Yemen Conflict Alert: Seize the Chance to End the Conflict
12 Aug 2015
REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
The military tide has turned against Huthi fighters in Yemen. Emboldened by recent gains, the Saudi-led coalition has started to push into the centre of the country from Aden, the southern port city taken in mid-July, and may even attempt to capture the capital, Sanaa, further north. To avoid a new and potentially more deadly phase of conflict, the Huthis should honour the concessions they made through UN mediation efforts in Muscat on 8-9 August, including among others a militia withdrawal from cities in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2216 (14 April). In turn, their opponents should accept a compromise that produces an immediate ceasefire, negotiations over the details of an orderly withdrawal of militias from cities and a return to a Yemeni political process to settle outstanding questions.
Widespread conflict broke out in March, when political talks collapsed and Huthi fighters, supported by military units affiliated with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, marched south, forcing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, which views the Huthis as Iranian proxies, promptly launched an air campaign and imposed a de-facto naval and air blockade to roll back the advances and reinstate Hadi’s government. By the end of June, the Saudi-led coalition, which includes nine other, mostly Arab states, had slowed Huthi advances in the south and east, where domestic opposition to them is strongest.
In July, the stalemate was broken. A combination of new ground troops (both Yemeni and coalition), an injection of Western-made armoured vehicles and intense airstrikes overwhelmed the overextended Huthis in Aden. On 15 July, anti-Huthi fighters captured the international airport there and within two weeks consolidated control over most of the city. Since then, they have wrested control of surrounding governorates from war-weary Huthis, who are thinly spread and ill at ease in areas far from their northern home territory. This has changed the war’s psychology and inspired opposition forces to intensify their fight against the Huthis farther north in Taiz, Ibb, Sanaa and Marib provinces.
There is now legitimate fear that the Saudi-led coalition may be tempted to forego a political compromise and seek a more decisive military victory throughout the country, including the capital. Coalition actions indicate that this is its plan. But a military campaign in the northern highlands and particularly Sanaa would likely open a longer, more deadly military phase, compound a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and push Yemen further away from any chance of a durable political solution.
The coalition is on the verge of repeating the Huthis’ principal mistake: rapid expansion into inhospitable terrain difficult, if not impossible, to hold. Coalition victories thus far are predominately in the south and east, majority Shafai (Sunni) areas where resistance to the Huthis is strongest. The northern highlands are very different. There the Huthis have a popular base and familiar, mountainous terrain conducive to prolonged guerrilla warfare. They have many enemies as well, of course, especially among tribal families such as the Ahmars and affiliates of the Sunni Islamist party Islah. But latent opposition to the Huthis from other groups, such as Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party (GPC) and affiliated military units, is tempered by widespread resentment of the Saudi-led military campaign, President Hadi and Islah. Coalition attempts to support anti-Huthi fighters in this multi-layered environment are more likely to fuel a thriving war economy than to produce a decisive military victory against a well-entrenched local militia.
Instead of prompting more violence, recent coalition gains could and should serve as a pivot to a political solution. The UN special envoy has already met with Huthi and Saleh’s GPC representatives in Muscat to discuss a package deal that would facilitate a durable ceasefire and a move to political negotiations. Significant progress was made, with the Huthis for the first time showing willingness to treat seriously their opponents’ demands, including withdrawal from cities and working within the framework of Security Council resolutions. The changed balance of power on the ground seemingly has produced an opportunity for compromise, but only if the Hadi government in Riyadh and its Saudi backers seize the moment.
Several steps are needed so that this opportunity is not lost:
1. The Yemeni government in Riyadh and the Saudi-led coalition should support progress made in Muscat and work with the UN envoy to secure a framework plan that provides, among other things, for an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of militias from cities and a return to a political process, all in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
2. Both sides should then publicly agree to the UN-brokered framework. Some components of a plan will take longer than others to negotiate and implement, but combatants can do two things at once to build confidence:
- release political prisoners; and
- withdraw militias from the southern city of Taiz in accordance with a locally brokered plan to return control of the city to the local security committee. The Taiz plan is ready and could be a model for other cities, including Sanaa.
3. As soon as a ceasefire is in place, the Huthis should remove heavy weapons from the Saudi border and Saudi Arabia should expedite aid to the northern Yemeni governorate of Saada.
4. The permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially the U.S., which has been providing weapons and other support for the coalition war effort, should clearly back the UN envoy’s efforts to broker a political solution in line with Resolution 2216 and be willing to adopt a follow-up resolution supporting the political process and criticising any side that rejects a compromise backed by the UN envoy.
The diplomatic breakthrough in Muscat, for which Oman deserves much credit, is a real opportunity to arrest Yemen’s downward spiral. The war has already cut deeply into the social fabric, exacerbating and militarising political, sectarian and regional divides in ways that make reconciliation more challenging. Over 4,000 have died in the fighting, and the country is on the brink of man-made famine. If this opportunity is missed, the next round of violence promises to be more devastating, not only in the north, but also in the south and east, where a range of anti-Huthi fighters – from southern separatists to al-Qaeda – are heavily armed and likely to turn on each other.