• Login

Mind the Gap

Yemen's peace process derailed by a lack of trust

27 February 2023

Yemen has experienced war and devastation for more than eight years. Many Yemenis have lost their lives, many more have been displaced, and the prospects of the war ending feel ever so slim: the Houthi group, Iran's backed militia in Yemen, have shrugged every possibility for peace, instead opting for more bloodshed. The international community has, in recent years, increased its pressure on Yemeni factions to return to the negotiation table. Political dialogue is the only viable solution to the ongoing deadlock. But with a deep gap in trust among Yemeni sides, can sustainable peace be reached in the war-fatigued country? We may be able to answer this question once we've looked at Yemeni, regional, and international factors at play: 


Trust Gap in Yemen

The Houthis and the Yemeni elected government have spoken of peace and voiced their commitment to a peaceful civil war resolution. Yet facts on the ground reveal otherwise. Their stances couldn't be any further, and no common grounds have been reached. Regional and international actors have set the Yemeni sides aside, each acting in self-interest. Therefore, achieving peace in Yemen has to come through a regional and international agreement, which does not seem to be the case for the time being. 


By examining the positions of both sides, one can see that the elected government's demands are based on the constitution and are backed by regional and international resolutions and the GCC peace initiative. The elected government has maintained these principles before and during the war in the face of an ideological militia that has overthrown the government by force. The Iran-backed armed group has committed atrocities across the country and beyond. Therefore, the elected government's position has become more unyielding throughout the war owing to a lack of trust in the Houthis. 


On December 22, the chair of the presidential council, Rashad Al-Alimi, demanded during a meeting with an EU parliament delegation that the Houthis be designated a terrorist group for committing crimes against international human rights laws and its ties with Iranian Revolution Guards Crops (IRGC), which is a designated terrorist organisation. Earlier at a meeting with Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy to Yemen, Al-Alimi said that Al Houthis were standing in the way of humanitarian efforts by the government and in the course of reaching peace in the region. Al-Alimi, on many occasions, has warned international mediators of the dangers of Houthis ideological ties with Iran and their aim to sabotage the entire region. He has also appealed to the international community to pose sanctions on the Houthis to restrain their damaging activity in Yemen and beyond. Such statements reflect a profound issue of trust stemming from past experience and the Houthis' failed attempts to overthrow the government. For the government, peace through political channels cannot be reached with Shiite rebels.  


The Houthis' concept of comprehensive peace appears to be far from realistic. They aim to legitimise their forced government takeover and be the sole political actor on behalf of the Yemeni people. Yet they are totally aligned with Iran and its ideological vision of the region. Mohamad Abdulsalam, who had met with a delegation from Oman, said his group was discussing with regional actors to facilitate humanitarian arrangements that bring peace and stability to Yemen, including public sector workers' wages and lifting the blockade on Yemen's sea and airports. The deputy head of the Houthi negotiation delegation echoed this message, asserting that the group's position is clear, demanding an immediate ceasefire, rebuilding of Yemen, and a sustainable resolution of all political files. He insisted that sustainable peace is only possible via negotiations between Sana'a and the Arab coalition before Yemeni factions could reach a political settlement of the war. Clearly, the Houthi group is prioritising civil worker wages and lifting the current blockade, thus effectively cementing their government and control over Yemen. It's a long-sought aim, and peace, therefore, remains unattainable. 


Regional Disagreements

Saudi has led the coalition campaign against the Houthi rebels since the outbreak of civil war in Yemen. Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi's foreign minister, stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the war-ravaged Yemen cannot hope for peace without political settlement; political dialogue must be the focus of any peace efforts. He's noted progress towards achieving this aim, though much still needs to be done before reaching peace. Many challenges lie ahead, Prince Faisal added, and all actors must work intensely to sustain a truce and achieve a permanent ceasefire. How this could be achieved, however, Prince Faisal could not be certain of, and there remain many difficulties to be overcome. 


Despite a report by the Associated Press published on January 17 of secret Saudi-Houthi negotiations, neither side has confirmed these talks. However, Oman is known to have been mediating between the two sides. But achieving peace remains a challenge despite the coalitions' efforts in mediating truce deals, for the Houthi rebels continue to hold hard lines and demand unrealistic conditions inspired by the Shiite ideological dogma that is linked to Iran's revolution. 


Clearly, Iran remains a benefactor of the ongoing crisis in Yemen. Tehran continues to meddle in Yemeni affairs, exacerbating the conflict and damaging any prospects for peace. Peace would not be in Tehran's best interest, for it would simply drive Iran out of the region. Peace would mean Iran-backed armed militias would no longer control Yemen's political and military scenes. Concerned about its diminishing role in Yemen, Iranian leaders have voiced their support of any efforts for a ceasefire: Iran wants to continue playing an active role in post-war Yemen through its militant armed groups who would aim to control seaports and airports. Tehran only recognises the Houthi group, which diminishes any hope for peace. 


International Mixed Positions

UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has reflected an apparent indecisiveness about the ongoing war in Yemen. He told the UN Security Council on January 16 that the situation remains complicated and volatile. He added that following a series of meetings with Yemeni factions, he has been able to offer solutions that were acceptable to all parties. Grundberg also said at Davos that trust remains a crucial problem for the peace process in Yemen, asserting that a sustainable political resolution depends on a comprehensive and well-rounded approach. Statements offered by the senior UN official reveal uncertainty in approaching the war in Yemen, and there needs to be more progress made in peace talks. The US stance on Yemen is even more illusive. On the one hand, American leaders condemn atrocities committed by the Houthi rebels, yet on the other hand, the US has dropped the Houthi from the terrorism list, which indicates that the US is benefiting from the group's presence in Yemen. Finally, Europe's position is invariably aligned with that of the US. At any rate, the EU is occupied by the ongoing war in Ukraine and has paid less attention to Yemen. 



Having outlined regional and international actors and their positions on the war in Yemen, we may summarise their implications across three key vectors, which are: 


1. Yemen's government's lack of trust in Houthi will hinder any efforts for peace:

The Iran-backed militia has not earned the trust of the Yemeni government, and its track record fails to offer a solid ground for political dialogue. Unless the Houthi group form a political party, sits at the negotiation table and gives up its weapons under full UN supervision, peace remains far from reach. 


2. Houthi aim to negotiate peace to terms that ascertain their power and rule:

They are focusing on re-opening ports and civil worker wages, which would indicate an acceptance of their role in government. If the Yemeni government were to agree to Houthi conditions, wages would have to be paid through independent government banks; otherwise, it would be a formal acceptance of Houthi legitimacy. 


3. There exists intersecting international interests:

Great global powers act based on self-interest, while the UN is moving at a slower pace within the framework of international law. These power sometimes often intersect, and other times are in conflict. International pressure in the case of Yemen has thus far yielded little results to dissuade Houthi rebels from giving up power in favour of sustainable peace. 


We may summarise that factors on the ground in Yemen and the conflicting regional and international positions stand in the way of achieving comprehensive peace in the war-ravaged country. The Houthi, in their loyalty to Iran's Shia leaders, are not signalling any efforts towards peace. In turn, the Yemeni government will not accept terms driven by the ideological dogma guided by forces outside of the region. The Yemeni government remains firm on its legitimacy, and with regional and international volatility, the road to peace remains long and challenging.