When Saudi Arabia’s then-Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman launched Operation Decisive Storm against the ‘Houthis’ in March 2015, he assumed the military operation would bring an easy victory that would help confirm his eventual promotion to crown prince and future king.
Instead, it became a public relations debacle, as Saudi Arabia not only publicly brutalized a desperate and impoverished population but also proved incapable of defeating a “ragtag” group of rebels despite billions of dollars of US military hardware. The Saudis’ recent willingness to negotiate a cease-fire reflects their weakened position.
Yet the reason the Saudis feel ready to engage and the ‘Houthis’ does not lie in the terms of the negotiation. Blinken failed to acknowledge that the Saudis’ cease-fire proposal, as well as the terms offered by US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking in March, impose harsh terms on the ‘Houthis’. The US and Saudi claim that they are pursuing peace is less than honest, because the plans they’ve offered the ‘Houthis’ could encourage them to keep fighting rather than accept a truce.
To end a war, the victors usually dictate terms to the losers. Imposing maximalist demands on the victors is futile: They will simply continue fighting.
To understand today’s impasse, some diplomatic history is essential. The framework for all international negotiations on Yemen remains United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216. The Security Council passed Resolution 2216 in April 2015, just after the Saudis led a military coalition to try to expel the ‘Houthis’ from territories they had seized.
The resolution defines the ‘Houthis’ as the primary belligerent in Yemen’s conflict. It established a UN mechanism to review imports to Yemen in order to prevent smuggling weapons to the ‘Houthis’, which Saudi Arabia uses to justify its ongoing blockade. Most significantly, Resolution 2216 demands that the ‘Houthis’ relinquish their weapons and territorial gains. But, given the present situation on the battlefield, the ‘Houthis’ will reject any negotiation based on these outdated terms.
Resolution 2216 reflects conditions in Yemen six years ago, when it still seemed possible for Yemen to return to a UN-supported political transition process that the ‘Houthis’ disrupted by seizing Sanaa in late 2014. It does not reflect today’s balance of power.
The UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council became involved in Yemen’s political transition following months of Arab Spring protests throughout 2011. At their urging and in exchange for amnesty, Ali Abdullah Saleh eventually relinquished Yemen’s presidency in February 2012. Saleh’s political party backed his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who ran unopposed in a presidential election that the Houthis and southern separatist groups boycotted.
Hadi was to serve as interim president for two years and oversee Yemen’s democratic transition, including its National Dialogue Conference from March 2013 to January 2014. The National Dialogue intended to establish the framework for a new constitution, and its inclusion of women and young people received international praise.
Yet the outcome of the National Dialogue did not satisfy the ‘Houthis’ nor southern separatists, groups that had been marginalized under Saleh’s rule. Saleh had defeated southern separatists in 1994 when the former South Yemen tried to secede, and he largely excluded them from power. Likewise, between 2004 and 2010, Saleh fought a series of wars with the ‘Houthis’ to crush their growing movement. After he was ousted from power, Saleh aligned with the ‘Houthis’ to try to reclaim control. The ‘Houthis’ accepted Saleh because he bolstered their forces with units of the Yemeni military still loyal to him, although they assassinated him in 2017 after he tried to betray them.
With Saleh’s support, the ‘Houthis’ took control of Sanaa and forced Hadi to resign. After fleeing to the Yemeni city of Aden and later to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Hadi rescinded his resignation, but since 2015 he has been president in name only. He requested that the Saudis intervene, an action that the UN Security Council affirmed with its subsequent resolution. The Saudis justify their actions in Yemen as intended to reinstate Hadi, as Resolution 2216 stipulates.
The groups that felt Yemen’s National Dialogue did not sufficiently address their concerns—the ‘Houthis’ and the southern separatists—resorted to violence to advance their own agenda; these groups are now positioned to dictate Yemen’s political future. For many Yemenis, especially those who strived to implement their country’s nonviolent and relatively inclusive political transition, giving in to the ‘Houthis’ is unacceptable.
Yet because Resolution 2216 reflects unrealistic and outdated demands, it merely prolongs the conflict and prevents effective negotiation. The ‘Houthis’ are winning in the north, while southern separatist groups such as the Southern Transitional Council hold sway in the south, with significant help from the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, competing militias continue to multiply, because violence offers the only means of accessing resources and a possible seat at a future negotiating table. The National Dialogue Conference had agreed to a federal system for Yemen, yet federalism may give way to complete fragmentation. The longer the war lasts, the more the country splinters, and peace grows more elusive.
Why, then, is Resolution 2216 still in place? Under the previous US administration, President Donald Trump’s antipathy toward Iran translated into unconditional support for the Saudis. His successor, President Joe Biden, has an opportunity to use US influence on the Security Council to push for a new resolution. Opposition is not likely to come from Russia or China: Russia abstained from the Security Council’s vote on Resolution 2216 and would welcome a new resolution. China has cultivated relations with all parties to the conflict and is unlikely to oppose an update.
Instead, opposition may arise from US allies: The United Kingdom is the penholder for Yemen at the Security Council, meaning that it initiates all UN actions pertaining to Yemen. Last year, the British government drastically cut humanitarian aid for Yemen, raising questions about the UK’s fitness to decide Yemen’s fate.
As long as Resolution 2216 remains the framework for negotiations, it will continue to impede progress by allowing the Saudis to justify their actions as condoned by the UN, while dissuading the ‘Houthis’ from negotiating. A new resolution is necessary and should be guided by three principles: restore sovereignty, prevent meddling, and encourage inclusivity.
The current 2216 framework justifies the ongoing involvement of foreign actors in Yemen; the new resolution must emphasize Yemeni sovereignty. It should affirm Yemen’s control over its own ports and borders. The resolution should require the withdrawal of all foreign militaries from Yemen, including the illegitimate military presence of Saudi Arabia in Mahrah governorate, as well as that of the UAE on the islands of Mayun and of Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yet in confirming Yemen’s oversight over its territory, the resolution should also emphasize Yemen’s responsibility toward its neighbors, such as condemning the ‘Houthis’’ missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The resolution should have mechanisms to prevent future instances of foreign meddling in Yemen’s affairs. An arms embargo on providing weapons to any Yemeni faction would target the involvement of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran. To help incentivize foreign actors to foster peace in Yemen, the resolution should stipulate that the arms embargo be lifted once a cease-fire has been upheld for a year. The United States, the UK, and France—all of which profit from the sale of weapons laying waste to Yemen—must reckon with the damage they caused, such as by helping to reconstruct decimated infrastructure.
Finally, the resolution must prioritize inclusivity by encouraging the participation of all relevant groups in negotiations over Yemen’s future. It should acknowledge the grievances of the many people brutalized by Yemen’s previous dysfunction and present violence. Yet the UN must not dictate the terms to resolve all outstanding issues in Yemen’s civil war: These should be left to the Yemenis, lowering the bar for all sides to start negotiations.
Speaking about Yemen, Biden said on Feb. 4, “This war must end.” Yet unless he uses US influence at the UN to push for a new Security Council resolution, the United States is upholding conditions that perpetuate conflict.
Continuing to use Resolution 2216 as the basis for international negotiation reflects a tacit willingness to prolong the conflict, in the vain hope that the ‘Houthis’ might eventually concede to negotiations. In the meantime, the World Food Program estimates that 400,000 Yemeni children under 5 are likely to die of starvation in 2021—approximately one child every 80 seconds.