After nearly eight years of war in Yemen, talks are under way between the Huthi rebels and Saudi Arabia. Yet, by themselves, these discussions cannot bring hostilities to a close. The UN should begin laying the groundwork for negotiations that include all the conflict parties.
What’s new? Yemen’s war has been on uneasy pause since a UN-brokered truce lapsed on 2 October. Whether fighting will resume or not depends mostly on an opaque, Omani-facilitated Saudi-Huthi channel for talks, rather than the main UN-led track.
Why does it matter? A Huthi-Saudi compact is preferable to renewed hostilities. But if it is poorly conceived, too generous to the Huthis or simply infeasible, as previous proposals have been, it may embolden the Huthis to shirk negotiations, push other parties to act as spoilers or lead to a messier phase of combat.
What should be done? Yemen’s anti-Huthi factions are despondent about the Huthi-Saudi negotiations, from which they are excluded. If the UN were to start discussions aimed at an inclusive political settlement, it would likely find considerable buy-in. The Saudis should ensure that any agreement with the Huthis funnels negotiations back in the UN’s direction.
Yemen’s war is in an anxious state of suspended animation. In April, the UN arranged a truce that lasted for six months, expiring on 2 October. Since it lapsed, the Yemeni and regional parties to the conflict have observed a truce-without-a-truce, largely holding their fire while the Huthi rebels pursue bilateral negotiations with Saudi Arabia, which they view as their true adversary. But as these talks sputter along, the Huthis and their Yemeni rivals in the internationally recognised government, the Political Leadership Council (PLC), have begun preparing for another round of fighting and escalated a parallel economic war. If Sanaa and Riyadh can strike a deal, the fighting will stay paused. But such a pact may also convince the Huthis that they can sidestep negotiations with the PLC, boding ill for prospects of inclusive national dialogue. If there is no deal, meanwhile, another military showdown beckons. The UN and outside powers should push the Saudis and Huthis to find common ground, while laying the groundwork for multiparty talks and making clear that a Huthi-Saudi agreement, by itself, cannot bring peace to the country.
The truce-without-a-truce is the product of hard-driving Huthi bargaining aimed at extracting the maximum benefit from negotiations with Saudi Arabia while cutting out their foes in the PLC and making few, if any, concessions of their own. It was eleventh-hour Huthi demands that blew up UN efforts to expand the six-month moratorium on fighting in late September. The Huthis have since held fast to preconditions that they term “closing the humanitarian file” – lifting all restrictions on traffic in and out of Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport, and paying the salaries of all state employees, including the military and security services in the areas they control – in exchange for restoring the détente. Their price for an end to the war is even higher: that the Saudis cease supporting their Yemeni rivals, and also make reconstruction payments to their side, in effect sealing the Huthis’ primacy in a post-deal order in Yemen.
The military conflict has not escalated significantly since the truce lapsed in October, but a parallel economic conflict has. In October and November, Huthi forces launched drone and missile attacks on oil export facilities in Yemen’s south, halting shipments and cutting off a vital source of government revenue. The Huthis also hinted at renewing their cross-border war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The PLC responded in kind, designating the Huthis as a terrorist group and vowing to target their financial and media interests. With both sides reportedly building up forces and materiel at the front, the chances of fresh fighting remain perilously high.
For now, however, neither side seems ready to return to war. For all their bluster, the Huthis may recognise that renewed fighting would be costly, not least because of the tight economic constraints they face. The PLC’s forces, for their part, are poorly positioned to go back to battle. Angered by the Huthi attacks on oil export facilities, their main source of income, and perhaps unnerved by Huthi-Saudi negotiations in which they have no say, PLC officials have publicly and privately mooted a return to war. But the council, formed in April to replace Yemen’s internationally recognised President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the country’s executive authority, has struggled to unify its ranks. Instead, while the truce was in effect, nominal allies among the PLC forces fought one another. The PLC also relies on Saudi support – and Riyadh has cautioned the council’s military leaders that it may not come to their aid if they start shooting without its approval.
Most importantly, talks over another truce are under way, albeit mainly as direct Huthi-Saudi negotiations rather than UN-led ones. In what appears to be a sign of desire to end its role in Yemen’s civil war, Riyadh continues to parley with the Huthis despite their attacks on oil and gas export infrastructure. The Huthis, too, appear to be striking a more conciliatory tone with the Saudis, both in private and in public. Riyadh and Sanaa have not yet found a middle ground, however, due to mismatched negotiating styles and incompatible demands. The Huthis are pushing for a detailed written agreement that fulfils their demands – notably an end to restrictions on Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport and payment of all state salaries, including to their military and security services (in exchange for an extended truce), and that the Saudis withdraw from the war, cease supporting the PLC and pay the Huthis for reconstruction (for an end to the war) – while the Saudis seek an understanding on a path to ending the war, and hesitate to commit to anything in writing. Each assumes that the other will acquiesce, sooner or later.
The Huthi-Saudi track presents a potential quandary for the UN and other international players seeking to end Yemen’s war. It has long been clear that a Huthi-Saudi understanding of some kind is necessary for bringing hostilities to a close. Indeed, the Huthis are adamant that only a bilateral agreement between the Saudis and themselves, and not talks with the PLC, can stop the fighting. They do envision dialogue with their domestic opponents, but only after the Saudis have withdrawn military and financial support for these forces. The rebels appear to see the negotiations as an opportunity to advance their idea of peace: not multiparty UN-brokered talks that lead to a genuine settlement, but a deal with the Saudis that excludes all other Yemeni factions. That is what the Huthis’ rivals most fear.
The UN faces two central challenges. First, it must ensure that Huthi-Saudi talks go ahead but disabuse the rebels of the notion that they can avoid dialogue with their rivals. It must also make clear that international legitimacy for all parties hinges on participation in UN-led talks. Secondly, it must convince the Huthis to return to those talks before the PLC either collapses or unites behind a return to war. Pulling off these tasks will be no mean feat.
Yet, dangerous as it is, the moment is also an opportunity to fashion the narrative of what peace in Yemen means: not the Huthis’ vision of domination, and not the government’s half-hearted demands that the rebels surrender, but a series of compromises via multiparty talks that both acknowledge realities on the ground and signal the good faith of all parties. With anti-Huthi factions despairing at being left out of the Huthi-Saudi channel and apprehensive about the future, the UN is well placed to start high-level discussions with key Yemeni leaders about a political process it has a mandate to lead. By starting that process now, with the support of UN member states and Gulf Arab governments, the UN can assert itself as the main node of negotiations in Yemen and the only possible broker of a multiparty peace, no matter the outcome of Huthi-Saudi talks.
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