Many diplomats and observers now see Yemen’s three-year-old civil war as yet another crisis that has barreled out of control. The conflict began in September 2014 when Houthi rebels from the north and groups loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized Sanaa, taking President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi hostage, first figuratively and then literally. In March 2015, their slow-burning coup escalated and internationalized with the intervention of a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which launched an intense but often disjointed campaign to restore Hadi’s government and counter the Houthis, whom the Saudis claim are an Iranian proxy. Over the last three years, the situation on the ground has dramatically deteriorated: today, nearly seven million Yemenis are at risk of famine and thousands have already died in the worst cholera outbreak in history. Yet even as the crisis worsens, efforts to stop the fighting have come up wildly short.
At the end of the month a new UN special envoy, the former British diplomat Martin Griffiths, will take over a peace effort that has lost all momentum over the past year and a half. His job may not be a mission impossible, as many fear, but if the latest attempt is to be any more successful than those that came before, Griffiths will need to take a radical new approach.
From the beginning, the peace process in Yemen has suffered from faulty assumptions and out-of-date-analysis. The current UN plan overplays the importance of the Hadi government and excludes the groups who are actually fighting the Houthis and providing the basic services normally associated with a state. Furthermore, many of the parties involved have little incentive to see the current peace process succeed—even as millions of Yemenis arrive at the brink of starvation, all of the key players in the conflict are profiting from a lucrative war economy. In many cases, the spoils of war have turned former paupers into extremely wealthy individuals. Yet the focus on elite politics—not
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