Since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month, the Saudi Government faces pressure from the global community to end the war in Yemen. In early October, as the world began to learn about what happened to Khashoggi, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated that all parties involved in the Yemen war needed to take part in UN-led peace talks within thirty days. Mattis’ words were swiftly backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who called on both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition to put a halt on airstrikes. Great Britain also dispatched its Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt from Riyadh to press for an end to the war. Other European countries like France have urged an end to the fighting, while Austria has called for an EU wide ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The congressional pressure mounting on the Trump Administration to end the war in Yemen has gained some traction when the Democrats won the House of Representatives after the midterm elections and unfortunately, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi also had a speeding-up effect not only in the Congress, but in the media and civil society as well. From the Trump Administration’s point of view, they would like to save the relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the congressional pressure in January which could result in the cessation of military assistance to Riyadh. In addition, Washington has announced an end to refueling for Saudi warplanes engaged in operations inside Yemen, which seems symbolic in value, but in reality, may only be a token gesture because the planes that already do the refueling are already in Saudi hands. But given the mounting pressure from the US Congress to stop American military participation in Yemen, the Trump Administration will be tested on getting the US out of the war while preserving its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The war in Yemen has coincided with the failed Saudi narrative of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but if Saudi Arabia was prepared to spin the truth over the Khashoggi affair, how can we believe their narrative on the war in Yemen while it is becoming increasing obvious to the global community that the Yemen war will not be resolved militarily? Currently, the global community is constructing an effort to pressure both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition harder for peace in Yemen, but with the most recent outbreak from the Khashoggi affair, Saudi Arabia is in a much weaker position where other nations can criticize Riyadh and not just the Houthis.
So far, it seems that all parties to the conflict in Yemen have agreed to attend the talks that are scheduled to take place in Sweden at the end of the year. This may be a major step forward for the millions of Yemenis who desperately want peace, but we have to be cautious. There won’t be a peace deal by January 2019, but the talks in Sweden will open a new chapter in what will be a very long process. While there may be an understanding on ending international intervention in Yemen, the internal problems within the Yemeni factions will need to be addressed.
If the peace talks happen, which is likely, there may be an agreement to end the international intervention in Yemen probably within the next few years given the fact that the Saudis are weakened to the point of spending billions of dollars for a war that has miserably failed over the past three and a half years and there is more of a willingness from the United Arab Emirates to reach a political solution. The talks in Sweden are by no means the beginning of an end, and we still have a long way to go, but the obstacle right now facing the Yemenis are the internal dynamics that would need a mutual understanding from all parties to reach a solution that can lead to peace.
We have heard about the influence of the Saudi-led coalition over the internationally recognized government of President Hadi, but the Houthis are usually described as being under the aegis of Iran. There is no doubt that Iran, to a very limited extent, is aligned with the Houthis. Tehran is vocally behind the Houthis, it has also supplied weapons and sent advisors to the Houthis. However, this does not make the Houthis an Iranian proxy because the Houthis are only answerable to the Houthis and do not answer to outside forces like Iran. In fact, the Houthis have been pushed closer towards a relationship with Iran as a result of a failed Saudi-UAE war that was designed to decrease Iran’s influence in Yemen.
In addition, Iran has looked stronger in the region by vocally supporting the Houthis and Saudi Arabia needs to justify a war that it has not done what it intended to do over the past three and a half years. The Saudis main justification for the war in Yemen from the very beginning was to contain the influence of Iran, but the Houthis are much readier to negotiate because they are at the peak of their power and have even signaled to stop missile launches towards Saudi Arabia.
The first objective that needs to come out of the Yemen talks in Sweden is a complete and verifiable ceasefire across the country. That may include the Houthis putting a halt on lobbing the very few missiles they have towards Saudi Arabia in exchange for a halt on the air campaign being launched by the Saudi-led coalition.
In the Yemeni government’s response towards the invitation to participate in the talks, President Hadi replied that the basis of the talks should build on three things, namely the Gulf initiative, the national dialogue, and UNSC Resolution 2216. Two of the three references seem to be broad and flexible but the Gulf initiative seems to be quite irrelevant even though there are some objectives that can be included in a possible peaceful resolution, and the same can be said for the national dialogue. There are two major issues that are still obstacles towards a political solution in Yemen.
First is the assertion of the legitimacy of President Hadi, and the other major issue is the demand that the Houthis have to withdraw all of their forces from areas under their control. Given that the Houthis control the population areas and the northwestern part of the country, they may not be willing to do this or lay down their arms. The Houthis want to talk now because they are at the peak of their power despite making the fatal mistake of killing Ali Abdullah Saleh a year ago and they lost a lot of support as a result.
A ceasefire needs to be implemented, and it cannot be a precondition for talks. The fact of the matter is that all sides need to stop the fighting, but it is so difficult when there are so many forces taking part in this war. These forces include the Giants Brigades, the Southern security forces, various tribal groups, the Yemeni Army, the Saudi military, and the UAE military. In order for the talks to progress in Sweden, the global community must put equal pressure on both the Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition to lay down their arms, stop the fighting, and come to the table for a political resolution to the quagmire in Yemen.