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Mutually Hurting Stalemate: Is the Saudi-Yemen conflict ‘ripe’ for negotiations?


By: Bob Rehorst

In late October 2020, Yemen’s Houthi militant group, which is continuing to exercise control over most of South Yemen, has been targeting Saudi airports and air bases. The Iran-backed Houthi militants have launched numerous aerial attacks using drones and small aeroplanes directed at Saudi territory. These attacks are in response to the extensive and continuous aerial assaults executed by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi militants.

It has been reported that the Saudis have been downing Houthi drones regularly. With a steady increase in offensive action among the parties, it begs the question if de-escalation is even possible in the near future. The UN has advocated a ceasefire in the region, but that was short-lived. Usually, warring parties in conflict tend to move towards the negotiating table when the time is ‘ripe’. Conflict ‘ripeness’ refers to a key moment for engagement during a conflict in which the situation suggests that parties have reached a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ (MHS).

William Zartman, in his paper on the timing of peace initiatives, articulates that MHS’s occur “[...] when parties find themselves locked into a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful for both of them”. The conflict, commonly referred to a proxy-war between Iran and Saudi-Arabia, could initially be considered an asymmetric one given the military dominance of the Saudi-led coalition. Conflict, however, catalyzes learning curves and accelerates scientific advancements.

As such, the Houthis have adapted significantly to their predicament and developed a series of well-functioning Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). A new type of drone appeared in 2018, which can fly up to 1,200 - 1,500 km according to the UN, posing a threat to Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. The improved capabilities of the Houthis allows them to portray themselves as a military power with an increased level of sophistication. This means that the ‘asymmetry’ of the conflict is slowly, but surely, balancing out, and the warring parties are moving closer in their military capabilities. If this is indeed the case, one could say that they are moving closer to a MHS, but it could also escalate even further with more damage, more casualties and detrimental regional consequences. At this point, one might wonder whether interventionists can nudge the conflict towards its ‘ripeness’.

Can conflict ‘ripeness’ be-accelerated?

Firstly, policy makers tend to suggest sometimes that assisting rebel groups by supplying materials can create a ‘ripe moment’ for intervention. While this notion has recently been debunked by Niklas Karlén, it appears to miss the point of the notion of ripeness. William Zartman never intended to offer weapons to the weaker parties of a conflict to ‘make it a fair fight’. Even if he did, and this strategy is used to accelerate the moment of an MHS, the quantitative study by Karlén suggests that external support is likely to reduce the likelihood of negotiations between the warring parties. Secondly, given that there is a global pandemic raging, we could argue that both sides are hurting at the moment.

Indeed, on 23 March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire with the aim to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Yemen, which is already prone to outbreaks of Cholera and famine, has sometimes opened its doors to humanitarian assistance amidst the warfare, though none have resulted in lasting political developments. The Houthis took advantage of the global ceasefire in April 2020, and utilised the momentary lull to gain more territory, according to a special report by the United States Institute of Peace. Perhaps we should not be so naïve as to suggest that the presence of a pandemic changes existing conflict dynamics.

The power of a name

Throughout the conflict, Saudi Arabia has been very enamored of calling the Houthi’s ‘terrorists’. Analysts and policy-makers, on their part, have often referred to ‘Houthi rebels’. However, considering the Houthi’s increased capabilities, territorial sustenance, and regional influence, terms like ‘rebels’ or ‘terrorists’ do not seem as appropriate as one might think. More to the point, numerous conflict scholars have pointed out that the ‘naming’ of a group of actors can have a significant effect on the dynamics of a conflict. Naming groups ‘terrorist’, while frequently supported by global actors, does not promote dialogue, nor does it invite such actors for negotiation.

Indeed, Michael Bhatia, an Oxford researcher on the politics of naming, supports this argument. He suggests that once assigned, the power of a name is thusly strong that it results in a series of powerful associations with that name, rather than with the reason why it was assigned. In other words, naming a group ‘terrorist’ or ‘rebel’ does not only suggest a discreditment or underestimation of their capabilities, it also closes the door to possible further negotiations. Take for example the protracted nature of the continuous conflict with the FARC in Colombia, whom were also continuously labelled as ‘terrorist’. The FARC only started negotiations once they had reached a stalemate, and after being labelled a terrorist group for over fifty years.

The question that remains

We now know that the conflict in Yemen is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its military advancements. Whether these advancements are for the better, is still an open question. It could be that moving towards symmetric military capabilities can pave the way to a mutually hurting stalemate. On the other hand, it could also bring the devastation of the conflict to a whole new, undesirable level.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the author:

Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami. He has extensive field experience in the Levant-Middle East region, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University. Bob specializes in geopolitics, conflict development and global crises.

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