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How Yemen’s United Nations mediation could avoid failing again (but probably won’t)

- October 26, 2015
Houthi supporters wave national flags during a protest against ongoing Saudi-led coalition military operations in the country, in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 2, 2015. (Yahya Arhab/EPA)

For the second time since the war in Yemen began seven months ago, the country’s government in exile and the Houthi rebels who control the country’s western seaboard have signaled a willingness to meet face-to-face and take part in peace talks.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has repeatedly argued that the conflict can only be ended by a negotiated political settlement, a view that has been echoed — in words, if not always in action — by the major powers at the U.N. Security Council. But unless what follows peace talks avoids the key mistakes of Yemen’s political transition period of 2012-2014, it will be be no more likely to offer an enduring solution to Yemen’s political problems.

The need for diplomacy is obvious. Talks held in Geneva in June collapsed amid recriminations and shoe-throwing, and the Houthi and Hadi delegations did not actually meet face to face. It has since become clear that an outright military victory in a war that has cost more than 2,500 civilian lives and pushed the country to the brink of famine is highly unlikely. A negotiated settlement is the only way forward if Yemen is to avoid the fate of Iraq, Libya or Syria.

Producing a peace deal will require a Herculean effort from the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. But that is nothing compared to the work that will be needed to produce a settlement that is acceptable not just to the Houthis, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and its GCC backers, but also to the many local groups that have taken the fight to the Houthis since the war began.

As I recently argued in a paper for the British charity Saferworld, a key factor in derailing the political transition set in motion by Ahmed’s predecessor Jamal Benomar was that, while it was marketed as a transformative and inclusive process, little more than lip service was paid to addressing the needs and grievances of Yemenis who had not been part of the Saleh regime. Ahmed cannot afford to ignore the importance of these groups or he stands to be plagued by the same problems that ultimately derailed the transition. The deal brokered by Benomar to end fighting in Yemen in 2011 saw Saleh relinquish power but was unable to prevent the collapse of the subsequent political transition process when Houthis — hitherto seen as a relatively marginal player in Yemen’s power struggles — entered Sanaa in September 2014.

Groups like the southern secessionist Hirak al-Janoubi (Hirak), residents of Yemen’s industrial and cultural hub, Taiz, tribesmen from the oil-rich central province of Mareb and the Houthis were each offered a place at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks aimed at producing the basis of a new constitution, in Sanaa. But the day-to-day running of the country was left to Hadi, Saleh’s longtime deputy, and a coalition government made up of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and an opposition bloc led by Saleh’s onetime allies turned key rivals, the Sunni Islamist Islah party.

The behavior of the GPC, Islah and indeed Hadi during the transition increasingly led Yemenis to see the NDC as an illusion masking a deeply worrying political reality. As the NDC trundled on into 2014, a series of “hidden wars” came into focus between Saleh and Islah’s military backers — and between the same military factions with ties to Islah and the Houthis, who had fought six wars with the Saleh regime, backed by Islah, between 2004 and 2010.

The major southern separatist groups, who demanded a north-south dialogue, refused to take part in the talks and a delegation ostensibly representing southern secessionists was led by people in effect directly appointed by Hadi. Marebi tribesmen — reportedly under instruction from Saleh — mounted increasingly frequent attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in their oil-rich province, cutting into government income. Political figures and senior security officials were assassinated with worrying regularity.

The transitional government, consumed with infighting and politicking, did little to address these problems or improve the lot of the poorest people in the poorest country in the Arab world. Basic services stuttered to a halt, fuel and electricity shortages became a regular occurrence and welfare payments to the very poorest were often delayed by months at a time. Corruption, already endemic under Saleh, metastasized.

Confidence in the transition process evaporated. Yemenis who weren’t participants in the dialogue in Sanaa — and in fact many who were — developed a growing immunity to the utopian visions being laid out for the future of the country in the capital as living standards atrophied. Secessionist sentiment reached new highs in the south in late 2014. Taizis — who had been front and center in the early days of Yemen’s 2011 uprising against Saleh — complained of political marginalization in a Sanaa-centric political process dominated by the same old political elites. The Houthis’ promise to overturn the status quo in the north gained appeal.

Yemen’s transition ultimately failed because the odd-couple alliance between Saleh and the Houthis, who couldn’t believe their luck when Sanaa fell under their control last September, decided to launch a full-blown military coup and to seize the whole country by force. The result of that self-defeating strategy is clear.

But the war in Yemen also occurred in the context of a vacuum in governance that left most Yemenis feeling that their internationally-backed government was largely self-interested, was motivated by greed, and had abandoned them. By the time the war began, there was little buy-in to the notion of the Yemeni state. If it were not for the Houthis and Saleh, the transition would still have faced other major challenges.

The war has pushed historically nonviolent groups like Hirak to take up arms against the Houthis, and has seen deepening rifts in Yemeni society down the lines of sectarian, political and regional differences. While regional Arab media often paints those fighting the Houthis as “pro-Hadi” or “pro-government,” by and large anti-Houthi fighters have battled to defend their home regions rather than to see Hadi reinstated as president in Sanaa.

Hard power in Yemen now lies in the hands of a divided collection of local and identity-based armed groups with clashing agendas, who will demand to be taken seriously in the event of a new round of negotiations over Yemen’s future. These groups have little trust in the ability of a centralized administration to act in their interests, and are hardly likely to easily submit to the will of a government in Sanaa or elsewhere. To insure their collective interests, they will want local autonomy at a minimum and, in the case of Hirak, outright secession from a 25-year-old union with the north.

A new negotiated process could all too easily repeat the mistakes of the past, with the international backers of the transition focused on the political balance between competing elite groups rather than meaningful change, ignoring the elite’s self-interested behavior until it is too late. An inclination toward reaching a deal quickly increases the odds that the grievances and needs of those outside of the Houthis, Hadi and Sanaa power brokers will be ignored. But that, in turn, makes failure more likely.

If whoever is handed power in a post-conflict settlement cannot display clear political will to govern on behalf of all Yemenis by acknowledging and addressing local grievances and improving living standards, the country is likely to collapse once again into a morass of inter-regional battles. Recognizing this pattern is the best hope for the United Nations to break the cycle of transitional failure.

Peter Salisbury is an associate fellow at the British think-tank Chatham House. A journalist and political economy analyst, his work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times and Foreign Policy.