The Latest Failed Attempt at Peace Talks Means More of the Same in Yemen

7 MINS READSep 17, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) holds a defense sales chart with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20.

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) holds a defense sales chart with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are continuing their operations against Yemen's Houthis, but some in the West are questioning their support for the war.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The failure of another round of U.N.-mediated peace talks over Yemen's civil war will prolong the conflict, giving the Saudi-led coalition an opportunity to make military advances.
  • Though both the Saudi coalition and its foes, the Houthis, will try to use the talks' collapse to their advantage, continuing their fight will jeopardize their political, diplomatic and military positions.
  • Iran and extremist groups will try to capitalize on the conflict for as long as they can since they benefit from the continuing hostilities.

The latest round of U.N.-mediated peace talks over Yemen's civil war has fallen apart. The conflict's principal parties — the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and the insurgent Houthi militia — failed even to meet at the negotiations in Geneva. Instead, they will return to the battlefield to try to settle their differences.

That's unwelcome news for many of the parties involved. In the short term, the two sides of the conflict will try to gain from more fighting. In the long term, however, the war's protraction will jeopardize the interests of the government and the rebels alike. It will also cast doubt on the military and diplomatic reputations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which lead the international coalition against the Houthis, and put the United States' fight against extremists in Yemen on the back burner. But for Iran and jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the nascent Yemeni Islamic State, the continued conflict will present an opportunity.

The Big Picture

Yemen is a nexus of global interests. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates all have a stake in the long-running civil war there, but it is testing their regional influence. The most they can do is manipulate the factions on the ground; none has the power to impose conditions on Yemen. The collapse of the latest round of peace talks in the country will leave local factions and their international backers scrambling once again for advantage in the war, even though the worsening humanitarian situation demands a timely resolution to the conflict.

Another Try, Another Failure

The prospects for success in the latest discussions were dim; the previous round of peace talks, held in 2016 in Kuwait, also fizzled before they got underway. This time, the U.N. special envoy who organized the talks, Martin Griffiths, believed that, with a more modest goal in mind than a comprehensive peace deal, another round of negotiations could make progress. Griffiths planned to steer the new talks toward specific objectives, such as unifying Yemen's central bank and arranging prisoner swaps, in an effort to encourage engagement. The humanitarian costs of Yemen's civil war – which has caused food shortages, increased the strain on local water supplies, opened the way to devastating disease outbreaks and destroyed the country's economy – were simply too high not to try again. But neither the Houthis nor the Hadi government had much to gain from the talks, and Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies merely went through the motions to demonstrate their commitment to peace to the United States and other key defense suppliers. As a result, the talks fell apart before they even started.

A map showing areas of control in Yemen.

The latest failure doesn't mean that attempts at negotiation will stop altogether. After all, the warring parties will be hard-pressed to find a military solution to end the conflict. It does mean, however, that both sides will return to the battlefield for now to try to gain an advantage for the next round of talks, and, in the meantime, to weaken their opponent. In exchange for playing along with the peace talks, the Saudi-led coalition will now have more diplomatic leeway for an offensive to take al-Hudaydah, Yemen's largest port, where Emirati and allied forces are already well-positioned for a push. The Houthis, in turn, will stand their ground, hoping to inflict enough damage on the coalition to wear it out. They will also continue to threaten missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and international shipping activity in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, while waiting for the international community to rethink its support for the coalition.

Bringing the War Home

As the conflict drags on, Yemen's humanitarian crisis is turning official opinion in the United States and Europe against the war. Norway banned weapons sales to the Saudi coalition earlier this year. Germany has barred new defense contracts to all countries involved in the Yemen conflict – and that was before the coalition bombed a school bus in August, heightening international concerns about its tactics. The civilian death toll in Yemen also prompted Spain to waver on a deal to sell hundreds of precision bombs to Saudi Arabia, though it announced Sept. 13 that it would proceed with the delivery. And for the coalition and Houthis alike, a U.N. report detailing the war crimes that each side has committed could reduce international support.

A chart of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from various countries.

In light of the increased scrutiny, the coalition leaders will have to carefully weigh their military strategy in Yemen against the attitudes of their Western allies, namely the United States. The approach of congressional midterm elections, in particular, could rally lawmakers to move to change the U.S. stance on the Yemeni conflict, an issue that has drawn bipartisan support in Washington. Although the United States will continue to back the Saudi-led coalition mission to restore Hadi's authority, Congress may push the Yemeni government and its foreign allies to compromise with the Houthis to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

At home, too, Saudi and Emirati leaders may find support for their campaign in Yemen waning. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's military and diplomatic prowess could come into question among the royal family if he fails to bring a decisive end to Yemen's war – and to the kingdom's costly involvement in it. Though at less risk than Mohammed bin Salman, UAE Emir Mohammed bin Zayed could find himself on the wrong side of public opinion if the United Arab Emirates continues its role in the conflict, especially as the Houthis have threatened to attack his country. The group has already spread false reports of strikes on airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in an effort to disturb citizens and international businesses in the country and disrupt the country's vital tourism industry.

The Houthis, meanwhile, could imperil the legitimacy they have gained in northern Yemen if supporters perceive that they are responsible for prolonging the conflict. So long as they manage to portray the Saudi-led coalition as the aggressors, they can keep up their recruitment numbers and preserve their standing with the many tribes of north Yemen. But maintaining that buy-in will require the Houthis to deliver results, like food security and an improved economic situation, that may be beyond their reach.

Who Stands to Gain From the Fight

While continuing the war will come at a cost to the Houthis and the coalition forces, the prolonged fighting will be a boon for Iran. The Islamic republic has used its support for the Houthis to make inroads in Yemen and aspires to turn the group into a regional proxy militia, like the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. The Houthis, however, diverge from Iran in culture and in politics; necessity, rather than ideological affinity, underpins their alliance with Tehran. The end of hostilities will reduce their need for military and economic aid, undermining Iran's plans to cultivate an ally that it can use against Saudi Arabia much as it has used Hezbollah against Israel.

As long as the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government continues, extremist groups will have more freedom to operate in Yemen's large ungoverned spaces.

For extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the war's continuation will be equally beneficial. The social and economic instability that the civil war has caused in Yemen, and the disillusionment it has inspired among the local population – both with Hadi and with the Houthis – makes the country a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations. Furthermore, as long as the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government continues, the extremist groups will have more freedom to operate in Yemen's large ungoverned spaces. This development will be an unwelcome one for the United States, which has been active in Yemen trying to root out al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2002.

Now that a second attempt at peace talks has failed, the war in Yemen will continue in familiar fashion: The coalition will push forward and the Houthis will resist until another round of negotiations comes about. If one faction or the other feels it's in the throes of a crisis that peace talks could assuage, then the next discussions may produce results. If not, they will fail yet again.

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