Whether or not the bar is set too low or expectations are being mitigated, one thing is clear: There is reason to believe the conflict in Yemen will continue for much longer than anyone had hoped for.
Anyone who understands the local dynamic in Yemen’s conflict realizes that there is no appetite for peace among the warring parties, all of which have no incentive to negotiate any concessions. The Houthis have nothing to gain if they give up their control over Sanaa or Hodeidah, nor is it in their DNA to give up their weapons. For the government, realizing that the Houthis are now at their weakest since Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death a year ago is increasing the possibilities of internal turmoil and divisions, and their political termination.
This is not the first time that UN-led talks have focused on the optics of a process rather than its outcome. The 2013 National Dialogue Conference (NDC), for example, where Yemenis from different stripes came together, was an event that received excessive praise and optimism, but it failed to bring about the desired results on the ground. The NDC ignored all factors that indicated the impending collapse of the Yemeni state by remaining committed to the process, and not the outcome.
From the UN’s perspective, these consultations aren’t meant to be overburdened with high expectations. The UN is seeking to find piecemeal wins between the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthis, perhaps with the hope of moving toward peace negotiations next year. UN envoy Martin Griffiths may have laid the foundations for these talks, but for now he will focus on helping both parties feel reassured about working together through the introduction of confidence-building measures (CBMs), such as the reopening of Sanaa airport, prisoner exchanges, and economic measures through the Central Bank of Yemen. These measures are not very difficult to agree on because both sides of the aisle have been pressured on them for the past year. Agreement on these measures is therefore highly likely. However, a win on CBMs is not a win for the peace process.
The consultations in Stockholm have received an enormous amount of interest given the failure of September’s Geneva consultations, which the Houthis did not attend. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that peace is around the corner. Griffiths is working overtime to get the parties into binding agreements through the CBMs, which are more likely to be short-term wins. It remains unlikely these will translate into something beyond this step. There is reason to believe that the conflicting parties find it much easier to fight instead of agreeing.
The Houthis do not have any reason to demonstrate flexibility. The international pressure for peace and calls for ending the war are often seen as advantageous for the Houthis because they place the burden firmly on the coalition, without paying much attention to the Houthis’ role in Yemen.
Nevertheless, the UN is continuing unabated with its plans to demonstrate that this should be the trajectory the warring parties should follow. Griffiths is likely to continue with a second round of consultations around his peace framework in 2019.
Another interesting part of the consultations, which might make them less serious, is that they are primarily taking place without the involvement of the regional players. The UN views this as a good step as it keeps things simple and focused on local Yemeni actors, but in reality the war is complex and the role of outside actors, especially Iran, has significant influence over the peace process.
Moreover, while the Arab partners have demonstrated considerable concern over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen through large donations and the backing of Griffiths, Iran is yet to act to help stem the humanitarian crisis in Houthi-controlled areas. Tehran’s calls for a peace plan are extremely vacuous given the destructive role it plays in empowering the Houthi militia and supplying it with ballistic missiles, some of which were fired on Saudi Arabia just days before the consultations. Iran is still believed to be the main hurdle, as it has been using the Houthis to settle political scores with the US.
The consultations in Stockholm are being conducted as a result of tremendous international pressure due to the humanitarian crisis and projections of famine, which create unimaginable suffering among Yemenis. This much is understood, and such calls for a change in the war trajectory are noble. The current external push for peace, even with the realization that it is unattainable for now, is meant to signal that making peace is the only acceptable way forward.
However, politicians must realize that focusing on the process itself without swiftly addressing violations on the ground will ultimately come back to threaten the peace that everyone craves. Politicians must understand that, without the ability to enforce peace on a local level, the consultations will be nothing more than a first step toward a failed peace process.