Peace talks for the war in Yemen have been underway for a few days now in Sweden between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Yemeni government. They are not meeting directly but are both in the same hotel with the UN conducting shuttle diplomacy.
There are properly low expectations for these talks and the impetus is the humanitarian crisis in the country. One of the goals is to open up the main port at Hodeidah to international control so more aid can get into the country and weapons shipments can be stopped.
Let’s take a look at the current state of things:
They have been fighting to depose the government of Yemen and have suffered considerable losses. They do however maintain control of significant portions of the country and most importantly the main port at Hodeidah.
They are backed by Iran who supplies them with weaponry and aid to maintain their operations. These weapons include missiles which have been fired from Houthi-held territory into Saudi Arabia and targeted the international airport in Riyadh.
The Houthis have committed numerous war crimes including recruiting and using child soldiers, stealing and selling aid shipments, mining the land and sea around the main port and arrest and killing of opposition members.
Yemeni Government Forces-
The government still recognized by most international entities is led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi who currently resides in Saudi Arabia. Government forces control approximately 60% of the country but not the constitutional capital city of Sana’a. Government forces are further divided by a separatist movement that seeks to return South Yemen to an independent entity which it was prior to 1990.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)-
also operates in the government-held territory in the South and has conducted attacks to assert itself. Although AQAP is formally opposed to the House of Saud who rule Saudi Arabia they have been involved in some actions against the Houthis.
Saudi/United Arab Emirates coalition-
This effort began in 2015 in response to requests from Yemeni President Hadi for assistance against the Houthi attacks. The existence of a Shia insurgency on its border was problematic for the Saudis and they assembled a group of 9 countries to join in support of the embattled President Hadi. The additional factor of Iran’s support and coordination with the Houthi was another major consideration for this coalition.
Saudi Arabia has been the largest supplier of food to Yemen for more than 30 years. They have greatly increased relief efforts and pledged $500 BN in aid in November.
Ending the Conflict-
The war in Yemen has been ongoing since that time and the death and destruction has been significant. The larger issue has been a humanitarian crisis caused largely by a famine but exacerbated by the war. This is a primary driver of the pressure to hold these peace talks and to end the fighting.
There is considerable pressure on the Saudi/UAE coalition to end their campaigns and to negotiate a peace with the Houthis. But peace cannot come at any cost and there are significant risks to a settlement that leaves the Iranian-linked Houthis in control of ports and strategically significant territory.
Iran already sits on the Straits of Hormuz one of three major outlets for oil from the region. If they gain a perch on the second major shipping route, the Bab al Mandeb Strait adjacent to Yemen, that would leave no southern shipping lanes and only the Suez Canal as an unthreatened entrance or exit. SSG has noted this is an unacceptable outcome for both the countries in the region as well as the United States and has been the major driver behind US support and assistance to the Saudi/UAE coalition.
The Houthis themselves are very extreme anti-American and anti-Israel and the motto on their flag says this explicitly.
“God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”
They made this abundantly clear as they went into these peace talks in a statement released by their Supreme Revolutionary Committee that calls for the Gulf Arab states to leave them in power in Yemen and focus on fighting Israel to help the Palestinians.
“We also call upon them to rebuild and repair the damage and not to prioritise the war against Yemen, but rather commit to their official declaration of priority and the nation’s first cause, Palestinian. Through a vision that reflects a well-established and stable reality in which our brothers in Palestine have some relief. This should not be through an invitation to negotiate with an arrogant entity that is rejecting the Arab initiatives and is proceeding with its daily crimes, but to work on lifting the siege, aiding Palestinians and supporting their development.”
The stakes in Yemen are high and while peace that brings an end to the humanitarian crisis is an important goal, it should not come as a victory to the Houthis and Iran. Any agreement that solidifies Houthi control is a free pass for Iran to place more missiles in place that can shut down shipping in a major sea lane for oil exports.
The United States should support the Saudi/UAE coalition and the legitimate government of Yemen, so they can negotiate from a position of strength. We should publicly state our requirement that any peace agreement include removal of all Iranian missiles and a cessation of weapons shipments to the country by Iran. We should also insist that any ports or air terminals currently controlled by the Houthis be turned over to competent international organizations.