Yemen’s Geneva Epitaph

The failure of Yemen’s UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that began on June 15 is an unfortunate—but expected—result. Given the scope of the looming humanitarian crisis, understanding the recent derailment is critical to preventing Yemen from becoming a disaster that overtakes even the carnage in Syria. Among the litany of failures at Geneva, three stand out: (1) intransigence and rigidity on the part of delegations from President-in-exile Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthi leadership currently dominating northern and central Yemen; (2) a lack of urgency among Saudi Arabia’s allies to effectively intervene against the Kingdom’s deleterious campaign; and (3) an unfortunate failure on the part of the United Nations to establish an effective foundation for talks.

As the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign in March 2015, members regularly marginalized and “otherized” the Houthis, declaring them “a tool of outside forces that have constantly sought to undermine the safety and stability of Yemen.” The Houthi expansion from northern Saada began as a project to undo years of alienation and abuse. Without serious commitments to their future in broader Yemeni politics, Houthis have no incentive stop their ongoing attempt to dominate the whole of Yemen. No amount of Saudi bombs will restore Hadi’s presidency, nor will they convince the Houthis to recede north in exchange for the status quo ante.

Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s opening remarks in Geneva calling for an immediate ceasefire, both the Saudis and Houthis stepped-up military action. The Saudi-led GCC forces targeted Houthi strongholds while the Houthis continued attacks on local resistance cadres in the south. The Houthis also blew up the home of a member of Hadi’s delegation, making the possibility of a face-to-face discussion remote. The Saudis, on the other hand, targeted the homes of the Houthi leadership and their allies linked to former-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As the Houthis embarked to Geneva, their flight was denied access to Egyptian airspace, resulting in a twenty-five hour delay as the plane was forced to land in Djibouti. Given Egypt’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition, the incident eroded what little faith the Houthis carried with them.

The Houthi commitment to the talks, however, was questionable at best. United Nations negotiations typically follow the 7+3 arrangement: seven principals and three advisers. The Houthis refused to conform to this paradigm insisting on a delegation of over twenty and refusing to disclose their names in advance. This diplomatic breach bolstered the Hadi camp’s reports of an unorganized Houthi delegation and provided an excuse for non-cooperation. For the duration of the talks, the Houthis chose not to engage with UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, making even shuttle diplomacy difficult. Without adherence to UN guidelines and a show of good faith in the negotiating room, the government-in-exile had few reasons to view Houthi commitments as credible. Despite their intentions to achieve legitimacy and recognition, these behaviors give plausibility to uncorroborated reports that suggest the Houthis only considered Geneva talks an opportunity to distract their enemies from aggression on the ground in Yemen. Furthermore, the evolving role of Oman in mediating the conflict—despite how promising an option may appear—may have additionally emboldened Houthi intransigence by promising a more favorable deal for talks held in Muscat. Oman’s unique, positive relations with the Houthis inadvertently cultivated this outcome.

International actors lack the willingness to challenge Saudi Arabia’s primacy in Yemen. The Kingdom’s US and British allies attempted to temper the Saudi campaign, urging it to consider rational humanitarian and political priorities, but ultimately deferred to Saudi’s defense of its own national interests. The United States also suspended its US Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Yemen. Many aid and development organizations criticized the decision as another concession to Saudi dominance over Yemen’s future. The UN Security Council has also condemned the Houthis for aggression across the country, but it has yet to do so for near identical Saudi bombing and blockade regime. Meanwhile, the war has torn Yemen to shreds, save only a few cities such as al-Qaeda-controlled Mukalla. While Saudi Arabia seized control of Yemen’s political future by insisting on Hadi’s restoration, it also seized Yemen’s humanitarian future. In April, the Kingdom agreed to cover the entirety of a $274 million emergency UN appeal for Yemen, but has yet to release the funds. This non-compliance has impeded the finance of relief efforts—compounding the material, commercial, and humanitarian effects of the Saudi blockade on goods entering Yemen.

The talks in Geneva also failed because they focused on only one stratum of the crisis—negotiations between the Hadi government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance. While talks between these parties (along with a host of other domestic actors) are necessary, they do not sufficiently address the conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement, which will continue to threaten Yemen’s future if it is relegated to a secondary tract. This same criticism can be said of the current Muscat talks, which appear focused on negotiating between Houthis and the Southern resistance. While the Hadi delegation implicitly represents Saudi Arabia’s interests, it is not clear that Hadi’s team has the ability to affect the Saudi campaign, short of securing a near-total Houthi surrender.

Problematically, UN resolution 2216 also demands a return to the status quo ante as a starting point for negotiations. The United Nations had publically acceded to the Hadi camp’s demand that 2216 be the basis for talks, calling for the Houthis to disarm and withdraw from the capital of Sana’a with no discernible incentive. As dictated by both Hadi and Cheikh Ahmed in Geneva, talks aimed to coordinate the implementation of 2216, not negotiate a new deal. But UN resolutions, for all their merits, are not substitutes for domestic political agreements. The UN devotion to 2216 was hopelessly detached from political realities in Yemen and served to reinforce the intransigence of Saudi Arabia and President Hadi at the negotiating table, providing further cover for the Kingdom’s military campaign.

To improve future negotiation environments, the international community (in particular those actors capable influencing Yemen’s feuding internal factions) must recommit to encouraging reconciliation in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s complete decision-making control does not yield itself to a long-term peace agreement in Yemen. Oman could act as a neutral intermediary, eschewing the complicated logistics of talks in Geneva, but would need to employ a more inclusive approach than that used thus far. As the only GCC member involved in neither Operation Decisive Storm nor Restoring Hope, Oman has access and good relations with all parties of the conflict—especially the Houthis who remain internationally isolated, but powerful within Yemen. It would also have to avoid UN resolution 2216 as a starting point for negotiations, as it clearly favors one side over the other.

The failure at Geneva may have added fuel to popular disillusionment in Yemen, but all wars end. Effectively negotiating that end—for the sake of countless Yemenis caught in a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions—is too imperative to become prey to cynicism.

Adam Simpson is a Project Assistant for the Middle East Strategy Task Force with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Jordan Lesser-Roy is an intern with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Yemen's Foreign Minister Reyad Yassin Abdulla stands before a news conference by the Mission of Yemen in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2015. (Reuters)