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The Barriers to Achieving Diplomatic Peace in Yemen

Patrick O’Gorman

While the world revelled in the glories of the World Cup, 6,000 kilometres away operation ‘Golden Victory’ was in motion. The operation was a military offensive spearheaded by the Saudi-led coalition that would determine the future occupation of the Hodeida – a port city located in the Yemen’s western region of Tahamh. The city is currently occupied by Houthi rebels, who persist in outright rebellion against exiled Yemeni President Hadid, and who control substantial swaths of Yemen; including the capital of Sanaa’a. Consequently, this operation may mark a turning point in the conflict, and could potentially result in one-of-two disparate outcomes; either the strengthening of diplomatic endeavours to conclude the conflict, or in the largest humanitarian crisis in world history.


In 2014, the Houthi’s – a Zaydi Shi’a group allegedly supported by Iran – assumed control over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, occupying it as their stronghold ever since. Hodeida, sitting Southwest to Sanaa, exists as a comparatively minor and unimportant city by comparison with a population of no more than 600,000 Yemenis. However, Hodeida is strategically located on the edges of the Red Sea, and exists as the only port city not blockaded by the Saudi coalition. This port city resides as the lone gate of entry for UN shipments consisting of crucial international aid in the form of medication and food supplies.

The 22 million people of Yemen are desperately dependent on these convoys, due to widespread destruction of infrastructure wrought by the ongoing civil conflict, and predominantly attributed to attacks by Saudi forces facing intensified international scrutiny. After nearly a decade of political turmoil, Yemen is considered the most impoverished country in the Middle East, and has been referred to by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Yemeni civilians are critically dependent international aid shipments, to the extent that should the present conflict consume such supply ports as Hodeida as collateral damage, it could potentially lead to millions of deaths from starvation and disease. Already, the spread of diphtheria and cholera has resulted in over 2,000 deaths, in addition to the 10,000 civilian deaths directly attributable to the conflict.

Promising signs

Over the past several weeks, most of the conflict has been situated 14 kilometres north of the ports near Hodeida Airport, which the Saudi coalition successfully seized from the rebels. However, the coalition is reluctant to proceed further into the city, as they doubt their tactical abilities in hand-to-hand combat against the Houthis.

While the port of Hodeida has been recognized by both sides as integral in addressing civilian needs, they have half-heartedly agreed that the port will be kept away from the conflict. Currently, a temporary ceasefire has been brokered, but the time-frame of the ceasefire is quickly coming to its end. Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy to Yemen, has reportedly conferred with officials from both sides separately during the ceasefire to broker an indefinite peace agreement. However, Mr. Griffiths faces an uphill battle in his attempts to establish a permanent and lasting peace regime.

Diplomacy or crisis?

Public comments on the conflict in Hodeida are mixed. Iranian state TV carried President Rouhani’s stance that continued military conflict will only exacerbate the turmoil, and that diplomatic dialogue remains the only means for a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, should it be true that Iran is supplying the Houthis with weapons to further their interests, then this rhetoric from the Iranian President opens the possibility of an imminent conclusion to this conflict – with the possibility of Iran limiting the provision of supplies to the Houthis.

Conversely, similar discourse from the Saudi-led coalition has been concerning. UAE defence secretary Anwar Gargash has stated that successful negotiations with the Houthis are not possible unless they give up complete control of Hodeida. This is certainly to fall on deaf ears with the Houthis, as the port city is not only critical for it supplies and financial stability, but relinquishing the city would see the Houthis retreating North to Sa’ada and Sanaa, thus losing considerable territory in the West.

What remains certain is that Saudi Arabia will not surrender its advancements, nor withdraw support for President Hadi, as a Saudi sympathetic government undermines Iranian interests in the region. A victory in Hodeida for the Saudi coalition will further limit weapons shipments to the Houthis, weapons which were used to attack in Riyadh in late 2017.

The US will also continue to support the Saudi coalition, as the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Senate rejected a bipartisan vote to limit military support for the coalition. While recent reports have suggested that American diplomats are pushing for the coalition to broker a peace plan, it is doubtful they invest significant political capital in this endeavour. The US will remain hesitant to assuming measures which would potentially upset significant regional allies – such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia – especially if the Trump administration is attempting to persuade the Saudis to increase oil production to limit rising global prices.

Matthew Dempsey, a national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign relations, points out that limited neutral parties could play a pivotal role in brokering a ceasefire. Indeed, the US remains overly-aligned with the Saudi coalition, thus undermining their diplomatic neutrality in the eyes of the Houthis. Further, the US’ role in peace talks is expected to be minimal, as their exit from the UN Human Right’s Council has made their relationship with the global body rather fragile. Indeed, the UN remains as the only suited mediator, placing a considerable amount of responsibility and pressure on UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and his team to foster public confidence in the UNs capacity to broker such talks.

The way ahead?

Fortunately, the Houthis are open to the idea of handing over management of the ports to a UN envoy to ensure aid is delivered to Yemen’s civilians. However, the unwillingness to accept compromise over the control and administration Hodeida by both parties will severely limit diplomatic negotiations.

Implicitly, the Saudi-led coalition is aiming to force the Houthis to the negotiating table, knowing that the Houthis losing Hodeida will be crushing blow to their political legitimacy. However, the coalition cannot expect a bilateral ceasefire when one party is only sitting at the table with their hands tied. The conflict arose out of the Houthis’ exclusion from Yemeni political affairs, economic and social marginalisation, and rising Sunni influence. If they are coerced to the negotiating table, it will only exacerbate tensions and result in further future conflict. It is essential that a post-conflict government must provide political representation to the Houthis, which will stumble if the Houthis are forced to negotiations with little to no leverage in implementing desired outcomes.

The assassination of then-President Saleh by the Houthis in late 2017 certainly detracts from the Houthis’ claims of political legitimacy. Recent ballistic missile attacks by the Houthis targeting Riyadh have certainly exacerbated tensions, and left little space for the coalition to be sympathetic to the Houthi’s demands. Inevitably, the Houthis may be forced to accept a Yemeni government under the current coalition-backed President Hadi at the helm. However, President Hadi and the coalition must also accept further representation of the Houthis in government to ensure lasting political stability.