Diplomacy Can Still Save Yemen
Hospitals bombed. Children recruited to fight. Schools turned to rubble. We could be describing Aleppo, Syria. But this is happening in Yemen, right now! 21 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 3 million are internally displaced.
What caused this crisis? In January 2015, Shia Houthi factions backed by former President Saleh overthrew Yemeni President Hadi. In March of the same year a Saudi-led coalition began an air campaign against insurgents with the aim to restore the internationally-recognized government. Willingly or not, the U.S. is also involved. Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP), whose leaders the U.S. has been targeting, has expanded its territory in Yemen and is thriving on the chaos. Because of its logistical support to the coalition, the U.S. government is also accused of aiding and abetting war crimes. Yet it is not too late to act. Working with the international community, the U.S. has the capacity to end the crisis or, at least should feel obligated to try.
The U.S. should use its influence to build a diplomatic initiative that is audacious, inclusive and comprehensive. This should start by taking the lead of a Contact Group on Yemen under the UN framework. The Group includes Iran, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the EU, and Russia.
The goal is to facilitate dialogue between the deposed Yemeni government and the Houthi forces linked to ex-President Saleh. The initial focus would be on humanitarian relief followed by an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations and, eventually, recommendations for political settlement and peacebuilding measures.
Because the U.S. has multiple leverage points to bring parties to the table, it can succeed where the UN Special Envoy has failed. With Iran, the U.S. could delay the lifting of the sanctions as agreed to in the Iran deal. It could also threaten to retaliate against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that have been challenging American vessels in the Persian Gulf. In Yemen, the legitimacy of the Hadi government rests largely on U.S. political and diplomatic support. Finally, the U.S. government can make its military support conditional on Saudi Arabia’s decision to unilaterally end airstrikes. In turn, the Saudis will exert pressure on Hadi, while the Iranians put pressure on Saleh.
Acting through the UN creates a level-playing field. It reduces the U.S. identification with the coalition and bolsters its credibility as a mediator. It means all parties are held to the same standards of accountability. The balanced composition of the group also reassures both sides that their position will be taken into consideration.
A strong diplomatic initiative also advances regional dialogue. The Middle East has been plagued long enough by confrontations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Contact Group brings relevant stakeholders to the same table and can pave the way for a more permanent structure to address regional concerns.
To succeed, this plan requires the cessation of hostilities. But previous ceasefires have been only short term and very fragile. Indeed, without the prospect of political settlement, the parties have no incentives to stop the fighting. A unilateral freeze on Saudi airstrikes will show the Houthis that the international community is committed to solving the crisis.
Some say another diplomatic initiative will not do much to alleviate the immediate suffering. Yet finding an agreement on humanitarian relief and access will be the Contact Group’s first task. In addition, the threat of prosecution will put pressure on warring parties to stop targeting civilians. The issue is urgent. This initiative is not a band aid solution on a bleeding wound. It is focused on ending the conflict.
We’re reaching the point of no return. If our efforts remain timid, the situation will get worse. But it can improve if the U.S. supports an immediate unilateral ceasefire followed by the constitution of a UN Contact Group on Yemen. A strong U.S.-led diplomatic initiative offers a way out of the conflict that is humane, based on law, and is sustainable. It prevents the worsening of the humanitarian situation. It provides warring parties with an inclusive forum to express their grievances. It can be a stepping stone for renewed dialogue in the region. To friends and foes alike, this initiative will show that America’s greatness is also measured by the strength of its diplomacy.