Yemen gets a rare, much-needed shot at peace

By BOBBY GHOSH | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: November 15, 2019

Yemen is a graveyard of optimism. In five years of war, a cessation of hostilities — even if temporary — seemed possible several times. There was a truce in the summer of 2015, two cease-fires and peace talks in Kuwait in 2016, and talks in Stockholm at the end of 2018.

Each time, the hopes raised were just as quickly snuffed out, interred along with the 100,000 people killed in the fighting.

So it would be easy, even expedient, to regard with skepticism the reports of back-channel negotiations between two key belligerents, Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels. But a flurry of other developments in the past two weeks allow for a resurrection of hope.

First, a quick reminder of how we got here. In 2014, the Houthis, a Shiite sect from northern Yemen backed by Iran, took Sanaa from the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led Arab coalition joined the fighting on Hadi’s side, with intelligence and logistical support from the U.S. The Houthis advanced all the way south to Aden, where they encountered stiff resistance from a combination of Hadi’s forces, southern militias and the Arab coalition.

But earlier this summer, that coalition was frayed by divisions between Hadi and the southerners, leading to the prospect of a civil war within a civil war. This played right into the hands of the Houthis and their Iranian patrons.

Meanwhile, elements of the Arab coalition, especially the United Arab Emirates, were tiring of the endless war. The Houthis, now receiving more support from Tehran, were launching missile, rocket and drone attacks deep into Saudi territory.

Now for the fresh signs of hope. In late September, the Houthis announced they were suspending attacks on Saudi territory. Shortly afterward, the Saudis announced a limited cease-fire in some parts of Houthi-controlled Yemen, including Sanaa. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he was open to “all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen.” Houthi leaders echoed the sentiment.

The Saudis then turned to the crisis in the south, and sponsored a peace deal between Hadi and the southern separatists. This allowed the UAE to pull some troops out of Aden.

The Emiratis also declared that the Houthis were “a part of Yemeni society and they will have a role in its future” — the most conciliatory language from Abu Dhabi in a long time. And the Saudis said they had “an open channel” to the rebels.

Alert readers will have noticed that one key voice is missing: Iran’s. The Islamic Republic has been somewhat distracted in recent weeks by mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq over the role of Iranian proxies — Hezbollah and Shiite militias — in national affairs. Iran also finds itself sidelined from the conversation in Syria, where Russia and Turkey seem to be calling the shots.

Whether the softening of the Houthi stance meets full approval from Tehran is hard to know. Compared with its proxies elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran’s relationship with the Yemeni rebels is relatively new; it is also more opportunistic and transactional than ideological. Unlike Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, the Houthi leadership doesn’t pay open obeisance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Nor does Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military commander who manages the proxies, travel around Yemen as he does in Iraq.

The real test of Houthi agency, independent from Iran, lies in whether the rebels can make a long-term deal with the Saudis — even if that doesn’t fit into Tehran’s plans. Equally, reaching that deal will be a test of Riyadh’s ability to pry a proxy away from the Iranian grip, using diplomacy where kinetic means have failed.

There’s little the U.S., or any other nation, can do to help beyond encouraging the Saudis to stick to the jaw-jaw instead of the war-war. But the international community can, and should leap at the opportunity to get more humanitarian assistance to the Yemenis. Rescuing optimism from its Yemeni grave will take time, but this is as good a time as any to start digging.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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