May 31, 2018

Pressing for Peace in Yemen: An Envoy’s Challenge

U.N. Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths
U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, left, listens to the undersecretary of the Houthi-led government's foreign ministry, Faisal Amin Abu-Rass, upon his arrival in Sanaa, Yemen, March 24. (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

If Martin Griffiths seems to be in a hurry these days, he has his reasons. The recently minted U.N. special envoy to Yemen is racing to stay ahead of a military escalation by any one of the belligerents in that country’s conflict, which would almost certainly derail his efforts to rejuvenate the moribund peace process.

Since assuming his duties, Griffiths has been busy meeting with representatives of the parties to the conflict and some of the supporting players, including senior administration officials in Washington. At each stop, Griffiths no doubt pleads for restraint in words that echo those he used in April when he told the U.N. Security Council that “a political solution to end this war is indeed available,” while cautioning that an ill-advised military operation “may in a stroke take peace off the table.”

The frenzied social media chatter surrounding the likelihood of a Saudi-led coalition ground assault on the strategic port of Hodeidah will do nothing to assuage the envoy’s anxieties. Twitterati are seized by the prospect of a pitched battle to liberate Yemen’s principal Red Sea port, which for more than a year has been squarely in the sights of coalition military planners. Such an assault might already have taken place if not for strong international concern that it would have a catastrophic impact, disrupting operations at the port through which 80 percent of the food and humanitarian assistance destined for Yemen’s beleaguered population passes, exacerbating in the process what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Even now, the idea of a military assault on Hodeidah is eyed with some skepticism, including on the part of some senior officials in the administration of President Donald J. Trump. In fact, given the close ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is unlikely any assault on Hodeidah will proceed without a green light from Washington, which has yet to be given. At the same time, any reticence in this regard will be counter-balanced by the Trump administration’s desire to demonstrate continued, strong support for efforts by its closest Gulf Arab allies to push back against Iranian adventurism in the region. This is particularly true in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long argued that the Houthi rebels are an Iranian proxy force, a view now shared by the U.S. administration.

Perhaps because of humanitarian concerns, the focus of coalition military planners has shifted to seizing the port only, which sits northwest of Hodeidah city. Emirati special forces, supported by locally trained and recruited Yemeni militias and elements of a recently reconstituted Republican Guard, led by Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been moving slowly up the coast, and are said to have advanced to within 13 miles of Hodeidah. As part of this operation, the UAE claimed earlier in May to have conducted a successful amphibious assault on a Houthi-controlled command-and-control center in Hodeidah governorate, destroying the installation and killing a large number of rebel fighters. Such an amphibious landing would likely figure into any attempt to regain control of the port.

Whether the intent is to conduct a ground assault on the port or the city, or simply encircle Hodeidah and cut off supply lines to the Houthi fighters dug in there, is unclear. The Saudis apparently believe that the city’s population is so restive under oppressive Houthi rule that, given the opportunity, they will rise up in armed insurrection and break the rebels’ hold on the city. A liberated Hodeidah would be able to serve as a seat for the exiled Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which has for all intents and purposes been exiled from the southern city of Aden by fighters loyal to a secessionist-minded Southern Transitional Council that, ironically, enjoys the support of the UAE.

Griffiths must also be watching carefully news that the Trump administration has asked Congress to consider the sale of more than 120,000 precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a sale that could be worth some $2 billion. Since March 2015, coalition airstrikes over Yemen have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and have crippled Yemen’s already feeble infrastructure – including water treatment facilities – which in turn has led to the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Assured of a fresh supply of PGMs, the coalition could well be emboldened to maintain or even increase the operational tempo of its air campaign, particularly given that the Saudis are convinced that the Houthis will only return to the negotiating table under pressure. Whether Congress will agree to such a sale at a sensitive juncture in the conflict is unclear. In 2017, the Senate came within four votes of rejecting a plan to sell $500 million in PGMs to Saudi Arabia. Earlier in May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bipartisan resolution that would cut off U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition if the White House cannot provide assurances that Riyadh is doing all it can to minimize civilian casualties and find a negotiated resolution to the war.

Of course, in a conflict fraught with irony, it turns out that the coalition use of U.S.-made PGMs designed to pound the Houthi rebels into submission often provokes exactly the opposite response, as the Houthis launch ballistic missiles deep into Saudi territory, courtesy of range-extending modifications provided by Iran. To date, these missiles have been either intercepted or have missed their targets, but the prospect that one will strike a heavily populated area is just the sort of scenario that keeps Griffiths on the move. Nor is that the only way the Houthis could drive the war in Yemen into an escalatory spiral. In 2016, the rebels fired on a U.S. naval destroyer multiple times; they have used maritime drones to attack commercial traffic and coalition warships plying the waters off Yemen’s coast. Should they decide to try again and succeed, the likelihood of Yemen’s war metastasizing grows exponentially.

Griffiths’ efforts to resume peace negotiations got a lift from an unlikely source over the weekend, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister said that as part of its discussions with the European Union to salvage the international nuclear agreement, Iran is prepared to discuss Yemen “because of the humanitarian crisis there.” Reports this week cited European officials as claiming the talks had progressed significantly and were going in the right direction. Those talks are scheduled to resume in mid-June, about the same time the U.N. envoy has said he wants to table his plan for peace talks. Meanwhile, Griffiths’ race against the clock continues, as he tries to persuade the principal parties to the conflict to enter talks before something goes horribly wrong and they all double down on a war no one can win.

Stephen A. Seche is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and previously U.S. ambassador to Yemen.