by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.Aside from a five-day ceasefire in May, which ended a day early amid fighting in Aden, the Yemeni Civil War has raged unabated since March 2015. This small country at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula has long been a hotbed of conflict; for example, from 1962 to 1970, prior to the unification of the north and south, another civil war was waged in North Yemen between the Yemen Arab Republic and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, resulting in thousands of deaths. An end to this latest round of hostilities has not been elusive for a lack of trying, so why has mediation failed so far?
First, it is important to keep in mind how the range of actors involved in the conflict add to its complexity. Initially, the 2015 Civil War saw five factions arrayed against each other: South Yemeni separatists, forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Houthi rebels, forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the militant Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia. In April 2015, the South Yemeni separatists in Aden joined with Hadi government forces, though there remain some incompatibilities in the two factions’ long-term objectives, namely the territorial integrity of the Yemeni state.
Complicating matters further, external parties have been using Yemen as a proxy battlefield. Saudi Arabia has formed a coalition in support of the Hadi government, which has attracted military support from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan and Somalia have also extended political support by emphasizing their recognition of the Hadi government’s legitimacy and acted to enforce an embargo against Saleh’s Houthi-supported junta. Reluctant to be pulled into another quagmire in the Middle East, the United States of America has largely kept itself out of the conflict but has delivered airstrikes against Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Meanwhile, Iran is accused of supplying Houthi forces in Yemen via Eritrea, and the Saudi-led coalition claims to have seized a vessel carrying Iranian military equipment to Yemen on 30 September 2015. For its part, Ansar al-Sharia has received the endorsement of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Finding common ground among all these factions and countries will be exceedingly difficult, and it mirrors the complexity of the aforementioned 1962-1970 North Yemen conflict. The royalist faction in that war received considerable support from Saudi Arabia, as well as to some extent Jordan and the United Kingdom, while the republican faction was backed by Egypt and later the Soviet Union. With the conflict caught up in the dynamics of the Cold War and Middle East geopolitics, all attempts to mediate between the factions failed and the conflict only ended with the final triumph of the republicans in 1970.
In the 2015 conflict, a negotiated solution within a multilateral framework is unlikely. The Saudi-led intervention has official backing from the League of Arab States, which would make the Houthis and Islamists less than willing to accept the League as a mediator. An application for Yemeni membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by the Hadi government could also be said to have undermined the GCC’s impartiality, notwithstanding the fact that all but one of the GCC member states are participating in the Saudi-led coalition. In April, the United Nations appointed an Envoy to Yemen, Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, but has seen little headway in its own efforts to foster a ceasefire. This can be attributed at least in part to the adoption of a series of UN Security Council resolutions that condemn the Saleh forces and Houthis. This has obviously left that faction with the impression that the UN seeks Saleh’s ouster from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.
Perhaps the best hope for peace in Yemen is mediation led by a country which has not shown strong favour for any specific party to the conflict. Oman, the only GCC member state to not join the Saudi-led coalition, has reportedly proposed a seven-point peace plan, which shows the greatest promise to bring together most of the parties to the conflict. This includes: the withdrawal of the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh from all Yemeni cities, the restoration of the Hadi government to power, early parliamentary and presidential elections, the conversion of the Houthi movement into a legitimate political party, a signed commitment to the non-violent settlement of disputes by all parties, an international aid conference attended by donor states, and Yemen’s admission to the GCC. This would represent considerable concessions from the position usually taken by the Houthis and Saleh, but the war does not seem to be progressing in their favour either. On 1 October 2015, Hadi forces seized Bab al-Mandeb, a strategic waterway through which much of Middle East oil exports must pass, from the Houthis. Accepting these terms and hoping for success in future elections should be preferable to a drawn-out defeat against a superior opponent.
If the Omani initiative fails, similar terms could be proposed by a small state more removed from the conflict. Djibouti has demonstrated a willingness recently to serve as a mediator, with President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh offering in September 2015 to host talks on the future of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Djibouti is less than 300 kilometres from the Yemeni city of Aden, separated only by the Gulf of Aden, and has received hundreds of Yemeni refugees since the onset of the civil war. As such, Djibouti certainly has a stake in a quick, peaceful resolution to the conflict and has reason to be concerned by the previously mentioned reports that the conflict is fueled by Iranian arms flowing from Djibouti’s other troubled neighbour, Eritrea. Yet Djibouti is not a GCC member state and, although it is a member of the League of Arab States, it has not extended any support to the military intervention in Yemen. For a country so close to the war that has gripped Yemen, Djibouti is as close to impartiality as possible.
Regardless of whether talks are proposed by Oman, Djibouti, or some other state, it is important to remember the words of Hassan Makki, Foreign Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic during the 1962-1970 North Yemen conflict, who said of one attempt at a ceasefire in that conflict, “Better years of talk than a day of fighting.” Bringing at least some of the parties to the table for talks would be a victory in and of itself, beginning a necessary process of reconciliation. From that, the foundation of a Yemeni state can be found and the threat posed by Ansar al-Sharia effectively countered.