With tough questions being asked on Capitol Hill and about 80 members of Congress calling for pressure on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemen, it cannot be long before the Biden administration will be expected to deliver real results to end a six-year conflict that has caused what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The supply of aid and the lifting of the blockade would save countless lives. Yet they are consequences of the conflict, not its cause. Addressing them alone will not bring an end to war.
Neither will they change the fact that a ceasefire plan backed by the Biden administration and the Saudis has been rejected by the Houthi rebels who took control of the capital Sanaa in September 2014, with Yemen’s president going into exile when the Saudi bombing campaign started in early 2015. Whilst some deride the group’s intransigence, the impasse lies in expecting failed diplomatic solutions of the past to suddenly gain purchase in the present.
The international approach remains framed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216. Drafted by the Saudis in 2015, the resolution demanded the advancing Houthis’ unconditional surrender to the Yemeni government that had gone into exile in Riyadh.
It was never realistic to expect the Houthis, then in control of over half the country, to withdraw from seized territory and lay down arms for nothing in return. Nor with the Houthis in control of more territory today is it practical to predicate a ceasefire on these anachronistic terms.
A rationale must be given for entering negotiations. An end to the Saudi blockade of the country is a start, but it is the prospect of a power sharing arrangement after these first steps in the process that makes peace talks a possibility. In other words, instead of squabbling with the Houthis over ceasefire conditions, the US should spell out a vision of what a peace settlement could look like.
Some say any sign of concession merely emboldens the Houthis to push further – as demonstrated by the recent escalating violence in the Marib province, where the group has been attempting to take the last significant city under the official government’s control.
It is important to understand that with peace negotiations more likely under President Joe Biden than his predecessor, the Houthis are trying to strengthen their position on the ground. This is no fault of the new US administration, it is simply the nature of war and leverage, by no means unique to Yemen or the Houthis.
Others believe the Houthis should not be allowed to hold any power at all. But it must be remembered peace is made with enemies, not friends. As in Afghanistan, where the US has been negotiating with the Taliban, the harsh reality remains to work with an unsavory group – or continue the war.
If peace is to be made, the US should not only address port blockades, but more importantly lay down a framework for serious and credible negotiations. This would best be delivered through a new US-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution to replace that of 2015. It would demonstrate that a failed international framework had been truly jettisoned.
Lawmakers call Biden’s Yemen policy a ‘historic shift’ in US foreign relations
The Biden administration could begin by dropping the impractical surrender demands of old and compel the lifting of the Saudi blockade. It should also impose an arms embargo on all warring parties in Yemen that includes a ban on weapons financing and drone and missile technology. The UK and France have not followed the US in halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but it seems unlikely they would oppose a new US-led UN resolution, even less vote against it. While previous resolutions imposing embargos on Somalia and Libya have hardly halted all sales or supply to those countries, they have certainly stopped nations with a vested interest in appearing lawful in equipping those on the ground.
Any new resolution should also require foreign troops to leave Yemen. This means the Saudis should leave the eastern province of Mahra, and the Emiratis the southern islands of Socotra and Mayun,The Gulf states’ intervention has not returned the government, long in exile in Saudi Arabia, back to power, nor brought peace: Rather, the Yemeni government’s continued residence stokes new local conflicts and helps legitimize a Houthi narrative of loss of sovereignty. Houthis, for their part, should understand that they cannot continue to fight their way to power through violence and, as a gesture of goodwill, they should immediately release political prisoners.
The resolution should also envisage a broader mediation framework that starts with the acknowledgment that this has never been a war just between two sides. Houthis, the Islah-Muslim Brotherhood, Southern separatists, traditional political parties, women and civil society groups – indeed, any domestic actor that has a stake in Yemen’s future, or perversely the conflict’s continuation – must participate one way or another in peace talks. Without them, peace will never be stable.