Motives, challenges and implications in ending the war in Yemen

It was no surprise when King Salman stressed the need for a political resolution to the conflict several months ago.

Refugges sit in the sun on a cold winter day at a camp for internally displaced people in Khamir of the northwestern province of Amran, Yemen, last month.        (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)
Refugges sit in the sun on a cold winter day at a camp for internally displaced people in Khamir of the northwestern province of Amran, Yemen, last month.
The flurry of diplomatic activity in the final weeks of 2019 and early days of 2020 indicates that the major players in the war in Yemen are interested in, or at least open to, an agreement to end the conflict. The efforts to end war are not motivated by opportunities to achieve strategic goals, but primarily by the desire to mitigate the potential costs of continued conflict. Yet, the challenges of reaching and maintaining an agreement to end the war and unify the country remain considerable.
In early 2019, after assuming the role of deputy defense minister of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Salman was tasked with orchestrating a respectable Saudi exit from the conflict in Yemen. Since then the mission has only become more urgent in light of three considerations:
1) UAE forces, the most effective ground force in the Saudi-led coalition, announced their withdrawal from Yemen in July 2019 (conspicuously, after four tankers were attacked by Iran off of the UAE coast). The Saudis understood from this that they were unlikely to make military gains beyond what had been achieved at that point;
2) The growing threat to Saudi Arabia directly from Iran, demonstrated by the September 14 attack on Aramco facilities, increased Riyadh’s motivation to end its role in Yemen so as not to spread its resources too thin by fighting on two fronts;
3) If the Saudi led-campaign in Yemen continues through the 2020 US presidential elections, it runs the risk of being dragged into Democratic campaigns, where opposition to Saudi policies or even Saudi Arabia itself could emerge as a prominent political platform. That, in turn, may damage the future of US-Saudi relations.
Thus, it was no surprise when King Salman stressed the need for a political resolution to the conflict several months ago. In addition, because the internationally recognized government of Yemen led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is dependent on Saudi Arabia (where President Hadi resides in exile), its willingness to reach an agreement with the Houthis and the southern separatists appears to have increased in accordance with that of Riyadh.
The Houthi rebels are similarly motivated by a sense that continued fighting poses more hazards than opportunities. The unpleasant surprise to the Houthi leadership on September 14, a demand from Iran that they claim responsibility for a strike against Saudi facilities which took 5% of the world’s oil production off line, may have been the beginning of the end of Houthi-Iran relations.
Less than two weeks later, the Houthis offered Riyadh a unilateral halt to missile attacks on Saudi territory, and that served as a catalyst for the latest Houthi-Saudi peace talks.
THE RECENT assassination of Qasem Soleimani and attempted assassination of Abdul Reza Shahla’i, who played key roles in Iran’s regional strategy and Iran’s assistance to Yemen respectively, are likely to weaken the effectiveness of Houthi-Iran cooperation and erode Houthis’ confidence that they ought to tie their fortunes to those of Iran.
South Yemen separatists represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) also face considerable challenges in light of the fact that their Emirati backers withdrew, a challenger for the mantle of the Southern movement emerged, and they were excluded from Riyadh-Houthi discussions on Yemen’s future. These three recent developments may explain why the STC was willing to make a deal with the central government, known as the Riyadh Agreement, despite the fact that the STC holds the bulk of the military power and the central government includes characters whom southerners consider unsavory and even terrorists. However, the pact is off to an inauspicious beginning, as Reuters reported on January 1, after the “STC negotiating team had withdrawn from the joint committees working to implement the deal.”
Despite the general consensus among key players in Yemen that their interests would be served by ending the war, they will not necessarily be able to agree on a configuration that should arise in the conflict’s stead. Presumably, a comprehensive peace agreement would require a power-sharing arrangement that reflects the reality on the ground: formidable regional or provincial bodies and a weak central government.
With the Riyadh Agreement’s future already in doubt, it would be extremely challenging to design a deal acceptable to the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces in which the two parties allow their authority and resources to be diluted further by including the comparatively poor but militarily powerful Houthis of North Yemen.
In addition, the recent death of longtime Middle East mediator Sultan Qaboos of Oman does not bode well for the ongoing negotiations between parties in Yemen. After the sultan’s passing, it remains unclear clear who if any other regional leader could take on the role Sultan Qaboos played as conciliator.
If it does come to fruition, a resolution to the Yemeni conflict would presumably benefit Israel by ending a campaign in which Saudi Arabia, Israel’s unofficial partner in opposition to Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, has seen its coffers drained, its forces diverted, and its international image sullied. But Jerusalem should have realistic expectations for what an agreement could accomplish.
In the event a Yemeni national leader emerges who is capable of “dancing on the heads of snakes,” as the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh described the challenge of governing the poor and divided country, the Yemen-based threats posed by the Houthis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be diminished but are unlikely to disappear.
Ari Heistein is a research fellow and chief of staff to the director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Dr. Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at INSS, focusing on Gulf security.