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Time For New UN Approach On Yemen – OpEd

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The United Nations is in dire need of making a drastic adjustment in its approach toward the conflict in Yemen, otherwise the world organization has little chance of causing a much-needed breakthrough in this stalemated war that has already produced the world’s most catastrophic humanitarian crisis.  Despite the valiant efforts of the current UN Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Martin Griffiths, the overall UN approach toward Yemen, which consists of the two prongs of humanitarian assistance and political mediation, is unfortunately riddled with problems, which need to be fixed immediately for the sake of millions of suffering civilians in Yemen, as well as regional stability.  

Basically, the UN’s efforts to end the deadly conflict in Yemen are hampered by the deeply-flawed framework for peace, reflected in the UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which (a) bestows legitimacy on the deposed government of Mansur Hadi, which has been routed in Aden in the hands of separatist forces, and (b) calls for the unilateral disarmament and withdrawal of the Houthi forces from the capital, Sanaa. Pushed by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) back in 2015, Resolution 2216 sets unrealistic goals and is out of tune with the existing political realities in Yemen, north and south.  As a result, Mr. Griffiths’ mediation have so far been binary in nature, involving only the Hadi government and the Houthis, thus sidestepping the need for a more inclusive approach that reaches out to all the stakeholders in the conflict in Yemen.  

But, without a new UN mandate providing new political parameters on Yemen, Griffiths’ hands are tied and he cannot possibly make meaningful advances toward the lofty objective of a “comprehensive peace plan,” which is wishful thinking and, in fact, does not even exist on paper, given the current emphasis on partial or incremental steps toward peace, hammered out in Stockholm last December. A glance at the Stockholm agreement and it is immediately obvious that this is not a “peace agreement” at all, but rather a pre-peace agreement, or warmer, premised on the successful implementation acting as a gateway to an eventual peace. 

Although the warring sides continue to pay lip service to the Stockholm agreement, it is in fact on life support because of various cease-fire violations and may fall apart soon, partly as a result of the demise of Hadi government in north Yemen. Even if restored under the Saudi pressure, the Hadi government is bound to be severely restricted due to a combination of factors, above all the formidable influence of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which may utilize a nominal Hadi president as a Trojan horse to push its secessionist agenda. 

Fact of the matter is that Yemen has been in a state of de facto partition for the past five years and the UN’s call for the restoration of government of national unity, which has become a shell without content, is seriously delusional and akin to holding onto a false narrative — that simply does not serve the purpose of peace-making in Yemen.  The coup in Aden has, on the other hand, complicated the implementation of the Stockholm agreement, e.g., with respect to Taiz and al-Hodeidah and the other small ports of Salif and Ras Issa, highlighted by the fact that Sudanese militias are now acting more independently and openly refusing to vacate Hodeidah despite the fact that UN has certified Houthis’ departure.

Without a more powerful UN presence in those port cities, it is almost guaranteed that the current efforts to de-escalate tensions and create localized stability will fail.  UN’s effective role in conflict-mediation with only a skeletal presence is unrealistic and a great deal more UN monitors on the ground are needed.

Yemen’s future may lie like the UAE, a confederate, rather than a federal system and or two Yemen, which is problematic since the south is resource-rich and, case in point, its oil and gas income belongs to all the Yemen people.  Eventually a feasible formula for distribution of national income must be found, perhaps drawing lessons from the post-invasion Iraq, which is itself a work-in-progress. 

Another problem with UN’s approach is that Griffiths is desperately trying to insulate Yemen from the brewing regional conflict involving Iran on the one hand and the US and its regional allied led by Saudi Arabia on the other, which is futile and ignores the fact that Yemen’s integration in the Iran-Saudi cold war is a fait accompli

The recent meeting of Iran’s spiritual leader with a Houthi delegation in Tehran has further cemented the ties between Tehran and the Houthis, who have not only managed to survive the Saudi-UAE military onslaught, they have also upgraded their missile and drone capability, which has in turn forced the UAE to reconsider its interventionist policy on Yemen, under the threat of its economic assets (potentially) targeted by the Houthis.

Consequently, Mr. Griffiths must add Tehran to its travel itinerary, and seek to mediate between Iran and its regional Arab rivals, in light of the fact that Iran and the European powers have been meeting on Yemen for sometime and there needs to be a greater coordination between UN and EU on Yemen.

Contrary to the European Parliament, which has called for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia over its reckless war crimes in Yemen, the UN remains institutionally committed to a one-sided embargo on the Houthis, which has enabled the Saudi blockade that is mainly responsible for the humanitarian horror in Yemen today.  Without adequate international pressure on the Saudis however, it is unlikely that Riyadh will change its destructive orientation, which has now veered in the direction of partitioning Yemen in league with UAE. 

The UN Security Council must therefore step forward by reiterating its commitment to Yemen’s territorial integrity and imposing sanctions on those seeking Yemen’s break-up.  Unless such adjustments above-mentioned are realized, UN will remain a part of the solution as well as problems in Yemen, its credibility mortgaged to the perception that it has been biased and so far failed to act as a neutral mediator. 



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Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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