Facing domestic and external pressure on multiple fronts, Turkey is in desperate need of success stories, especially in the foreign policy domain.
An initiative Saudi Arabia proposed on March 22 to end Yemen’s war represents a critical development toward broader political talks and a potential path to ending the conflict. Saudi Arabia offered the Houthi rebels several concessions as a confidence-building measure that would incentivize them to implement a cease-fire and restart talks. However, with multiple interests at play, peacemaking in Yemen is a complex problem that goes beyond one party’s willingness to take action. If a peace agreement is to be durable, it will need to be driven by a domestic perspective on the core conflict issues that have entrapped Yemenis in the current vicious cycle of violence.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has sought to broker peace in Yemen or reach out to the Houthis. The Saudi government has long been looking for a feasible exit strategy due to the lack of political and military progress on the ground and the increasingly devastating humanitarian situation that has prompted widespread condemnation for the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign. The economic disruption caused by this conflict is leading to starvation and an “imminent” famine that will take years to reverse.
However, despite the urgency for a solution, the timing of this proposed initiative puts Saudi Arabia at a disadvantage given two important factors. First, the expansion of Houthi fighters into Saudi border areas has left the kingdom on the defensive. Therefore, the peace offering sends a message that the Saudis are under pressure to stop Houthi attacks on their soil and on the Yemeni cities of Marib, Taiz, and al-Dhale, where forces affiliated with the U.N.-recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi are paying a heavy price. Second, demands from the administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. to end the conflict in Yemen may give the appearance that Saudi Arabia is under pressure to accelerate its withdrawal. An abrupt withdrawal or a rushed peace agreement could leave the Houthi rebels in a powerful position that could threaten further local violence and prolonged instability.
The Saudis offered provisional concessions for the Houthis to help bring them to the negotiating table, including the reopening of Sanaa international airport and allowing fuel and food imports into Hodeidah port, which is under Houthi control. Although these were fundamental demands of the Houthis, they still rejected the offer citing the need for the kingdom to lift all sea and air restrictions before the talks, not after. In reality, however, the Houthis have few incentives to agree to any peace proposal because they have managed to run their political and military operations with a considerable degree of success, expanding their control over more Yemeni territory. In addition, any sustainable peace agreement needs to include a power-sharing component involving the Houthis, who are in a dominant military position in the north, but the Houthis have not yet expressed a willingness to accept the notion of sharing power.
Some of the failures in Yemen’s peace processes have been due in part to international efforts oversimplifying complex internal dynamics and creating binary choices that have ignored the views of many Yemenis. For example, Yemen’s transition process after the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 was shaped to a degree by the push for a National Dialogue Conference in efforts to help Yemenis start a peaceful and democratic change. However, the conference failed to consider the power dynamics outside of its mandate, overlooking core issues for Yemenis, chief among them were a sense of inequality in service delivery and an unequal distribution of power. The National Dialogue Conference members were also unable to get a good read on the power dynamics outside of the room, choosing to exclude Saleh as a major spoiler, which opened the gates for backdoor deals and unorthodox alliances, represented by Saleh uniting with the Houthis.
A largely overlooked local dimension of the conflict – overshadowed by often binary battlefield realities – is that large numbers of Yemenis object to being under the control of a nonstate actor whose violence has been instrumental in imposing such control. This violence has often been eclipsed by the deaths and devastation caused by the Saudi intervention. Populations that are not under Houthi control are fearful of falling under such control. Many Yemenis have come to suffer under the Houthis as religious freedoms for Yemeni Sunnis, Bahais, and Jews have become threatened and freedom of expression severely constrained. Moreover, relations between Houthis and local actors, including tribes in areas under Houthi control, have worsened since 2014 raising opposition to their governance.
A hastily developed peace plan that reflects Houthi battlefield dominance in the north will likely trigger another botched negotiation cycle similar to the rushed United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018. The Stockholm talks were motivated by the international desire to stop a planned Hadi government and Saudi offensive to “liberate” Hodeidah; but the 2018 plan was deficient in overlooking the Houthis’ expansion and lack of adherence to the elements of the agreement that did not serve to advance their cause, such as lifting the Houthi blockade of Taiz, which remains a contentious issue.
For this reason, the international community and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Houthis, need to understand that a solution for Yemen’s conflict has to come from within. This is somewhat reflected in the proposal’s details, as Saudi Arabia appears ready to provide a negotiation table for the warring parties. However, it is not reflected in the proposal’s spirit, because it was not developed with the help of Yemeni groups, some of which fear being abandoned by the Saudis. The Saudi government needs to reconsider its approach, focusing first and foremost on helping its Yemeni allies, including civil society, women, and youth groups, to cultivate their own vision of power sharing with the Houthis and national reconciliation.
The international community will also have to realize that core conflict issues are defined differently by each of the parties to the conflict. Yemeni groups, including the Islamist Islah Party and the Southern Transitional Council, are threatened by the Houthis’ takeover of the capital and accumulation of political power and territory. They fear that any deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia will leave them in a precarious position and spark other local conflicts that will be relatively easy for the Houthis to ignite but impossible for the international community to stop.
Yemen’s experience has demonstrated a serious problem with peace plans often formulated by external actors and overly shaped by battlefield realities in Yemen, to the exclusion of legitimate Yemeni stakeholders who feel marginalized by both internal dynamics and international mediation efforts and threatened by violence from both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition. The current Saudi initiative, as well as the Biden administration’s approach, doesn’t sufficiently address the dangerous levels of violence that Yemeni people are experiencing due to the Houthis’ expansion. To overcome this, the Saudis, with the help of the United Nations and U.S. administration, need to broaden the discussion to include their local Yemeni allies. The initiative also needs to reflect the reality that many Yemenis fear falling under control of the Houthis and subject to their constricted vision for Yemen’s future. There is no question that finding leverage with the Houthis is a huge challenge; but being inclusive of all Yemeni components in this current peacemaking process will at least ensure that peacemaking efforts are fully informed about dynamics and views inside Yemen. Such inclusiveness strengthens the chances for a durable solution to Yemen’s ongoing conflict.
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