After more than three years of fighting, Yemen is teetering on the cusp of an even fiercer war. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition is poised for an offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah that could plunge Yemen into greater turmoil, deepen its humanitarian crisis, and provoke a surge in cross-border missile attacks by the Houthi rebels.
The European Union and its member states have a chance to stop the conflict from sliding into a lethal new stage; now is the time to take action. All sides have declared a readiness to engage in talks (with various conditions), but they need to be nudged towards the table before a full-fledged battle for Hodeidah breaks out.
As the outlines of a new UN peace plan have begun to surface, the EU should use the fact that it has maintained decent relationships with the warring parties to resume the UN-led peace process, moribund since 2016. This must be done before an assault on the port that could scuttle potential talks, especially if the rebels make good on their threats to attack coalition warships and oil tankers, or if one of their missile strikes on Saudi Arabia results in high civilian casualties.
Since Houthi rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (their erstwhile wartime ally) in December last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their Yemeni partners have been acting as if the tide has turned in their favour. They have tried to entice Saleh supporters into their camp, encouraged intra-Houthi rifts, and targeted Houthi leadership. In April, they killed Saleh al-Sammad, the de facto Houthi president who was known as a moderate.
On the ground, coalition-backed local forces have achieved some tactical victories since Saleh’s death, especially along the Red Sea coast. But they have failed to decisively shift the military balance to their advantage.
Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis. The port, which has been under an on-off Saudi blockade, is a choke point for goods entering the Houthi-controlled north and a lifeline for the 60 percent of Yemen’s 27 million plus population who live there.
The UN has already called Yemen’s humanitarian crisis the worst in the world. The prolonged fighting that would likely ensue from an assault on Hodeidah would only exacerbate the suffering.
Despite the prospect of intensified warfare, the Houthis have stated publicly and privately their readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and re-engage with the UN process, led by the recently appointed special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. It remains unclear if the Houthis’ newly expressed appetite for talks stems from heightened military pressure or from an increased confidence from the death of Saleh, whom they suspected of dealing with Riyadh behind their backs. Either way, this opportunity for a return to the negotiating table ought not to be squandered.
The EU and its member states are uniquely placed to steer things in that direction. The bloc has maintained working relations with the warring sides, including the Houthis, and is therefore seen as relatively neutral, unlike the United States, whose support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been critical to the coalition’s war effort.
The EU has also provided consistent support for UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and mediate peace talks. As a non-belligerent, the EU should now reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.
In return for a halt to such an assault, the EU should press the Houthis to stop missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea, and to accept an on-shore UN inspection mechanism that would intercept weapons deliveries through Hodeidah. An agreement along these lines could be a stepping stone toward resuming political talks on a broader range of issues, including the handing over of heavy weaponry by all fighting groups.
Moreover, European states, in particular UN Security Council members such as the United Kingdom (the penholder on the Yemen crisis), should press for a new resolution that would support a more inclusive political process. The current framework for negotiations is based on the fundamentally flawed Security Council Resolution 2216. The April 2015 resolution limits talks to the now defunct Houthi/Saleh bloc and the internationally recognised government of deposed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which fails to recognise the full range of Yemeni forces on the ground. And it places unrealistic preconditions on the Houthis, including the injunction that they withdraw from territories they control and hand over their weapons before the talking can begin.
The fourth year in Yemen’s war is on course to be just as devastating as the previous three, if not a lot worse. But a concerted European effort at bringing the belligerents back to the table might just deter them from further foolhardy military pursuits and revive what is now a political process on life support.