The Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts toward ending the war in Yemen are yielding international consensus on the need for a cease-fire and a more inclusive peace process, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking said on February 8. However, Lenderking added, a military offensive by Houthi rebels is a major obstacle to those peace efforts. 

A Yemeni military policeman stands atop the rubble of a former school in the Hairan district of Yemen. January 21, 2019. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A Yemeni military policeman stands atop the rubble of a former school in the Hairan district of Yemen. January 21, 2019. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Lenderking delivered the keynote remarks at an event co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He said U.S. diplomatic efforts have resulted in “two important building blocks to pave the way for peace in Yemen.” First, he said, “we have growing international consensus on the need for a cease-fire and a political solution.” And second, he added, “we have momentum around a more inclusive peace process that takes into account diverse views across Yemen and seeks to amplify the voices of the vast majority of Yemenis who are calling for an end to the fighting.”

The war in Yemen, which started in 2015 and involves the Ansar Allah movement, known more widely as the Houthis, on one side and a Saudi-led coalition on the other, has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, displaced many more and pushed a large part of the country’s population into poverty and food insecurity. These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Biden appointed Lenderking as his special envoy in February 2021. Lenderking most recently traveled to Gulf capitals last month to urge the parties to deescalate and protect all civilians, support a United Nations-led inclusive peace process and do more to mitigate the humanitarian and economic crises facing Yemenis.

A Complex War

The war has its roots in the failed political process following the 2011 Arab Spring that forced the country’s authoritarian ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. As Hadi struggled to govern, the Houthis, sensing an opportunity, seized territory in the north and eventually the capital Sana‘a in 2014 with the support of forces loyal to Saleh. Hadi fled into exile in Riyadh where he remains to this day. In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition started carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis with the aim of restoring Hadi to power, but also keeping Iranian influence in check. Saudi Arabia and many others consider the Houthis to be part of an expansionist Iranian agenda in the region.

Last year, the Houthis set their sights on the city of Marib, located in an oil-rich region and a key stronghold of Hadi’s internationally recognized government. Lenderking described the Houthis’ offensive in Marib as “the primary obstacle to peace efforts.” Late last year, Houthi rebels also detained Yemenis who used to work at the U.S. Embassy in Sana‘a. Lenderking said the United States is committed to the safe return of these detainees.

Yemen’s war often spills over into its neighborhood. In January, the Houthis conducted drone and missile strikes against the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE also supports a Yemeni militia named Giant’s Brigade that has dealt setbacks to the Houthis’ plan of taking Marib. Saudi Arabia responded to the strikes on its ally with airstrikes that knocked out the internet and resulted in hundreds of casualties in Yemen. Lenderking described Yemen as being in a state of “escalatory military action.” But, he added, there is no military solution to the conflict.

Noting the complexity of the war, Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said: “By regionalizing, it changed the lethality, intensity and probably the longevity of the war.” She said that while the Hadi government is the internationally recognized government of Yemen, it has very little legitimacy and capacity within Yemen, besides the fact that it has been marked by corruption at a remarkable scale.

Bodine participated in a panel discussion along with Jeehan Abdul Ghaffar, senior advisor to the executive director of the World Bank Group; Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, a former principal economic officer at Yemen’s embassy in Washington; and Auke Lootsma, UNDP Yemen’s resident representative. Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at USIP, moderated that discussion.

‘Yemen’s Future Hangs in the Balance’

The war in Yemen is a “Yemeni-Yemeni conflict,” said Lenderking, adding that the United States believes dialogue, too, must be Yemeni-led. The role of the international community, he said, is to create space for Yemenis to come to the table. 

A new report produced by UNDP Yemen and the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, “Assessing the Impact of War in Yemen: Pathways for Recovery,” projects that if the war were to continue until 2030 as many as 1.3 million people could die.

“Yemen’s future hangs in the balance,” said Mike Yaffe, vice president of USIP’s Middle East and North Africa Center. Pointing to a silver lining in the UNDP report, he said it found that “an integrated approach that empowers women, makes investments in agriculture and leverages the private sector could end extreme poverty in Yemen within a single generation.”

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Khalida Bouzar said the report shows some consequences of the war can be reversed if it is quickly brought to an end. “By 2050, it is possible for Yemen to be a prosperous middle-income country,” she said. However, she added, an “inclusive peace” is critical to such an outcome.

A Path Forward

The UNDP report, the third in a series, analyzes the cost of conflict on development in Yemen. Jonathan D. Moyer, director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, provided an overview of its findings. “This research shows that ending the conflict is the only viable path forward to changing the trajectory of the country,” Moyer said.

The report emphasizes the need for the international community to remain engaged in the post-conflict phase and provide critical development assistance to Yemen. The United Nations estimates it will need $3.9 billion in 2022 to help millions of people in Yemen. Lenderking expressed concern about this gap and urged donors to fulfil their pledges to the people of Yemen. Moyer, meanwhile, underscored the importance of an “integrated recovery” — one that is integrated across different international, regional and local actors as well as across issue areas.

Bodine, who serves as director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, said a key takeaway from the UNDP report is that “if the international community does not engage early, significantly and in a coordinated manner in the recovery of Yemen, then we will see Yemen fall back or not even fully get out of the violence and the destruction.”

Ending the war is going to take a regional and local effort, said Bodine: “Where the international community is critical is to commit to an integrated recovery strategy… If we simply get a peace agreement or a cease-fire, we are going to be back here in a year talking about this again. So, the international community’s focus needs to be on the day after and not solely on ending the war.”

The Role of Women in Peace Building

The UNDP report finds women are indispensable in Yemen’s recovery. Lootsma noted a key takeaway from the report has to do with the role women can play in reducing mortality of children as well as in economic recovery.

Bouzar said: “We need to put women at the center of development and recovery in Yemen and beyond.”

Ghaffar said women’s needs cannot take a backseat during political negotiations and peace talks. She cited the need for a clear strategy that enables women to express their grievances, voice their demands, provide solutions and play an active part in shaping their future. Ghaffar described Yemeni women as the “drivers of change and agents of social cohesion.” If provided with the right skills and support, women can play a positive role in poverty reduction and food security, she contended.

In its work in Yemen, USIP emphasizes the crucial role women play in peacebuilding, and the importance of dealing with issues that are most relevant to women and girls, said Yaffe.

Ghaffar pointed to the damage the war has done to Yemen’s social fabric. “Building infrastructure is the easy part of the recovery process, but rebuilding social cohesion is much more complicated,” she said.

Choosing Peace

Al-Eryani said the war has not only produced devastating effects in Yemen, it is also “contaminating the entire region.” It is critical, he said, to “end the worst aspects of the war in order for us to make meaningful, sustainable development projects.”

Hamasaeed said: “The decision-makers in perpetuating the conflict should ask themselves the hard questions: Do they want to be responsible for almost 1 million more deaths, 22.2 million people in extreme poverty and the loss of over $400 billion? I hope the answer is no and they end the conflict and choose a path for a prosperous future for the Yemenis.”

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