Gaza war hasn’t halted de-escalation efforts in Yemen

With the war in Gaza now in its third month, there are ongoing fears that the conflict may spill over, particularly given the risk of escalation involving Iran’s network of proxies. Between Oct. 18 and Dec. 11, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claim to have launched 10 “large batches” of missiles and drones into Israel, with some falling or getting intercepted in the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, reportedly without causing any damage or casualties. The Houthis also performed an unprecedented helicopter-landing hijack — emulating tactics used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — of an Israel-linked commercial vessel leased to Japan, on Nov. 19, in violation of international maritime law. On Dec. 3, the group attacked three commercial vessels in the Red Sea, with ties to 14 different nations, using anti-ship ballistic missiles and drones. The Houthis upped the ante further on Dec. 8, threatening to block all ships sailing to Israel, regardless of nationality, until Gaza receives humanitarian aid, and launched another missile attack on a Norwegian-flagged tanker on Dec. 12

Thus far the United States has not responded to the Houthi attacks, other than in self-defense or through symbolic sanctions, although there are growing calls for Washington to take more forceful action to deter future attacks and the Israeli national security adviser recently suggested that Israel would do so if the U.S. and international community fail to act. Direct military action against the Houthis is exactly what the rebel group wants though, as international intervention would enable them to further mobilize the public for the as yet unfinished battle at home as well as increase their popular support base abroad in both the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The quest for a way out

In the Gulf, there is a growing fear that the situation could constrain ongoing de-escalation talks between Riyadh, the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG), and the Houthis, or even take them back to square one were conflict dynamics to escalate, locally and regionally. It is, however, unlikely that the ongoing regional escalation by itself will derail the talks. In fact, the Saudi-Houthi channels have not been interrupted over the past two months, as the unannounced visits of Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdul Salam to Saudi Arabia in October and the ROYG’s reception of the latest proposed de-escalation “roadmap” from Riyadh in early November both make clear.

Saudi Arabia revived direct communication channels with the Houthis in late 2022 after the collapse of the April 2022 Saudi-Houthi truce due to the latter’s steadily rising demands and failure to make concessions. This was followed by several announced and unannounced rounds of talks in Sanaa and Riyadh in 2023. The hopes for a quick fix were dashed by the rising ceiling of Houthi demands as well as American and British pressure to halt fast-track talks largely characterized by one-sided concessions. As the Houthis ramp up the scale and scope of their cross-border and maritime attacks, it remains to be seen whether the West will change its approach toward the group as part of a long-term security strategy.

Mediation framework: The negotiator and the implementing partner

Saudi Arabia’s repositioning in Yemen from an active military coalition leader backing the ROYG to a mediator between the government it supported and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels it fought once again changes the existing U.N.-led mediation framework. To the extent that current mediation efforts might project the U.N. as an “implementing partner” at best, an agreement could be signed under its auspices, noting that Saudi Arabia with Omani support negotiated the major issues with the Houthis.

In November 2011, Saudi Arabia hosted the conclusion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative in Riyadh, aimed at containing the Arab Spring crisis and averting its spillover. The U.N.’s good offices and mediation efforts, under then Special Advisor/Envoy Jamal Benomar, were limited in 2011, however, and it eventually emerged as an implementing partner to the GCC initiative between 2012 and 2014. Although the intra-elite agreement averted an immediate civil war, the process was slow moving and had obvious challenges and limitations. Its success above all was short-lived, collapsing before the Houthis stormed the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Sept. 21, 2014. The intensity of the armed conflict gradually increased and became regionalized six months later, when Saudi Arabia intervened militarily at the head of an Arab coalition in March 2015 to restore the regime of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to Sanaa, curb Iran’s role, and defeat the Houthis.

In other words, while the regional mediation model helped the U.N. appear successful at the time, such efforts outsourced implementation and associated risks to the U.N. without necessarily extending adequate political, economic, and security support, or harmonizing regional agendas. A more collaborative approach, with the involvement of Yemeni stakeholders who are aware of what kind of Yemen is desirable for the public as well as the sustainable development, peace, and security of the region, is necessary to avoid short-termism.

Paving the road for something or nothing?

Since 2015, U.N. mediation has resulted in limited breakthroughs and replaced comprehensive peace talks with geographically-focused or issue-based ones. The U.N.’s adoption of a piecemeal approach since the tenure of Martin Griffiths (2018-21), as evident in the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, has fragmented mediation efforts, thus reshaping conflict, de-escalation, and peace-making dynamics and priorities in four main ways.

First, the Houthis were able to force the U.N. to focus on their short-term priorities, from preventing an immediate recapture of Hodeida in late 2018 to presenting demands as “humanitarian” priorities and conditioning comprehensive talks on agreeing to them. These priorities included expanding destinations from Sanaa International Airport, ensuring a free flow of goods into Hodeida port without inspection, sharing the government’s oil and gas revenues, and paying salaries for personnel, including newly recruited military and security forces or paramilitaries.

Second, the Office of the U.N. Special Envoy found itself caught between a range of economic, humanitarian, military, and political issues without being able to regain control over the big picture for two main reasons: Houthi conditions and the desire to make marketable progress at a smaller scale as talks stalled in hopes of breaking the peace deadlock.

Third, the lack of progress in U.N. mediation contributed to the rise of multiple disorganized mediation and facilitation tracks such that even if the U.N. were engaged, its role, when uncoordinated, has regressed. When coordinated, the multiplicity of negotiation channels and support systems might have contributed to tactical gains, such as the U.N.-sponsored April 2022 truce, but it has largely given the Houthis greater room to maneuver and further leverage, ultimately undermining the Office of the U.N. Special Envoy.

Fourth, the Houthis have on many occasions attempted to weaken, discredit, and/or sideline U.N. efforts to engage in direct talks with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously attempting to sideline the Yemeni government. Veena Ali-Khan, a former research assistant at the International Crisis Group, has noted that “both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis want to bypass U.N.-brokered talks.”

Official Saudi statements have reaffirmed Riyadh’s support for the peace process under the auspices of the U.N. while continuing its repositioning as a mediator, alongside Oman, which has played an active role in facilitation and mediation in recent years. Although several Yemeni officials have complained of being sidelined in the talks, Saudi officials have negotiated with the Houthis while keeping the government in the loop. For example, on Oct. 18, 2023, Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman, who has overseen the Yemen file since the 2019 Riyadh Agreement, shared the roadmap proposal during a meeting with the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) for its input, before meeting again in November. However, it is unclear whether the PLC can resist or make significant changes. While talks over the roadmap have intensified since April 2023, there has been a notable uptick in shuttle diplomacy by both the U.N. and U.S. special envoys in November and December in hopes that an agreement can be reached soon, under U.N. auspices.

The de-escalation roadmap

According to informed sources and media leaks, including those shared by Yemeni journalist Fares al-Hemyari, the latest roadmap reportedly lays out a three-phase process. The first phase largely addresses immediate Houthi demands, such as the expansion of Sanaa International Airport destinations, a further easing of the flow of goods into Hodeida’s ports, payment of salaries in Houthi-held areas (with Saudi Arabia responsible for paying these for the first six months), a cease-fire, sharing of oil and gas revenues through further negotiations, and the resumption of oil exports. The second and third phases focus on complex economic issues like the reunification of monetary policy, the phased withdrawal of coalition forces, the resumption of intra-Yemeni talks, followed by a substantive dialogue process on the structure of the state, among other issues.

As and when further details emerge and a deal is reached, a thorough assessment will be required, though it is nearly certain that implementation hurdles will quickly surface, as seen in previous cease-fire and peace agreements over the past two decades. Were the talks to be protracted further or even collapse for any reason, including due to last-minute Houthi changes as part of a gain-maximization strategy, that would not be surprising. Talks have fallen apart in the past due to rising Houthi demands as the rebels adopt Iran’s “long breath” negotiation strategy, knowing that time is on their side. It appears that Saudi Arabia is willing to make further concessions, however, including by putting credible pressure on its partners, to come to an agreement. The U.S. is also interested in de-escalation in Yemen despite the recent increase in Houthi cross-border and maritime attacks.

To be clear, the potential deal is largely a strategic win for Saudi Arabia but tactical for Yemen: It would normalize the status quo nine years on, offer phased benefits favorable to the Houthis before intra-Yemeni peace talks kick off, slowly grant Saudi Arabia a face-saving exit as it assertively transitions into the role of mediator and post-conflict relations, and allow the Yemeni government to resume oil exports. Given the enduring power imbalances and incompatible end goals and visions of the Yemeni government, the actors it represents, and the Houthis, the localization of conflict in Yemen might be an enduring risk, were the deal and the ensuing process to be ill-designed, ill-implemented, ill-supported, and ill-monitored.

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