Not Even Its Warring Parties Understand the War in Yemen, a Talk with Peter Salisbury

Published January 10th, 2019 - 12:20 GMT


By Ty Joplin

Why is peace so elusive in Yemen?

It’s the site of the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth, and it’s only getting worse. Over 100,000 people have died in the conflict so far, and even though a nominal peace deal has been signed, it’s not really being implemented. The warring parties in Yemen don’t appear interested in stopping the war, so it goes on without an end in sight.

Why does this war appear designed to kill, maim and starve but not to be won? That’s the central question Al Bawaba asked Peter Salisbury, who has worked in and with Yemen for ten years, as a journalist and analyst. He’s now a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House.


Peter Salisbury (Courtesy of Peter Salisbury)

Salisbury contends that solving the war in Yemen is difficult because the warring parties don’t really know what they’re doing, and have become so entangled in an ever-fragmenting war that they’re no longer sure what ‘victory’ looks like, if they ever knew in the first place.

In his talk with Al Bawaba, Salisbury seeks to diagnose and fix the oversimplified narrative that there are effectively two sides in the conflict; pro-government and Houthi rebels backed by their respective global players who treat that conflict as a proxy between each other. In actuality, there are many sides who all have different internal dynamics, ethnicities, priorities, ideologies, goals and funding sources. These oversimplifications, Salisbury observes, have led to a chronic misunderstanding from both observers and warring parties regarding the war.

“People struggle to deal with complexity,” Salisbury says, “but then the solutions they formulate are often based on simplified narratives.”

“Then people make decisions based on the simplified narrative rather than the reality on the ground.” For him, that problem has plagued the war in Yemen, and is a central reason why peace is so elusive.

U.S. generals thought the invasion and occupation of Iraq would only take a few months. The same was thought of the war in Vietnam. The Soviets too thought they could pull off a simple victory in Afghanistan when they occupied it. The local realities are almost never thought of before going to war, but are the most important part deciding its outcome.

The same mistakes are being repeated in Yemen, and the humanitarian consequences are dire.

“Wishful thinking is not the same as strategic thinking,” says Salisbury. “It’s mind-blowing that people make these decisions based on wishful and poorly informed thinking.”

“Yemen’s biggest problem is, when you break down responses to a lot of the things happening there, it’s very rarely about Yemen,” he adds.

Leaders of countries carrying out the war in Yemen aren’t prioritizing issues within the country, but are treating it as merely a proxy conflict, a staging ground to resolve regional power disputes. No major warring party is looking to negotiate an end to the conflict yet. According to Salisbury, they are still positioning themselves to eventually achieve dominance, and are operating on an indefinite timeline.

“The thing we’ve got to remember is that geopolitical interests add fuel to the flames, but the actual internal drivers of war and peace are always going to be rooted in the local. So what you end up with is people trying to serve their geopolitical interests and manipulate the situation and trying to make it into a proxy thing. But at the same time, not really having the actual leverage with the people on the ground needed to serve their strategic aims.”

So what is to be done? How can the international community better pressure the warring parties to shift their approach and find a way to halt the violence and eventually end the war?

In his interview with Al Bawaba, Salisbury argues for an overarching review of how the international community understands legitimacy to better take into account local realities and perspectives.

Actually listening to people in Yemen may be the difference between a stalemating, never-ending war, and a pragmatically negotiated peace.

As the war drags on and famines looms, these questions, though complex as they are, will only become more important.


Click here to listen to the full conversation:

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