The UN special envoy to Yemen has invited the principal parties in the country’s civil war to Geneva for “consultations”. With the war rapidly approaching its fifth year, Crisis Group Consultant Peter Salisbury explains why the Geneva talks are important and what should happen next.
First of all, what is happening in Geneva and why does it matter?
After two years of political inertia, the talks are important simply because they are happening at all. Yet we should be cautious about what can be achieved. Given the lack of diplomatic progress since 2016, and an intensification of the fighting over the past eight months, bringing the two parties together would be an accomplishment in itself. But these are essentially “pre-talk” talks. If peace is to come to Yemen through negotiations, both the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Huthi rebels need to sign up to a formal process. Martin Griffiths, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Yemen, is taking a first stab at getting them to do so in his still young tenure.
What is the war in Yemen about?
The conflict in Yemen started when the Huthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 before deposing the Hadi government in February 2015. Hadi escaped to Aden, a port city in the south, pursued by the Huthis and loyalists of their then-ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president. This sequence of events triggered a military intervention by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia aimed at restoring Hadi to power. Assisted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a coalition member, local forces managed to drive the Huthis out of Aden and much of southern Yemen, but the group continues to hold most of the northern highlands, including the capital, and big chunks of the western Red Sea coast. These are Yemen’s main population centres.
Finding a way to end the conflict has become an increasingly urgent task. The war has caused what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Conservative UN estimates are that around 6,600 civilians have been killed during fighting and airstrikes and more than 10,000 injured; the real figure is likely to be far higher. Many more have died from hunger and preventable diseases like cholera, an outbreak of which is thought to have infected more than one million people in 2017 and 2018. In excess of eighteen million people are food-insecure, and eight million are on the verge of starvation.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have come under mounting scrutiny for their conduct during the conflict, while the U.S. government is weathering escalating criticism for the intelligence, logistical and refuelling support it is providing to the coalition and the arms it is selling to Saudi Arabia and others. A number of European countries have halted arms sales to Riyadh because of the way it is seen to be waging war in Yemen. Saudi airstrikes far from the frontlines have killed dozens of civilians in recent weeks, including a school bus full of children. The Huthis have also indiscriminately targeted civilians along with combatants and placed civilians in harm’s way. In late August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report, researched and written by a group of experts, arguing that all parties to the conflict are likely to have committed war crimes.
What’s the difference between peace talks and consultations?
Given the gap between the positions of the Huthis and the Hadi government, and the lack of meaningful dialogue over the past two years, Griffiths thinks that moving directly to peace talks could do more harm than good, especially if either the Huthis or the Hadi government were to walk out early. He wants to get the two parties to agree to a framework peace plan before announcing talks. The consultations are aimed primarily at getting them in the same place to iron out details of the framework without having to resort to constant shuttle diplomacy, which is what Griffiths has been doing until now.
The envoy also hopes to broker an agreement on much-needed confidence-building measures that both demonstrate that compromise is possible and improve the lot of the millions of Yemenis caught in the middle of the war. A joint statement at the end of the meeting detailing what has been agreed upon – hopefully commitments on improving humanitarian access, protecting civilians and some kind of prisoner swap – would be a sign that Griffiths’ approach is gaining traction. We have already seen that the sides can agree to humanitarian arrangements: in Hodeida, the western port city held by the Huthis and under a UAE-led siege, the UN has been able to carry out cholera vaccinations in the past month thanks to the cooperation of both the Huthis and the UAE.
Both the Huthis and Hadi government have a long history of claiming to be ready to negotiate an end to the war and of accusing each other of intransigence and unreliability. The current moment is therefore an opportunity to put their commitment to peace to the test and to form a realistic picture of where the major barriers lie.
It’s also an opportunity to encourage more intensive use of back channels between the Saudis and the Huthis. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are the main backers of the anti-Huthi war effort, and the Huthis see the Saudis and the UAE as their real adversaries in the conflict. Diplomats largely agree that the war can’t be ended through negotiations unless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman endorses the terms of the final peace deal.
The Saudis won’t approve a deal that leaves the Huthis with a degree of power – as an agreement is likely to do – without key assurances regarding border security, the Huthis’ ballistic missile capabilities and the rebels’ relationship with Iran. In turn, the Huthis need to be confident that they will have a guaranteed place at the political table in the long term, won’t have to give up all their weapons and will have access to international trade through a seaport. Most importantly, they need to be assured that the Saudis will stick to their side of the deal before signing off. Bridging this confidence gap is a crucial part of Griffiths’ job.
What are the main sticking points?
From the Hadi government’s perspective, it shouldn’t have to make any concessions at all, but should simply be promptly restored to power in Sanaa. UN Security Council Resolution 2216, issued in April 2015, calls for the Huthis to lay down their arms and for Hadi – described in the preamble to the resolution as the “legitimate president” of Yemen, without caveats – to be allowed to return to the capital and oversee the completion of the transitional process that ran from 2012 until the Huthis arrived in Sanaa in September 2014. The fact that this resolution continues to structure 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, it wants to make clear as part of any deal who are “the legitimacy” and who “the coupists”.
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 (and al-Qaeda and ISIS for good measure). 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 “the aggression” led by the Saudis and argue that talks should be held between them and the Saudi government.
That’s a pretty big gap. The problem is that the Hadi government in reality is in a relatively weak position. Nominally, it is in charge of a large array of groups, generally described as the National Army and National Resistance; in reality, the groups fighting the Houthis 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 southern secessionist militias, the so-called Security Belt forces, formed by the Emiratis to stabilise Aden in 2016 and now one of the most powerful forces in the south, who have developed a deep rivalry with forces loyal to Hadi. In January, Security Belt units and allied forces came close to overrunning the presidential palace, where Hadi’s government is based.
Most of the fighters on the Red Sea coast frontline, where the most gains have been made in the campaign against the Huthis since 2016, are drawn from the same pool of UAE-backed southern secessionist forces. At other frontlines – Mareb to Sanaa’s east in northern Yemen, the Saudi-Yemeni border and Taiz, Yemen’s biggest industrial city – the fighters are affiliates of a Sunni Islamist grouping called Islah. The UAE sees Islah as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it reviles, and is widely seen as working against the Islamists, even though they are ostensibly part of the same coalition. The forces that the UAE backs in Taiz have regularly clashed with their Islah counterparts there. It is not clear how much command-and-control authority Hadi has over any of the forces he nominally leads. His government does little to provide services in areas under its nominal control, and many Yemenis see his internationally touted legitimacy as a largely symbolic affair.
The Huthis meanwhile quickly consolidated their control over Yemen’s north-western provinces after Saleh announced he was splitting from his odd-couple alliance with the rebels in December of 2017. (The Huthis promptly killed him.) They are being squeezed economically and are gradually losing territory, but have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to sustain the destructive grind of what has become a nasty 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, and plan on maintaining pressure on the coalition by using drones and ballistic missiles to attack urban centres in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Without the Saudi-Emirati intervention the Huthi-Saleh alliance of 2015 might well have been able to seize the entire country. The Saudis’ outsize role in the conflict gives them veto power over any deal, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular – whose name has become deeply intertwined with the Yemen war – is likely to accept only a peace deal that he can present as a win domestically, after three years of massive military spending, lost lives, attacks on southern towns and cities, and ballistic missiles launched at the kingdom.
Should anyone else be at the talks?
A big criticism of all UN-led processes since the war began is that they oversimplify what is in reality a deeply complex conflict, and thus do not actually lay the groundwork for lasting peace. In fact, the number of groups invited to Geneva has shrunk compared to past rounds. Before Saleh’s death, his General People’s Congress (GPC) was invited to the talks along with the Huthis. But Griffiths has chosen not to invite the GPC, Yemen’s biggest parliamentary force, to Geneva at this point – although some GPC members from Sanaa are likely to be included in the Huthi negotiating party.
Griffiths argues that he needs to get a deal to stop the war between the Huthis, the Hadi government and the coalition first, and then initiate a peace process between the many other groups in Yemen, like the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), whom he met in late September. He realises that to represent all the warring parties at peace talks would be unfathomably complicated. But it remains unclear whether the STC and others, such as Islah and the numerous tribal forces at play in Mareb, will buy in to this approach.
Griffiths has not formally included the Saudis and Emiratis in the talks either, despite the important role they play in the conflict. Neither Gulf state wants to participate – they both insist that they are merely “assisting” the Hadi government, and that they are not parties to the conflict – but their absence means they will have to rely on the Hadi government and back-channelling with the Huthis to get what they want. Iran is regularly accused of playing a destabilising role in Yemen, and of being the Huthis’ main external backer; yet it, too, is being excluded from the formal process.
For a full peace process to succeed, the talks will need to be broadened sooner rather than later, either by expanding the number of participants in the main talks or running parallel Track 1.5 talks, which would shape whatever agreement is reached. Planning for this process needs to start now if other parties are going to signal support for the framework, giving it much-needed traction at the national level.
What are the chances of success?
“Success” is a relative term. It is possible – though not entirely likely – that Griffiths will be able to fulfil his limited aim of getting the Houthis and Hadi to sign up for the broader framework, with some tweaks, and to schedule substantive peace talks in the near future. It is also possible – and unfortunately more likely – that the consultations will break down acrimoniously amid a great deal of finger-pointing, as has happened during all previous rounds.
The coalition and the Hadi government in particular think that the tide has turned against the Huthis on the ground, and are willing to fight on to improve their position. Events on the ground could also play a role in derailing the talks, particularly if the UAE-backed forces on the Red Sea coast make a serious play for Hodeida, Yemen’s biggest port. International focus on Hodeida has relaxed since the pace of the military campaign to seize it from the Huthis slowed in July, but Crisis Group contacts are clear in saying the coalition still plans on taking the city if the Huthis do not withdraw. (Paradoxically, the coalition believes that military pressure will force the Huthis into greater compromise, but it could also blow the talks up entirely.)
What is important is that Griffiths be able to use the meeting to build momentum behind his peace plan, to forestall an offensive on Hodeida, and line up talks for later in 2018. 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.
What should the U.S. and others do?
With mounting scrutiny of the way the Saudi-led coalition is waging war – the UN human rights report is just the latest in a series to accuse them of indifference to civilian casualties – and the U.S. Congress questioning continued military support for the Saudis, the Trump administration finds itself in a tricky spot. The administration has made its relationship with the Saudis a pillar of its economic and foreign policy in the Middle East, along with efforts to push back against Iranian influence. That strategy is undermined, not supported, by its involvement in Yemen.
If the Saudis proceed unchecked, they may continue to make serious errors, as they did with the funeral hall bombing of December 2016 or the recent school bus attack. In that case, an increasingly incensed Congress may act to halt arms sales to the Saudis. But Mohammed bin Salman has proven notably resistant to pressure to adjust course on his aggressive domestic and regional policies, and is unlikely to take such a move well. The Trump administration will want to avoid a confrontation.
So instead the U.S. has set certain limits: in June, U.S. officials intervened with the coalition to prevent or at least delay a UAE-led assault on Hodeida that aid organisations (and Crisis Group) warned could badly worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation. Senior U.S. military leaders also urged Saudi Arabia to get to the bottom of the tragic bus incident and sent military advisers to Saudi Arabia to assist the investigation. In early September, a Saudi investigative body conceded that the strike may have been unlawful, even though it argued that the bus itself was a legitimate military target.
Ultimately, the Trump administration should make use of Congressional pressure to nudge the Saudis and the Hadi government toward displaying flexibility during upcoming talks while reining in the coalition’s worst military excesses. Since public and private pressure notably has not worked, doing so may require expending political capital, for example by threatening to severely limit or suspend in-air refuelling on offer to the coalition while putting in place much more stringent monitoring procedures of its own.
The question is: is the Trump administration willing to take these steps? And will its Gulf allies understand the risk of stalling movement toward a negotiated outcome? The fact is that Griffiths won’t be able to broker a deal through persuasion alone. He will need backup from the U.S. and other international heavyweights (and arms exporters) such as the UK and France that goes beyond words of support that all too often do not translate into action. If he doesn’t get it, the cycle of bad faith, resumption of brutal fighting and resulting human suffering that have characterised the war to date is bound to continue.
Peter Salisbury, Consultant for Yemen.