June 13, 2016

Yemen Talks Must Cement Cease-Fire Before Peace Process Can Begin

Delegates from Yemen's internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels meet for talks in Kuwait City in April. (Amiri Diwan, KUNA via AP)
by Peter Salisbury

The fast this Ramadan will be an especially arduous one for U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. He is currently overseeing talks in Kuwait aimed at ending Yemen’s civil war, which began in April and look likely to drag on through the holy month and beyond.

Despite the special envoy’s best efforts, the talks have thus far been largely inconclusive. Ould Cheikh Ahmed regularly reports that the negotiations are moving forward, albeit at a snail’s pace. And in fairness, the Kuwait talks are an improvement on previous rounds held in Switzerland, in that neither of the two negotiating teams has walked away from the table, as they did, without meeting face to face, in June 2015. The odd-couple alliance of the Houthi rebels and the General People’s Congress, the party of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has backed and sent military loyalists to fight alongside the Houthis, continue to meet with Ould Cheikh Ahmed daily. They also meet with representatives of Yemen’s government-in-exile, which is fronted by the country’s internationally recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Even if a deal is brokered in Kuwait it is unlikely to be a peace deal; rather, it will in effect be a cease-fire agreement that will hopefully lead to a more comprehensive political settlement down the line. This distinction – between a cease-fire process and a peace process – is an important one. To just focus on the Kuwait talks is to hugely underestimate the time, energy, and resources the international community and the Gulf states particularly will have to devote to putting Yemen together again, if they can at all. And their willingness to make this kind of commitment is, frankly, still an open question. As a result, peace in Yemen is, sadly, some way off.

Part of the problem is that the war, like most civil conflicts, is not simply binary – one made up of two neat sides. Rather, it is a multipolar conflict, made up of a series of different factions incentivized to cooperate with one another because they share mutual enemies rather than mutual goals. This picture is further complicated by the differing interests and agendas of regional players. Just as important, neither the Houthi-Saleh alliance nor the Hadi government is entirely representative of the many different interest groups taking part in the conflict.

Two of the key regional and local parties to the conflict – the United Arab Emirates and the militias that make up the pro-independence Southern Resistance – are notable in their absence from the talks in Kuwait. Since the beginning of the war, the UAE has shifted from being a player in the overall Saudi-led coalition to solely focusing on the territories controlled by, or at least contested by, the Southern Resistance, which is itself a mixed bag of localized militias that are not necessarily natural allies.

With the help of UAE special forces, the Southern Resistance militias pushed the Houthi-Saleh alliance out of much of the south of the country in mid-2015. Since then, they have largely been focused on extending their control over the south, once an independent, socialist state, by building their own institutions. Southern Resistance leaders have not been invited to the Kuwait talks, nor indeed have many of the many local militias fighting the Houthis, from Salafists and more moderate Islamists in Taiz to tribesmen in the central, oil-rich Marib province. The Hadi government claims that it ultimately leads all of the anti-Houthi-Saleh groups on the ground, a tenuous assertion at best.

If the UAE’s motivations for becoming so embroiled in the war remain an enigma, lack of involvement in the peace talks is less confusing. Abu Dhabi is keeping its distance from the talks because of its increasing distaste for the Hadi government, particularly Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who Hadi named deputy commander of the armed forces and vice president earlier this year. The Emiratis see Mohsen as a crucial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it reviles and has named a terrorist group, in Yemen. For the same reason, the Emiratis have refused to support Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, in its efforts to bolster the resistance in Taiz, or to take part in the war against the Houthis in the north, which is largely driven by Mohsen and his Islah allies alongside local tribes. The Emiratis have instead concentrated on building the capacity of their allies in the south in order to beat back Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful local wing of the global jihadist movement.

UAE leaders have by and large avoided overt public criticism of the Hadi government, which is being propped up by Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis’ main regional ally. The Saudis have been coordinating a massive campaign of aerial bombardment against both the Houthis – who they see as a proxy for their hated rival, Iran – and Saleh. Riyadh has played a much more active role in coordinating militias fighting on the ground than has Hadi. The Emiratis don’t want to rock the Gulf Cooperation Council boat or upset a key ally, but the lack of public support they have lent the talks has been notable in and of itself.

Saudi officials may also be tiring of Hadi, whose legitimacy as president has been, along with a U.N. resolution issued in April 2015, their main justification for the military campaign against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Hadi was elected in 2012, the sole candidate in a poll seen by Yemenis as a referendum on Saleh and an endorsement of a U.N.-brokered peace plan following the Arab uprisings. Riyadh had assumed that Hadi would prove easily malleable and that, when the time came, he would agree to be replaced by someone better able to broker a consensus between different Yemeni factions. Riyadh is now keen on a peace deal after opening up a direct line of communication with the Houthis and brokering an independent deal with them on the security of its southern border and would appear to be prepared to bid the president adieu as part of a larger, negotiated settlement.

But Hadi has other ideas, and has chosen to cling to power for as long as possible. In April, he fired his prime minister and vice president, Khaled Bahah, who was being groomed as his heir apparent. In his place as vice president, Hadi appointed Mohsen, reviled for his role in the 1994 North-South Civil War and a 2004-10 scorched earth campaign against the Houthis. The United States, which suspects Mohsen of a longstanding relationship with extremist jihadis, can hardly be happy about the appointment.

The move was perceived as a maneuver to prevent the Houthis from demanding Hadi be replaced by his largely untested deputy – a deal that would have mirrored the 2011 accord that brought him into power in the first place.

The issue of Hadi’s future role has become a sticking point at the peace talks. While both delegations publicly agree that the war needs to end and that the best way to make this happen is a political and military compromise, each has pushed its own agenda. The Hadi government demands an effective surrender by the Houthi-Saleh alliance before there is any discussion of a political settlement, while the rival delegation demands the formation of a consensus government in which it would play a major role before there is any talk of disarmament. The Houthi-Saleh alliance also wants to make sure that the deal is structured so that Hadi is either stripped of the presidency or relegated to an effectively ceremonial status – an unpalatable thought to Hadi who, for all his constitutional legitimacy, is widely acknowledged to have been a crushing failure as the country’s leader.

Even if the two delegations can find a way of meeting in the middle, the deal they work out will only serve to end the bigger conflict, not the many small wars that have broken out as a result of it. It is also hard to believe that such a deal would lead to the disarmament of newly powerful groups like the Southern Resistance militias or the plethora of Salafist militias that have sprung up since the beginning of the conflict.

The Houthis, who have now been at war for much of the past 12 years, are hardly likely to simply hand over their weapons – especially not to military units controlled by their mortal enemy, Mohsen. Neither are the Saleh loyalist military units that have fought alongside the Houthis throughout the war likely to go home meekly. Many of the tribes that have fought against the Houthis in the north are little more trusting of Mohsen’s men than they are of the Houthis, and suspect that Saleh’s long-term military enforcer and his allies would treat them any better than they did before they split from the Saleh regime in 2011.

With each military faction in a position to defend its own turf and willing to use force to improve its bargaining position in later negotiations over the country’s political future, it is unclear who, if anyone, is in a position to disarm or broker a consensus among the many armed groups on the ground. The United Nations is hardly likely to deploy peacekeepers, particularly given the destabilizing presence of AQAP. The virulent local franchise of the jihadi movement has spent much of the war building a worryingly large arsenal of heavy weapons and a war chest estimated at $200 million, and has until recently controlled a major port in southern Yemen.

Militias, AQAP, and such groups thrive on weak governance. One of the worries regarding whatever transitional arrangement is brokered in Kuwait, if one is at all, is that governance will be largely left to the same venal, kleptocratic elites who have spent much of the past four decades bleeding Yemen dry, with the addition of the Houthis who, in the year and a half they have controlled the levers of government in Sanaa, have proved no more adept than any other group at governing.

Without a peace dividend, the same old grievances – corruption, a weak economy, a lack of basic services, the total absence of a functioning judiciary – are likely to allow heavily armed local groups to thrive. It is also hard to believe that southerners, having finally taken up arms, will bless a peace deal that effectively brings the Houthis and Saleh loyalists along with Islah and Mohsen back into power. Their likely knee-jerk response to such a deal – a declaration of independence – would quite likely plunge the country back into conflict. It would also leave the UAE and Saudi Arabia in a tricky position, one where Saudi-backed militias could end up battling Emirati allies on the ground.

Western officials seem to assume that these problems will be taken care of by the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. This is quite an astonishing leap of logic, which ignores that Saudi Arabia has been a key party to the conflict. It is also odd that so much onus has been placed on Gulf backing for reconstruction and economic development. Gulf funds pledged during the political transition of 2012-14 were dispersed at a woefully slow pace, and there is a general tendency among the Gulf states to focus on long-term megaprojects like power plants, ports, and airport development, rather than smaller local projects, the effects of which the population would feel more quickly.

Then there is the question of interest and willpower in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf to stabilize Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems to have grown tired of the war in Yemen, and has been more focused of late on reforming the kingdom’s economy during a period of low oil revenue and rising fiscal deficits. It is hard to believe that having ended his somewhat unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen after learning how troublesome Yemen’s political elites can be, the prince would devote the necessary bandwidth to stabilizing the country and mediating between different factions. A secure border under a deal cut with the Houthis, that makes sure that Yemenis fight among themselves and do not trouble their neighbors, may be all he needs to move on to the next big thing – especially if suddenly cordial relations with the Houthis, until recently decried as Iranian proxies, can be maintained.

Yemen, sadly, is nowhere near peace. The best that it can hope for is an end to the big war, and that the small wars that follow it can eventually be brought to an end. The U.N. special envoy’s services will likely be needed for some time to come.

Peter Salisbury is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of the recent paper “Yemen: Stemming the Rise of a Chaos State.”