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Event Recap: After Five Years of War: How Can Yemenis Restore their State and Sovereignty?

On April 20, GIF hosted a panel discussion “After Five Years of War: How Can Yemenis Restore their State and Sovereignty?” GIF was honored to be joined by Samuel Ramani, Dr. Nabeel Khoury, Rasha Jarhum, Professor David Des Roches and event moderator Ambassador Patrick Theros in a conversation addressing the key obstacles preventing a peace agreement in Yemen’s war that has reduced the country to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and unsettled regional stability. A short-lived ceasefire signaled that warring parties in the conflict are seeking a resolution, however, the panelists claim that deep mistrust, ineffectual international institutions, and strategic considerations are among the factors that continue to prolong fighting. While internal disputes and international patrons give the war a complex appearance, the experts identify the core political issues at stake and what is required for Yemen to recover.

The Perpetual War

Samuel Ramani opened discussion with a presentation on the international dimension to the conflict, arguing that a paradox has emerged whereby the major actors in Yemen exhibit a desire for a peace resolution, yet are locked in a cycle of violence fueled by mistrust and the absence of an effective peace arbitrer. According to Ramani, the credibility and legitimacy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is bound up in a war campaign he oversaw as defense minister that risks placing Saudi Arabia in a worse position from where it began in 2015. The Houthis and Iran have sensed the Saudi’s growing vulnerability, which has deepened their relationship and offered Iran a strategic foothold on the Bab el-Mandeb strait and a permanent check on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the United Nations to reach a resolution are unpopular among Yemeni political leaders and the Yemeni people. There is dissatisfaction with Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, yet no attractive alternative to the UN-led process despite interest from neighboring Gulf states and Europe to see an end to the war. This is in part a consequence of the polarity present today in the international community as well as mixed messaging coming from Yemeni leaders over an acceptable outcome. President Hadi has alluded to a future federal system while also emphasizing national unity, which in Yemen’s fragmented political landscape of tribal politics and sectarianism has encouraged local groups to develop their own visions for Yemen’s future.

The US Role in the Saudi Campaign

Following Samuel Ramani’s analysis of the wider international dimension to Yemen’s war, Professor David Des Roches narrows the focus on the role of the United States in supporting Saudi Arabia’s military operations. Professor Des Roches is clear to indicate that US military support for Saudi Arabia is only one angle to a highly internationalized conflict, although the relationship is a critical aspect to the war. While American assistance to the Saudi campaign initially came from air-to-air refuelling of Saudi jets, the US today is the top provider of munitions used primarily for ground operations and defense system technologies. For Des Roches, the evolution highlights a shift from Saudi Arabia’s ‘shock and awe’ approach to Yemen through airstrikes to a proxy war fought on the frontlines.

The shift may also be explained by the increasing capability of the Houthis to strike infrastructure inside of Saudi Arabia by ballistic missiles and armed drones provided by Iran. In this respect, Saudi Arabia’s turn to the US for air defense systems reflects a more defensive mindset as Saudi national security has come under greater threat over the course of the war.

Yet, Saudi Arabia continues to absorb most of the international criticism for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and war crimes committed in the conflict. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US Congress is perhaps at a historic low after a resolution was nearly passed that would block additional US military support to the Saudis. It is possible that if a severe outbreak of COVID-19 occurs in Yemen, renewed pressure may arise to reconsider US support in the war as Saudi Arabia will most certainly face condemnation for a further deteriorating humanitarian disaster.

The Limits of Peace Processes

While the UN-facilitated Stockholm Agreement in 2018 renewed optimism for a negotiated settlement to Yemen’s war, Rasha Jarhum reflects on the failure of previous peace discussions and their effect on the Yemeni people’s attitudes toward a lasting future peace. As touched upon by earlier speakers, efforts by the UN are exclusionary and favor a traditional negotiation model that does not translate to the reality found on the ground in Yemen. Left out of the UN-led process is the Southern Transitional Council and representatives from Yemen’s south, many of whom contest the legitimacy of the internationally-recognized government and President Hadi in particular.

When UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths embarked upon his mission, he set low standards that mirrored equally low expectations. Rather than address key issues, Griffiths pursued confidence building measures such as prisoner exchanges between the government and Houthis. At times, the Houthis have echoed UN in calling for these measures which have suggested their interest in more serious talks.

But Houthi demands remain unchanged from 2015 which Jarhum sees as a concerted effort from the group’s leadership to institutionalize their legitimacy as a state actor. At the same time, the Houthis have shown a diplomatic face while pushing ahead with military operations similar to those currently underway to take control of Jawf and Marib governorates. In turn, the Houthis have broken their trust with many Yemenis who are also suspicious of Iran’s hand in any future government where the Houthis claim a seat.

A Broken Coalition?

In examining the status of the Saudi-Emirati coalition that intervened in Yemen with confidence, Dr. Nabeel Khoury concludes that the coalition has failed despite its military superiority. Moreover, the situation in Yemen appears worse as the coalition looks no closer to achieving its aims of restoring legitimacy and establishing security in the region. Saudi Arabia remains a target of rocket attacks while Houthi soldiers cross its porous southern border with regularity. As Iranian influence in Yemen also grows, Dr. Khoury asks why the war continues in the face of these realities.

In the last five years, the unified front of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has grown apart as each of the two states pursue different objectives, namely in the form of strategic gains. Emirati interest in securing port access in a critical shipping theatre have long been known. Similarly, the Saudis have had designs on running an oil pipeline through Hadramout and Mahra provinces, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, directly to the Indian Ocean.

Khoury believes that the increasing value of strategic gains presents a dark prospect for peace. An agreement that favors de-escalation over a political resolution may be acceptable in the near future, but isn’t stable, and may encourage Yemen’s partition or spark multiple ‘wars within wars’. Yemen is devastated, and it is time for the world’s major international powers to demand a resolution that appoints new leadership to rally Yemen’s people around a new future.

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