Prospects for Peace Efforts in Light of Military Developments in Marib and Shabwa


Sun, 06-02-2022 06:11 PM, Aden

Fernando Carvajal (Analysis file 6-6)

Current military and political realities on the ground pose greater challenges to efforts by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg. The political equation has now shifted from Houthi demands for bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia and UN structure consisting of delegations from Sana’a and Hadi’s government to inclusion of new actors like the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as its military role expands along new fronts. 

Nearly seven years since the start of the current armed conflict in Yemen, momentum shifts once again raising hope in the prospects of renewed peace efforts. The process that stalled following Stockholm (December 2018), crushing the high hopes for progress, sees new opportunities as Western governments rally behind UN Special Envoy Grundberg and new actors carve their own roles expanding the table. While Houthi rivals in the south and west coast gain momentum on the battlefield, external interference once again could risk losing leverage as fears grow over impact on civilians.

The process to restart peace talks has failed as consequence of two major challenges: leverage has been on Sana’a-based Houthis’ side, giving the rebels the upper hand demanding terms for start of talks; Competing interests within the Unity Government impede a united front against Houthis, which is then leveraged for more favorable terms. Recent developments aim at a new balance, not only shifting the momentum across front lines but also gaining leverage that facilitate a return to the UN framework for peace talks. The international community should recognize the shortcomings of shuttle diplomacy, especially as Houthis continue to reject meetings with Grundberg, and allow Yemeni actors to shape the balance that paves the way back to peace talks.

Goals of Peace

Defining the goals of peace is as complicated as expecting US president Biden to “end the conflict in Yemen.” The UN-led process over the past few years has primarily failed due to a lack of understanding of how each actor defines peace, what each actor expects from an end to the conflict. As long as those trying to facilitate mediation fail to understand the grievances and interests of each actor, their efforts will continue to face challenges that merely prolong the armed conflict.

Efforts to unite Houthi rivals, such as the Riyadh Agreement of 2019, had failed to realize expectations primarily due to hesitation by Saudi Arabia to pressure parties on implementation of the agreements. Now that Saudi Arabia facilitated the replacement of the governor of Shabwa and STC affiliated troops have deployed to Shabwa to engage Houthi forces, the tide has begun to turn. This momentum should lead to a wider political role for southern elements as part of the Unity Government, strengthening confidence among Western powers. The international community may not see escalation against Houthis across frontlines as a preferred option, but they must realize at this point that diplomacy alone will not accelerate a return to the negotiating table.

The new role of southern political and military elements delivers a convincing message to both the Coalition and Western powers; addressing southern grievances facilitates engagement of Houthi forces at their weakest points to begin disrupting their momentum. Prior to Operation South Tornado, launched in late December 2021, military forces under the Legitimate Government had lost large segments of territory to Houthis, government troops abandoned their posts or withdrew to avoid confrontations with Houthis in southern al-Baydha and western Shabwa. By stabilizing southern provinces under implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, southern forces are now able to engage Houthis, who can no longer capitalize from conflict between government factions.

The UN goal of a comprehensive agreement may be far-reaching and following the collapse of the Stockholm plan it is clear that diplomacy alone cannot build confidence among Yemeni parties. Clearly Houthis believe military victories will yield leverage for negotiations, so it would be a huge mistake to dismiss military victories by Houthi rivals as counter-productive to efforts by the UN Special Envoy. There may not be a final military victory in sight, but undoubtedly Houthis will weight their options differently if momentum changes on the ground.

Current Options

Houthi rivals cannot ignore the opening of new opportunities. A problem obstructing a unified front today lies in the approach taken by individual parties, some of which adopt agendas advanced by Western governments in order to gain their support, rather than moving the international community towards the party’s own approach to the conflict, such as what the STC have done in recent months.

Also, the international community remains divided over the approach to the peace process. On the one hand, humanitarian agencies demand prioritizing their operations to address the deepening economic crisis. Over the past seven years, this approach has indirectly contributed to the war economy, prolonging the conflict and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis itself. On the other hand, shuttle diplomacy has merely allowed Houthis and al-Islah time to maneuver and wait for more favorable conditions to advance their individual interests. The collapse of the Stockholm plan, specifically in the cases of the handing over of Hodeida port and the siege on Taiz, have granted Houthis a perceived victory in the eyes of their supporters and maintained their profits through monopolies controlling delivery of humanitarian aid in areas under their control.

The capture of a UAE-flagged merchant ship off the coast of Hodeida and the drone strikes on Abu Dhabi by Houthis are linked to the ongoing battles in southern Marib and western Shabwa. Retaliation by Houthis following defeats at the hands of STC affiliated forces aims to shift public attention, as well as pressure members of the Coalition to withdraw military and political support for rival forces. It is unlikely Coalition members will again withdraw materiel support for southern forces, and surely both Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to engage Iran in order to diminish Houthi threats to their respective territories. It remains to be seen if Tehran is willing to sacrifice progress in talks with the US, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to sustain their relations with Houthis in Sana’a.

Just as the path to peace talks depends on a united front among Yemeni actors, so too does it depend on a unified front among regional and Western powers. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg must exploit current opportunities and coalesce support from the US and European governments if he wants to achieve significant progress early during his tenure. International organizations must also realize that the sooner peace talks begin, the sooner restrictions imposed under UN Security Council Resolution 2216 can be lifted to facilitate delivery of aid and commercial goods.

Fernando Carvajal
Director of Studies at South24 Center (English). An expert in Yemeni politics and tribal relations. He served in the UN Security Council Panel of Experts of Yemen from April 2017 to March 2019

- Photo: Hans Grundberg during his speech at the United Nations (UN)

ShabwaSouth YemenUAEAbu DhabiHouthi AttackSouthern Transitional CouncilSouthern Giants BrigadesYemen