WASHINGTON, D.C., United States —
Panel: Implications of the Truce in Yemen: What Does the Future Hold?
Organizer: Washington Center for Yemeni Studies
Moderator: Fatima Abo Alasrar – Senior Analyst with the WCYS and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Timothy Lenderking – U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen
Ambassador Khaled Alyemani- Nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Former Foreign Minister of Yemen.
Norman T. Roule – CEO of Pharos Strategic Consulting, and Former National Intelligence Manager For Iran (NIM-I).
Aboalasrar introduced the discussion by recalling Houthi military parades celebrating their takeover of Yemen on September 21st, 2022, describing it as a “so-called revolution,” followed by the government’s 60th celebration of the revolution that toppled Zaydi Imamate on September 26th. She noted the different factions and ideologies that construct a complicated Yemen with multiple identities. She realized that after eight years, no military solution stands feasible, and the political solution is thorny with a continuous negotiation process.
Alasrar: On including the Houthis in this political settlement in Yemen, how can we break through from this truce to something more solid and durable?
Khaled Al-Yamani, the former Yemeni Foreign Minister, expressed his hope that the truce would be concluded by moving to a permanent ceasefire and dealing with violations that could occur. He called for breaking the cycles of violence and for Yemenis to start listening to each. He iterated Lenderking’s keynote remarks, calling for all Yemeni parties and the PLC to start talking to the Houthis about all issues of concern to Yemenis and reduce external influences to establish stability and a brighter future for Yemen. Alyemani noted the impact of the truce on the IDPs (internally displaced persons), allowing people to reclaim their lives with the halting of the ceasefire. He advised that stopping the war requires breaking the cycle of violence and diluting the mentality of war to reunite Yemen, which he considers far from both sides. Alyemani conveyed that currently, the Houthis believe they are much stronger than the PLC, and their only match is the Saudis; however, Yemen is with Yemenis, not the Saudis. Thirdly, he speculated that the Houthis are afraid of being dragged into peace because war is the only instrument that empowers them. Suppose Houthis move from the war zone to the peace zone. In that case, Iran will stop its support because of their unwillingness to pay billions in reconstruction and humanitarian aid, which they never have.
Alyemani called for international support for the Yemeni anti-war movement and the PLC and suggested that negotiations with the Houthis take place in Yemen.
Alasrar asked Mr. Roule whether the PLC or the Houthis have their own decisions and how much of it is controlled by Saudi Arabia or Iran. Can we get into a political settlement when Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in this conflict?
The former director of the Middle East programs at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency foretold that a political settlement in Yemen requires Saudi Arabia, gulf countries, and Iran to be fully and appropriately engaged or withdraw from the political dynamic. Roule agreed with Lenderking that Saudi Arabia is looking for stability in Yemen, an end to the conflict, and an end to hundreds of drones and missiles fired on their civilian centers. He noted that Houthis exclusively target Mass Casualty civilian sites in Saudi Arabia, a typical Modus Operandi of Iranian militias, using mass casualty weapons against mass casualty civilian and energy targets. However, Roule considers Iran a more significant challenge because they do not have any single strategic reason to cooperate in the peace process. For Iran, an opportunity to have a Lebanese Hezbollah-type actor on Bab Al-Mandab is an extraordinary gain; it allows them control of a vast portion of the world’s floating oil and trade along with the strait of Hormuz. He described it as “two choke points, which gives them the Suez as having a thumb on the carotid artery of international trade and international economy.” He added that the U.S. had worked hard to constrain Iran through the maritime seizure of weapons to supply the Yemeni actors time to conduct political negotiations and reach political solutions.
Nonetheless, he noted that American and international efforts have been insufficient to restrict and deter Iran from encouraging the Houthis to believe they have a maximalist position. Roule emphasized that Iran will not achieve their goals by providing Houthis with mass casualty weapons to carry out their attacks because it will continue to invite more Saudi defensive action and further a problematic dynamic and instability in the region.
Alasrar iterated Roule’s analysis stating that there is no incentive for Iran to change its behavior in Yemen which is problematic to the peace process because it ultimately impacts the Houthis—posing a question regarding what the U.S. can leverage in this situation. Alasrar also noted complex issues that have yet to surface at the forefront of the crisis, such as child soldiers and indoctrinations, that require a political settlement before the discussion. She then asked Lenderking how long the truce would be extended and what was being done to ensure a political settlement.
Lenderking responded that the U.S. is pushing for an extended and expanded truce beyond the two-month rollover, proceeding into a ceasefire and establishing an operation center from both areas to deal with violations that take place. He deliberated why any Yemeni party would only want to move forward with a truce despite the delay in enforcing the terms of the truce. He remarked that many countries are involved in the process, who have sovereignty rights and security concerns about allowing commercial flights from Yemen, for example. He stressed that this is a U.S. demand just as much as Houthi’s. In addition, he iterated that the U.S. wants to see normalcy return to life in Yemen, fuel availability, the Taaiz blockade, prisoners release, and the issues of child soldiers and indoctrination. Lenderking emphasized that the truce is the best vehicle to address all of these concerns, considering it an established first step in delivering results that further settlement can build on.
Lenderking added that the U.S. is committed to extending the truce, eliminating cross-border attacks, minimizing the attacks inside Yemen, and incentivizing Yemenis to pressure their leadership not to return on the progress made. He described the benefits of going back to the field as an illusion that will not bring concessions from the other side and will create a regional confrontation. Additionally, the U.S. is committed to enlisting regional partners and ensuring that foreign diplomats like China and Russia do not see a military solution in Yemen. Finally, he reassured that the current international unity on the Yemeni conflict has never been seen before and will support a comprehensive political settlement in Yemen.
Alasrar raised the issue of accountability and consequences for violations. She inquired about the mechanisms that can be put forth to hold violating parties accountable.
Lenderking displayed international attention to Taiz, with humanitarian workers and press conveying the stories and stress the Yemenis are facing under this siege and offering solutions. He assured that opening roads is a core U.S. demand from the Houthis. If the Houthis choose to return to war, despite the benefits of the truce they have asked for, it will result in their isolation and destroy their chances of the legitimacy they want to achieve. He reassured that the tangible benefits for the Yemeni people will be implemented and is the current emphasis in the peace process.
Alasrar asked Alyemani: The Houthis were defeated in the south; why do we keep hearing they are too strong to be defeated? Given the lack of progress on both fronts, why is a military solution still unfavored?
Alyemani described the belief that the Houthis could be defeated as warlords terminology and named it the War of Centimeters that would continue for 100 years. Alyemani depicted that the truce will be extended; however, he expects the Houthis to use all the leverage the truce is offering them in the political sense. He stated that all Yemenis, the international community, and the special envoys are pushing for a minimum of 6 months extension. He said that paying salaries is complex, and discussions on this matter were initiated before Stockholm, demanding that both sides organize their payroll lists. Alyemani recalled when the Houthis appropriated the central bank in Hodeida, which had 39-40 billion Yemeni Riyals at the time. He added that from January to August, Hodeida received 48 cargo shipments of oil and derivatives, which should have generated over 150 billion Yemeni Riyals in state revenues. Alyemani demanded that the Houthis be transparent with the numbers and contribute to paying those salaries. He implied that an extended truce would allow time to discuss and solve such problems. Alyemani emphasized that an extended truce is necessary to examine solutions that are not materializing otherwise due to the pressure of the truce ending each period. On the topic of accountability, Alyemani offered a correction to the concept of judging violations of the parties during the truce period, referencing international law, because the parties continue to resort to military operations during the truce, and they are aware this is how the warlords are invigorating the return to war. Finally, Alyemani shared Lenderking’s sentiment to abandon a military solution in order to move towards peace and called on Yemenis to join the international community in voicing their pressure on the Houthis, that the only way forward is the extension of the truce and transforming it to a secession of facilities.
Alasrar: Is there a correlation between the Iran Nuclear Deal and the truce in Yemen, and is there a deal leading to a reasonable solution in Yemen? Are the Houthis blackmailing the international community by attacking oil resources in Saudi Arabia as a tactic to negotiate a better position?
Roule commented that the truce allows multiple civilian aid projects, critical to Yemenis, to continue. Roule does not see why Russia would oppose the truce extension and noted its significant interest in the region. Such as establishing a nuclear submarine base in the Red Sea that will allow it to maintain others in the Indian Ocean, implying that Russia wants peace in the region to protect its interests. On the other hand, he defined Iran’s desire to secure a powerful presence in Bab Al-Mandab, by pressuring the government and international community with their actors holding predominance of heavy weapons in the area. Iran only pays for missiles while the international community works with the Yemenis to handle civilian structures, which he suggests is the ultimate Iranian goal. If Iran could secure its voice in the region, they are more likely to support a political solution.
Alasrar: On the issue of food security, she reflected on the establishment of the NDC in 2013; while everyone was celebrating a mechanism that brought Yemenis together, people were hungry, and little attention was paid to the economic crisis. She deliberated on the sums of money poured into the political process compared to the economic process. In terms of combating food insecurity and potential famine, she asked what is the international community doing, what is the ideal solution, and what type of instruments could be utilized.
Lenderking recognized that the Russian invasion of Ukraine put a strain on the world economy and Yemen and was a central theme at the UNGA, showing light on the vulnerability of Yemen. He highlighted the emphasis on implementing and finding solutions to address the economic capacity of Yemen, one of which is keeping the ports open for food supply. He also stressed that the danger of 1.1 million barrels leaking from the Safer Tanker would debilitate Yemen’s fishing industry and the ports, harming global commerce in the Red Sea. Nonetheless, he underlined the international recognition of Yemen’s precarious food situation. He commended the efforts of many countries that came forward, citing the Yemeni shipping company as the first private sector donor. Lenderking concluded that it is now on the U.N. to take those pledges to get the oil off safer and onto a more secure vessel.
Alyemani expressed gratitude for the U.S. and the administration’s efforts in engaging the peace process in Yemen and praised the talks led by the Saudis with the Houthis on the matters of border security and governance that are paramount for the future of peace. Moreover, Alyemani concluded that stepping out of war into peace efforts is difficult, however necessary, to reduce civilian casualties to 0%.
Roule added that the issue of the Red Sea was discussed at a U.N. meeting and noted that some members talked about the economic growth and development of the Red Sea basin and, on the other hand, the famine and war issues in Yemen. He expressed that the bar must be set high on Yemen, remarking that the technological, economic, social, and cultural developments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will have a positive spillover for the region throughout the Red Sea Basin. He stressed that Yemen should fully build on that to benefit the Yemeni people. He expects that Yemeni aspirations coincide with their neighbors, and international actors will support such efforts; however, it requires constraining malign actors. He iterated the need for a meaningful program to contain Iran’s involvement in Yemen, otherwise risking a Lebanon-like situation that condemns Lebanon to generations of economic hardships and violence. Roule concluded that he needs to see the international community doing more to stop Iran from meddling in a country with no strategic or national interest.
Lenderking reassured that regardless of the events that will take place on October 3rd, the efforts will continue to move forward, and the U.S. will keep driving on the momentum achieved. He emphasized the role of Yemeni Americans in keeping the momentum going and signaling to Yemenis back home that there is hope and commitment from the U.S. and international actors. Lenderking noted the flexibility that regional countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, demonstrated to see an end to this conflict. Lenderking concluded by ensuring the President’s commitment to end the conflict and extend the truce as an essential step to continue to build and see the outlines of a new Yemen start to emerge.
-Implications of the Truce in Yemen: What Does the Future Hold? Panel organized by the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies at the 1st WCYS Annual Conference 2022 – Yemen Under the Scope.