What challenges face the U.N. resolution on Yemen?

This is the time of accord and careful diplomacy, and not the time of confrontation for confrontation’s sake

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The U.N. Security Council draft on Yemen last week was issued as a result of the exceptional diplomatic efforts of the ambassadors of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Jordanian presidency of the U.N. Security Council represented by Jordan’s envoy Dina Kawar.

Saudi’s ambassador to the U.N. Abdallah al-Mouallimi, who led the negotiations with patience and perseverance, said resolution 2216 was a historical achievement for establishing that if the Arab countries become determined and adopt a unified position, the countries of the world will comply with and respect it. The resolution obtained support from 14 states with only Russia abstaining – which is an achievement since Russia had proposed its own draft resolution and kept its voting intentions secret until the last moment, keeping the door open to the possibility of vetoing the Arab draft resolution.

The Russian envoy refrained from criticizing the military operations and did not mention them in his address to the Security Council. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi chose to criticize them out of Washington, which he was visiting, while at the same time exonerating Iran from involvement in Yemen. Abadi warned what he called the Saudi intervention in Yemen could stoke sectarian conflicts in the region.

While it may not have been his intention to pour cold water on the Arab achievement in New York, it appeared as though this is what he was doing. The U.S. administration had to deny that the U.S. president, vice president, and secretary of state agreed with Abadi’s assessment that there was no logic in the Saudi-led operations and that Saudi had gone too far in its air strikes in Yemen, and that they were concerned about a broad sectarian war in the region as a result. Whatever the case, there is no need to turn differences in the assessment into a dispute and start a cycle of blame and diplomatic/political confrontations.

It is better to activate direct and back channels to engage in a calm dialogue and contain any damage to the Gulf-Iraqi relations, which is extremely important for both sides. Iraq is in dire need of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries – and not just Iran – to fight ISIS in Iraq, and must be very keen about the Gulf participation in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Similarly, the Gulf countries need Iraq because its recovery is in their interests and because it is important today to invest in Iraq and not abandon it again. Accordingly, Saudi diplomacy is facing a test in Iraq and Yemen as a consequence of the qualitative shift in its policy and regional and international diplomacy. Saudi Arabia can seriously build on the diplomatic achievement at the United Nations.

It was not at all simple to get resolution 2216 passed. The international resolution strengthened the international cover for military operations against the Houthis and the forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son Ahmed, who now together with his father have been sanctioned under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Russia wanted to put a stop to Arab coalition air strikes as part of a series of what Russia termed “humanitarian truces”. Russia also wanted an arms embargo on all sides including the legitimate government, and opposed adding the names of Abdullah al-Houthi and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh to the list of international sanctions. Russia also wanted an immediate ceasefire without conditioning it on the Houthis ending their coup against the legitimate administration.

The resolution was issued under the binding Chapter VII, which means failing to abide by it would trigger additional measures by the Security Council. The resolution called on the Houthis to “withdraw their forces from the areas they seized including the capital Sanaa, and hand over all the weapons they took from the security and military institutions including missile systems.” The resolution also called on all Yemeni parties, particularly the Houthis, to abide by the Gulf initiative and the outcomes of the national dialogue and the Peace and Partnership agreement. The resolution called on the parties to agree to conditions to end the violence in line with the U.N. Charter and the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

This is the time of accord and careful diplomacy, and not the time of confrontation for confrontation’s sake

Raghida Dergham

The resolution asked the U.N. secretary general to step up his efforts to facilitate the delivery of aid, evacuate civilians, and establish humanitarian truces in coordination with the government of Yemen. The resolution asked the secretary general to submit a progress report on the resolution and resolution 2201 within ten days. The resolution stated that in the event of non-compliance, the U.N. Security Council will push for additional measurements against individuals and entities involved in acts undermining peace and security, including sanctions.

The Security Council, in resolution 2216, called on all countries to implement immediate measures to prevent sending weapons directly or indirectly to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, in addition to other individuals named in the sanctions list and anyone acting on their behalf. The Security Council called on all countries to prevent sending weapons to those individuals through their territories, ports, and airports. The council called on the countries neighboring Yemen to search all shipments bound for Yemen through their territories, seaports, and airports for military supplies and confiscate them.

With regards to the political process, the U.N. Security Council resolution stressed the need for all Yemeni parties to commit to resolving their differences through dialogue and to reject violence. The resolution called on the Yemeni parties to comply with the Yemeni president’s appeal to attend a conference in Riyadh sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council and support political transition in Yemen, stressing the Security Council’s support for the negotiations brokered by the U.N.. The resolution called on the secretary general to step up his efforts to resume the political process in Yemen with the participation of all parties.

Once again, it was not easy to get a resolution like this passed by the Security Council. The Saudi ambassador refused to be drawn into confrontation with Russia that would lead it to wield its veto power. He was confident Russia would join the consensus even at the toughest movement, and refused to act unilaterally as he always praised collective diplomacy by the ambassadors of the Arab countries who were engaged daily in difficult and complex negotiations.

Moving forward

During the negotiations, two Arab U.N. envoys in particular had a prominent role. In addition to the president of the Security Council Dina Kawar, the Qatari Ambassador and current president of the GCC Alia bint Ahmad Al Thani played an exceptional role as well the UAE ambassador Lana Nusseibeh. The ambassador of Oman Lyutha Mughairy also took part in the negotiations, along with the Kuwaiti Ambassador Mansour al-Otaibi, the Bahraini ambassador Jamal al-Robai, and the Yemeni ambassador Khaled al-Yamani.

The U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar is aware that his efforts in Yemen were met with firm criticism from the Gulf countries, and that the secretary general is now ready to look for a replacement, bearing in mind that Benomar is himself now ready to leave the post. Benomar had wagered on the good intentions of the Houthis, and thought that he could build on that. However, he soon found himself to be the victim of miscalculations and bad wagers. What also hurt his efforts was that members of his team spoke in a way that exceeded their remit, stating their personal opinions when it was their duty to avoid incitement based on their political whims.

Now, the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has to devise a new mission for his special envoy regardless if Benomar will continue temporality or will be replaced by a new envoy. He must act quickly instead of taking his time in the slow bureaucratic style. Yemen cannot tolerate this. Ban Ki-moon is required to seize the opportunity presented by the Security Council through two parallel measures: Appointing a new envoy and a new team as soon as possible; and asking the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia to feed the political strategy with a lot of seriousness and readiness to rectify certain positions.

What is meant here is the necessary frankness in order to be alert not only to who should be excluded in Yemen but also to who benefits in a de facto way or as a party that can be taken advantage of tactically – meaning al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is no way to benefit from al-Qaeda, which is a pariah for Saudi Arabia, the Arab countries, the regional countries, and the world. However, it is necessary not to fall into the trap of benefiting temporarily from the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. This is a trap that will lead to exacerbating the Yemeni-Yemeni, Gulf-Gulf, and Gulf-Egyptian differences. Any mistake in this regard would be a grave one. For this reason, Saudi diplomacy must not give any impression, whether a correct or a false impression, that it is making new alliances in Yemen that include restoring the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, because this would plant seeds for a dispute with the Egyptian ally and the Emirati ally equally.

The U.N. Security Council resolution gives Saudi Arabia a chance to draft a creative policy. Perhaps it will attract a qualitatively different international mediation, possibly based on the Turkish-Iranian rush to mediate in Yemen despite all its disadvantages. What matters is that there is a dire need for a sophisticated and earnest strategy on Yemen, after Pakistan’s reversal on joining the coalition, which could be a blessing because it lessens the ostensible sectarianism factor and the claim that there is a so-called Sunni alliance for Yemen. What matters is that Saudi diplomacy has to make progress on both the military and political tracks.

This means that Saudi diplomacy has to prepare two parallel mechanisms: a mechanism for the political process in Yemen and a mechanism for supporting Yemeni infrastructure and the Yemeni people and economy. There is no room for complacency and mistakes. This is a crucial phase not only for Yemen but also for Saudi Arabia. A military achievement is extremely important because losing in the military strategy has serious consequences for Yemen and could exhaust Saudi Arabia if it is drawn into the Yemeni quagmire. Success in the war in Yemen is costly but failing is deadly. However, success requires more than accomplishing the military part of the strategy.

One of the ways the situation could be rectified in Yemen to avoid it becoming a quagmire is frankness between the GCC countries and the Obama administration, which is supporting the Arab coalition in Yemen reservedly, while avoiding to criticize the Iranian support for the Houthis. It is time to let Washington know that dithering and reserve over Yemen are unacceptable, and that there are international resolutions that prohibit Iran from offering any military support for entities beyond its borders – in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and anywhere else. If for pragmatic considerations the U.S. overlooks the situation in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, this will not be acceptable in Yemen.
The other way is to find a format or framework to talk to Iran about its roles in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, especially as Tehran is in an important stage of the nuclear relations with Washington. This requires drafting a comprehensive strategy with one dimension involving the Obama administration, one involving the U.S. Congress, and one with the Arab countries led by Iraq.

What Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in his meeting with a small group of U.S. reporters in Washington is not helpful in the context of the Saudi-Iraqi relationship or the Gulf-Iraqi relationship. Perhaps he thought that the statements would not be attributed to him or that they would be useful with an American audience. Either way, this is not the time to escalate but the time to be frank. Perhaps what Abadi said was necessary in the context of forging necessary understandings between the Gulf nations and Iraq, not only with regard to the Iranian role in Iraq but also in terms of the role of the Gulf countries in fighting ISIS and the nature of the desired long-term Gulf-Iraq-Iran relationship.

Indeed, this is the time of accord and careful diplomacy, and not the time of confrontation for confrontation’s sake. Even in the military strategy, there should be preparations for political and economic action. Otherwise, perdition.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 17, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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