WASHINGTON, D.C., United States —
Panel: Possible Paths and Opportunities for Peace in Yemen
Organizer: Middle East Institute
Moderator: Fatima Abo Alasrar – Senior Analyst with the WCYS and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein – Distinguished Sr. fellow on U.S. diplomacy at MEI. Director of Arabian Peninsula Affairs program.
Ambassador (Ret.) Christopher Henzel- Former American Diplomat, and U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen
Ellen Laipson- A Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus of The Stimson Center.
On the dynamic of the conflict and western engagement in peacemaking, Christopher Henzel, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, said that we have a situation where the western public only hears about the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, and western politicians have minimal familiarity with the conflict causing all of this. As a result, he sensed that western governments, including the United States, feel the urge to do something from time to time about the conflict, even if it is not productive. Henzel stated that western pressure pushed for the Stockholm agreement, which locked in Houthi control of Hodeida port and drove UAE to end its military involvement, which was an excellent benefit for Houthis. He described that during the last days of the Obama administration, there was last minute pressure on the Saudis, resulting in a sudden cut-off of weapon sales, followed by the Biden administration, which came in with more pressure on the Saudis. Henzel depicted that Houthis have now achieved most of their near-term goals, access to the world through Sana’a airport and the Hodeida port, and Saudi ending its air activity. He described the Houthis as a de-facto state which will use each renewal of the ceasefire as pressure to extract more concessions, and although it is better than going back to open conflict, the Houthis retain that option, but the government of Yemen does not. Henzel considered that most of the proposals for making peace during his service in Yemen were premised on a coalition government to create an equilibrium. However, he expressed that the Houthis are in a strong position, which is no longer a prospect since Kuwait 2016. Henzel recommended that the U.S. continue to support the peace efforts and guide Saudi’s direct engagement with Houthis, suggesting that only Saudi has the resources to buy off the Houthis and support the ceasefire from a humanitarian point of view.
Fatima Abo Alasrar, the moderator, commended the transparency in discussing the current situation and posed the question of how to address the disproportionate power on the ground, centered in the hands of Houthis, where Yemeni are skeptical of the Yemeni processes. She asked: How do we get into a resilient political peace settlement?
Ellen Laipson responded that, on the one hand, the neighbors agree that a stable Yemen is in their interest, however in the short run, they look after their interests even during the war, and they will find ways to accommodate interests and access to maritime space even before the war ends. Laipson highlighted that the regional incentives to stay focused on a peace process are only sometimes there because they are looking for short-medium accommodations to pursue their overall interests. On the other hand, she stated that those who examine the politics of the Red Sea are apprehensive about Yemen. Laipson referred to a recent editorial in The Economist about the technological advancements of the gulf, and although it recognized that Yemen is not part of the GCC did not mention the Yemen war, suggesting that this is a communications concern. She conveyed that the Yemenis have exceptional pluralism in their society, and she is persuaded that the anxieties the Saudis have felt about Yemen were not about the ideology of the Houthi or the military threat of Yemen but more so the dynamic and diverse Yemeni society and their entrepreneurship that puts Saudis ill at ease. Laipson expressed that Yemen’s challenge to its neighbors is on the positive side of the ledger.
Laipson indicated that wars only end under two conditions, either a mutually hurting stalemate where the costs of staying in conflict for both sides are higher than the concessions they have to make for peace or when one side is militarily victorious. She expressed that the recent Houthi military parade reflects confidence, and even if conceivably artificial, the condition of a mutually hurting stalemate is not evident. Regarding external interference in ending the war, she depicted that the outside forces cannot want peace more than those involved in the conflict and that peace has to start from the ground up and cannot be imposed from the outside. Laipson stressed that there has to be a minimally sufficient commitment by parties on the ground because the outside parties are limited in their approach, and containment of the conflict to prevent it from spilling over is the most viable approach. However, Laipson considers the strategy of containment stalls out the peace efforts, and people learn to live within the boundaries of a contained conflict. She added that the notion of sufficient food in Yemen and the cost is the prohibitive factor poses the question of economics, not availability, and the outside world may think Yemen can somehow muddle through, signifies the disconnect between the facts on the ground and the intermittent perception that this is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Therefore, we all must do what we can to contribute to the humanitarian effort.
Moreover, on the path to a peace settlement, she encouraged having confidence in the U.N.’s track record and patience in the process as they cannot get ahead of the parties because they serve at the behest of the member states and can generate process and ideas but requires reciprocity by the parties to the conflict. She highlighted that the U.N. could generate ideas for getting from a ceasefire to a peace process and eventually to a peacekeeping operation, such as creating a buffer zone to keep combatants apart. Laipson elaborated on the underappreciated role that women can play in bringing a conflict to an end and urged inviting those who keep civil society together during times of conflict to the peace table, not only the combatants. In addition to identifying the peace spoilers, such as domestic groups who sabotage peace efforts, what empowers them, and how to negate it. Laipson concluded that we see the positive light in the fact that there is an opportunity to open dialogue between Saudi and Iran; although it is a long shot with the absence of trust and shared interest, some constructive engagement will spill over to have benefit for Yemen.
Iran’s involvement, which continues to deny support to Houthis, Is a diplomatic channel beneficial to this denial. And what about the notion of a Yemeni- Yemeni dialogue without foreign interference?
Henzel implied that Iran’s support of Houthis and involvement in Yemen is a massive success at a small cost in their point of view, inflicting huge military pain on the Saudis; he emphasized that the Saudis do not want Iranians to have this power indefinitely into the future the way Hezbollah rockets in southern Lebanon are a permanent leverage on Israel. He implied that this is a valuable card in Iran’s hands and the last one they want to trade in, and it would be beneficial for Yemen and the region if there is direct engagement between Saudi and Iran and if the U.S. is engaged as much as possible with Iran.
On civil society participation, Fatima mentioned the Peace Track Initiative, which has done incredible work for women and the feminist peace process, whereby they drafted a road map for peace based on women’s participation in the peace process and their efforts to push for Yemeni voices, women, and youth. She emphasized that while the western community preaches, it has been difficult to knock on the doors of ambassadors and U.N. envoys to meet with them, and she urged the Western Community to practice what it preaches by considering civil society members as an essential component of this struggle. Alasrar then asked the panelists to elaborate on how the U.S. and U.N. continue to pressure the internationally backed government and allies for more concessions. At the same time, Houthis still need to fulfill their commitment, suggesting the example of Taiz, which remains under siege despite it being a fundamental component the Houthis had to abide by, but they have not, in addition to over 400 other violations. Finally, she added how we strengthen confidence between Yemeni parties when they are not communicating with each other and only with the U.N. office, considering the criticism of the UN SCR2216 for lack of inclusivity and unrealistic framework for negotiations.
Laipson presented a parallel comparison to the Afghan Taliban situation and expressed that the U.N. is deeply embedded in its institutional approach, which is impartiality; however, she questioned what can turn the moral compass in different directions and whether impartiality is ideal when there is a right side and a wrong side. She iterated that the U.N. facilitates and supports two parties coming together for negotiations. For example, she stated that when the U.S. and coalition defeated the Taliban, the U.N., the international community, and the U.S. convened an international conference to help Afghanistan get back on its feet and did not invite the Taliban to the table. However, 20 years later, the U.S. negotiated its exit with the Taliban, not with the internationally recognized government of Kabul, in which it lost confidence, implying that neither were optimal approaches. Laipson stressed that even when we understand the principles of impartiality and neutrality, there is a flawed process for implementation, which accentuates the need to engage with the Houthis for a settlement to last, especially since they feel the evolution of the conflict is working in their favor. Laipson questioned whether any international parties can have a productive engagement and if they have friends or influencers other than Iran.
Henzel answered that Iran is the only relationship important enough for the Houthis, despite the discrete communications between the government and the Houthis and the Saudis with the Houthis on high levels, and when things develop further, open meetings take place in Oman. However, he said that from the Houthis’ point of view, they want the military side of the ceasefire, but they do not want to move on to other contexts. Regarding outside engagement with Houthis, Henzel stated that there seems to be a stampede of western diplomats who want to meet with Houthis, which bolstered Houthi confidence causing their demands to rise moving forward. Henzel iterated that the Houthis are a de-facto government, and the international community does need to engage with them openly, emphasizing that communications and engagement were not an issue in this conflict.
Fatima referenced a recent article she authored with Feierstein on the importance of engaging with the Houthis, reasoning that the more we isolate a group, the stronger they become because they have a monopoly of violence which is challenging to break. She implied that the more the Houthis rely on smuggling and controlling people, the more complex negotiations become, urging Yemenis to break this cycle on the inside and start negotiating seriously with the Houthis.
The audience submitted another question on weapon sales and war crimes against Yemeni civilians due to weapon sales to Saudi and how the U.S. can engage more fruitfully with Saudi and secure the region without having dire consequences on Yemen through arms sales.
Henzel expressed that it was distasteful during his role when he had to defend the Saudis during a senate confirmation hearing; he considered what they permitted to happen, especially in 2016, was inexcusable due to incompetence and disregard for what was happening in Yemen. He recalled that around 2016, various administrations put enough pressure on the Saudis to make a few successful reforms in the way their Air Force operated and came up with a process that emulated the U.S. Air Force process to deal with civilian casualty incidents and was better at explaining it and reducing the number of casualties, nonetheless, it remained inexcusable. Henzel stated that threatening to cut weapon sales disrupted a relationship beyond Yemen.
On the other hand, Laipson considered the Emirati declaration that no military solution was a positive step, and the Saudis are following suit. However, she emphasized that course correction is in order despite the Saudis’ lack of transparency.
Henzel added that MBS expectations of the Yemen conflict have become more realistic, suggesting that even if Houthis prevail, Saudi could consider making monthly payments to the Houthis to ensure ending or limiting Iran’s role; nevertheless, Houthis do not seem ready to take this step at the moment.
Feierstein concluded that the issue of bringing a broader cross-section of Yemenis to participate in efforts to bring peace and civil engagement had increased the quality of life; the question remaining is whether expanding the aperture to bring them into the conversation on the overall political settlement at this juncture would work. He stressed that the Houthis’ willingness to engage transparently remains an obstacle that will not end the conflict regardless of who sits at the table. Feierstein referenced the National Dialogue Conference 2013-2014 as a focused and successful experiment of bringing a broader cross-section of Yemenis to discuss and negotiate, which brought over 1600 recommendations to the table of what could be to make Yemen an economically and politically prosperous country. Nevertheless, the opposition should have reviewed these recommendations to extrapolate those that are worthwhile and urged Yemenis to study the recommendations before further negotiations. Although Feierstein denoted that the cross-sections are not in a conflict where there is stability and opportunities, he recalled a conversation with Al-Alimi, President of Yemen, that highlighted gas exports from Yemen and implied underlined an opportunity worth exploring to revive Yemen’s economy, where the world is desperately seeking new energy supplies of which Yemen could be a part. However, he emphasized that it requires the government of Yemen and the Houthis to cooperate and agree on moving forward. Feierstein concluded that the ploy to ensure the viability of this solution is a stop-gap measure and not a de-facto solution to the problem.
The Washington Center for Yemeni Studies launched the WCYS 1st Annual Conference 2022 – Yemen Under the Scope in Washington, D.C., on September 29th. Since then, Yemeni-led in-depth conversations have brought together various political, economic, and civil society actors by offering an inclusive platform for diverse voices in Yemeni affairs to share insights and advance solutions for overarching issues and struggles in ending the crisis.
Possible Paths and Opportunities for Peace in Yemen- Panel organized by Middle East Institute at the 1st WCYS Annual Conference 2022 – Yemen Under the Scope.