On January 29, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington convened a roundtable discussion on the status of Yemen’s ongoing war – and efforts to hasten its end. While there was general agreement that the Hodeidah cease-fire that emerged from U.N.-sponsored talks in Sweden in December 2018 was barely holding, no one was prepared to declare it DOA. There was a sense that, as imperfect as it may be, the cease-fire had enabled humanitarian organizations to get some important work done in and around Hodeidah. However, there was deep concern expressed about recent alleged Houthi attacks in the port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea Mills, where the World Food Programme has a quarter of its wheat stock stored.
Meanwhile, opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Yemen war continues to animate members of Congress in both houses, and on both sides of the aisle. Legislation to invoke the War Powers Resolution and force an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition was said to be coming soon and, in fact, was introduced on January 31. Other legislation designed to halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia also is expected in this session, and the next certification of Saudi efforts to avoid civilian casualties that was amended to the National Defense Authorization Act will be required by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February. Following are highlights of the discussion, which was held under the Chatham House Rule. Some points have been updated to reflect recent developments.
Status of the Stockholm Agreement
- There have been infractions on both sides that could jeopardize what was already acknowledged to be a limited agreement that lacked important details on compliance; but there was never an expectation that the cease-fire in Hodeidah would mean an end to all violence.
- While there are deep concerns, many of which are focused on the Red Sea Mills at the Hodeidah port, and policymakers and humanitarian groups are watching for a significant enough provocation that would signal a total collapse of the cease-fire, the Stockholm agreement is not yet dead. There is still optimism, largely based on the fact that this is the furthest the negotiation process has gotten since 2016.
- More missed deadlines and attacks outside the Hodeidah area that would certainly undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement could jeopardize this.
- Focus now is on implementing Stockholm:
- U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is shuttling among parties to try and reach agreement on details regarding redeployment of forces.
- The U.N. secretary-general announced on January 31 that Danish Major General Michael Anker Lollesgaard, who led a peacekeeping mission to Mali, will replace Patrick Cammaert as the head of the team of U.N. monitors.
- Meetings in Amman, Jordan on details of a prisoner exchange are still happening, so there is still a possibility of getting an agreement, however there has been no broad agreement on the lists and modalities, although the International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the exchange of a Saudi soldier for seven Houthi fighters at the end of January.
- Pressure from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was integral to getting the parties to the finish line in Stockholm, so there is deep concern, particularly from Congress, that the process will suffer now that he is gone.
- With John Rood taking over the file at the Pentagon, there are concerns that he won’t be as engaged, and if he is, given his rank (under secretary for policy), his calls won’t be taken as seriously by the parties, who are very conscious of hierarchy.
- The next round of talks is not scheduled yet and is likely not to be while the Stockholm outcomes are still in doubt.
- For the Houthis, it is still not clear what they want out of the negotiations – what their agenda is, and what could be leverage points.
- The Europeans, Iranians, and Omanis all have some degree of insight into and influence with the Houthis, and it would be useful to enlist their support in efforts to gain a greater understanding of the Houthi end game.
- We tend to forget that the Saudis themselves know the Houthis very well and should have insight of their own into the Houthis’ interests.
- But the Houthis are not a monolith – the political and military wings often seem to have different agendas.
- It is necessary to consider the incentive structures for the Houthi fighters on the ground – who have gained a lot of power from the conflict and benefited from the war economy but don’t stand to gain much in negotiations or with a political resolution.
- The Saudi interests are seemingly clearer.
- Three goals:
- Restoration of the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216
- Eviction of Iran from the Arabian Peninsula
- Securing the Saudi national territory from strikes and cross-border incursions
- It seems as if the Saudis would be willing now to accept the securing of their national territory in order to declare victory. The Emiratis are also looking for a way out of the conflict, although their presence in the south of Yemen, including counterterrorism operations, is likely to persist.
- Three goals:
- There have been notable improvements since the agreement and cease-fire in Hodeidah.
- There was around a 50 percent decrease in security incidents in the first month.
- Humanitarian organizations have been able to send some staff back into Hodeidah; humanitarian access has increased; there has been some improvement in the processing of visas.
- Mobile health access has increased.
- Some internally displaced persons have been able to return home.
- There has been a resumption of some commercial activity.
- Should attacks on the Red Sea Mills and the area surrounding persist, and cause further damage to the silos and continue to limit their accessibility, prospects of famine would increase.
- While the focus has rightly been on Hodeidah, there are still challenges in getting shipments into the country’s other ports.
- It is important to take care of these smaller tangible things that can be achieved while trying to attain a political solution.
- U.S. and international diplomacy helped to get this agreement in place, and there needs to be continued pressure.
- Reunification of the central bank was discussed in Stockholm, and the parties came to some agreements, but they were not approved by the Hadi government, so fell apart.
- Stabilizing the currency and paying civil servants’ salaries are still an urgent need.
- Saudi cash injections helped to stabilize the Yemeni currency in September 2018, but there will be more pressure on the riyal in the spring and through the Ramadan holiday.
Pressure from Congress
- Congress will continue pushing some ongoing initiatives and bring up new ones.
- Senators Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee and Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna and Mark Pocan introduced updated versions of their Yemen War Powers Resolutions on January 31.
- This should go through the House Foreign Affairs committee in February; the House will likely vote on it first and then the Senate and will probably have enough votes for it to pass.
- But no one expects the president to sign it, and Congress doesn’t have a veto-proof majority.
- Menedez-Young legislation
- Democratic Senator Bob Menedez from New Jersey is still interested in pushing this bill forward, which he introduced with Republican Todd Young from Indiana; it would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on individuals responsible for the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- But Senator James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is less sympathetic to this bill than former Senator Bob Corker had been and is skeptical of some parts of it; they are still forming this committee, so there likely won’t be any quick action on this.
- The House of Representatives is looking at doing something in addition to the War Powers Resolution, similar to but different from the Menedez-Young bill.
- National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations process
- The House and Senate appropriations bills did not include International Military Education and Training assistance to Saudi Arabia – this $10,000 would qualify the Saudis for tens of millions of dollars in discounts on military training; it is specifically prohibited in the legislation.
- Senators Murphy and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina worked closely to get to this agreement, but Graham continues to be more focused on the killing of Khashoggi than the war in Yemen, so where he stands on this will be determined by the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More