After a quarter of a million deaths, 3 million displaced, widespread war crimes and more than half a lost decade of conflict, President Joe Biden has declared “diplomacy is back” in Yemen.
As welcome as this is, it has a different ring to it in Sana’a and Aden than in D.C.–where many senior foreign policy advisers to Biden were, six years ago, in similar posts in the Obama administration lending support to the Saudi-led war.
As United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, I was in Sana’a at that time facilitating negotiations on a power-sharing agreement to end a Houthis takeover and prevent a full-blown civil war.
After 10 painful weeks, a compromise was found–covering the shape of the executive and legislature, security arrangements and a timetable for transition. A deal was on the table. The U.N. Security Council was briefed and I was in discussions with Saudi officials regarding the venue for a signing ceremony.
Two days later, with no warning, the airstrikes began. From my hotel window, I watched the ruthless destruction of one of the oldest cities in the world.
A U.N. Security Council resolution provided cover for the horrors that followed. Drafted by the Saudis, it was rushed through the organ tasked with ensuring international peace by the U.S., Britain and France. Their Gulf ally needed placating, following an Iranian nuclear deal forged behind their back.
It must have seemed a fair diplomatic trade-off. Demanding the surrender of the advancing Houthis to a government living in chic hotel-exile in Riyadh was preposterous, but irrelevant: The Russians would surely derail the resolution. They miscalculated.
Sensing an opportunity for them also to profit through business deals with Saudi Arabia, Moscow waved it through. Today this unworkable accident remains the basis for all the mediation pursued by the U.N. The past six years show it failed.
The first task of American diplomacy must be to replace the template. Washington should promote a new Security Council resolution, providing a different structure for a negotiated process that ensures a seat for every side in the conflict.
To start, this must include the Houthis. However repressive and reprehensible the role they have played, they remain powerful: hundreds of billions in weapons sales to the Saudis later and they control more than half the country, and today are still advancing.
It also means including Al-Islah, the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood. There will be those who will say such peace negotiations merely serve to legitimize both. But mediators necessarily need space to engage with all sides, including controversial actors and groups.
Peace is made with enemies, not friends.
Those the West would describe as the latter must be encouraged to return to the areas under their control in Yemen. To be at the table does not mean by phone from luxury exile; it requires being present.
Neither can a new cast of warlords and armed groups, including UAE funded separatists in the south, who emerged during this war be ignored–nor those profiting from the conflict with no interest in cessation.
The political spectrum in Yemen is more diverse and segmented than ever before. Besides traditional parties and armed factions, there are also democratic youth and liberal women groups. They too must be included.
Such a process would not be to reinvent the wheel. Yemenis have already seen what a full-spectrum, local-led process should look like during the 2013-14 national dialogue conference.
It took all political players six months of preparations and 10 months of deliberations to agree on a blueprint for democratic governance, shortly followed by a draft constitution, which was equally developed though an inclusive process. Only a similarly consensual way forward can bring peace now.
To develop consensus between such disparate parties in the talks that now must come, America cannot dictate proceedings. It may be human nature to try to right a wrong, but the U.S. should not lead from the front.
They must act as cajolers, bringing parties to the table and there, those seated will find no shortage of Yemeni dignitaries with ties to every side. They can help all adversaries to meet and seek compromise as they have done traditionally in Yemen for thousands of years.
It is time for the Yemeni political elites to take responsibility, stop relying on and blaming the same foreigners for all their ills. They have all contributed to varying degrees to the demise of what once was a promising country. As I stated in my final report to the Security Council in April 2015: “Yemenis should be afforded the opportunity to determine their future free from interference and coercion from outside forces.” This is still true today.
No one can deny it is good news that the U.S. is ending military support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen. We must hope that Britain and France follow suit. But that alone will not stop the fighting or bring peace.
* Jamal Benomar ICDI’s Chair, former United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen 2011-15 and former U.N. Under Secretary-General for Conflicts Prevention.