There are promising signs that the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen’s assault on the port of Hodeida is opening a window of opportunity for a return to the political process. After a year of stalling, the Houthis have reportedly expressed a willingness to hand over operation of the port to a neutral third party, most likely the U.N. itself. Meanwhile, U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has expressed optimism that he will get the Yemeni parties to return to the negotiating table two years after the last round of face-to-face talks collapsed. After meeting with the Houthis, Griffiths is due to travel shortly to Aden to meet with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his team. The coalition partners have already announced their support for the U.N. effort.
The international community needs to lend its weight to the Griffiths initiative. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is slated to meet in the coming days with his “quad” counterparts—foreign ministers from the U.K., Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to discuss next steps beyond Hodeida. It is important that the coalition partners make clear they will fulfill their commitment and ensure unrestricted access to the Hodeida port not only for humanitarian shipments but also for the commercial shipping that provides the bulk of Yemen’s imported products. This is also a moment when the focus should shift from military operations to the political process. There should be no further consideration of new offensives, either toward Taiz or to Sanaa itself. A willingness to announce a pause in the fighting to give Griffiths the space he needs to resume talks would be extremely well received by the Yemeni population, wearied by three years of conflict.
Beyond the immediate conflict, however, this is a moment for the international community to re-emphasize its vision for a Yemen at peace with itself and its neighbors. Coalition partners have declaredin the past their willingness to invest in Yemen’s reconstruction and the repair of war damage. But they have also expressed a readiness to assist in Yemen’s full economic integration in the region, despite disarray in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that complicates proposals for Yemeni admission to that organization. Nevertheless, as the two most dynamic economies on the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis and Emiratis can take initiative on their own by ending tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. Their engagement would be enormously helpful in reviving Yemen’s moribund economy. The U.S. and U.K., speaking more broadly on behalf of the international community, can reinforce the coalition’s message. As convener of the Friends of Yemen group, the U.K. should announce that it will invite the group to meet in conjunction with progress at the U.N.-led political negotiations.
Coordination among the quad partners is essential but not sufficient to ensure that the full weight of the international community is solidly behind a new push to end the Yemen conflict peacefully. Oman has been a steady and constructive partner in the effort to achieve peace and enjoys the confidence of the Houthi leadership. The U.N. will continue to look to the Omanis to facilitate Houthi engagement in the process and the quad should ensure that the Omanis are fully on board with the effort. A possible role for Russia should also not be ruled out. There are certainly good reasons to not want to bring the Russians into the picture; however, Russia did play a positive role in earlier efforts to resolve the Arab Spring political crisis in Yemen and, like the Omanis, does have some influence with the Houthis. Moreover, constructive Russian engagement in ending the Yemen conflict might be helpful in convincing Iran to end its aggressive behavior and allow the U.N. process to succeed.
At the end of the day, the international community cannot end the conflict in Yemen; only Yemenis can do that. But the international community can help create an atmosphere that enables the negotiators to reach an agreement and that provides a suffering Yemeni population with hope for the future. It is important at this juncture not to load too much on the U.N. process. This is a moment to focus on ending the immediate crisis, re-establishing governance in Sanaa, restoring the economy, rebuilding damaged infrastructure, and giving Yemenis an opportunity to recover their sense of security and stability. An expectation that the U.N. negotiations will resolve all of Yemen’s many challenges will certainly end in disappointment. Down the road, Yemenis will need to consider new approaches to problem solving, including a re-evaluation of the recommendations of the National Dialogue Conference from 2014 as well as the election of a new parliament and administration that will enjoy the confidence of the Yemeni people. The international community can and must be committed to being a full partner in that effort.
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