by extension the coalition – to agree to this and then taking steps to demilitarise the city would be a major success.

What is the situation around Hodeida today and why is it so critical?

In the past three months, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led Yemeni forces have tightened the noose around Hodeida, cutting off the main road into the northern highlands where the majority of Yemen’s population resides. This leaves open only the road along the coast from Hodeida northward, lengthening the journey of critical supplies to millions of people. This further raises the cost of goods for people who are already poorer because they have not received their public sector salaries in months. Moreover, the main milling facility east of Hodeida is held by UAE-backed forces who have not permitted the UN to enter it, preventing the processing of grain. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has warned of “a great big famine” affecting 14 million people (half the country’s population) if the fighting does not stop immediately.

UAE policymakers openly state that they expect the talks to fail.

If fighting breaks out inside the port (let alone the city), the Huthis can be expected to dig in. Fighting and insecurity around the port inevitably would mean further disruption of the last remaining import supply line out of Hodeida. The result: a desperate, hungry population in the highlands could be pushed into outright starvation.

Why are UAE-led forces targeting Hodeida?

The UAE-led campaign for the Red Sea coast, which has been ongoing for almost two years, is an attempt to cut off the Huthis’ access to the sea and to customs revenues from the port. The UAE and Saudi Arabia believe that the loss of territory and a valuable revenue stream will force the rebels to make significant concessions. They may also hope to shift the moral burden for the humanitarian catastrophe to the Huthis: once the Saudi-led coalition controls the port, they say, any hindrance on humanitarian access will be due to the Huthis’ actions, not their own.

The UAE says its campaign is meant to force the Huthis to adopt a more realistic position at the negotiating table. But there are indications that it is intent on capturing Hodeida’s port regardless of the outcome of talks, and possibly the city as well, viewing such a seizure as a key, indispensable step in changing the Huthi’s outlook and the overall balance of power. UAE policymakers openly state that they expect the talks – which they claim are the Huthis’ “last chance” before they push toward Hodeida port – to fail.

The Huthis’ fourteen-year history of armed insurgency suggests that the coalition’s logic is flawed. If they lose Hodeida, the Huthis are unlikely to surrender. Nor would they be entirely dispossessed of revenue streams: they could levy taxes on trucks passing from Hodeida into the north west of Yemen. Finally, they will blame the coalition for the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue, given that it will be their decision to take the port (notwithstanding the Huthis’ agreement in principle to hand the port over to the UN) that would have caused it. They are confident that much of international public opinion will agree.

What impact might the talks have on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis?

For international actors, finding a way to end the conflict has become increasingly urgent. The war has caused what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than 22 million people, out of a population of 28 million, require some sort of assistance. Some 14 million are severely food insecure, living in what the UN calls “pre-famine” conditions. About 10,000 people contract cholera every week; there have been more than 1.2 million cases of the disease, and more than 2,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have already died of hunger and preventable diseases since the civil war evolved from an internal power struggle into an internationalised conflict in early 2015. Millions of Yemenis are one economic shock from starvation. But there is still a chance to prevent worse. The consultations in Sweden could be an important first step to that end.

What will be the main sticking points in this new attempt at talks?

The Huthis and the Hadi government will arrive in Sweden looking to advance their respective agendas. Getting them to align on even basic issues is likely to be difficult. A recent agreement on swapping prisoners was a good step forward, but had been the subject of UN-mediated and back-channel negotiation for months before these talks. Reopening Sanaa airport or coming to an accommodation on Hodeida is likely to be much harder work, as neither side will be inclined to give anything up to the other.

As the Hadi government sees it, it shouldn’t have to make any concession at all. It believes it should be restored to power under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the Huthis to lay down their arms and for Hadi – named as the “legitimate president” of Yemen – to return to the capital and oversee the completion of the transitional process that ran from 2012 until the Huthis took over Sanaa in September 2014. The fact that this resolution continues to frame the mainstream debate allows the government to approach negotiations as if it were deciding the terms of a Huthi surrender. While the Hadi government has said it will allow the Huthis to participate in future governments in some capacity, it wants a future deal to affirm its legitimacy and sanction the Huthi “coup”.

The Huthis, meanwhile, describe their coup as a people’s revolution, and argue that the war they are fighting is not against the Hadi government but against the Saudis and Emiratis (as well as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). For this reason, they argue that the war began in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition entered the fray, not the preceding September when they took the capital by force. They frame the negotiations as an opportunity to stop Saudi-led “aggression” and argue that talks should be held between them and the Saudi government.

How are the Hadi government and the Huthis currently faring?

Although the Hadi government is presented as a major party to the conflict, in reality its position is relatively weak. Nominally, Hadi oversees a large array of groups, generally described as the National Army and National Resistance; in reality, the groups fighting the Huthis on the ground are deeply divided and often mutually antagonistic. Hadi doesn’t spend much time in Aden, the city that he named temporary capital in 2015, because many districts are controlled by UAE-backed fighters who have developed a rivalry with forces loyal to Hadi.

The Huthis themselves are not in a very strong position.

Hadi is currently in the U.S. for treatment of a heart condition, triggering speculation as to what might or should happen if he were incapacitated or died. Elections are not a possibility and the uncertain process of appointing of a new president would likely prompt a government reshuffle and a change in negotiating strategy; it could also trigger a new conflict among anti-Huthi groups. Southerners, for example, are unlikely to accept the authority of the current vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who under constitutional rules would take over from Hadi for a two-month period in the event that he died, because of his role in Yemen’s 1994 civil war over the south’s attempt at secession.

The Huthis themselves are not in a very strong position. After killing their erstwhile ally Saleh in December 2017, they swiftly consolidated their control over Yemen’s north-western provinces. But they are being squeezed economically and gradually losing territory. That said, they have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to sustain the destructive grind of what has become a war of attrition. They know that any future military gains by coalition-backed groups are likely to come at a high human cost that they can pin on the coalition and the Hadi government; they plan to maintain pressure on the coalition by attacking urban centres in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones and ballistic missiles.

So as we go into talks, the old maxim rings true: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Workers inspect damage at the site of an air strike on the maintenance hub at the Hodeida port on 27 May, 2018. Abduljabbar Zeyad/REUTERS

Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent

When the plan for consultations between Yemen's warring parties, scheduled to begin in Geneva on 8 September, collapsed, the frozen battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida resumed. It could prove fatal for many of the millions already on the brink of starvation.

Over the last two weeks, the latest attempt to set Yemen on the path to peace has collapsed, triggering what could become the bloodiest battle of a war approaching its fourth anniversary. In a 14 September letter to the UN Security Council, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it planned to renew its campaign to wrest Hodeida, a port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, from the control of the rebel Huthi movement. This came a week after precursory peace talks were meant to start in Geneva. The Huthis have pledged to battle UAE-backed forces to the last man.

Although not unexpected, the swift collapse of peace efforts is deeply disappointing. In June, UAE-backed Yemeni forces agreed to pause their campaign to take Hodeida, first to allow for negotiations over a Huthi withdrawal and then for UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to lead consultations between the Huthis and Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The pause came after mounting pressure from both the U.S. Congress – which threatened to cut off U.S. arms supplies to the Saudi-led coalition – and the Trump administration, which was able to use the threat of Congressional action as leverage with its partners in the Gulf. But an avoidable tragedy now looks inevitable absent swift and forceful intervention by UN Security Council member states, the U.S. in particular.

On 8 September, Huthi representatives who were meant to travel to Geneva for consultations, or “pre-talk talks”, told Griffiths’ team that they would not be coming. At the last minute, they demanded to be transported out of the capital Sanaa using an Omani aircraft rather than a UN one and to take wounded fighters out with them. Saudi Arabia, which controls Yemeni airspace and stops any non-UN flights into Sanaa airport, balked. The UN sought a compromise – saying it would certify the passenger manifest of an Omani flight – but the Huthis in turn declined to allow any inspection. With the coalition and the Huthis exchanging mutual recriminations, Griffiths had to postpone the consultations and the fight for Hodeida resumed.

The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Huthis into Hodeida and squeeze.

The UAE was clearly ready for this to happen. As the prospect for talks dimmed, Emirati-backed forces – who had used the pause in fighting to develop a better position on the ground after a series of military missteps along the Red Sea coast earlier in the year – launched an assault to seize control of the eastbound road out of Hodeida linking it with Sanaa and other population centres in the central highlands. On 12 September, they announced that they had taken control of the road, although the Huthis have since declared they have retaken it. Meanwhile, the UAE told the UN Security Council in writing that it believes the only way to get the Huthis to negotiate seriously is for its local allies to continue with the Hodeida campaign. The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Huthis into Hodeida and squeeze. But doing so will deprive millions of people upcountry, many of them on the brink of starvation, of access to food and basic goods coming through the port.

The Saudis and Emiratis have spent recent weeks shoring up another important flank in Washington, DC. On 12 September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his sign-off on a certification, a condition of the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, for continuing to supply U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The certification stated that Gulf states were acting to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, making a good-faith effort to support UN-led negotiations and working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The certification came only weeks after two incidents in which Saudi bombings killed scores of civilians, suggesting that the Saudi air force had yet to take such actions.

An Immense Human Cost

As Crisis Group has warned in the past, a battle for Hodeida will come at an immense cost: urban combat – if it reaches that point – is brutal and bloody, and Hodeida’s civilian population of 600,000 will be caught in the crossfire. Neither the Huthis nor the Saudi-led coalition has demonstrated a real interest in protecting ordinary people during past fighting. A UN Group of Eminent Experts report on Yemen released in August found that coalition airstrikes have caused most direct civilian casualties in Yemen and that the coalition’s restrictions on naval and air access to Yemen constitute violations of international humanitarian law. The report also calls out the Huthis for their use of wide-area-effect weapons in urban warfare (weapons that by nature are indiscriminate), their ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and their restrictions on humanitarian access around the city of Taiz in particular.

As fighting progresses, Hodeida’s population will become even more susceptible to rapidly spreading preventable diseases like cholera. The UN estimates hundreds of thousands of people could die as a result. And it is hard to see how fighting will not prevent basic goods from entering Hodeida port and being transported across the country. For the approximately 18 million people who live in Yemen’s Huthi-controlled areas, Hodeida accounts for around 70 per cent of all food imports to Yemen and is a vital humanitarian and trade lifeline. Any disruption of the supply chain from fighting in or around the port, or on the roads connecting the city with the rest of the country, could be deadly. Yemen has been described as being on the brink of collapse for more than a decade, but the loss of Hodeida as an import route would likely prove a tipping point for what the UN describes as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Everyone is to blame for the coming fallout. The UN should have known that the same logistical issues that arose every time it held talks in the past would come up again, and should have concluded the details well in advance: the Huthis should have been consulted on flights and brought to Geneva earlier to prevent last-minute gamesmanship. The Huthis, who like to play victim and argue that they are willing to engage in a peace process if the terms are fair, sent a clear message that they are not serious. In doing so, they confirmed the suspicions of the coalition, which had argued it needed to take Hodeida to force concessions from the Huthis, and considers criticism of its intransigence unfair. (By contrast, representatives of the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi showed up in Geneva, with the coalition’s backing). The U.S., by certifying that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting the requirements laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act without any caveats, has sent the wrong message at exactly the wrong moment, namely that the coalition can continue to act with impunity as it advances on Hodeida.

A battle for Hodeida would be catastrophic. Crisis Group’s position remains that the best solution is a mediated settlement for the port of the kind under consideration in June. Then, the Huthis offered to hand over the port, remove reinforcements from the city and cooperate with the UN on the city’s internal security. But the coalition increased its demands from a port handover to a complete Huthi withdrawal from the Red Sea coast. Absent a deal, the Huthis should demonstrate that they are capable of acting in good faith and hand the port over to neutral Yemeni technocrats and the UN. This would significantly diminish the UAE’s rationale for attacking the port and city and could allow Griffiths to restart consultations.

Allowing Aid Through                    

If they cannot reach a compromise, the Huthis and the coalition should recommit to allowing basic goods to pass through Hodeida into Yemen’s most populated areas even if fighting breaks out in the city. In June, international aid officials repeatedly raised the issue of the Sanaa-Hodeida road with Congress, the U.S. government and the coalition. They received repeated assurances from the coalition that it would keep the road open, according to a senior aid official. Less than three months later, the road has become the main front line in fighting between UAE-backed forces and the Huthis as the coalition attempts to encircle the city.

The Security Council reiterated in a May 2018 resolution that man-made humanitarian and hunger crises can be considered war crimes. The Security Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, should make clear that the UN Panel of Experts and Group of Eminent Experts under their respective auspices, which have been equally critical of the Huthis and coalition, will closely monitor the battle for Hodeida. At the same time, Griffiths and Security Council members should work closely with UN humanitarian agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in particular – the coalition and the Huthis on an agreement to treat the port and the northbound road out of Hodeida, currently free of fighting, as neutral spaces and to place these routes and the port under UN supervision. The Security Council should issue a presidential statement or resolution underwriting this agreement with clear penalties for any breaches up to and including sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which target any party acting in a manner detrimental to Yemen’s peace and security with financial and other sanctions.

The Huthis should be held to account for throwing the peace process into tumult. Censuring the group in public statements while keeping the door open to a peace process – and negotiations over Hodeida – will be a tough balance to strike. Griffiths, who visited Sanaa on 17 September to meet with the Huthi leadership, must rebuild a measure of trust between the group and the UN as well as their coalition rivals. Criticism from the U.S. and the coalition, who the Huthis see as their adversaries, is unlikely to alter the rebel leadership’s position. EU states that have friendlier relations with the group, as well as Oman, which is hosting Huthi representatives, should send strong messages that the Huthis only hurt their own case with their last-minute shenanigans and threaten to temporarily cease contact with the group’s already isolated leaders. So should Russia, which has put itself forward as a neutral facilitator.

The coalition also needs to be reined in. The U.S. is best suited to do this. Unfortunately, by certifying the National Defense Authorization Act as he did, Pompeo gave away the leverage Congress had handed him. The certification requirement proved too weak to restrain a Trump administration intent on giving the Saudis and Emiratis considerable slack. Congressman Ro Khanna has said that he is willing to lead an effort to force a vote on the U.S.’s involvement in intelligence-sharing and in-air refuelling that is crucial to the coalition’s operations. Should the Democratic Party take control of the House after the November elections, it could make more stringent legislation a reality. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not careful, they could find their alliance with the U.S. – and their campaign in Yemen – constrained as a result of new Congressionally-imposed restrictions. And if the now likely offensive on Hodeida proceeds, the U.S. will shoulder the blame for its failure to use its considerable influence to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. That is a result that Washington can and should want to avoid.