Yemen: Is there any realistic path ahead?

On October 18, after receiving pledges to commitment from all the involved parties, the U.N announced that a renewable 72-hour ceasefire to halt the hostilities in Yemen had been agreed and would be put into effect as of October 19. Hailed by the U.S, the truce demanded from all the belligerent factions “to implement a full and comprehensive halt to military activities of any kind and help facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Yemenis across the country”. Initially the news raised expectations in the international community that a complete cessation of hostilities was finally in sight but, soon, the continuing violence proved the truce to be nothing more than an illusion, as both the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Saudi-led Arab coalition accused each other of violating the ceasefire. On top of that, the humanitarian crisis continues to deepen with millions of people being in need of immediate humanitarian assistance to cover their very basic needs.

Such negative developments and the always looming permanent division of the country do not only necessitate an increased deal of attention. Ultimately, they point to the need of a more realistic strategy if after all consultations are meant to produce any positive outcomes and if the international community wills to avoid another Syria in the Gulf. The question is how this more realistic strategy will look like? The complexities of the situation notwithstanding, there are certain factors we should bear in mind.

First and foremost, although every peace negotiation is apparently welcome, we should expect some relative extent of violation of any potential new ceasefire. The reason for this is twofold: First, the record of the previous peace talks leaves little space for over-optimism that the violence will completely stop when the belligerent factions reach a new peace agreement. Second, the warring parties are diametrically different. That is to say, one the one side we have Saudi Arabia that spearheads the Arab coalition, a state with a fully-fledged army, intelligence and sufficient command and control over its forces. Conversely, when we speak about the Houthis and the pro-Saleh forces, we practically refer to a non-state actor consisting of ground militias whose credibility as interlocutors is at least contested. In this understanding, there are two lessons to be learned. First, that it would be imprudent to assume that both parties will abide by the agreed terms of a potential new truce in the exactly same manner; and second, that it is evenly problematic for the international community, Saudi Arabia in particular, to equate Saudi and Houthi actions. As Sultan Barakat points out “Houthis have very different communication channels, hierarchies, ability to pass on the ceasefire orders from one side to the other, so you can’t really hold them responsible for every single violation”.

A more realistic approach towards the Yemeni crisis would also entail a diversification in the deeply interrelated postures of Iran and the U.S, especially inasmuch Saudi Arabia and the Houthis appear to adopt more inflexible stances than ever, as Gerald M. Feierstein comments. Iran’s role is ambiguous. Some portray Tehran as utilitarian power that continues to take advantage of the Yemeni disarray in order to promote its own agenda; that is, to undermine a stable Arab Peninsula and, through its proxy, to inject a security threat in Saudi Arabia’s southern backyard. For some others, Iran’s foothold and assistance to Houthis in Yemen are negligible and vastly exaggerated by Riyadh to justify its own actions. Be it the first or the second case, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional supremacy seems, to a great extent, to fuel the Yemeni war itself. But realistically speaking, can the Yemeni battlefield be disassociated from the overall Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional supremacy? The answer is maybe and it is exactly here that the U.S could play a constructive role. With its traditional ties with the Kingdom and the American-Iranian relations in a state of rapprochement, the U.S could assume the post of a third party facilitator between the two powers towards the adoption of more moderate postures.

For Washington, this would in turn necessitate a series of steps beginning with the shutoff in the sales of American arms to Riyadh. For the time being, Saudi Arabia does not demonstrate any clear willingness to step back in its bombing campaign that has resulted in a grandiose civilian death toll in the neighboring country. But besides its humanitarian dimension, the indiscriminate bombings of the Saudi-led coalition have negative side-effects in the Yemeni power equation insofar they lead to the dereliction of large swathes of the country facilitating, in this way, safe gateways to the Yemeni soil for extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Turning a blind eye instead of using its leverage to ensure a more reasonable Saudi posture therefore, holds the American administration responsible not only for the Yemeni humanitarian catastrophe, but also for further deteriorating an already complex situation in the ground. Surely, the firing of cruise missiles against Houthi radars – the first direct American engagement after the outbreak of the war – does not point to a diversified American attitude. But with the public critique against the unconditional support to Saudi Arabia growing and elements of the American leadership openly condemning Saudi actions, there is high hope for a different American strategy.

Coming to an end, it is high time that all the parties that have a say in Yemen demonstrate the requisite prudence and pragmatism in the table of negotiations. This will entail a series of compromises or even shift in traditional alliances, but as things stand, if the next peace talks fail to exclude a meaningful long-lasting agreement, Yemen risks to further derail into bloodletting and to transform into a safe heaven for extremist groups.

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