Will the new UN special envoy to Yemen, the Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg, succeed where his predecessor Martin Griffiths failed?
This is the question on everyone’s minds as the time approaches for Grundberg to assume his duties and as analysts and commentators urge a reassessment of the strategies used to resolve the more than six-year-old Yemeni Civil War.
Experts have cautioned that if the incoming new envoy follows the same approach as his predecessors, he will get nowhere. However, devising a new approach to resolving the Yemeni crisis has to contend with a number of difficulties related to the context of the UN mission’s work.
The most immediate problem is the state of the conflict and its impact on the negotiating process. At present, the military situation favours the Ansar Allah (Houthi) Movement, and this is encouraging it to press forward with its campaign and undermine UN peace initiatives.
The Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and large portions of northern Yemen, now have their sights set on seizing control of Marib. The last government stronghold in the north, this governorate is also rich in oil and gas. As Houthi success in this campaign would impose new military equations on the ground, the Houthis have little interest in responding to current ceasefire initiatives. Instead, they want to defer the ceasefire talks until after a separate agreement is concluded on the Sanaa and Hodeida airports.
The Yemeni government wants the ceasefire and status of the airports to be combined in a single agreement. But the Houthis’ insistence on taking the last government stronghold in the north, using Iranian support, will definitely hamper the new UN envoy’s efforts to broker a ceasefire and restart the political process.
A second problem is that the adversaries in the conflict have refused to respond to incremental confidence-building measures. In general, complicated wars, such as the one in Yemen, necessitate the use of a mediating strategy that seeks to persuade the adversaries to undertake steps designed to build mutual trust, thereby giving them an incentive to engage in negotiations over the major bones of contention.
Unfortunately, the six years of the Yemeni experience, as well as numerous analyses, have established the futility of this approach. The Stockholm Agreement signed by the Houthis and the legitimate government of Yemen in 2018 failed to produce a permanent ceasefire, even if it met with the limited success of averting a potentially fierce and bloody confrontation in Hodeida. Ultimately, the agreement only led to a relatively limited prisoner exchange. It did not generate a sufficient impetus towards solving any of the basic problems.
Moreover, it turned out that the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) was unable to carry out its duties in the areas that fell under Houthi control, and the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), the mechanism created under the UNMHA to implement the ceasefire in Hodeida, was unable to continue its remit after March 2020 when the Yemeni government suspended its participation in the mechanism.
Meanwhile, Griffiths was unable to advance his four-point initiative, which called for a nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa Airport, the lifting of restrictions on shipping from and to the Hodeida sea port, and initiating a political process.
Not only have incremental confidence-building measures as an avenue towards a breakthrough on basic areas of dispute failed to achieve their objectives, no progress has been made using a top-down approach focusing on shuttling between the opposing leaderships. Griffiths’ replacement clearly needs to come up with a new and different approach that the key local and regional stakeholders will respond to.
Fortunately, Grundberg will be able to draw from his familiarity with the dynamics of the conflict and the causes of the failure of mediating efforts up to now that he has gained in the course of his duties as EU ambassador to Yemen since 2019.
A third problem is the precarious cohesion of Yemen itself. While the international community has been trying to resolve the Yemeni crisis while preserving the unity of the state, many observers fear scenarios ranging from the disintegration of the country into several statelets to, at best, a partition between north and south.
According to many reports on the situation in the country, the idea of a return to the pre-1990 situation by recreating an independent state in the south has considerable support among southern Yemenis as well as among some foreign stakeholders. Although the southern forces have allied with government forces in the battle against the Houthis in Marib, both sides realise the temporary nature of this alliance and that as soon as the battle in the north is over, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) will take steps to create autonomous governmental institutions.
The underlying mistrust and tensions between the government and the STC forces continue to flare up in intermittent skirmishes, despite the Riyadh Agreement of 2019.
At the same time, the Houthis’ continued to hold Sanaa and other areas in the north carry the potential for the emergence of a Houthi-controlled state in the north of the country. Many regional and international stakeholders would be unlikely to acquiesce in such a scenario, especially Saudi Arabia which would not tolerate an entity on its southern borders ruled by a movement loyal to Iran. Nor would the US, which has already taken actions to dry up the Houthis’ sources of funding and has intensified its criticisms of the Houthis’ human rights violations, accept an Ansar Allah regime as a legitimate government in the north.
In the light of the foregoing, if the new UN envoy is to succeed in carrying out a new approach that has the potential to yield a peace agreement in Yemen, certain elements of the negotiating context will have to change.
The following are possible measures that might be taken.
First, there is a need to find a means to persuade the Houthis to cooperate with the envoy’s mediating efforts, though opinions vary on how to go about this.
Some recommend using the prospect of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme to leverage Tehran into making concessions that would facilitate an agreement in Yemen. Others even urge including the Yemeni question in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, as part of the regional issues on the table.
On the other hand, some observers believe that the Saudi-led Coalition that backs the Yemeni government should escalate militarily against the Houthis in Marib in order to prevent further Houthi expansion and convince them that they have no chances of further territorial gains and that their wisest option is to return to the negotiating table.
Second, there is a need to develop a political approach and negotiating strategy that would win a consensus among regional and international stakeholders. This task would involve closer and more intensive dialogue with the diverse components of Yemeni society, from the southerners to NGOs and women’s organisations. It should also strive to benefit from previous local mediating initiatives that have succeeded in producing agreements on certain basic elements of a potential peace agreement.
Third, there is a need to explore the potential for new UN resolutions that would take into account the current situation on the ground and the need to bring other parties on board the negotiating process. The UN resolutions that laid the foundations for the UN peacemaking drive have not helped to create a negotiating framework conducive to the work of the UN mission. This applies, in particular, to UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
Last month’s report of the International Crisis Group, an international NGO, pointed out how diverse interpretations of this resolution have hampered progress towards a political settlement and mentioned that many observers and politicians wanted it replaced.
Fourth, there is a need to take advantage of the Biden administration’s current diplomatic momentum on Yemen, as represented by Biden’s pledge to end the war in Yemen and his appointment of Tim Lenderking as the US’s special envoy for that purpose.
Simultaneously, it will be important to coordinate more closely with Russia, which has also recently intensified talks with the concerned parties, such as former president of South Yemen Ali Nasser Mohamed, the leaders of the Southern Transitional Council, and, most recently, the late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew Tarek Saleh, who commands the National Resistance Forces.
Lastly, there is a need to step up the provision of humanitarian relief to Yemen. Significant progress in this regard, which should be separated from the political track, is essential to creating an environment conducive to negotiations in a country that has been universally described as being in the grips of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
*The writer is a researcher on security and crisis management.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly