An Inside Look at Yemen
Our panelists discuss the humanitarian and political situation in Yemen, and the state of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
AMIRFAR: Good afternoon and welcome, everybody. It’s a real pleasure to be here this afternoon with you here at CFR for “An Inside Look at Yemen.”
So, again, good afternoon. My name is Catherine Amirfar. I’m a partner and co-chair of the Public International Law Group at Debevoise & Plimpton here in New York City. And just I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
And we’re extraordinarily lucky to have this group of four esteemed experts. And with their prior permission, I’m going to grossly truncate their amazing profile and qualifications because you do have it in your materials and I want to spend as much time as possible engaged in a discussion with them. So we have Radhya Almutawakel, who is here with us and co-founder and chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights; Gregory Johnsen, a fellow at Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies; Priyanka Motaparthy, human rights lawyer and advocate; and Peter Salisbury, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group. So, again, welcome.
And just a reminder to everyone that this is an on-the-record conversation.
So let me start, Gregory, with you, for the unenviable task of getting us started by really setting the stage. You’ve written extensively on the situation in Yemen and how we got here. So tell us a bit your perspective of how we got here, and including an overview of the current contours of the conflict and the various factions involved.
JOHNSEN: Right. Yeah, thanks to—(laughter)—for that enviable task. To set the stage, I think the most helpful way to look at Yemen is to think about it—what we talk about as one war in Yemen, I think it’s much more helpful to think about as three separate wars.
So you have the U.S.-led war on al-Qaida and ISIS. The al-Qaida portion’s been going on, obviously, since September 11, maybe even going back to the USS Cole. That’s one war. That’s sort of this broad war on terrorism.
You have the war that we always think about, this regional war, which is a Saudi-led war against what they consider an Iranian proxy. So this is Saudi Arabia and the UAE against what they consider an Iranian proxy in the Houthis.
And then underlying that you have a longer-lasting and I think a much messier civil war. And this brings in a variety of different actors, from the Houthis up in the north, President Hadi’s government in the south, the Southern Transition(al) Council, al-Qaida and ISIS are both a part of this, as well as a variety of different militia groups and tribal groups spread throughout the country.
And I think there’s a couple important things to remember. One is that this civil war has been going on longer than the regional war, the Saudi-led coalition war which started in 2015, and this civil war will likely go on long after the Saudis and the Emiratis eventually go home.
I think if I could just add, when we look at the trend lines going forward, Yemen has what I would call a Humpty Dumpty problem; that is, it’s broken and there’s simply too many groups with too many guns for any one of them to ever impose their will upon the entire country. But at the same time, all of those groups have enough power and enough guys and enough guns that they can act as a spoiler to any sort of reconciliation process. So this means that the longer this regional war—this Saudi and Emirati war against the Houthis—goes on, that the more bloody, the more violent, the more fragmented Yemen will become in the civil war which will take place after that.
And so I think right now we’re looking at a situation—if you sort of project forward in looking at how this conflict is going to unfold, we have a situation in which the idea of a unified Yemen is really a fiction. And I think that the country has broken not into two pieces, but into multiple little statelets. And that’s going to raise, I think, very serious policy questions for the United States, regional actors, and for Europe moving forward.
AMIRFAR: Thanks, Gregory. And I want to come back to where we are going into the future. You mentioned a bit about the reconciliation efforts and the prior reconciliation efforts. Could you give us a little bit more on what’s happened previously and in your estimation why it hasn’t worked out?
JOHNSEN: Right. So when we talk—most of the reconciliation efforts have been U.N.-led. This is where crises that have no real solution end up sort of in the forum of last resort, the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. has a special envoy. They’re now on their third special envoy. The were on their third special envoy in four years. It’s now the third in fifth year—in five years, excuse me. None of them have been very successful.
I don’t think this is because the various special envoys aren’t talented diplomats; I think it’s because they’re dealing with a very uneven field. That is, the Houthis up in the north feel as though they have the territory. They feel as though they are negotiating from a position of strength. The Saudi-led coalition has had four-plus years of airstrikes and air campaign, which have done very little to push the Houthis out. In fact, I would argue that it’s given the Houthis, who are very bad at governance, very repressive—it’s given the Houthis in the north a bit of a free pass because you’re not going to have people rising up on the ground when you’re being bombed from the air.
And so the Saudis are left in I think a very unenviable position, which is they can continue to do what it is that they’ve been doing for the past four years and continue to get the same results; they can withdraw completely, which would give the Houthis victory; or they can go forward and—with some sort of a ground offensive to try to push the Houthis out. And they are not going to do that, for obviously reasons. Such an offensive would be bloody, long, with no guarantee of success. So with those sort of military options on the table, the Saudis still continue, and the Houthis as well continue, to sort of dance around the edges but not make a whole lot of—whole lot of progress on reconciliation.
AMIRFAR: So, Radhya, let me—let me turn to you. At really great personal cost and an amazing amount of bravery you’ve been on the frontlines of trying to shine a light on the human rights situation for Yemenis that have been caught in this conflict. And I think, certainly as you know, the United Nations has warned that this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the civilian population in need of some kind of assistance. And since you addressed the U.N. Security Council two years ago in order to give them a picture of the crisis on the ground, there has been a lot of humanitarian relief in the form of billions of dollars and commitments from 190 organizations to commit that money to getting relief into Yemen. Can you give us a sense, two years after you’ve addressed the United Nations, a sense of what the picture is on the ground from a human rights perspective? And is that humanitarian assistance being effective? Is it getting to where it needs to go?
ALMUTAWAKEL: Well, the war in Yemen is very preventable, and it’s much cheaper to stop the war than to keep paying this humanitarian assistance.
So Yemen started to be known as the worst humanitarian disaster since two years, and now the situation is even worse. So twenty-two millions of Yemenis, they need a certain humanitarian assistance, and this is almost all of us. I stopped counting the numbers since last year. But what we have—keep saying that it’s not—we should remember all the time it’s not a natural disaster; it’s a manmade disaster. So all the violations that is committed by all parties to the conflict led to this disaster.
So the humanitarian aid is a lifeline for millions of people now. But even humanitarian NGOs started to say they lost their battle in the face of famine and there should be a solution in Yemen to solve the humanitarian issue. Otherwise, they will just fill—keep filling the gaps and it will never be ended, like, the humanitarian need.
And even if the war is still going on in Yemen, Yemen doesn’t have to be the worst humanitarian disaster only if parties to the conflict, they respect the international humanitarian law and they protect civilians and civilian objects. But there is a huge lack of accountability in Yemen. It affects everything regarding the humanitarian aid.
So besides all the human rights violations—the very direct ones like the airstrikes, landmines, child soldiers—there is one violation that is even worse than all of these violations, which is starvation. And we keep saying that Yemenis are not starving; they are being starved. And one of the things that caused starvation, it’s not even blocking the humanitarian access; it’s salaries. Thousands of Yemenis are not receiving their salaries since years until now, those who are under the control of Houthi areas. And after the Stockholm peace process some of them started to receive their salaries, like the retired people, the health sector, but suddenly in Aden the proxy forces of the United Arab Emirates decided to control Aden by force. Now, again, no one is receiving their salaries. Really, the salary is one of the things that broke the back of Yemenis more than anything else.
AMIRFAR: Radhya, let me pause a moment on accountability. You talked about accountability. When you addressed the Security Council two years ago, you mentioned the necessity of setting up a commission of inquiry in order to document abuses and violations. And more recently, just a month ago the U.N. Group of Eminent Experts released a report and they actually endorsed the establishment of a commission of inquiry. What did you think of that report in terms of its documentation, its utility going forward? And specifically, what does accountability look like in Yemen at this stage?
ALMUTAWAKEL: Well, as I said, accountability’s still absent in Yemen, 100 percent. Most of the violations we document are very preventable violations.
So, for example, in 2018 we documented only in 2018 about eighty airstrikes where hundreds of civilians were killed and injured. In many of these airstrikes there was no even a military target. We documented about more than one thousand child soldiers, most of them by Houthis, and much more than this. And it’s very preventable, but they don’t care. They trust impunity more than anything else in Yemen.
So that’s why the Group of Eminent Experts that established out of the Human Rights Council was very important. It was the only mechanism that concentrate on the human rights in Yemen. And it’s taken seriously by states, by parties to the conflict, and also by people in Yemen. It’s very important. The report is very good. I invite everyone to read their last report. Although they didn’t have access to Yemen, they didn’t have access even to the countries that are part of the Saudi-led coalition, but in spite of this the report was very good. It gives a very good picture of what’s going—what’s happening in Yemen. And they also mentioned the starvation as a method of war.
And I think that they need to be supported because they are the only path now toward accountability. We don’t have another path. Security Council cannot be peace process until now. We want to stop the war. So the mechanisms that come out from the Human Rights Council, it’s the only one until now beside the civil society and human rights NGOs, and need to be supported.
It was very difficult to have this mechanism. It’s not like other countries. Other countries, they have a commission of inquiry, tribal (IM ?), tribal (IM ?), because, yeah, there are some states who are not allies with the criminals. But Yemen, it’s different because many allies to Saudis and Emiratis didn’t want this to happen. But it happened in spite of this and it should continue.
AMIRFAR: Is there something—do you think the report went far enough? Is there something you wish you had seen in the report?
ALMUTAWAKEL: I wish that the work will continue. So they covered many types of violations, but still what’s happening in Yemen is much more than all the work that happened in human rights, whether from the GEE or from the human rights NGOs. So I hope that will continue. And I hope that it will be linked to accountability in different ways, so it’s not going to be only documenting violations but going in a process that give a very clear message to parties to the conflict that this is a step toward accountability.
AMIRFAR: Thank you.
Priyanka, let me turn to you. So war crimes and accountability. Obviously, your prior group, Human Rights Watch, had spent a lot of time extensively documenting what was happening on the ground. Tell us a little bit about your view of the war crimes, particularly in a context where some have noted rightly that there has really been an outsized role, if you will, of third countries in the conflict, whether it’s the United States, the U.K., Iran. What is—what do you think is the approach and the—in terms of documentation of war crimes? And tell me what you think that these participation of the third states, how that impacts the analysis and whether there is complicity there.
MOTAPARTHY: Great. So when we’re talking about war crimes in Yemen, the most prominent example of war crimes in Yemen, the one that most people are familiar with, tend to be the airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. These airstrikes have had indiscriminate impact on civilians. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights has documented more than seven thousand civilian deaths and we know that number is very likely to be much higher than that.
But when we talk about war crimes in Yemen, we cannot only focus on the airstrikes. There is, in fact, a very, very long list. I could spend the rest of our time together here today merely listing and categorizing and describing the war crimes that—the apparent war crimes that are happening in Yemen, which have in fact been carried out by all parties to the conflict. When you listen to Greg give his overview of, you know, who are the actors on the ground, how we got here today, each one of those actors is identified with a kind of signature apparent war crime they have carried out.
So with the coalition you have the airstrikes.
We’ve discussed the humanitarian situation. You have impeding humanitarian aid upon which the civilian population is dependent and needs for their survival. You have starvation as a weapon of war, which includes of course not just food items but medicine, supplies necessary to provide water. All of this is an intricate and linked together structure in Yemen. And when you look at the actions the coalition has carried out to block critical supplies, when you look at actions the Houthis have taken to block humanitarian aid or, indeed, turn back humanitarian aid, these are also examples of potential war crimes.
Let us not also forget the potential war crimes associated with detention practices. Both Houthis as well as the Emiratis, who are a party that we often forget to talk about in the context of this conflict, have run extremely abusive detention centers, have carried out widespread arbitrary detentions, have subjected detainees in their control to torture, to sexual and gender-based violence, and to arbitrary killings on a scale that it is difficult for us to fathom given how difficult it is to document these types of violations and given how the scale of these violations so far outstrips what groups even like Radhya’s—like Mwatana, which has more than eighty staff members in Yemen—is able to cover with their resources.
So the list of apparent war crimes is wrong. And this ties closely to the issue of accountability because, of course, I say apparent war crimes. It is not my role as a human rights investigator or human rights advocate to make that ultimate decision. That needs to be done through a process that meets legal standards, that is able to collect evidence up to certain standards, and that is able to make what can be quite a complex legal determination with questions of intent and knowledge and all of that.
You raised an important question around complicity. Since the beginning of the war the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and of course Iran as well have all taken a lot of criticism for their support for various sides in this conflict. The sort of specter of complicity has been raised. It has been increasingly used by advocates like myself and international lawyers to put these countries on notice that they may be doing something wrong in providing this support.
Now we are more than four years into this conflict. The standards around aiding and abetting international crimes are—you know, again, I’m not going to sort of give you the whole legal test, but more or less knowingly contributing to internationally wrongful conduct. Do these countries know that they are contributing to conduct that is very, very likely to be wrongful under international law? I think there is quite a strong argument that they do.
And you see this recognition both reflected in the work of the United Nations commission—I’m sorry, the Group of Eminent Experts. If you look at their report on last—from last year, they raise a very strong question: Are these countries complicit? If you look at their language from this year, they go further. You can see that they are hinting that these groups, that they may well—these countries may well be complicit depending on the level of support, the level of influence they have exercised. You also saw that the U.S. scaled back its level of support by stopping the refueling of planes. But complicity is a very, very important question. And at this point, all these countries are both on notice about the severity of abuses in Yemen and about the likelihood that their conduct contributes, and they may be—they may be guilty of aiding and abetting.
And you can also see this reflected by the numerous legal cases that have been raised in different jurisdictions. Mwatana is a part of many of these cases. Human Rights Watch participated in a case in the United Kingdom. There’s litigation in France. There’s litigation in Italy, as well. And so you really see this as an increasingly significant issue.
AMIRFAR: And can you just speak really brief to the commission of inquiry and what you think—
AMIRFAR: What role would that play in this type of determination of complicity, of accountability that you’ve just gone through?
MOTAPARTHY: I mean, I think that, you know, you see—there’s very clearly a need for accountability in this conflict, you know. Radhya has spoken about the damaging effects of impunity. Neither the coalition nor the Houthis seem to have any real fear that they will held to be—be held to account for their actions. And why should they? In more than four years of war, not a single individual has faced a completed prosecution for actions they have carried out.
At the same time, the Group of Eminent Experts, when they had their mandate renewed this fall in Geneva, you saw a slight expansion of that mandate and important expansion, which speaks to the question of accountability. They now have a mandate to—I think it is to collect and preserve evidence that could lead to future accountability.
But I think when we talk about accountability we could be talking about a wide range of options. So is there accountability domestically in Yemen? And that has been a very impoverished scene. We haven’t seen that.
Is there accountability at the coalition level? Some of you may be familiar with the Joint Investigations (sic; Incidents) Assessment Team, whose work Human Rights Watch and others have examined very carefully and have assessed as not credible, and not even appearing to properly understand and apply principles of international law.
Then, at the international level, as Radhya said, the main avenue thus far has been these U.N. panels. And the—you know, the Security Council one calling for sanctions and the one in Geneva fulfilling its investigative mandate.
But much more needs to be done. And it’s really about looking for those opportunities and creating those pathways, including pathways to redress for individual victims, so.
AMIRFAR: All right.
Peter, let me—let me turn to you. You are going to have another unenviable task, which is to peer into the crystal ball. Now, you’ve said and written previously to the point that Riyadh needs a win, I think as you put it, in order to bring an end to this conflict. Now, with also taking account of the scaling down of Emirati forces, is that likely at this stage? Where are we headed with this conflict?
SALISBURY: Sure. So we were talking just before we came in about wanting to reframe the question. I’m going to do that slightly, but I will come back—come back to this point.
So Greg did a really lovely job earlier of explaining the complexity of the conflict. There’s this internal layer, which is based on local grievances, local rivalries; and then there’s this regional and international layer. And what’s happened over the past year or so, really, is that we’ve seen within Yemen a process of consolidation by certain groups. So we have really three core centers of power in terms of the military and economic capabilities of the groups on the ground.
So we’ve got the Houthis in the northwest of the country, who have backing from Iran. In the center of the country we have this collection of groups in Marib, which is a sort of desert area in the center of the country, who are linked to local tribes; to Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party; and remnants of the Yemeni military who didn’t join the Houthis at the outset of the war. And then in August we saw a group called the STC, the Southern Transitional Council, take over Aden in the south. The STC are backed by the UAE and the guys up in Marib are backed by the Saudis. So we’ve got sort of this interesting regional overlay, and we’ve got all these different agendas that the local groups have and the regional groups have.
And a lot of the time when we talk about countries like Yemen, we tend to slip into this very linear idea of what a proxy is, what a proxy force is, and we work on the basis that Saudi Arabia has command and control over group X, Iran has command and control over the Houthis, et cetera, et cetera. But in fact, in every single group’s case what we’ve seen is a demonstration of the local group’s willingness to do things that their paymasters, if you like, don’t want them to do on the basis that it better serves their agenda. So the Houthis at the beginning of the war were told by the Iranians fairly clearly don’t try and take Sanaa in its entirety and then don’t expand across the country. And more recently, some people from Iran told the Houthis not to sign up to this agreement that prevented the battle for Hodeidah last year, the Stockholm agreement. In 2016 the Yemeni government vetoed what could have been something like a peace deal which some in Riyadh wanted to see. And then in August we saw the STC moving ahead with a plan that was already in place to take over Aden without a UAE go ahead, largely on the basis that the Emiratis would join them along the way, and that’s what happened. I think that’s a really important thing to bear in mind, that everyone’s got their own agenda.
What do the Saudis want in Yemen? At the beginning of the war they said that they wanted to push back Iranian influence in Yemen, prevent the creation of a Hezbollah on their southern border, and restore the legitimate government of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, to Sanaa. That’s really shifted over time, in part because there is a general consensus that any peace deal for Yemen will usher Hadi out and bring in some new administration. So what the Saudis really want and need at this moment in time is some sort of deal that brings the Houthis into their sphere of influence and removes them from the Iranian sphere of influence, and gives them some sort of veto power over Yemeni politics.
What does the UAE want? It wants a group that can act as a bulwark against political Islamism, both in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as heavily influencing the groups in the center of the country, and Iran with the Houthis.
And what does Iran want? Well, Iran has got an incredibly low-cost opportunity to annoy and pester and distract the Saudis and also the U.S. And it’s also, it has to be said, had an opportunity to test Saudi Arabia’s aerial defense systems. I think that we saw quite recently how that’s played out. They got really good knowledge of how the Saudis defend against things like drones and missiles, and all of a sudden they launch an incredibly sophisticated attack, allegedly, on Saudi Arabia.
So when we talk about a move towards a peace process, each of these groups has a different influence internally but also internationally. So at the beginning of the conflict, one of the early diplomatic successes the Saudis had was pushing through at the United Nations a resolution, 2216, which essentially frames the conflict as one between the legitimate internationally recognized government and the Houthis. And there are conversations to be had about the interpretation of that resolution, but that’s really become sort of the way that it’s read internationally, it’s read diplomatically, and it’s become a straitjacket for the special envoy in Yemen. He has to get a deal between these two groups. And really the Saudis, because of their outside influence over the Hadi government, have veto power over any deal. So when we hear about diplomatic initiatives on Yemen, people spend as much time speaking to the Saudis in Riyadh as they do the Yemeni president in Riyadh because they know they need Saudi buy-in. So we’ve got the Saudis as a kind of super spoiler because they can spoil things on the ground, they can spoil things at the diplomatic level, and they can spoil things at the international level.
The Emiratis and Iranians don’t have the same level of influence, but they do have a ground game, if you like. They have the ability to push these groups in various different directions.
And then the groups on the ground themselves also have agendas and interests. So they want to get things out of this conflict. They’ve shed blood. Their grievances, if they weren’t sort of fully sort of realized in the beginning of the conflict, are very, very real now. So we need an internal reconciliation process, as well as all these sort of international/regional/local layers.
And now just to make things easier, we’ve got really strong rumors of the Omanis becoming more involved in the political scene, the Qataris, and the Turkish. So Yemen’s sort of increasingly looking like the way we sometimes imagine Syria, just this sort of really sort of complex, three-dimensional game of chess that’s really hard to resolve.
But one of the keys that we have here is that over the past year, arguably, our analysis has been that we have moved towards this place where we’re seeing consolidation and bargaining on the ground. The Houthis are in a very strong, dominant position in the areas they control, but they have an understanding that at this moment in time they can’t expand geographically. They can defend, but they can’t sort of move across the rest of the country. The STC in the south has demonstrated sort of its sort of de facto sovereignty over certain parts of the south, not the south in its entirety. And then the guys in the north also have a strong game there. And all these groups are now talking to one another, and they’re all trying to position for any eventual political settlement that we might see.
So what’s needed? The key to unlocking—turning that informal backchannel conversation into something real and diplomatic is really the Saudis because they’re the blocker at every single level that we go down. The positive is that there are voices in Riyadh—there are those who think, do you know what, let’s do it, let’s engage with this recent Houthi offer of a cross-border ceasefire leading to a wider de-escalation process that could lead to political talks. But there are strong voices inside the Kingdom, those who promoted the conflict throughout and have benefited from it, who don’t want that to happen. So we have the dove/hawk problem everywhere across all of these groups. But until the Saudi system really aligns in such a way as they say, OK, we’re ready to do a deal with the Houthis that saves some face but maybe doesn’t allow us to say that we, quote/unquote, “won the war and defeated Iran,” it’s very, very difficult to get to the end there.
Sorry, that was a little more than five minutes.
AMIRFAR: No, no, no, that was exactly what we needed. Let me—let me just follow up really quickly on one of the—one of the things you mentioned that is strikes me is a structural constraint; which is as you’ve said it’s been conceived since the outset as an international armed conflict, whereas if you look at the facts on the ground you could see some parallel non-international armed conflicts going on at the same time, and that the envoy has been hamstrung as a result of that. Is that perhaps a key, as well, to get all of these various factions to the table in the sense of actually hashing this out, and perhaps in a way that addresses the hawks in Saudi Arabia?
SALISBURY: Absolutely, and that’s kind of where our advocacy has been in terms of a peace process.
On one side it’s relatively simple. You’ve got the Houthis and some remnants of the GPC, the former ruling party of Yemen. On the other side you’ve got this mishmash of different anti-Houthi groups, we can call them broadly. And up till now the Hadi government, which is based in Riyadh, which has lost its second capital in five years recently, which is not seen as particularly legitimate by many people on the ground, is the representative of Yemen. And what that means is even if we get a deal between the Houthis and Hadi, we end up with a deal that no one’s bought into. And a good example of that is the Stockholm Agreement last year, where the Hadi government had to come in as the representative of the forces fighting the Houthis on the ground even though the vast majority of those on the ground were UAE-backed forces who do not have a lot of time for the government. So if the Hadi government goes in and does a peace deal for Yemen and these groups aren’t at the table or they don’t have a say on what that peace deal looks like and they don’t buy into it and feel bought into it, then really we’re looking at Yemen War 2.0, maybe without some of the international dimensions.
AMIRFAR: OK. Well, thank you for that.
Let’s open it up. We now have thirty minutes. Want to open it up to the members. Just a reminder, this is on the record. Please wait for the microphone, state your name, and if you could please be concise so that we can get as many members as possible.
Please, over there.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much. My name is Gary Sick, Columbia University. I have read about most of you, writings, and I appreciate very much the chance to see all of you here today. We’ve never had this much expertise on Yemen in one room, I don’t believe.
I would like to ask what I think is a rather simple-minded question. But to sort of simplify where things are, could one say that at this point the Houthis are really winning, that the Saudis are really losing—that they’re taking a beating—and that the UAE has sort of withdrawn from the field but has its proxies in place in the south, and is still trying to influence the way things are going? And even if that is accurate, which it probably is not, the—I’m particularly interested whether the Saudis recognize this.
And you talked about the fact that the Saudis—that the Houthis have territory, but have shown an inability to expand to the rest of the country, which is obviously true. What about expanding north? I mean, I’m curious about how much territory the Saudis have actually lost thus far up along the northern border of Yemen, and whether this has really sunk in, and whether there’s even a—does anybody remember the fact that those territories in Saudi Arabia just north of the border were Yemeni within living memory? I just wonder whether anybody is taking that into account. And are the—are the Saudis losing as badly as I suggest?
AMIRFAR: Who wants to start us off on this one? Gregory, Peter?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, so I’ll—so I think the Houthis are certainly winning on the ground. I think the Saudis see themselves winning in the court of international diplomatic opinion. Despite all the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi and everything else, there has been very little, I think, international diplomatic pressure where it counts, that being either from the U.S. or the U.K., on Saudi Arabia. And so you have a situation where both sides look and see themselves as being stronger in a particular area—the Houthis holding the territory on the ground, the Saudis internationally.
I think a lot of people in Yemen remember that Asir and Najran were Yemeni provinces back in the 1930s. And there are some Zaidis—I think the Saudis have—in a number of border towns have pulled a lot of the residents back. The Houthis have made some incursions, but there’s also pushback from some local Yemeni forces that are being backed and now trained by the Saudis up in—up in Saada.
AMIRFAR: Anything to add?
SALISBURY: Sure. The one slight corrective, I would say—I would give would be there’s been a lot of talk of the UAE “withdrawing,” quote/unquote, from Yemen. And certainly our research points to a slightly more nuanced read of what’s happened there, which is the UAE had a large number of forces in the country performing a number of different functions; they reached a place where they no longer needed to carry on with offensive operations along the Red Sea coast, and they removed many of the people who ran sort of various high-tech weapons systems from the Red Sea coast and people who were an extra layer. But they left in place those who were coordinating with the local Yemeni forces, who had been doing all of the frontline fighting alongside them or on their behalf since at least 2015.
So the UAE position in Yemen actually remained very little changed despite the removal of large numbers of troops. And I think there was a degree of convenience in terms of their messaging and their narrative—that they were ready for peace, that they no longer saw this as a war, and that they did not intend to carry on with the offensive on Hodeidah, which is positive to diplomatic efforts—but didn’t actually take away sort of their strength and their place in the conflict overall. And I think it’s just important to have that little bit of nuance. They definitely still have skin in the game right now.
A couple of years ago I was pretty close to the border. I was in Saada itself with the Houthis. And one of the things a fairly member said to me is in 2009 in our border war, when the Saudis started bombing the Houthis, we entered Saudi territory, and that’s what ended the conflict. And a lot of—you could remember that Saada, which is where the Houthis come from, which is their heartland, is directly on the border with Saudi. So the geographical political mentality of many members if the way to defeat our enemy—and they see the Saudis as the, quote/unquote, “aggressor” in this conflict—is to go across the border and attack them. So I think it’s very important and it’s a great point that you make, and they really want to signal they have the ability to do so. And certainly, they’ve shown the Saudi armed forces up a number of times and have really dented the Saudis’ not-great-previously reputation as a military force among sort of the international actors who work with them.
Q: (Off mic)—Charney of Charney Research.
You know, I remember our last roundtable on Yemen. It was about five years ago. And not only were there far fewer experts at the front, but there were also far fewer participants in the room.
But I do also remember that at that point, before the new stage of the war had begun, there was a lot of discussion of the National Dialogue and the fact that all sides had become achingly close to a solution with this odd system called democracy, midwifed by USAID. Now, my understanding is that it was the Houthi military actions that actually blew up that process or at least subsequent to a deadlock in the process. Be that as it may, though, I’m wondering, are there any possibilities for moving in this direction again and finding a solution along those lines?
ALMUTAWAKEL: So first I want to—want to clarify that it’s not—the situation was not that everything was fine and then the genie just came suddenly out of the lamp and just destroy everything. It was a very complicated—accumulated mistakes from everyone, including the National Dialogue. They wanted to show the National Dialogue as if everything was OK, but while parties to the conflict were discussing in the hotel they were flighting by blood in the ground at the same time. And as I tell a lot, but I don’t know if we should go back to the National Dialogue because the way that was—things was decided just led to the war.
But anyway, peace is very possible in Yemen, and I keep saying this all of the time, because there is a balance of weakness between all parties to the conflict. I’m sure that Saudi Arabia is losing, but I’m not sure that Houthis are winning. No one is winning in Yemen. They all, they don’t have a peace plan. They don’t have a war plan. They have a very heavy file of violations. They strength each other by their badness. So Houthis are strong because their enemies are very bad. And also other side, they are getting stronger because Houthis also are very bad, I mean, in the ways they control the areas they are controlling. So there is a balance of weakness between all of them.
I don’t know why they are going on the war. It’s very weird because they are all losing, having a very huge file of violations. They couldn’t meet the demands of people in the ground. And so they can be pushed easily to go to the table, and this happened after the Khashoggi murder when the—when the pressure became just suddenly very higher from the U.S. and the U.K., and only in two months they succeed to send Houthis and the government to the table, to Stockholm, and to start a kind of peace process. Only because of the pressure. So they are always ready to be pushed—even Saudis, Emiratis, Houthis, STC, all of these groups. They are—they can—so but if there is no will from the international community, especially the U.S. and the U.K., then the war is going on.
Why there is no strong pressure to stop the war? I don’t know. We can discuss this more. Maybe arms trade is part of it. But I will stop here.
AMIRFAR: That’s an excellent question. Please? (Laughter.)
JOHNSEN: I would also just add I think Yemen has a fundamental problem in that there’s a small pie and there are more players than there are pieces. And right now you have a situation where it you don’t like the results, you can take up arms and you can spoil the whole process. That was the situation—part of the situation then.
If the Emiratis complete their drawdown, if the Saudis withdraw, if that—if this war, the war that has taken up most of our interest, if this war ends tomorrow, then the local groups on the ground are in all likelihood going to keep fighting and they are going to try to get as much as the pie as they—as they possibly can. And the Saudis and the Emiratis, by sort of holding I think what Peter called this rickety anti-Houthi alliance, that will fragment and fracture, and they’ll be at each other’s throats.
AMIRFAR: So let’s go back to the question, though, that Radhya put out—U.S., U.K., that one of the key pressure points is their ability to bring that to bear with respect to the Saudis and the Emiratis. Why hasn’t that happened? Why did it happen only for, as you put it, for a couple months right after the Khashoggi murder?
SALISBURY: So I think last year was an object lesson in shifting narratives, where the U.K. and the U.S. for years had said, look, we’re pressuring the Saudis as much as we possibly can to move in a certain direction but we’ve really used all our leverage. Post-Khashoggi, partly because the Saudis understood that the court of international opinion, as Greg decided it—described it, was turning against them, and that they couldn’t control U.S. Congress, really felt sort of less emboldened. And British and American, specifically American, diplomats and others felt emboldened.
But it’s also important to remember that it came down to really an individual last year. So it was Mattis making a phone call to Mohammed bin Salman on pretty much the last day of the talks in Stockholm and saying you have to do this, otherwise you’re toast, basically, here in D.C. and there’s nothing we can do about it that really changed—
AMIRFAR: You’re paraphrasing, but yeah. (Laughter.)
SALISBURY: Yes. I wasn’t in the room. (Laughter.) That changed the game.
I think the thing that we have to be—to be honest about right now is that sort of absent that kind of context, politicians in these two countries are focused on many other things. Yemen has a very low order of priority. The U.S. in particular is very focused on its campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, the U.K. is going through some stuff that we definitely don’t need to discuss right now, and it’s difficult to imagine them returning to this posture.
I think it’s almost more helpful to try and think about how do we move toward some kind of process of peace. How do we hand the U.N. leverage in this process rather than waiting for the return of a Mattis-like figure and a Khashoggi-like event?
MOTAPARTHY: I think another important current to keep in mind on the role of the U.S. and the U.K., and even countries like France, is how much the citizens of those countries have become aware of the Yemen War, have become aware of the immense humanitarian toll that it is taking, have become—there’s become increasing public awareness of the roles of these governments selling the amounts of arms they do, the kind of contours of these deals, how little some of these governments know about how these arms are being used. There have been various disclaimers used at certain points, so you have, for example, the French government saying, our arms are only being used defensively. And then of course, you know, in the last several months investigative journalists in France came out with this incredible scoop, you know, including secret government documents showing that in fact the government had clearly misrepresented its role in the war, how its arms were being used, the level of knowledge that French politicians had around this.
And you see similar dynamics playing out in the U.K. and the U.S. Not to oversimplify, of course, but in the U.S., you know, as an American myself, I’ve found it both fascinating and disturbing to see how the Yemen war has really tested the limits of the government, the different branches of government and actions they have taken to try and hold each other in check or pursue certain lines of policy. And so I think just noting this growing discontent and intolerance of the situation in Yemen amongst the populations of these influential countries is really key.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, I would just add as well—sorry, to be really brief, the U.S. is in a really difficult situation in the Yemen War, in that when the war was announced by Saudi Arabia, they did a very strange thing, which was they had their ambassador in Washington, D.C., announce the beginning of the war in D.C., even though the war was taking place from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And right after that announcement, the Obama administration made an announcement the same night, that they were setting up a joint planning cell to coordinate logistics and intelligence support with the Saudis. This put the U.S. in a situation where they were now tied to this war with no say over how it was going to be conducted on the ground. And the U.S. has been struggling with that ever since.
I completely agree with Radhya that unless there is any U.S.—absent U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia, this war is going to continue because no one else has the leverage to sort of end the war. The U.N., the Security Council, is not going to be able to do it on its own. And as Peter laid out, I think very convincingly, Saudi Arabia is the key to this. So absent that pressure, this war is going to continue and in four or five years, we’ll be back here; we’ll be talking about the same thing except it’ll be much, much worse.
AMIRFAR: I think—up here.
Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.
I wonder if you could tell us whether there are urban centers in Yemen that are sufficiently, quote, “secure” that there is a little bit or greater room for, quote, “civil society” to exist, to flourish, to perhaps create some sort of countervailing social pressures or affecting Yemeni opinion in a way that the warring parties’ leaderships have to pay some attention.
And to the point that Gregory Johnsen had raised, in terms of the internal revenue pie being presumably small, what are the sources internally of financing the recruitment of soldiers on one side or another? How long could that continue if external sources were to be phased down in some kind of international agreement to pull back?
AMIRFAR: The Yemeni civil society and internal sources. Who wants to take a crack?
SALISBURY: I think Radhya’s good—(laughter).
AMIRFAR: Radhya, everyone’s looking at you.
ALMUTAWAKEL: It’s shrinking very much. So all those who used to be political parties in Yemen, they are parties to the conflict now. And Houthis, al-Manshia, but also the 80 percent that were controlled by the government and the coalition. They empowered armed groups. So it’s—they replaced a militia by another militia in the middle of this. And the civil society is very divided politically, and now it’s even shrinking more. Armed groups, and our neighbor is Saudi Arabia; we are in the middle of a war.
So still Yemenis, they are trying to resist through working in civil society. I still, with my NGO on the ground, we are about a team of 80 people working all over Yemen, but we are still considered unique because in general, the civil society is shrinking. And this is very dangerous, because it’s the only civic space for many people who do want to engage in the work to act, to use it as a platform, and it’s shrinking. And this is one of the things that there should be pressure on parties to the conflict to have more space for media, for civil society.
So Yemen was never good before, but we used to have diversity and political parties and media and civil society. We used to have a ship of state, and now we don’t have any ship of state and it’s a very difficult situation. It’s not that there is no civil society, but it is shrinking every day. It’s to the maximum, that you have to take permission from Houthis to do, like, this gathering in Sana’a, for example, and you just can’t imagine.
So I don’t know to what extent we can depend on it, but we are doing our best.
AMIRFAR: Over there.
Q: Thank you. Joanna Weschler, Security Council Report.
Some of you mentioned accountability, or rather the lack thereof, and the total impunity that is virtually guaranteed for all the atrocities occurring in Yemen. Should the international community get serious about accountability in a meaningful way? Would this make a difference with all the actors that you have been talking about a moment ago, the very numerous actors, Will they—would it penetrate? Would this be something preventing them from committing major abuses?
AMIRFAR: Priyanka, want to take that one?
MOTAPARTHY: Yeah, sure. I think that the lack of attention to accountability has been really marked, and that if the international community were to take that more seriously it would make a huge difference.
We have seen small improvements, as I mentioned, the expansion and the mandate. The renewal first of the mandate, which every time it comes up is a fight, and then the expansion of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts is a tiny victory, but a very important one.
I think that one, you know, in terms of accountability, for the Houthis, of course, in a certain way the international mechanisms work quite well. You have the Panel of Experts. They’ve named a number of Houthi leaders and military officials and recommended them for sanctions; their documentation on that side is quite large. At the same time, you see Houthis behaving in a way where it’s very clear they have no fear of actually facing that accountability. If they did, they would not, for example, carry out attacks on civilian airports, claim those attacks, state publicly in their media that their intention was to hit the civilian target. And so you have on one hand, you know, a source of accountability, but on the other hand, clearly a lot more work needs to be done to figure out how to make that message hit home for the Houthi leadership, how to make it actually seem like a credible threat and start to factor into their decision making. We haven’t reached that point yet.
On the coalition side, at Human Rights Watch we spent years, you know, explaining why the coalition accountability or sort of investigative mechanism, the Joint Investigative Assessment Team, was not an effective body, how they did not properly represent facts, they did not appear to understand or correctly apply principles of proportionality and distinction, bedrock principles of international humanitarian law. And yet even with these major Western governments like the United States and the United Kingdom, they continue in advocacy settings to say, well, they’ve made improvements, this is getting better, they are trying, this is a serious effort. They—there has been a real unwillingness to acknowledge this body for what it is, which is a way to sort of nod to this need to investigate without actually carrying out serious investigations using a transparent and credible methodology and producing investigations that hold up to scrutiny.
I’ll stop there.
JOHNSEN: I just—yeah, so just on accountability, as someone who served on the U.N. Panel of Experts for Yemen for a couple of years, the sanctions right now are very lopsided. So the last set of sanctions was in 2015. I think the mood in the Security Council is, I don’t think Russia or China would be excited about any more sanctions in Yemen.
The sanctions that have been levied have all been on the Houthis or on Ali Abdullah Saleh, when he was still alive. And in fact, the sanctions as they were—as they were put into place in 2014 and 2015 actually shifted the conflict, because they had very little impact on the Houthi leadership. The sanctions were basically an asset freeze and a travel embargo, so you couldn’t travel internationally. That didn’t really hurt Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, or these guys who are up in the mountains.
But it hurt very much Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it really weakened his network. And when the two came into conflict a few years later in 2017, Saleh didn’t have much financial resources upon which to draw. And then his network, he wasn’t able to pay them from 2015, 2016, 2017. He had much more difficulty doing that, and that’s one of the reasons that when they came into conflict, Saleh was so weak and was then eventually killed.
I think a strong message, as Priyanka said, would be for any sort of—the threat of sanctions or sanctions against someone in the coalition, then people would pay attention, I think, in a way that they haven’t previously.
AMIRFAR: Over there?
Q: (Off mic)—Baruch College. I have a couple questions.
Which party is more accountable for the war crimes in Yemen, the coalition or the Houthis?
And would you say that initiative for peace is coming from primarily the Houthis but not from the Saudis in the latest Stockholm talks? And why aren’t the Saudis not working towards peace?
Sorry. And what would be the face-saving measure for the Saudis before they are ready to pull out of the war in Yemen?
And lastly, what—(laughter)—any comments on the use of child—children as soldiers? Thank you.
AMIRFAR: So you can pick or choose, I think, among the four. Where do you want to start?
ALMUTAWAKEL: I’ll take the first question.
ALMUTAWAKEL: Whenever you see the map of parties in the conflict in Yemen, never try to find the good guy. Never. There is no good guys. And I never—as a human rights defender, I can’t say this one is doing violations more than this, because for the families, if one family was killed because of Houthis, then this is enough for them. It’s the world for them. So all of them are doing horrible violations.
Maybe the Saudis and Emiratis, they have more weapons, but it doesn’t mean the Houthis are better than them. And it’s not only the coalition and Houthis. We have also other forces, like the SDC, like proxy forces, like an—and groups loyal to the Hadi government. So they are all complicit in violations against civilians and they are all same.
AMIRFAR: And does someone want to briefly just speak to the child soldier’s question, which we haven’t touched on?
ALMUTAWAKEL: So the child soldiers story?
ALMUTAWAKEL: We documented—we document the child soldiers by interviews and observation. Because it’s very difficult to take interviews, so we documented thousands of cases. Most of them, it’s by Houthis. Seventy percent of them by Houthis.
SALISBURY: So maybe I’ll speak to the face-saving measure and who does the peace initiative come from. Since 2015-2016, the Houthis have said that they’re willing to sit down and work on a peace deal, but on the basis of what they see as the reality on the ground. And again, we’ve had 2216, which in effect demands a total Houthi surrender and handover of everything that they have. So those are the terms that, unsurprisingly, the Hadi government and the Saudis have asked for any peace deal to be based on. The return of sovereignty, the legitimate sovereign government and for the Saudis to sort of in effect be able to declare a win.
And clearly that’s not going to happen and the goal posts have shifted. The Saudis need to be able to say at this point in time that they have definitively ended Iranian influence in Yemen. And they need—one of the things they keep returning to is the need for the Houthis to cut all ties with Iran, which is obviously a very clear Catch-22 because, I mean, I can stand here and say that I denounce Iran and I cut all ties. How do you—how do you prove it? And clearly I have no ties with Iran. (Laughter.) At one and the same time, the Houthis need guarantees on their side, so you need some sort of mechanism that sort of point-by-point ratchets things down.
We’re moving in that general direction and, hopefully, it won’t just be one thing. It’ll be little bits that sort of build up to something where the Saudis feel confident that they can be part of any process that the Houthis are in and that they can interact with them. But they will need something like some sort of declaration, some kind of statements from the Houthis, which they’ve made many times already, that they are sort of not under the control of any external actor. And they may need some sort of symbolic gesture, like sort of people visibly leaving the country.
But a question that I’ve asked repeatedly of the Saudis, the Americans and others is, do you have a list of names of people inside Yemen who you want to go? Or from the IRGC, from Hezbollah? And the problem is that they don’t. So there’s this very strong language around Iran’s influence and their presence, but there’s always been—the Iranians are very good at plausible deniability, and a lot of what’s happened in Yemen has been about skills transfer rather than a command-and-control and staffing relationship. And I don’t think the people have really reached the point where they’re able to deal with that nuance.
AMIRFAR: So we just have a couple of minutes. Any final comments from anyone?
ALMUTAWAKEL: So peace in Yemen is not a ceasefire. I’ve heard many from—Saudi officials saying we can protect our borders, and then we leave you for militias to fight forever. And this is true. This can be happen. Houthis can have an agreement about the borders and then they leave us for militias.
And the war in Yemen is not the airstrikes. Peace in Yemen, it means a comprehensive political agreement between all parties to the conflict. When we ask for peace, we don’t ask for ceasefire; we ask for a political agreement which we think is very possible. And till now we still have groups who we already know who they are and they can all be in the table and agree on something. Until now, the scenario for the future in Yemen, if we don’t have peace, that fanatic groups will be empowered more and more, expanded more and more. Those people will never go to the table, will never care about accountability and will never—we can be in a civil war forever. So when we ask for peace, we ask for a political agreement between all parties to the conflict in Yemen.
SALISBURY: Just to jump on that really quickly, I think that’s such an important point. And as we start talking about the possibility of a U.N. peace process, there’s a real danger—and we saw this, I think, in the past in Yemen—that if you frame the peace process incorrectly, in a way that doesn’t reflect these realities on the ground and doesn’t make it a truly Yemeni-Yemeni process, you’re actually just sort of stopping the internationalized aspect, or removing it from public view, and then moving towards a renewed conflict, Yemen War 2.0 or 3.0.
So this is a really fragile moment where we really need to start bringing in some real Yemeni voices into sort of thinking about how to do this, not over the next one year, but ten, twenty, thirty years.
JOHNSEN: I would just make two points to end. On the point on—that Peter brought up just a moment ago on the Houthis and Iran, what we’ve seen is Saudi went into the Yemen saying, we want to prevent Iran from coming in. This has become—this war has really become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer it’s gone on, the closer the relationship between the Houthis and Iran have become. In fact, just in August the Houthis announced an ambassador to Iran and Iran recognized the Houthis as a legitimate governing authority. This is what the Houthis want. The longer this war goes on, the tougher and the more difficult it will be to peel those two apart.
The second thing I would say—and this is sort of more broadly speaking with regards to Yemen, the sooner this war ends, obviously, the better it will be for Yemen. But Yemen is never going to be put back together again into a single country. It won’t even be put back together again into two countries, into an old north and an old south, like it was in the 1990s. I think Yemen will revert to a historic mean in which you have a variety of warlords or militia groups who are in power in different parts of the country. And this raises, I think, some pretty serious policy and security issues for the United States with regards to shipping lanes, with regards to counterterrorism, with regards to Saudi border security, as well as what’s happening in the region. And I don’t think that given, as Peter said, how low Yemen is on the list of priorities for the U.S, that there’s been a lot of attention paid to Yemen the day after.
ALMUTAWAKEL: And Yemen can surprise you. (Laughter.)
AMIRFAR: Priyanka, anything final?
MOTAPARTHY: Yeah. I mean, I think that just, you know, to give a very small example amongst a very big war, even if you follow the conflict only peripherally, I think all of you will remember the airstrike on the funeral hall in Sanaa that led the Obama administration to reconsider its sales of precision-guided weapons. It was in the news for weeks afterwards. I visited the site a few weeks after it happened and just saw the level of devastation that happened there.
And, you know—this is falling off, but—but following that case, you know, I—when I returned to Yemen in February of this year, I asked people who was held accountable for that strike, a strike in which more than a hundred civilians or a hundred individuals were killed, including children? One of the things that shocked, you know, shocked the world in terms of the human toll that it took, two mid-level Yemeni military officers referred to prosecution, and that—they were referred to investigation. That did not even reach the stage of becoming a trial. That’s where we are on accountability today. That’s how far we’ve gotten in terms of Yemen and accountability today. I think it’s a very illustrative example.
AMIRFAR: And on that note, please join me in thanking this amazing group of experts. (Applause.)
with Radhya Almutawakel, Gregory D. Johnsen, Priyanka Motaparthy and Peter Salisbury
October 10, 2019