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Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
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’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The bombing of a funeral has empowered the country's worst forces and could drag America into the fray.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, an airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition ripped through a crowded funeral in the heart of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. At least 140 mourners were killed and more than 500 injured. The unprecedented strike has killed peacemakers, empowered militants, and fueled the desire for revenge, making the prospects for peace in this conflict ever dimmer.

Yemenis are no strangers to horrific attacks on civilians. After 18 months of war, both the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition and its adversaries, a combination of Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stand accused of flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, perpetrated seemingly without consequence. The United Nations estimates the war has claimed more than 10,000 lives, including 4,000 civilians, with the majority of deaths caused by coalition airstrikes. Yet this strike stands out.

The attack is likely the single-most costly strike, in terms of civilian casualties, during the course of the war. While other violations have been shrouded in a fog of war, this one happened in the capital at a well-known landmark, reducing the chances of deniability or ambiguity about its legitimacy as a target. Many killed in the community hall were among the country’s political, tribal, and military elite, and their deaths have had significant political and social repercussions. It was also a clear violation of traditional norms that protect the sanctity of funerals, even between bitter enemies and warring parties.

As shock and sadness engulfs Sanaa, some Yemenis are hoping against all odds that the event could serve as a spur for a peace agreement. But this hope is likely misplaced. The bombing killed a number of important political and military personalities supporting a peace deal, among them the mayor of Sanaa, two Yemeni members of the U.N. cease-fire monitoring team, and a general expected to play an important post-conflict security role. Their deaths empower hard-liners over peacemakers while undercutting capacity to implement any future accord.

Yes, the carnage has drawn international condemnation from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for an international investigation. It also pushed the U.S. government, which has sold Saudi Arabia approximately $22.2 billion in weapons since the war began, to launch a review of its support to the coalition.

But it is not clear what impact, if any, these statements will have. The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander, unable to broker peace or even secure an independent investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. The United States and Britain, both coalition supporters and arms suppliers, have repeatedly demonstrated a high level of tolerance for potential war crimes by their allies. It is unclear what red lines they have.

The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the country is poised to spiral further into chaos. Since U.N. peace talks collapsed in August, both sides have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat escalations. Houthi fighters, along with those loyal to Saleh, have increased cross-border rocket attacks and raids into Saudi territory. On Oct. 1, they attacked an Emirati vessel in the Red Sea off the coast of Mokha, approximately 50 miles north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which millions of barrels of oil pass daily. The Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, meanwhile, moved to put the financial squeeze on his opponents by announcing it would move the Central Bank of Yemen from rebel-controlled Sanaa to the government’s temporary capital in Aden. Only days before the funeral attack, Hadi-aligned forces launched a major military offensive northeast of Sanaa, at which their highest-ranking military commander to date was killed.

Now the funeral attack will likely produce an even more significant military escalation by Houthi forces along the Yemeni-Saudi border. This, in turn, will confirm Riyadh’s worst fears and secure U.S. support in defense of Saudi territorial integrity. Already Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and Saleh have issued impassioned calls for mobilization along the border — a call that is being met by enraged tribesmen throughout the north. Their forces have already fired two ballistic missiles — one toward Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province and the other, for the first time, deep into the kingdom, toward the city of Taif in Mecca province. It remains to be seen if they have the ability to make good on their threats to push into Saudi territory, especially into Jizan, Asir, and Najran provinces, mostly mountainous areas that many Yemenis consider part of historic Yemen.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well. On Oct. 9, the U.S. military reported two missiles were fired at the guided-missile destroyer USS Masonfrom Houthi-controlled territory just north of Bab el-Mandeb. U.S. official claimed that the USS Mason was targeted again in a failed missile attack on Oct. 12. The Houthis denied the Oct. 9 strike, and the United States has yet to confirm their responsibility, but if confirmed, it constitutes a major escalation near the strategic strait.

The anger and hostility directed toward the Saudi-led coalition in the aftermath of the funeral hall strike will make it harder to contain the regional rivalries unleashed across the Middle East and to convince Yemen’s domestic parties to reach a negotiated settlement. Indeed, the premonitions of Abdul-Qader Hilal, the Sanaa mayor who was killed in Saturday’s attack, are ones that deserve our attention now.

Two and a half years ago, I sat with Hilal in his home on the outskirts of Sanaa as he received rounds of Salafi, tribal, and Houthi mediators in an attempt to solidify a truce between warring factions in Yemen’s north. A politician with connections to all sides of the country’s complicated political and tribal mosaic, he predicted a conflagration if violence in the north was not contained by integrating the Houthis into the political system. When the military tide was unleashed, he warned, it would be hard to stop. “If the Houthis take Amran [a city north of Sanaa], they will take Sanaa,” he said. “If they take Sanaa, we will be talking about [stability in] Riyadh a year later.”

At the time, his concerns seemed inflated, even outlandish. In light of recent developments, they appear ever more prescient.

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.