Is the Yemen War Finally Ending?

"The way the current conflict has strengthened regionalist feelings in Yemen is one of the key aspects the US government and all other international players concerned about the country’s future should bear in mind."

Earlier this week, Yemen’s Houthi rebels wrote the UN Secretary-General to affirm their commitment to both the seven-point peace plan brokered by the UN during talks in Muscat, Oman, and to relevant UN Security Council resolutions. While for various reasons this news should be met with a good dose of caution, it is a promising development in the search for a political solution to Yemen’s tragic conflict.

Some of the points of the peace plan negotiated in the Omani capital were translated into Security Council resolution 2216 this April, which was endorsed by both the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition. Among other conditions, it demands the end of hostilities, the withdrawal of Houthi militias and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen’s cities, and the return of arms and equipment seized from the military. It also includes the restoration of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and the conversion of the Houthis into a political party.

While resolution 2216 offers a door to a political settlement to the current conflict, there is the risk of different interpretations of the terms of the UN-brokered peace deal. The Houthi leadership has been consistently unreliable regarding all agreements and negotiations it has entered since September 2014, when the group took over the capital, Sanaa. One example was the collapse, due to the uninterrupted attacks by Houthi forces on state institutions, of the UN-sponsored Peace and National Partnership Agreement signed last year by all Yemeni factions.

Another possible obstacle to the implementation of a political settlement is the presence of the still powerful and influential Saleh, the former president who ruled Yemen for 33 years. His party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has also accepted the UN-brokered peace plan and resolution 2216, in an emailed statement. So far it is unclear whether Saleh has endorsed that statement in a desperate attempt to save face, or if it represents recognition by his own political supporters that his days are numbered.

Nevertheless, Saleh’s ability to wreak havoc should not be underestimated. It was Saleh’s violation of the GCC-backed transition plan of November 2011 that plunged Yemen into chaos. Under the terms of the deal following Yemen’s uprisings, Saleh was allowed to return to Yemen with immunity on the condition that he transfer power to his vice-president and stay away from politics.

Without the backing of Saleh and his loyalists in the army and the powerful Republican Guard, the Houthis would not have been able to reach so far and resist against pro-government and Arab coalition forces for so long. The former president, who fought six wars against the Houthis with devastating consequences for Yemen’s northern population, lured the Houthis into a war alliance with two objectives: re-asserting an influence he never really lost and exacting revenge on his political enemies, chiefly the pro-Hadi faction and the leadership of the al-Islah Party (a coalition of various tribal and Islamist groups).

The unreliability both Saleh and the Houthi leadership have displayed has rendered the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition deeply suspicious of any efforts by the Houthi–Saleh alliance to implement peace agreements. Moreover, Iran’s longstanding ties to and support for the Houthis, which many Yemen observers underestimate, add another cause for suspicion, especially from the Saudi perspective. However, the Houthis’ and the GPC’s declared willingness to abide by the terms of a peace plan comes in the context of important gains on the ground by pro-government and coalition forces. This offers some hope that the Yemen conflict could be set for a breakthrough.