While the resumption of peace talks in Sweden illuminated a ray of hope for a diplomatic/political route to ending the conflict in Yemen, there’s still a long way to go to achieving peace in the country.
It’s crucial to remember that the Sweden talks were only “consultations”, intended to establish “confidence-building measures” ahead of any actual peace negotiations. The warring parties’ ability to make some progress doesn’t necessarily bode well for any future peace talks on issues of substance. The parties indeed managed to agree on certain confidence-building measures, including a prisoner exchange agreement and an “understanding” on Taiz. Perhaps most significantly, they agreed on the “mutual redeployment of forces” from al-Hudaydah (the port and the city) and a governorate-wide ceasefire. Given that the majority of food imports pass through the port city, the agreement could mark a significant milestone on the road to peace, particularly from a humanitarian perspective. However, much depends on the parties following through in practice and their ability to maintain the accord in the longer-term.
In the grand scheme of things, however, little (if any) progress was made on the more significant issues. Despite the notable achievements in Sweden, neither side has historically been willing to compromise on their core demands. The same major stumbling blocks hindering past peace efforts are likely to resurface, meaning that a peace agreement may still be out of reach, even if the new round of talks in January proceed as planned. The fact is that lasting peace in Yemen will be unachievable unless parties are willing to actually compromise on the following major stumbling blocks:
The implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216
The Houthis have repeatedly rejected UNSC Resolution 2216, which requires, amongst others, a Houthi withdrawal from territories under their control and their disarmament. Both conditions have and continue to be significant obstacles to reaching a political solution, as neither side has indicated willingness to budge on their respective positions.
Simply put, the Houthis’ military capabilities constitute one of their most formidable bargaining chips: it’s what allowed them to seize Sana’a in the first place and maintain a conflict against a more advanced, well-funded adversary for over three years. In other words, giving up territory that they’ve taken and their arms would mean ceding their leverage. For the same reason, the internationally-recognized Yemen government is unlikely to significantly shift from their maximalist position given the risk that armed Houthis (even if they yield their territory) would continue to pose.
A (transitional) power-sharing agreement
A durable power-sharing agreement which satisfies all parties will be difficult to achieve, particularly with regards to Houthi involvement in governance moving forward. In any power-sharing agreement, the Houthis’ proportion within the Yemeni population wouldn’t justify the same level of governmental/territorial control that they currently hold. As such, and while the Houthis’ inclusion in any post-war government will be necessary if lasting peace is to be achieved, it’s highly unlikely any agreement reached will be to the group’s advantage. It’s also worthwhile noting that internal discord amongst the Houthis themselves could provoke further difficulties in forming any transitional/post-war government.
The Yemen government may also face obstacles, having lost popularity in recent months: economic protests in Aden in September against deteriorating economic conditions (including the fall of the Yemeni Rial) saw participants call for now-former Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher’s resignation. Even before war broke out, Yemen had some significant problems (institutional corruption, nepotism, poverty, amongst others) which have only been exacerbated by infrastructural, humanitarian and economic damage caused by over three years of war. Any transitional/post-war government will be hard-pressed to adequately address long-standing socio-economic concerns in addition to war-related challenges, meaning that its hold on power will remain (even more) fragile (even with the expected infusion of reconstruction funds).
That’s to say nothing of the role of other political actors in Yemen. For instance, the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s largest parliamentary group, seem not to have been included in recent peace talks, except perhaps via the Houthi delegation (there are various factions within the GPC, some of whom support a Houthi alliance, while others are opposed). In this way, the current peace efforts have (thus far) glossed over such issues: failing to account for internal political tensions can only further hinder the achievement of lasting peace in Yemen.
In this regard, there is also the question of the role (or lack thereof) of the southern separatists in any transitional governance framework. While UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths had previously affirmed his “commitment to southern participation in the political process”, Griffiths recently indicated that the “southern issue” should be discussed during the transitional period (rather than as part of current peace efforts). This, therefore, means that the transitional government is unlikely to actually include southern separatists themselves.
The southern independence issue
The main difficulty in this regard remains the role and involvement of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and southern separatists in any political/peace negotiations. The STC forms a significant proportion of forces fighting alongside the Coalition to recapture Houthi-controlled territories, notably including in al-Hudaydah. Yet, their ultimate goal differs: the STC wants an independent “South Yemen” despite persistent support by the Coalition, Yemen government, and the international community for a unified country.
The STC has previously demanded its inclusion in talks of any kind, otherwise threatening to “seize” al-Hudaydah. As such, failing to include the southern contingent in talks will hinder peace efforts from the outset. Yet, their inclusion remains contentious. Both President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Houthis reportedly rejected their involvement in the failed Geneva talks, they weren’t involved in the Sweden negotiations, and there’s no indication that they’ll be invited to attend the January talks.
Having reached a stalemate in this regard, leaving the southern independence question unaddressed will mean that it’ll fester. Ignoring the issue, or even leaving it to be addressed by any transitional government, will increase the risk of continued strife: the southern separatists may well mobilize to fight for southern independence or, at the very least, for a role in post-war governance.
Finally, it’s worthwhile briefly mentioning three further – but, by no means, the only other – challenges to achieving a sustainable peace in Yemen.
Firstly, militancy: the conflict in Yemen has provided ripe breeding grounds for militant groups, notably including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State. Indeed, AQAP is thought to have 6,000-7,000 members in the country, while IS commands 250-500. Having increased their influence by capitalizing on the war, such groups will continue to pose a threat to stability and security beyond the (eventual) end to the conflict with the Houthis.
In this context, beyond Washington’s support (at least for the time being) for the Coalition in its military campaign against the Houthis, the US presence in Yemen will continue, even if a peace agreement is reached. With AQAP still considered a significant threat to the US, drone strikes (and the occasional raid involving US personnel) in Yemen are likely to continue even after the civil war.
Secondly, Saudi-Iran power dynamics: while Iran recently indicated its support for the UN-led talks and the Saudi-led Coalition similarly backs UN efforts, it’s crucial to note that the Yemen conflict serves as a proxy war between the two regional rivals. Indeed, the primary rationale for the intervention was to prevent the establishment of an Iran-backed country along Riyadh’s southern border. As such, any lasting framework for peace will require continued commitment from both. This is particularly so when considering their material involvement, without which the warring Yemeni parties would be unable to continue their respective military campaigns.
Thirdly, the contentious role of the UAE in (southern) Yemen: beyond its leading role (alongside Riyadh) in the Coalition, some concerns have been raised about the Emirati presence in Yemen, predominantly in the south. In spite of some tensions with the Hadi government and certain secessionists, the UAE has established a significant military footprint in Yemen through its control of numerous bases, airfields and ports in the south, and via the presence of Emirati troops on the ground. Moreover, the UAE’s engagement extends beyond its military contributions to the Coalition, and includes embedding itself through efforts such as training troops and sponsoring reconstruction projects. It’s crucial to note that Yemen factors more broadly into the UAE’s regional strategy, including with regards to its maritime and trade interests, and to prevent militancy (such as AQAP, but also including the rise of any Muslim Brotherhood-linked parties).
With regards to establishing lasting peace, it’s the latter aim that’s worthwhile emphasizing: UAE military officials previously indicated that the UAE would “stay put” until AQAP is “broken”, even if that meant remaining in Yemen after the civil war. As noted above with US counter-militancy efforts, such continued military operations against AQAP will undoubtedly mean that any peace agreement to end the civil war won’t necessarily mean an immediate end to all conflict in Yemen. Such a situation is all the more likely given the aforementioned desire among some Southerners for an independent state.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a regional security analyst at Le Beck International. She completed MA in International Peace and Security at King’s College London, and LLB Law with French Law at the University of Birmingham/Université Panthéon-Assas. Her areas of interest include the Middle East, North/East Africa, strategic communications and preventing/countering extremism.