On January 30, the UN’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, claimed that the fragile ceasefire in Yemen was holding and that Saudi Arabia remained intent on negotiating a resolution to the country’s four year long civil war. This statement sparked immediate controversy and was implicitly rejected by Saudi-led coalition representatives, who accused the Houthis of backtracking on their pledge to withdraw from the port city of Hodeidah.
The UN’s struggle to broker a peace settlement between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition through multilateral diplomacy is unsurprising, as conditions on the ground in Yemen favor continued confrontation, and do not point to a swift resolution of the conflict. Even though UN diplomats have emphasized the need for intra-Yemeni dialogue, representatives from both parties continue to issue statements that are inflammatory and counterproductive for peace. The Saudi-led coalition continues to delegitimize the Houthis by describing them as an “Iran-backed terrorist organization” and a “criminal militia,” while Houthi representatives persistently invoke the need to resist the “Saudi occupation” of Yemen in their official media broadcasts.
This hostile rhetoric breeds mistrust and has encouraged both sides of the conflict to retaliate disproportionately to perceived provocations. On December 18, Saudi-led coalition forces reacted to Houthi mortar bomb and rocket launches in the eastern suburbs of Hodeidah by targeting the Houthi-occupied al-Dailami airbase in Sana’a. Houthi rebel forces engaged in a similar escalation on January 10, when a Houthi drone targeted a Yemeni military parade in Aden, killing Yemen’s intelligence chief Brigadier General Saleh Tamah and six military personnel.
In addition to the ongoing risk of a military escalation in Yemen, the overwhelming focus of the UN-backed negotiations on Hodeidah risks sidestepping other flashpoints for conflict. In particular, early December’s peace talks in Stockholm excluded the Southern Movement, a UAE-aligned south Yemeni separatist organization that governs Aden through its political wing, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). As south Yemeni separatists are confident of winning an independence referendum and have proven their effectiveness on the battlefield, there is a growing risk that the Southern Movement could intensify its use of force to gain a seat at the bargaining table.
As inter-factional hostilities and the exclusion of the Southern Movement have reduced the prospects of an imminent UN-brokered resolution of the Yemen war, there is a growing need for parallel-track negotiations to facilitate dialogue between various factions in Yemen. These negotiations should emphasize crucial issues neglected by the UN peace talks, like the status of southern Yemen and power-sharing possibilities, and ameliorate distrust between various Yemeni factions, by encouraging dialogue without preconditions. Russia is ideally placed to lead a parallel-track mediation initiative in Yemen, as it is the only great power that maintains close relations with all major factions of the conflict, including the Southern Movement, and has a vested interest in stabilizing Yemen.
Although Russia continues to recognize the legitimacy of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government, its abstention from UN Resolution 2216 in April 2015, which singled out the Houthis as “spoilers of peace,” and willingness to welcome Houthi representatives to Moscow for diplomatic negotiations, has allowed it to cultivate an image of impartiality in the Yemen conflict. Russia’s image of being an impartial, yet constructive, stakeholder has been further entrenched by its successful efforts to ameliorate tensions between rival south Yemeni factions, and recognition that Yemen is divided along both regional and sectarian lines.
The praise that Griffiths lavished on Russia’s mediation role in Yemen, in a recent interview with Sputnik, and calls from a senior Houthi representative in November to make Moscow a venue for intra-Yemeni peace talks, underscore Russia’s positive contributions to the Yemen conflict resolution process. If Russia can complement UN-backed peace talks with an independent dialogue facilitation initiative, Moscow could increase its prestige within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and gain access to fresh investments and arms contracts from the Gulf monarchies. Contributing to the stabilization of Yemen could also bolster Russia’s chances of securing a Red Sea military base and enhance Moscow’s access to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait’s lucrative commercial routes. These potential gains suggest that Russia could benefit greatly from expanding its dialogue facilitation role in Yemen.
Although UN diplomats have publicly expressed confidence in the longevity of the Stockholm ceasefire deal, conditions on the ground in Yemen point to a bleaker and more uncertain set of outcomes. A Russian-led parallel track mediation effort could complement the UN-backed negotiations by acting as an impartial forum for cross-factional dialogue and make Moscow an indispensable stakeholder in yet another major conflict in the Middle East.