Resolving the Yemeni Crisis: Proposed practical steps for the US Special Envoy
The latest decision by US President Joe Biden to appoint Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Lenderking as the US Special Envoy for Yemen is an important step towards resolving the Yemeni crisis, as it supports the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United Nations in this area. This decision also reflects the US’s commitment to addressing this issue.
US Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking is a seasoned diplomat with an impeccable reputation and extensive experience in the region. Here are several key areas he could consider to help him in resolving the conflict and reaching a political solution, which the UN has so far failed to achieve due to the Houthis insistence on a military solution.
Firstly, a ceasefire is highly important. Last year in March, the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition accepted UN Secretary-General’s call for a global cease-fire to focus instead on dealing with the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the Iran-backed Houthi militia did not heed the call, and has instead continued its escalations on several fronts, including increased attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. In spite of this hostility, Joe Biden’s administration has chosen instead to remove the Houthis’ US Foreign Terrorist Organization designation prematurely at a time when the militia has proven the opposite by intensifying its attacks on civilians. US Envoy Lenderking must dedicate his efforts towards pressuring the Houthis into accepting the ceasefire. Given that achieving a ceasefire may prove to be difficult due to the lack of trust between the government and the Houthis, and the absence of international inspectors, Lenderking should not waste any time, but rather pursue all other elements of the solution.
Secondly, the Yemeni conflict must be de-linked from the Iranian nuclear crisis as much as possible to avoid entangling the country in an uncertain process that could last years. Based on previous US-Iran standoffs, negotiations lasted about 10 years to reach the nuclear agreement in 2015, and if these two issues were linked, Iran will try to use its involvement in Yemen as a bargaining chip so as to protect its other more valuable assets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This means that Yemen’s precarious humanitarian situation will only worsen, and tensions will keep on mounting.
Third, the international community - and the United States in particular - should ensure that international trade through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea is protected and not used as a hostage to the actions of the Houthis, who have become a direct threat. The issue of the Somali pirates who pose a threat to international trade in the area was addressed by forming the Combined Task Force 151 in 2009, which carries out anti-piracy missions on the Somali coast. Similarly, it would be favorable to expand the role of Task Force 151, or another task force can be formed to protect maritime lanes in the region from the Houthis, and enforce the arms embargo, as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
Fourth, the US Special Envoy must be clear regarding the political solution he aims to achieve. Yemenis - with the exception of the Houthis - have spoken clearly about their aspirations regarding the solution: a democratic, decentralized, non-sectarian political system with a special status for the South. The outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, which lasted 10 months and concluded in 2014, with the participation of parties from various political affiliations including the Houthis, reflect a clear Yemeni consensus on a political solution. Presidential and parliamentary elections, as stipulated in the GCC Initiative, need to be planned to reassure Yemenis of a future free of outdated ideas of tribal and sectarian supremacy and the elite’s attempts to rule the country by divine right.
Fifth, international guarantees are needed for any political solution. In truth, the lack of these guarantees has thwarted many initiatives to solve the Yemeni crisis. Unlike many hotbeds of conflict in the world, the issue of international guarantees has not yet been seriously raised and no inspectors have been mandated to ensure the ceasefire.
Sixth, it is highly imperative to protect humanitarian aid and ensure that those in need have unobstructed access to it. The obstruction or diversion of aid, looting of supplies, seizure, sale and any form of humanitarian aid politicization should not be allowed. The new US envoy should make it very clear from the start that aid may not be used as a tool for political bargaining and avoid repeating the same mistake that the UN has made by condoning the violations carried out by the Houthis in this regard.
Seventh, resuming development aid to Yemen, as most donors have suspended their development aid, making it difficult to restore stability which goes hand in hand with economic reform. The exception is the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have continued to provide development aid that contributed to the reopening of hospitals, schools, and universities. The Gulf-Yemen Joint Committee will hold a meeting during March to discuss some of the new projects proposed by the Yemeni government. Before the crisis, the Friends of Yemen group used to organize donor conferences and provide development aid to Yemen on an international level during the period between 2010 and 2014. This group’s efforts can be restored, and it can assume that role again.
Eighth, building trust is important, but it should not divert attention from the larger goal, which is a comprehensive political solution. Measures that can help establish trust may include completing the implementation of the Stockholm agreement in transferring the administration of the port of Al Hodeidah to the UN, resolving the issue of the SAFER oil tanker, exchanging prisoners, and reforming the financial and monetary system to prevent the collapse of the Yemeni riyal and make it easier for Yemeni expatriates to send remittances to their families inside Yemen. And priority should be given to facilitate people’s access to their Social Security funds and pensions.
The most important element is to establish a dialogue with the people of Yemen, to discuss the necessary steps for ensuring political stability and the future of their country. There are many successful experiences in this area, such as the National Dialogue Conference that I referred to earlier, and the Kuwait talks in 2016 which helped develop the best road map so far to solve the Yemeni crisis.
Therefore, it would be useful for the US envoy to organize conferences in which the vision of the Yemeni people towards the future can be highlighted again; these conferences could be devoted to political groups and parties, another for youth, and a third for the women of Yemen.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.