The United States has not developed adequate responses for dealing with hybrid groups like the Houthis.
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Over the course of his 14 months as U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths has worked assiduously to develop the credibility and trust essential to any successful conflict mediation. He put both on the line this week when he announced – after several false starts – that the principal parties to the conflict in Yemen are now prepared to implement key provisions of the so-called Stockholm Agreement, which they have been wrangling over since they signed it five months ago.
The stakes are high – and the risk to Griffiths (and by extension, the process he leads) is mounting – precisely because he has previously delivered such encouraging news, only to have hopes dashed by a failure of one or more of the parties to adhere to their commitments. In December 2018, Griffiths managed what virtually no one thought possible: Meeting over the period of a week in a small town outside Stockholm, Sweden, he brokered an agreement between officials of the internationally recognized Yemeni government and representatives of the rebel Houthi forces that have been fighting for control of the country for almost five years.
The Stockholm Agreement focused principally on the Red Sea port city and governorate of Hodeidah, and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa. It was agreed to because it is narrowly framed as a humanitarian and confidence-building initiative rather than part of a broader political process. It called for a cease-fire and redeployment of armed forces to demilitarize the areas and permit the unfettered movement of humanitarian assistance from the ports to Yemen’s long-suffering population.
While the plan succeeded in reducing the levels of violence in and around Hodeidah, and allowed for improved delivery of humanitarian assistance, the cease-fire has teetered on the verge of collapse from the beginning, and the initial, mid-January deadline for redeployment of forces came and went with no discernible progress. A month later, Griffiths announced that, following two days of U.N.-sponsored talks, the parties had ironed out their differences and had agreed to move ahead with the redeployments, adding: “I have every confidence they will start very soon.” They did not.
On April 15, in a briefing by Griffiths to the U.N. Security Council, he announced that “both parties have now accepted the detailed redeployment plan for phase one of the redeployments in Hodeidah.” Is this a done deal, or just one more false start for a process that is now the object of growing skepticism? While it is too early to tell, even Griffiths conceded the fragility of the plan, saying, “when, and I hope it is when, not if, these redeployments happen, they will be the first voluntary withdrawal of forces in this long conflict.”
As he has done before, Griffiths very pointedly thanked Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi for their support of the plan, as if to inoculate it from being yet another unsuccessful attempt to bring the parties into compliance with their commitments. In this regard, the Houthis are most often singled out, accused by the Saudi-led coalition of more than 3,000 breaches of the cease-fire, and characterized by the International Crisis Group in a February report as “the major proximate barrier to implementing the agreement.”
In fact, if the Houthis fail to comply with their commitments this time around, it may be Griffiths’ approach that comes under the greatest scrutiny. Critics, like the Arabia Foundation’s Fatima Alasrar, wrote in The National in March: “whether intentionally or not, the UN-brokered deal for Yemen is being actively configured in the Houthis’ favour … [because Griffiths] … has no choice but to accept Houthi demands, lest the deal collapse on his watch.”
Others have questioned the two-party focus of Griffiths’ negotiations. Katherine Zimmerman, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, in remarks in March before a congressional subcommittee, said “the UN-led effort to negotiate a political resolution to the current war is unlikely to succeed and will not address the conditions that drove Yemenis to war in the first place,” arguing that it “exaggerates the importance of the internationally recognized Yemeni government over the actual factions on the ground.”
In fairness, Griffiths is playing with a weak hand as he tries to implement the Stockholm Agreement, which emerged quite unexpectedly from a series of meetings that were convened as a modest first step, so preliminary they were referred to as “consultations.” As Yemen scholar Helen Lackner has noted, “Signed under heavy pressure, the very brevity and vagueness of the texts of the Stockholm Agreements are a reminder of the rushed process which brought them about.”
The progress achieved at the Sweden talks was also made possible by the convergence of some unique dynamics that seem to have dissipated since then. For one, at very senior levels, the U.S. government had both publicly and privately become much more engaged, urging coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to temper ambitious military plans regarding Hodeidah, and advocating strongly for a political solution. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel were said to have been particularly effective in the weeks prior to the meetings in Sweden; both have since left their posts, and there is no evidence that anyone at comparably senior levels of the executive branch has stepped in to continue their efforts. In addition, congressional opposition to the war in Yemen was coalescing at the end of 2018 (the Senate first voted to end U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition on December 14), and outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had led to intense criticism of Saudi conduct, including its role in the Yemen war.
Five months later, the furor over Khashoggi’s death has subsided, and while congressional criticism of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is likely to persist, its limits were demonstrated on April 16 when President Donald J. Trump vetoed legislation that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, signaling a continuation of U.S. arms sales and logistical backing for the war effort.
Still, the message from Congress has not gone unnoticed, and it has likely reinforced the growing sense of urgency in some Gulf capitals that a broad political process is needed to bring the war to an end. In this view, the Hodeidah cease-fire and redeployment of forces is the essential first step, after which the parties should immediately move to comprehensive political negotiations that will resolve the long-standing issues at the heart of Yemen’s multilayered conflict.
This broader political process is seen as the best way to offer the Houthis political and economic incentives that will be substantial enough to persuade them to end their armed insurgency, since they have proved to be remarkably determined and resilient over the past four years of war – and also remarkably impervious to pressure. In fact, the absence of any effective source of pressure on the Houthis has been an impediment to bringing the war to a negotiated end. And while Iran has told European Union officials during talks that it is prepared to be helpful in this regard, it is not clear that Tehran enjoys that kind of influence over the Houthis, or if Iranian leaders are even genuinely inclined to help, while Washington persists with its campaign of “maximum pressure.” This need to overcome the Houthis’ isolation may explain why Griffiths has been so attentive to their needs throughout his mediation, even traveling with them to Sweden in December to assure their participation in the talks. Commenting on this, The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour asserted: “Partly by staying physically close to the Houthis, Griffiths appears to have made more progress with the often-divided group than any previous UN mediator.”
But Griffiths’ success in this regard has not come without some cost. The Yemeni government, for example, has criticized Griffiths for his unwillingness to publicly call out the Houthis for their recalcitrance, given his preference to refer generally to the need for “all parties” to meet the obligations they have made. Still, Griffiths seems undeterred. As he told an interviewer with Al Arabiya in February, “Let me just say that for those who expect me to pronounce judgments and to assign blame, they will continue to be disappointed … Blame is something which I am sure will come later … That is not my business. My business is getting this conflict resolved as soon as possible.”
If Griffiths is to succeed, he’s going to need more than just his own guile to do so. He’s going to need space, time, and a robust expression of international support – especially from the United States. In any complicated mediation there comes a time when the mediator himself becomes the issue. This may be that moment for Martin Griffiths, something he seemed to acknowledge in his remarks on Monday, when he asked for the support of the Security Council for his mediation effort, adding, “Let us together require those who can help us towards peace be encouraged and the sceptics set aside.”
is the former executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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