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Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote
Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote
Militia men loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi loot the barracks of the Special Forces in the southern port city of Aden, on 19 March 2015. REUTERS/Yaser Hasan

Yemen at War

Yemen is now at war. Fuelled by Saudi-Iranian rivalry and a violent jihadi upsurge, fighting is fragmenting the country and could spread beyond if parties do not immediately de-escalate and – with the support of Gulf neighbours – return to negotiations on a compromised, power-sharing leadership.

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I. Overview

Yemen is at war. The country is now divided between the Huthi movement, which controls the north and is rapidly advancing south, and the anti-Huthi coalition backed by Western and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies that President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi is cobbling together. On 25 March, the Huthis captured a strategic military base north of the port city of Aden and took the defence minister hostage. That evening Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign, in coordination with nine other, mostly Arab states, to stop the Huthi advance and restore his government. Hadi left for Riyadh and will attend an Arab League summit on 28 March. No major party seems truly to want to halt what threatens to become a regional war. The slim chance to salvage a political process requires that regional actors immediately cease military action and help the domestic parties agree on a broadly acceptable president or presidential council. Only then can Yemenis return to the political negotiating table to address other outstanding issues.

The political transition, in trouble for some time, began to unravel in September 2014, when Huthi fighters captured Sanaa, toppling the widely unpopular transitional government. Neither President Hadi nor the Huthis (a predominantly Zaydi/Shiite group, also known as Ansar Allah) honoured the soon concluded peace deal. In January, conflict over a draft constitution led the Huthis to consolidate control in the capital, precipitating the 22 January resignation of the prime minister and president; the latter subsequently fled to Aden.

The Huthi-Hadi divide is the most explosive, but it is not the only conflict. Tensions are also unsettling the recent marriage of convenience between the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, after being deposed in 2011, has taken advantage of popular dissatisfaction and tacitly allied himself with the Huthis against their common enemies to stage a political comeback through his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and possibly his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Divisions in the south, which was an independent state prior to its 1990 union with the north, are rampant as well. Southern separatists are internally split and suspicious of Hadi, a southerner who supports continued unity with the north. Then there are al-Qaeda and a nascent Islamic State (IS) movement, both determined to fight the Huthis and take advantage of the state’s collapse to claim territory.

This combustible brew has overwhelmed the UN-led negotiations in Sanaa, a legacy of the 2011 GCC initiative and its implementation mechanisms. Initially, the political process was promising: it removed Saleh and facilitated a ten-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that reached constructive conclusions on the political future. But after three years, stakeholders have little confidence UN-sponsored talks alone will overcome the impasse or produce a lasting settlement.

GCC countries have lost faith as well and are increasingly committed to reversing Huthi gains at virtually any cost. Saudi Arabia considers the Huthis Iranian proxies, a stance that pushes them closer to Tehran. Throwing their weight behind Hadi, the Saudis moved their embassy to Aden and reportedly bankroll anti-Huthi tribal mobilisation in the central governorate of Marib and the south. They lead efforts to isolate the Huthis diplomatically, strangle them economically and, now, weaken them militarily. In turn, the Huthis denounce Hadi as illegitimate and offer $100,000 for his capture. They have conducted military exercises on the Saudi border and likely will harden their position in response to Saudi military intervention. They are less dependent on Tehran than Hadi and his allies are on Riyadh, but on today’s trajectory, their relative self-sufficiency will not last long. They are already soliciting Iranian financial and political support.

More than others, the GCC had the financial clout and historical ties with Yemeni stakeholders to incentivise compromise, but it ramped up pressure while pinching off the safety valve. In March, when Hadi asked Riyadh to host GCC-brokered talks, it accepted and set impossible preconditions for the Huthis: to recognise Hadi as president and withdraw all fighters from Sanaa. The Huthis and Saleh’s GPC, which the Saudis partially blame for Huthi advances, refuse to move talks from Sanaa, insisting that the UN continue its mediation there.

Egged on by regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, Yemenis may not be able to avoid a prolonged war. If they are to, the GCC should step back from the military path and harmonise diplomatic efforts with the UN, which still has a critical role in facilitating compromise. The UN Security Council ideally would condemn regional military involvement in Yemen and at a minimum should refrain from endorsing and promoting it.

The immediate priority should be a UN Security Council brokered and monitored ceasefire, followed by UN-led peace talks with GCC backing, without preconditions, focusing on the presidency and leaving other power-sharing topics until basic agreement is reached on a single president with one or multiple vice presidents or a presidential council. Agreement on the executive would enable further talk on other aspects of pre-election power sharing in the government and military, and on state structure, particularly the future of the south, where separatist sentiment is strong. Both have been core drivers of conflict since the NDC ended in January 2014.

Without minimum consensus within and beyond its borders, Yemen is headed for protracted violence on multiple fronts. This combination of proxy wars, sectarian violence, state collapse and militia rule has become sadly familiar in the region. Nobody is likely to win such a fight, which will only benefit those who prosper in the chaos of war, such as al-Qaeda and IS. But great human suffering would be certain. An alternative exists, but only if Yemenis and their neighbours choose it.

Sanaa/Brussels, 27 March 2015

Members of the Yemeni pro-government forces walk through destruction in an industrial district in the eastern outskirts of the port city of Hodeida on November 18, 2018, during the ongoing battle for control of the city from the Huthi rebels. STRINGER / AFP

Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote

By an unexpectedly large margin, the U.S. Senate voted on 29 November to move ahead with a bill to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. Crisis Group calls on the key actors to seize this opportunity to suspend the fighting and pursue peace in earnest.

The U.S. Congress is notoriously reluctant to take tough decisions on matters of war and peace, which makes the Senate’s 29 November vote on the conflict in Yemen all the more remarkable.

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”. In doing so, it sent a clear message to both the administration and its allies intervening in Yemen, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The message: a large, bipartisan group of senators is deeply troubled by both the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed by the kingdom’s agents in Istanbul, and correspondingly dissatisfied with the administration’s business-as-usual backing of the Saudis. Efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to defuse frustrations by reminding the Senate of the U.S.-Saudi partnership’s importance right before the vote fell flat; the administration’s failure to produce CIA Director Gina Haspel as a witness to speak about the Khashoggi affair only made things worse.

The Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point.

The Trump administration and the Saudi leadership may be tempted to wait for the Senate’s moment of anger to pass. But that could be a serious miscalculation. With peace talks slated to begin in Sweden in early December, the Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point. In the coming weeks and months, there is a modest but real opportunity to build trust between the warring parties and prevent what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from descending into famine. The alternative – a brutal fight for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida, the collapse of the incipient peace process and starvation on an unprecedented scale – is, unfortunately, more likely. Beyond its profound humanitarian costs, this outcome would further stain the reputations of the Saudi-led coalition and its Western supporters. The Senate vote, which staffers say represents the lowest ebb in sentiment toward Riyadh since the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, is just a taste of what could be in store if the coalition barrels blithely ahead.

The worst need not happen. Instead, the Trump administration and its Gulf allies should treat the 29 November vote as a spur to correct the course they have been on to date. To maximise the odds of a course correction, and to end the war, Crisis Group suggests the following six steps.

Congress Should Keep Up the Pressure

Congress should not let up on the Trump administration and its Gulf Arab allies. The Senate’s procedural vote sent a strong signal, albeit at this point a largely symbolic one. It would lose much of its force if the same or a similar resolution fails to gain sufficient support when it comes to the floor for adoption next week.

Moreover, the legislation’s sceptics argue that even if it becomes law (which would require a companion House of Representatives bill to pass and either presidential signature or a Congressional veto override), the bill’s broad reference to withdrawal from hostilities will be insufficient to secure the administration’s compliance. The White House has said it does not consider the U.S. to be engaged in the coalition’s war effort in Yemen, and the judiciary would be highly unlikely to take a position on this issue should Congress attempt to force the administration’s hand in court.

But these considerations miss the bigger picture. The Senate has telegraphed bipartisan revulsion at the war and at the U.S.’s complicity in it, along with a growing willingness to expend political capital in order to distance Washington from Riyadh. Saudi leaders with an eye on the long-term bilateral relationship should see cause for real concern.

Some of the technical issues in the resolution that would weaken its impact should it become law (notably the fact that the White House has already argued that the U.S. is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen and thus that the law would be without effect) could still be addressed. If the Senate wants to amend the resolution before a floor vote, it can do so. A source of inspiration could be another draft bill, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans. The Senate did not plan to debate this bill until a new Congress is seated in January. But senators could borrow some of its specifics, which arguably would make the current bill more effective. Among other things, they could incorporate a suspension of both offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a prohibition on refuelling coalition aircraft, and provisions requiring sanctions for those blocking humanitarian aid access, circumventing some of the current resolution’s shortcomings. They could also use the current bill to block spare parts transfers. 

The Senate should impress upon Riyadh and the White House that the withdrawal resolution is just the beginning if things do not change. A strong Senate vote in favour of the withdrawal resolution – whether amended or not – will put the new Congress (including a new Democratic majority in the House) in position to ratchet up the pressure still more if need be.

The White House Should Prioritise Preventing a Battle for Hodeida

As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, a battle between UAE-backed Yemeni forces and Huthi rebels for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida would be catastrophic in terms of both the human cost – the UN says fourteen million Yemenis are on the verge of famine – and the peace process. Yet the Trump administration baulks at decisive action to rein in the coalition whose proxies sit impatiently outside Hodeida. A reprieve in military pressure, it argues, could give the Huthis new confidence in their position going in to forthcoming consultative talks in Sweden. The administration used this argument in an attempt to peel supporters away from the Senate withdrawal bill and to freeze a UN Security Council resolution calling for a halt to the Hodeida campaign. It is mistaken.

The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal.

The administration’s position seems to underestimate both the likelihood and the gravity of an assault on Hodeida. Crisis Group’s field reporting points clearly to such an offensive, either before or after the consultative talks, unless something happens to change the coalition’s calculations. Such a fight would be devastating. It would take months, be horrendously destructive, induce famine and set back the peace process, all probably without changing the Huthis’ attitude as the UAE hopes.

The argument that pressure on the coalition could jeopardise the outcome of the Sweden talks and therefore should be avoided is equally misplaced. The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal; their purpose is to develop a framework on how to proceed with future talks. To mortgage the lives at stake in Hodeida and the country at large in the name of advancing the coalition’s negotiating position at these talks would be wrong, given that all previous rounds of talks have collapsed, and that anything achieved in Sweden would be utterly undone by a battle for the port and city.

The White House Should Not Suggest That It Can Protect the Coalition from the Political Fallout of Its Actions

The White House message to the coalition should be simple: you saw the Senate vote. Congress is furious, and we cannot do anything about it. Help us help you by calling off the Hodeida offensive, agreeing to a cessation of hostilities, and genuinely seeking a negotiated end to the war.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Halt Any Plans for a Hodeida Offensive, Agree to a Cessation of Hostilities and Negotiate in Good Faith

The Senate vote is just the latest signal of Riyadh’s fraying relationships on Capitol Hill, and its reputation in the U.S. more broadly. The coalition ought to consider what it needs to do to repair the damage before it is too late. The UAE, which is leading the Red Sea campaign, has so far escaped the opprobrium directed toward Saudi Arabia but should be mindful that this could change and that a collapse of its most important regional partner’s standing in Washington would be costly for it as well.

A good first step would be for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to abandon plans to take over Hodeida and enter in good faith into detailed conversations with the UN over an acceptable way of moving the port to UN management – something the Gulf powers have thus far resisted. More broadly, the coalition should agree to a cessation of hostilities and in particular halt all airstrikes.

An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic.

Finally, the UAE and Saudi Arabia should also be clear in laying out what they see as an acceptable deal with the Huthis, and express willingness to compromise, rather than pushing for maximalist demands framed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, in particular that the Huthis disarm completely without receiving anything in return. An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic. Instead, the coalition could offer a phased integration of the Huthis into Yemen’s security sector; a detailed plan for the integration of coalition-supported fighters, including hardline Salafis; and guarantees that they will accept a future meaningful political role for the Huthis.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Prioritise Humanitarian Aid Access

Separate from the political process, the coalition should work closely with UN agencies – as it has begun to do – to reestablish full humanitarian access and capacity in and around Hodeida. The battle front lines in recent months have nudged up against key storage and grain milling sites that house the bulk of the UN’s surplus supplies. One of them is the Red Sea Mills, a wheat storage and milling facility near Hodeida that it took over from the Huthis in October and that is crucial for the UN to maintain its humanitarian operations. The coalition should provide the UN with access to the mills, clear and secure routes of entry and egress, and help remove mines and other hazardous materiel left in the mills by the Huthis.

The coalition should also guarantee that it will not cut off the last road connecting Hodeida port and city to the rest of the country, the loss of which would be commensurate in humanitarian impact to a battle inside the port or city.

The Coalition Should Give Peace Talks a Chance

The coalition should also give the talks set to begin in Sweden time and space to succeed. While the Saudis and Emiratis publicly support the peace process, they seem to expect the consultations to collapse, to end inconclusively or not to take place at all – and appear to be doing little to steer clear of those outcomes. Riyadh’s agreement to allow for the evacuation of injured Huthi fighters was one small step in the right direction. To further build confidence, the coalition should agree to other UN suggestions, such as the mutual release of prisoners and, optimally, to a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi argue that the Huthis and their Iranian backers are unlikely to reciprocate any coalition good-will; rather, they can be expected to take advantage of it, bolster their military position, and bank on time and growing U.S. war fatigue to consolidate their position. This is a risk, and it is a reason why, as Crisis Group has previously argued, all who have ties to the Huthis need to exert pressure on them as well.

But at this point, the priority must be to halt the slide toward famine and do whatever is possible to end a war that has ravaged Yemen. The Senate vote offers a renewed opportunity to do so. It must be seized.