Yemen

Six years ago today, the Yemeni people erupted in a Day of Rage against a corrupt regime to demand equal rights, but the transitional process faltered leading to the now nearly two-year-old conflict between Houthi rebels allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government-in-exile led by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi backed by Saudi Arabia. Continuing clashes have delivered a brutal humanitarian crisis, an economy on the verge of collapse, and over 10,000 Yemeni deaths according to UN figures. It may seem antithetical to discuss issues of transitional justice while Yemen struggles with an ongoing war, but the conflict is slowly creeping toward an inevitable stalemate.

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In a last ditch effort by the Obama administration to salvage Yemen’s peace talks as the war grinds on, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman twice this month, personally meeting with Houthi representative Mohammed Abdussalam. In a statement released after his second visit, Kerry welcomed a 48-hour ceasefire in Yemen, but not all parties appeared to be in agreement.

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The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has witnessed considerable strain over the past few years, but increasing reports documenting poor targeting practices and disproportionate collateral damage in the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the war in Yemen has sparked an unprecedented outcry in the US Congress.

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On May 1, 2003, then-President George W. Bush stood in front of a large crowd aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and famously pronounced with a draped “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him the end of US combat operations in Iraq. The declaration, it turned out, was wildly premature, for Washington’s direct military involvement in the war would go on for another eight costly years. It was an embarrassing if not deceitful moment in the history of US foreign policy, one that America’s friends in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, took turns to mock and decry.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry met two weeks ago with Gulf Cooperation Council representatives, officials from the United Kingdom, and the UN special envoy in Jeddah to discuss the war in Yemen and the desperate need to advance the peace talks. He pledged $189 million in humanitarian aid and called for a new peace initiative.  The talks are currently in recess, so increased attention from the White House might nudge the parties back to the table.

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The month-long break in UN-facilitated Yemeni peace talks announced on August 6 wasn’t a surprise; indeed, it was preordained and widely expected. But this doesn’t make the relative breakdown in the negotiations any easier for the international community and the UN Security Council to stomach.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called upon the parties to renew “without delay” cooperation with his special envoy, a testament to his repeated belief that further military conflict will only delay the inevitable political solution that is required to end the conflict. 

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As the Yemen peace talks went on hiatus on August 6, the Houthi-Saleh alliance moved to convene a newly formed governing council in the capital Sanaa. As they did so, forces loyal to internationally recognized President Abd Rabbou Mansour al-Hadi tried again to take Sanaa militarily. The Houthi and Saleh camps experienced tense moments during the last round of talks, with Ali Abdallah Saleh complaining that the Houthis were acting unilaterally and not collaborating with (General People’s Congress) GPC leaders. But their cooperation in announcing and convening a new assembly suggests that those differences have been put aside.

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As Hillary Clinton emerges as the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2016 presidential elections after an endorsement by rival Bernie Sanders, challenges loom ahead, both as policy issues and as strategies that need to be planned for when a potential presidential term begins.

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Representatives of the government and Houthi delegations to the peace talks in Kuwait announced that they were suspending the talks until the end of Ramadan in mid-July.  The process had effectively stalled even as UN special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed expressed cautious optimism last week about the Yemeni peace talks underway in Kuwait since April. 

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Two developments in Yemen over the past week illustrate both promise and concern for Yemen’s peace talks. Escalated fighting in the Marib and Shabwa provinces took more than a hundred lives, but the latest prisoner swap of pro-Hadi and Houthi fighters indicates that the peace process has not collapsed. With increased US pressure on Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi may need to consider an option that he previously shunned, namely, an outcome that entails less than the full Houthi surrender demanded by UN SC resolution 2216.

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