Biden’s Yemen Peace Initiative at a Crossroads

Off to a fast start in February, President Joe Biden’s  Yemen initiative is now past the six month mark and stands to lose momentum if no agreement is reached, at least on the first steps needed to halt the country’s seven-year-old disastrous conflict. The war has devastated Yemen’s economy, impoverished half its population, and starved its children—all without accomplishing any of the stated goals of the main combatants. Signs are that the main warring parties as well as Omani mediators in the conflict are losing interest in pursuing the latest peace track suggested to them by the United States; just as they lost interest before in the three successive United Nations envoys to the country—Jamal Benomar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and Martin Griffiths. To boot, growing involvement of regional and international parties with diverse and potentially conflicting goals will complicate the work of the United States and any United Nations envoys trying to end the war.

President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed from their first week in office a strong desire to end Yemen conflict. To that end, Biden appointed special envoy Timothy Lenderking to mediate the conflict and announced that American supplies of offensive weapons and logistical assistance to the Arab coalition in Yemen would end. For his part, Lenderking hit the ground running,  traveling to the region immediately upon his appointment and touching base with Yemeni factions and regional powers. Coordination between US and UN envoys also took on an active mode, with Griffiths  going to Iran before Lenderking  visited Oman to get support for their mediation efforts.

Lenderking hit the ground running, traveling to the region immediately upon his appointment and touching base with Yemeni factions and regional powers.

After his visit to Muscat, Lenderking solicited and obtained Omani support, with Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Busaidy  revealing that his country was lending a helping hand to mediation efforts. This was a rare occurrence on two counts: 1) Muscat has not historically been forthcoming on the nature of talks with foreign diplomats and 2) with its conservative approach, Oman does not normally step in unless both sides to a conflict request its assistance and it sees good chances for success. Additionally, Oman now has a vested interest in a quiet border with Yemen where the adjoining  al-Mahra region has become troublesome because of the growing Saudi presence. Despite its vested interest in a peaceful and stable Yemen, Oman has to tread carefully in order not to antagonize either of its two powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Consequently, the sultanate will not be aggressive in its diplomatic efforts if it looks like the combatants on the ground are not seriously pursuing peace.

Lenderking’s Roadmap

Appearing to have been distilled from conversations with all sides of the conflict rather than a preconceived, precisely mapped out strategy, Lenderking’s plan starts with a focus on achieving a ceasefire in Marib, the resource-rich region the Houthis  have been trying to occupy for months. If successful, this could lead to a nationwide ceasefire that can in turn open a national dialogue over the future of Yemen and its relations with its neighbors. As a parallel track to his diplomatic efforts, the American envoy wants to ensure Yemeni access to international humanitarian assistance that has been hampered by the Saudi-imposed siege around Yemen’s ports and the Houthis’ total control of the distribution of foreign aid in areas under their authority.

Lenderking’s efforts face some stumbling blocks inherited from Griffiths’ recently-ended mediation attempts such as the Houthis’ desire to control Marib’s economic resources and to access the outside world via normal air and sea routes. 

Lenderking’s efforts face some stumbling blocks inherited from Griffiths’  recently-ended mediation attempts such as the Houthis’ desire to control Marib’s economic resources and to access the outside world via normal air and sea routes. Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government, and behind it the Saudi leadership, have thus far refused to grant even partial relief from the siege around Sanaa Airport and Hodeida Port unless the Houthis first stop their assault on Marib and accept a nationwide ceasefire. The Hadi government also keeps reiterating the stipulations of UN Security Council  Resolution 2216 which famously demands reversal of the Houthi coup of 2014 and  total submission to the Hadi presidency—both non-starters for the insurgents. The Houthis insist that reopening Sanaa Airport and allowing fuel shipments and other imports through Hodeida are humanitarian issues that should be addressed on a separate track from the political and military issues. Most recently, they have offered through Omani mediators to stop the fighting in Marib in return for the government granting civilian presence via so-called popular committees—a demand seen by their opponents as a ruse to win the prize they have not so far been able to secure through the use of force.

The struggle for power between President Hadi and the separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) represents another stumbling block. Not only is this struggle anathema to a unified front against the Houthis in Marib, but it also complicated by an ideological schism. The STC believes that the backbone to Hadi’s military is the Muslim Brotherhood faction of the  Islah Party, which is viscerally resented and rejected by most southerners.

And yet another stumbling block facing Lenderking is the UAE’s position in Yemen. After withdrawing its troops from the war, the UAE continued to rely on tribal militias it trained and supplied. It also moved its own forces onto the islands of  Socotra and  Mayun in the middle of the Bab al-Mandab waterway and built a runway on the latter—prompting fears among Yemenis that the Emiratis are planning a long-term presence in the ports of strategic interest to them. Additionally, the UAE’s continued support for the STC despite the latter’s resistance to Hadi’s forces points to ongoing tensions with Saudi Arabia, which sponsored the  Riyadh Agreement of November 2019 that sought to end the Hadi-STC tensions, get the two parties to work together against the Houthis, or alternatively join in a north-south dialogue in future peace talks.

The UAE’s continued support for the STC despite the latter’s resistance to Hadi’s forces points to ongoing tensions with Saudi Arabia, which sponsored the Riyadh Agreement of November 2019 that sought to end the Hadi-STC tensions.

From the Saudi perspective, the original stated goals of the military intervention in Yemen in 2015 focused on restoring a legitimate government in Sanaa with which Saudi Arabia could coexist and an authority that would not endanger its southern border. It is obvious that the kingdom wants the Houthis to submit to the authority of the Hadi government. While paying lip-service to peace efforts in Yemen, Iran has not ceased its political support, weapons supplies, and training to the Houthis.

Diplomatic Policy Options

Understanding conflict dynamics is critical to a successful attempt to end it. This includes awareness of the goals of warring parties and their chances of achieving those goals through the use of force. But the war in Yemen has practically stalemated since the first year of the conflict. With the exception of Marib—where moving the frontlines, though difficult, is still possible in either direction—most fronts have not witnessed any meaningful gains or losses of ground for the past several years.  Marib, though a strategic prize for any side that secures its central location and oil and gas platforms, may only be won by the Houthis after several more months and several hundred more casualties among their fighters. For those fighting under the banner of President Hadi, the challenge is to unify their diverse forces and follow a single strategy—something that has thus far proven a tall order. The highest casualties of the fighting will continue to be among the civilians and the internally displaced people in and around Marib city.

For those fighting under the banner of President Hadi, the challenge is to unify their diverse forces and follow a single strategy—something that has thus far proven a tall order. 

Given the dangerous implications of continued fighting in Yemen, it is imperative that the situation not be allowed to deteriorate further. A good and feasible end goal could be a united but decentralized state designed to satisfy all sides’ needs, if not exactly their desires. To wit, the Houthis’ bottom line is a viable region, or governorate, within a united Yemen with access to the Red Sea and to economic resources. This is after all what they demanded in 2014 and what President Hadi  refused to give them. Allocated ministries or at least guaranteed cabinet positions based on any parliamentary seats they could acquire via the ballot box would not be unreasonable.

The Southern Transitional Council, along with its southern allies, could similarly be guaranteed a viable region in the south given their presence at the corner of the Red Sea and access to ports and land. A share of oil and gas resources is also both reasonable and something they felt denied unfairly under former President Saleh. A Hadramawt governorate extending from Marib and Siyoun to al-Mahra region would also make sense as a third region of Yemen that would include both economic resources and access to outlets to national borders and to the sea.

Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their own defined strategic interests in Yemen. A stable and safe southern border for the kingdom has always been sought regardless of who was in power in Riyadh. Ironclad guarantees would have to be part of any comprehensive agreement reached to end the Yemen war. Beyond a possible non-aggression pact with Yemen, a moratorium on certain offensive weapons could certainly be included. A balance must be struck between what limits are imposed on a future state of Yemen and on its neighbors. Saudis and Emiratis must agree to pulling out their military assets from Yemen, to include the islands currently occupied by the UAE. Yemen’s pledge not to invite foreign troops onto its soil should logically need to be extended to any foreign presence the Emiratis might invite.

The full range of interests and desires of all warring parties in Yemen, national and regional, cannot be accommodated if peace is to be achieved. 

The full range of interests and desires of all warring parties in Yemen, national and regional, cannot be accommodated if peace is to be achieved. The international implications of continued war threaten both the regional and international balance of power. Russia, for example, has had talks with  the Houthis,  Hadi’s government, as well as  representatives of the STC.  President Vladimir Putin is likely not harkening back to the days of Soviet influence with the now defunct People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), but most likely is interested in making friends in the country by talking to all sides and offering his mediation services.  China’s involvement in the Middle East has grown gradually over the past ten years, starting with economic aid and commercial and, of late, a modest military presence. Beijing’s growing security and commercial interests via  arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led it to show some  interest in Yemen, offering its diplomatic services to help end the war there.

Motivating the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to collaborate in stopping the war in Yemen will be a challenge as each great power will be pulling in a different direction to exert influence and further its own interests. Arguments must be made at the United Nations that peace would be in the long-term interest of all and that a firm UNSC resolution under  Chapter Seven of the UN Charter must be adopted with the aim of stopping all shipments of arms into Yemen and the regional warring parties. Pressure on Yemen’s Arab neighbors must be accompanied with pressure on Iran to use its influence with the Houthis to make the necessary compromises needed to end the war and restore stability to the region. A more forceful American role in ending the Yemen war is critical, and time is of the essence.

The United States Can Still Help

Lenderking’s mission to help arrive at a peaceful resolution to Yemen’s long war must continue, with the envoy providing useful and necessary ideas and participating in regional efforts like those by Oman. The Biden Administration has already expressed its displeasure in how its friends and partners have conducted themselves in Yemen by limiting American assistance and weapons supplies. It has also continued to provide much needed humanitarian aid to alleviate Yemenis’ suffering. To be sure, Washington must persist despite all the stumbling blocks hindering its efforts because it is, at least partly, morally responsible for addressing Yemen’s instability and the danger that represents to the Red Sea and larger region.

Nabeel A. Khoury  is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.



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