Every new day that comes, many in Yemen wake up to the distant hope that something in their homeland will change. Cholera, starvation, dehydration and violence continue to take lives as the political deadlock sees no sign of end. In order to break it, actors must adopt a greater sense of urgency and understand the needs of their adversaries. Then the appropriate concessions can be made that will lead to a win-win solution.
Since 2014, a brutal civil war has been raging in Yemen. Mass protests, as part of the 2011 Arab Spring, forced the long-standing president Saleh to concede power to his deputy Hadi. However, Hadi’s government was weak and proved incapable of dealing with a struggling economy, militant attacks, and widespread unpopularity. The historically oppressed Shia Houthi movement took this as their opportunity to gain control and seized large portions of the North and the capital Sana’a. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily backing the “internationally recognised” yet locally unpopular Hadi government. The coalition is supported by the US, the UK and France. Iran denies that it supports the Houthis, although it faces widespread claims that it is providing military and financial aid.
The war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As well as causing 60,000 violent deaths according to ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), 75% of the population need humanitarian support according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (UNOCHA). The UN also estimates that 8.4 million are at risk of starvation and Save the Children claims that 85,000 children have died of malnutrition since the war began. Cholera and dehydration also plague the country, as 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation (UNOCHA).
December saw peace talks, where a ceasefire was agreed around the port city of Hodeida. However, the ceasefire was soon broken and although the talks were promising, a long-term peace plan seems far off. One thing which helped initiate the talks was an increase in urgency to solve the problem from the international community. Much more of this sentiment will be needed. Actors also need to adopt a system of shared responsibility where parties focus on satisfying the underlying needs of their enemies, rather than fighting their positions.
Possible Actions Towards Peace
The Zaydii Shiite Houthi movement chose to rebel after years of living under a government which failed to grant them adequate representation. They see Saudi Arabia and Hadi as instigators of this repression. Therefore, Saudi could meet their needs by giving them sovereignty of the northern parts of Yemen in which they reside.
The Saudi’s see the Houthis as proxies for Iran, who they claim are trying to gain a foothold in the region. This is a major worry for Saudi Arabia, who share a border with the Houthi dominated northern Yemen. In return for greater sovereignty, the Houthis could agree to cut ties with Iran.
This could work for both Saudi and the Houthis, but Iran would also need to gain. Iran seeks to reduce Saudi Arabia’s power position in their battle for influence in the Middle East and the current power balance in Yemen is in their favour. If the Houthi’s were to break ties, Iran may choose to increase support for the secessionist movement in the south, who they have already partially backed. Therefore, they would need something in return for “keeping out of Yemen”.
This could possibly come from the US and would range from releasing prisoners to relieving trade sanctions. Although the Trump administration might be unwilling to negotiate or concede to Iran, it may have no choice. The pressure on the administration to end its involvement in Yemen has greatly increased with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a vote from the US Senate to end military support for Saudi in Yemen. The administration may be willing to make concessions, if they can gain support from the Houthis in their fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP). Cooperation with the US may be hard for the Houthis to fathom, as part of their slogan rings ‘Death to America’. However to reach such a solution, cooperation would be necessary.
These are some just possible pathways towards peace and many more need to be explored. This can only happen if parties adopt a greater political will toward finding a solution to the devastation that is ravaging Yemen.