Coauthored with Callie Plapinger, intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the world watches Syria burn, a tiny glimmer of hope shines in Yemen. Today, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee disclosed that it will use new oversight powers to more closely monitor U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which for nine months has been carrying out a brutal campaign against Houthi rebels that’s left thousands of civilians dead. The news comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this week by Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, that he would begin a renewed push for peace talks in Geneva next week. To be sure, near-term prospects for peace are low, given the conflicting interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the growing presence of both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Even so, the United States should welcome the UN’s latest initiative. More broadly, it should consider what Yemen teaches about the limits of backing proxy interventions—and the need to build up the UN’s multilateral conflict management capabilities.
First, a little context. During the Arab Spring in Yemen, many national dialogues failed to produce meaningful results, and this lack of progress is to a large extent what gave rise to the Houthis, who took advantage of the power vacuum created by stagnating peace talks by consolidating power in the northern part of the country. Like Syria, however, Yemen has fragmented into a bloody civil war largely along the faultlines of the broader sectarian struggle engulfing much of the Middle East. Shia Houthi rebels deposed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi earlier this year, prompting a Saudi-led coalition—backed by the United States—to intervene in March. Since then, Saudi air strikes have taken a heavy human toll, killing over 2,600 civilians. Besides civilian deaths, these air strikes have stalled the delivery of food and fuel supplies, displaced nearly two million people, and rendered a whopping twenty-one million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. The Saudi coalition, which includes airplanes and auxiliary support from the Gulf states, the United States, and the United Kingdom, seeks to weaken the Houthi rebels’ hold on territory and, ultimately, reinstate the government of President Hadi, now exiled in Riyadh. Meanwhile, Iran is providing the Houthi rebels with military hardware, funding, and training. Although Saudi Arabia has publicly committed to a peace process under UN auspices, it has not ceased its bombing campaign.
The conflict in Yemen is further complicated by the presence of AQAP and the Islamic State, both of which have seized on the power vacuum to stage a series of deadly attacks throughout the country in their endeavor to acquire territory. Most recently, AQAP, which has long been active in Yemen, gained control of the capital city of Abyan Province, as well as smaller towns in the area. In early December, the Islamic State conducted a bombing attack that killed the governor of Aden, a crucial port city, and dozens of civilians.
Over the past two years, the UN has mediated a series of inconclusive peace talks. A first such effort, in late May 2014, was aborted before it even got off the ground. The following month, delegates representing the warring sides refused to meet in person, forcing UN negotiators to shuttle back and forth between separate rooms, which ultimately proved a futile exercise. In both April and May 2015, both sides neglected to adhere to a ceasefire negotiated by the UN, intended to allow for the safe delivery of humanitarian relief supplies. Meanwhile, the UN effort continues to flounder, thanks to wounds both self-inflicted and from powerful parties. Critics accuse UN mediators of undermining prospects for peace by excluding significant parties in the conflict, including southern separatists affiliated with neither the Saudi-backed government nor the Iranian-backed Houthis.
But UN mediation efforts are also being stymied by the interests of outside powers. They include not only Saudi Arabia, but also its U.S. and UK backers, who view the war as part of a larger geopolitical struggle to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Unless they come on board and accept Houthi participation in the Yemeni government, the UN will lack the weight to shepherd, much less safeguard, a workable peace plan.
Recent events in various UN fora have only reinforced this impression. In the most recent September session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Netherlands drafted a resolution calling for a UN mission to examine potential human rights and international law violations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia blocked the proposal, offering an alternative that excluded any mechanisms to evaluate human rights violations. And although the Security Council reiterates its commitment to a peaceful settlement to the conflict, it has taken no concrete action. Saudi Arabia, for its part, continues to draw international attention to Syria, likely to draw attention away from its geopolitical agenda in Yemen. Last month, the Saudi delegation introduced a draft resolution in the UN General Assembly, cosponsored by the United States, France, and other allies, seeking to formally condemn the actions of Iran and Russia in Syria. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has declined to use its position on the Security Council to moderate the conflict—essentially giving Saudi Arabia a free hand.
The time for doing so is over. Investigation into the gross human rights violations in Yemen are long past due. In this regard, the Senate’s forthcoming investigation is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, the United States should back increasing calls for an impartial UN inquiry into human rights violations in Yemen.
Finally, the United States must support the negotiation and implementation of a long-term peace agreement among Yemeni parties to the conflict, as well as relevant regional and global powers. Sustained political attention and economic investments will be critical to consolidating peace and stimulating recovery in one of the world’s most fragile, poor, and water-stressed countries. Any eventual agreement must be accompanied by a major pledging conference led by the World Bank and major donor governments, so that Yemen can proceed with demobilizing, disarming, and reintegrating combatants, rebuilding infrastructure, and ensuring a smooth political transition. The United States and its allies should be prepared to provide aid and resources as necessary, but in order to ensure lasting peace in the country, local political solutions should be facilitated under UN oversight, rather than reflecting the historical pattern of global powers imposing political structures in post-conflict Middle Eastern countries.