The old Arab proverb, “Ba’da Kharab al-Basra” (“After the destruction of Basra”), is used in situations when help comes too late. In Yemen’s context, should the guns fall silent at this point, the proverb may be apt to describe stopping the war only after tremendous destruction to the country. The English version, “Better late than never,” is a more positive way of looking at the same phenomenon. The war in Yemen should never have taken place, but it did. Now, it is time for an outside power to stop the insanity. The United Nation’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is valiantly trying to corral all sides to peace talks in hopes of ending the war. However, such talks are not likely to succeed without strong support from the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5).
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Houthis are the main adversaries, despite the multiplicity of players on both sides of this equation. Both sides now have come to realize that neither one can achieve absolute victory. The Houthis have been ousted from Aden and much of the south and are under serious threat in Sana’a. They can fight on in Ta’izz but their forces will eventually be isolated and out-gunned. Their traditional home city, Sa’dah, has been severely damaged to the point where life has become difficult, if not impossible for the majority of its population. The Houthis no longer have anything to gain from continuing this war.
On the other hand, KSA has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars a month on this war effort and has imported about as many foreign fighters as are willing to come to Yemen. But as the Saudis, allied with the popular resistance, isolate the Houthis and push them back to the North, the latter have responded with a counter attack inside the Kingdom, threatening not only Saudi cities and military bases but, more importantly, Saudi’s internal stability. If Saudi leadership wants a stable relationship with its southern neighbor, this is the time to end the operation in Yemen. Complete victory through the total humiliation of Yemen’s northern tribes would leave KSA with an angry, impoverished neighbor, severing the diplomatic ties much needed in peacetime.
Both sides, however, seem to be locked into mortal combat and neither side is willing to take obvious, unilateral steps towards an exit from the vicious cycle of violence in which they are stuck, such as: putting an immediate end to the fighting , signing a non-aggression agreement, and holding an internal Yemeni summit.
A third party, an out-of-region force, needs to impose a solution to save the Yemeni people from the humanitarian disaster brought on by the internal, regional and, as more countries send troops to Yemen, increasingly international violence that is being inflicted on them. The five permanent members at the United Nations (P5) form the only group that could effectively undertake this mission.
The steps the P5 must agree on and impose are as follows:
- KSA and the Houthis must simultaneously take steps to completely and immediately end the war; the former to stop the bombing over Yemen completely and immediately, the latter to pull forces out of Ta’izz and all areas south and east of Sana’a.
- Immediate talks to take place in Geneva between KSA and Houthi representatives to agree on steps to disengage their own forces and those supporting them by creating demilitarized zones on the ground. It is imperative in this regard for KSA to pull out any foreign forces it has introduced into Yemen. A non-aggression pledge by both sides should seal this plan.
- Following the previous steps, a Yemeni summit should be held. It is imperative that the summit convene post a Saudi-Houthi agreement in order to reduce the regional military threat which currently complicates the equation.
- The Yemeni summit should be limited to a dozen or so known leaders of factions who have the ability to fight or to cease fighting. A large NDC-type gathering would complicate matters and should only follow a power-sharing agreement between the principal protagonists. The southern Hirak has split into many factions, but at most, five or six leaders could be found to represent the south, along with two to represent the Hadhramaut region. The GPC and Islah should be represented by only one representative each. Saleh is no longer a credible GPC leader and has, through his actions and obstinacy, forfeited the right to represent anyone in Yemen.
- The assembled group should consider a simple and broad agreement based on the main principles of governance: to wit, a decentralized system based on the current twenty two governorates of Yemen, which would avoid the whole controversy over whether to divide Yemen into 2 or 4 or 6 federal districts – a disagreement which precipitated the armed clashes after the National Dialogue Committee finished its work in 2014.
- A security sector reform plan should be adopted with a multi-year step-by step approach to rebuild Yemen’s military institutions. Each side would have to police its fighters until this plan is fully implemented.
- An equitable reconstruction and development plan should be accepted in principle by both the donor community and all Yemeni parties, with the provision that no part of Yemen would be excluded from the plan.
- The donor community should, in turn, commit and contribute to an international development fund and leave it to an international body of experts to design and implement holistic projects for all governorates. For this to succeed, it is imperative to avoid bilateral aid via regional powers, local political actors and individual non-governmental agencies that have no claim to legitimate authority in Yemen . State failure in Yemen is a reality. The country should therefore be treated as if it is in a state of total dependency. There should be no pretense that anyone, least of all president Hadi, could possibly have the national mandate to direct redevelopment plans.
- Finally, a new national charter is needed. A broad agreement of principles, not a fully fleshed out constitution, should guide the nation’s domestic and international policies for the immediate future. A team of Yemeni political elders, respected for their neutrality in this war, could guide the process. The goal of the charter would be to define good governance and foreign policy principles in such a way as to grant all factions and regions in Yemen the
- promise of security, stability and the long term welfare of their constituents.
This mission, should he decide to accept it, is for Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to undertake and push through with the various players. If he drives it to its logical conclusion, he could certainly be a contender for the next Nobel peace prize.
Nabeel A. Khoury
Former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East.