As the US’s new envoy for Yemen heads to the region this week, he is coming from quiet consultations with representatives of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The US and Russia’s ability to coordinate and find common ground at the UN will be particularly critical for the prospects for peace in Yemen. And there may just be an opportunity for progress.
Tensions between the US and Russia are generally bad news for the Middle East. One of the region’s main problems is the involvement of regional and international powers on different sides of each conflict, pursuing their own geopolitical advantage. This tends to prolong conflicts that might be more easily settled if local interests were prioritised. Most obviously, the wars in Syria and Libya have become more brutal and intractable as they have become increasingly internationalised multi-level conflicts.
Russia and the US found common ground on the JCPOA with Iran. Yemen may be another area for pragmatic cooperation on the basis of common interest.
Russia and the US found common ground on the JCPOA with Iran. Yemen may be another area for pragmatic cooperation on the basis of common interest. Jane Kinninmont
But there are areas of common interest. Russia and the US found common ground on the JCPOA with Iran. Yemen may be another area for pragmatic cooperation on the basis of common interest. The war there is entering its sixth year, and has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Nearly half the population do not know when they will next eat. Meanwhile, the warring parties continue to wrangle over the terms of a possible ceasefire. As the Biden administration has shifted US policy on Yemen, and placed fresh priority on making peace there, the US and Russia both have reasons to help secure an exit for Saudi Arabia and make space for the slower work of national peacebuilding. This is a rare area where both countries may be able to find a win-win, in support of UN peacemaking efforts and a power-sharing solution that fundamentally needs to be devised by Yemenis in all their political and regional diversity, not micromanaged from abroad like the tortuous Syrian constitutional process.
Biden used his first presidential foreign policy speech to announce the administration would end its support to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has slowly but consistently risen up the political and media agenda in the US thanks in part to the concerted efforts of civil society advocates from Yemen and international humanitarian organisations. The administration is reviewing some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To facilitate badly needed aid, prevent famine and make space for dialogue, the Biden administration has reversed the Trump administration’s last-minute designation of the Houthis, who control the north of the country, as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. This month, 70 Democrats called on the administration to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its restrictions on Yemen’s food and fuel imports.
The administration retains close security relationships with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Gulf. But it is seeking to rebalance its priorities, not least because the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen appears to Western governments to be an unwinnable war that has only made Saudi Arabia more vulnerable to the Houthis’ missile attacks. Saudi Arabia’s rationale for intervening in Yemen was to stop the perceived threat of Iranian regional expansion in their backyard. But while the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has complicated the conflict in Yemen, it should not be the main lens to analyse the conflict there. The local dynamics are far more complex, given the multiple groups vying for power and the longstanding domestic drivers of conflict. Iran’s influence has grown during the war, but Iranian and Houthi interests remain distinct.
Moreover, Russian and Iranian interests in Yemen are very different. Russia never endorsed the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, but neither has it outright opposed it. It abstained from UN Resolution 2216, which called on the Houthis to withdraw and disarm, and which Saudi Arabia argues provides the legal basis for its military intervention. Russia has relations across a wide range of political groupings in Yemen, and wants to hedge its bets there. Regionally, it wants to strengthen its relations with Saudi Arabia as well as maintaining its ties to Tehran; this is a difficult balancing act, but easier for Russia than the US, as the Gulf states do not expect Russia to underwrite their security. Russia also has close ties to the UAE; although the UAE has a close security relationship with the US, it shares a number of Russian views about the dangers both of political Islam and of “destabilising” democracy movements, and was the first Gulf country to normalise relations with the Syrian government after the outbreak of war.
Naturally, Russia would like to play a wider role in the Middle East – and access more lucrative markets – than it can do simply by siding with Iran and Syria. It has sought for some years to build up its relations with Saudi Arabia: Putin was the first Russian leader to visit the kingdom, as far back as 2007, and returned in 2019. Russia’s entry into the Syrian war caused a visceral rift under King Abdullah. Cooperation has grown in more recent years, including – on and off – on oil policy. For Saudi Arabia, Russia is a useful economic partner, and while it cannot offer major assistance on the security front, it is also a useful hedge to pressure the US for support. Gulf official interlocutors sometimes like to sigh, “We wish our partners were as dedicated to our needs as Russia was to the Syrian government’s”. For its part, Russia takes a pragmatic approach to the US-dominated Gulf, offering itself as an additional option to consider for Gulf states seeking to diversify their foreign relations with new friends unconcerned with human rights, rather than any maximalist effort to wean countries away from the US.
Another area of common ground is that both Russia and the US support the UN as the most legitimate international actor to facilitate Yemen’s peace process. The UN’s peacemaking efforts in Syria were badly hampered by the stark divide between Russia and the US at the Security Council. By contrast, Russia and the US may be able to find common ground with other UNSC members on an updated UN resolution to succeed 2216, and to flesh out what a national ceasefire would involve, considering both the security needs of Yemen’s neighbours and the humanitarian and economic needs of all of Yemen’s people. Such a ceasefire call could be linked to the existing UNSC call for a global ceasefire to facilitate Covid-19 vaccine rollouts. It would need the support and involvement not only of the Houthis and the internationally recognised Hadi government, but political leaders from a wider range of factions and regions, including the south, and including women, whose active involvement will be vital to any lasting peace.
By contrast, the least desirable outcome would be for Yemen to become another hostage to US-Russian relations. There is clearly a high risk that these will deteriorate still further following the recent standoff over Russian interference in US elections, Biden’s interest in speaking up for democracy, and the rumbling of tensions around both Ukraine and Syria. But it is likely that the US will want to cooperate with Russia on limited areas where it can do so, notably on arms control.
On Yemen, their focus should be on empowering the UN to agree a ceasefire and start to build a new political settlement. They should not seek to dictate the details of Yemen’s future power-sharing arrangements, which could inject yet another dose of international geopolitics that the country does not need. But they should recognise the need for more inclusive multi-party talks to take the country’s political fragmentation and regional diversity into account. Fortunately, it seems that Russia, the US and most international players recognise that the solution for Yemen will be power-sharing, not the absolute victory of any political grouping—not least because none of the parties have the capacity to govern the diverse and damaged country singlehandedly. Their ambassadors and envoys to Yemen should press home this message that a military victory is an illusion.
For its part, China is less of a political actor in Yemen but has consistently called for a UN-facilitated ceasefire. It avoids commenting in detail on Yemeni politics, but its economic interests would favour a more peaceful Red Sea region and a reduction to risks to shipping in the Bab Al Mandab, and a broader reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A Russia-US understanding on Yemen won’t by itself solve the increasingly fragmented civil war. But such an understanding could help to get the regional players to pull back, and help the UN to renew and expand talks with the firm backing of a united Security Council. By doing so it could create valuable space for intra-Yemeni negotiations to begin to end the war.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image: United Nations OCHA