Diplomatic Gains in Yemen: The Next Steps to Consolidation

8 de março, 2019

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Since Yemen’s civil war began in 2015, over 57,000 civilians have died in the armed conflict, 85,000 children have died from starvation and 14 million more currently face famine.The December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, spearheaded by the United Nation Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, has set the stage for a potential political resolution to the conflict.

The United States should support the ongoing UN-led peace process by fully withdrawing support for the Saudi coalition and funding local peacebuilding efforts in Yemen to address underlying conflict drivers.

From local conflict to a proxy war

At its core, the Yemeni conflict is driven by an internal struggle for political control. Yemen’s unification in 1990 brought together two culturally different populations with very different political traditions. [1] The Yemen Arab Republic in the northern highlands was ruled for nearly 1,000 years by Zaidi Shi’ite theocrats, while the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was a British colony before becoming a quasi-Marxist state in the 1970s and 1980s. The two populations traditionally coexisted– until the rise of political Islam and Sunni ideology in Zaidi regions in the early 2000s.

In the face of the increased popularity of Sunnism in the north, the Houthi movement began to organize out of the highland city of Sa’dah in 2004, and further expanded during the 2011 Arab Spring unrest. During the Yemeni Revolution in 2012, President Saleh was forced to resign. His followers and members of the Houthi movement formed an alliance of convenience against the new government led by President Hadi. Houthi armed groups seized control of Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa in September 2014, forcing President Hadi to resign in 2015. He later revoked his resignation by fleeing to the southern city Aden and forming an alliance with Saudi Arabia. In December 2017, President Saleh withdrew from the Houthi coalition to join the Saudi-Hadi coalition and was later killed by a Houthi sniper. The current conflict involves the internationally recognized Yemeni government led by President Hadi and the Shi’ite Houthi armed group, led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

This conflict received worldwide attention only when western international media began accusing Iran of sponsoring Houthi armed groups, painting the conflictas a proxy war between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition that supports the Yemeni government. The Saudi coalition, with significant financial and military training support from the United States, increased its airstrikes last year, resulting in a dramatic spike in civilian casualties. [2] Foreign contributions to both the Houthis and Yemenis in the local political conflict have escalated and exacerbated pre-existing local tensions, making it more difficult for either side to meaningfully bargain or make concessions.

Striving for an agreement

Despite its history of relative inattention to the Yemeni issue, the United Nations Security Council made important headway in December 2018 and January 2019. The Council brought together representatives from the Houthi and Yemeni warring parties in Stockholm to draft an agreement under UN supervision. It calls for the demilitarization of the port city of Hodeida by both groups. Hodeida’s port has been a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid and is seen as a major bargaining chip by both parties. Thoughthe Stockholm Agreement is a big step forward, it only stipulates a “mutual redeployment of forces”, which remains vague and does not exclude the possibility that military confrontation may occur in other parts of the country. The effectiveness of the agreement rests on the implementation of this drawdown from Hodeida in the coming months and both parties’ commitments to meaningfully de-escalate violence. Meetings in Stockholm also failed to reach an agreement on the Central Bank of Yemen and the reopening of the Sanaa International Airport, two concessions deemed crucial by experts to prop up the country’s economy and provide significant humanitarian relief. [3] The successful drawdown in Hodeida will therefore be instrumental in building confidence in the parties’ capacity to uphold future agreements.

This UN-brokered agreement coincided with two landmark US Congress resolutions in early December 2018 and mid-February 2019Effectively rebuking the Saudi regime’s brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in October 2018, these resolutions direct the President to remove US forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen. Although these measures are likely to be vetoed by President Trump, who has continuously pledged unconditional support for Saudi Arabia as an important ally in the Middle East, they mark the first time the US Congress has called on the 1973 War Powers Resolution to halt military intervention. This sent an important and clear signal to the international community that it should de-escalate the crisis in Yemen.

Congress also passed the Elie Wiesel Act [4] in late December 2018 to streamline funding among American foreign aid instruments towards flexible atrocity-prevention measures. Also in the works is the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act (GFVRA) [5], a bipartisan bill that aims to formalize the US’ peacebuilding and violence reduction operations with 10 year inter-agency strategies in select countries. These various measures indicate the US government’s abilityto mobilize efforts not only against supporting Saudi military attacks in Yemen but also towards funding positive peacebuilding efforts.

De-escalating the violence

The effectiveness of the UN’s Stockholm Agreement and any future conflict de-escalation measures depend on both Yemeni and Houthi willingness and capacity to demilitarize the port of Hodeida in the coming months. Local peacebuilding and social cohesion programs can help address underlying conflict drivers and de-escalate violence between the various armed groups.

The US can further the positive momentum created by the Stockholm Agreement by funding peacebuilding and social cohesion programs in Yemen with the appropriate financial instruments it recently established. To this end, funds from the Elie Wiesel Act’s Complex Crises Fund should be directed towards expanding the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) peacebuilding programs and strengthening the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations’ work in Yemen. If the GFVRA bill is signed into law, USAID should select Yemen as a priority country for violence reduction funding and a ten-year plan. The US should support United Nations efforts to achieve peace in Yemen by aiming for long term achievements, fostering positive peace and addressing conflict drivers through local peacebuilding.


Picture: ai@ce / Flickr

[1] Amal El Deek, Salman Abdo Ahmed, Omar Salem, and Kimberly Hart, Pathways for Peace and Stability in Taiz, Yemen: An Analysis of Local Conflict Dynamics and Windows of Opportunity, (Washington DC: Search for Common Ground, 2018).

[2] Peter Beaumont, “Huge Spike in Yemen Violence as Civilian Deaths Rise by 164% in Four Months,”The Guardian, 2018, accessed January 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/sep/26/huge-spike-in-yemen-violence-as-civilian-deaths-rise-by-164-in-four-months-hodeidah.

[3] Osamah Al-Rawhani, “The Good and the Bad in the New Peace Agreement on Yemen,” Al Jazeera. 2018, accessed January 10, 2019,https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/good-bad-peace-agreement-yemen-181218082222574.html.

[4] U.S. Congress, House,Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, HR 3030, 115th Cong., introduced in the House June 22, 2017, passed in the House July 17, 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3030/text.

[5] Alliance for Peacebuilding, “The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act,” accessed January 11, 2019, https://allianceforpeacebuilding.org/violencereductionbill/.

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Margot Jones

Margot was part of the Policy Corner’s 2018-19 Paris-based projet collectif team. She is now a Junior Policy Officer at the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office. Prior to joining EPLO, Margot obtained a Master's degree in International Security with concentrations in human rights and African studies at Sciences Po Paris, and interned with the peacebuilding policy team at Search for Common Ground in Washington D.C. Her research interests include local conflict transformation, gender & environmental considerations in peacebuilding and comparing foreign policy decision-making processes in the EU, US and UN.