Bringing the Yemen Conflict to an End
While developed nations are busy struggling to contain coronavirus, it is easily forgotten how countries devastated by conflict have fragile systems that will be quickly overstretched when the virus hits. Indeed, disease and warfare have always gone hand in hand. Yemen, in particular, is already facing a humanitarian crisis that has seen not only cholera, dengue fever, and malaria outbreaks, but widespread hunger and water shortages that have left 400,000 children severely malnourished and over 8 million on the verge of starvation.
What Yemen needs, beyond immediate humanitarian relief and the necessary medical equipment and supplies to address COVID-19, is a comprehensive diplomatic resolution that brings its interminable five-year conflict to a swift end.
Unfortunately, things still seem bleak after some hope last year that backchannel communications between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis might lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Instead, nothing materialized, and Riyadh's unilaterally declared ceasefire earlier this April was quickly violated by the Houthis, who called it a "political and media maneuver."
Notwithstanding Riyad’s well-intentioned effort to kickstart a diplomatic solution, achieving a peaceful resolution will be challenging because the country is an incredibly complex environment with multiple actors – foreign and local – with longstanding rival agendas.
The Houthis are a Shia group that comprises over 33% of the overall population. From 2004 to 2010, Yemen's former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh tried crushing them militarily instead of buying them off as he had other political rivals.
His successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, tried addressing the Houthis’ grievances politically, but his efforts were upended when they seized Yemen’s capital and ousted him from power. That move prompted Saudi Arabia's military intervention, which has since failed either to reinstate Hadi or to defeat the Houthis on the battlefield.
Another major diplomatic challenge stems from Yemen’s deep geographic divisions. While the Houthis have consolidated their strength in the north, Yemen’s southern factions remain divided and beset by inter-group rivalries. Even Hadi’s internationally recognized government is criticized as being more notional than real given its light footprint within Yemen itself.
Then there’s also Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has remained active in Yemen for over a decade, notwithstanding Washington’s efforts to thin its ranks that recently brought about the death of the group’s leader and co-founder.
Consequently, conflict negotiators should recognize upfront that Yemen will likely need a new governmental structure reflecting its complicated political landscape. Since centralized control from Sanaa has historically been associated with corruption and patronage, a revised federal or confederal model could be a useful starting point for discussion.
Regardless of final form, the bureaucratic arrangement must – as was recently suggested – be devised with the clear goal of helping Yemen tackle its current economic, educational, environmental, and social challenges. This is, even more, pressing with Yemen having recorded its first confirmed coronavirus case; aid workers fear that the country’s already overburdened healthcare system could collapse if the virus spreads.
Moreover, achieving a sustainable post-conflict peace will require acknowledging that there are multiple competing grievances that will likely inhibit plans for a grand diplomatic solution. That shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle to peace, but rather as an inevitable byproduct of Yemen’s innate complexity.
Moving forward, as part of its diplomatic outreach, Washington must work closely with its regional allies to develop a system of confidence building mechanisms for disarmament. This will be essential for promoting a stable post-conflict environment because the prospect of unilateral disarmament as a pre-condition for diplomatic negotiations will make little headway with the Houthis, whose political leverage depends on keeping their weapons until their post-war position is secured.
Once again, Iran’s behind-the-scenes role in this conflict comes to the fore. Since 2018, Houthi rebels have fired dozens of Iranian-supplied drones and missiles at Saudi cities and Yemeni government forces.
Tehran’s smuggling efforts were highlighted both last December and this February when the U.S. Navy announced that it had interdicted Iranian-made missiles and weapons components that were en route to Yemen. Continuing those efforts directly undermines Iran’s ability to project power throughout the region and starves the Houthis of the arms they need to keep fighting.
On the humanitarian front, the United States should reverse its suspension of $73 million in humanitarian aid to northern Yemen and recognize that the $500,000 in Migration and Refugee Assistance that was earmarked for coronavirus assistance falls well short of what is required.
As Martin Griffiths, United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen has rightly warned: “Yemen cannot [simultaneously] face [both] a war and a pandemic.”
In both cases, Washington has an indispensable part to play by resuming its global leadership role after having ignored Yemen’s worsening plight for too many years.
Jonathan Ruhe and Harry Hoshovsky are Director of Foreign Policy and Senior Policy Analyst, respectively, at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.