Signs of hope for Persian Gulf conflicts: serious negotiations needed
After an extended period of darkening storm clouds, there are signs of hope for tension reduction in two separate but related Persian Guld conflicts: Yemen and Syria. On 20 September 2019, the representatives of the Yemen Ansar Allah Movement (often called al-Houthi) proposed a peace initiative to hold off all their drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in exchange for ending the Saudi-led armed conflict in Yemen. The United Nations envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffits welcomed the al-Houthi offer.
It is possible that Saudi Arabia, in a war that has bogged down and its its original United Arab Emirates allies increasingly reluctant, will call off the war as an unnecessary and expensive operation. There had been positive signs earlier of possible agreements related to negotiations held in Sweden, but the current signs are more telling. There may be some shifts in power relations within the ruling circles in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi factions have no fears from elections.
If the al-Houthi remain in control of northern Yemen, which is their tribal base, it is likely that south Yemen will return to being a separate State. There had been an earlier 2014 proposal for a six-region federation for Yemen. In any case, decentralization of government and constitutional reform are necessary top priorities. If the creation of a separate southern State happens quickly, the Saudi leadership can say that their military action prevented the Houthis from having control of the full State. Thus the military conflict was not a total loss for Saudi Arabia.
For Yemen, the war has had devestating consequences. There is an immediate need for adequate food and medical supplies and support for the large number of internally-displaced persons. The economics of Yemen was weak in the best of times, and the war has destroyed what little economic and social infrastructure existed. In addition, there are real ecological challenges, especially the lowering of the water supply. The war has led to greater geographic, social, and ethnic divisions. Creating a national society of individuals willling to cooperate will not be easy. Regional divivions will be difficult to bridge.
The current Yemeni offer needs to be encouraged by the U.N. mediators and by those having some influence on decision-making in Saudi Arabia. Thus, at the U.N. General Assembly on 27 September, the Prime Minister of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber al-Hamad al-Sabah said that the Yemeni talks should be held under the auspices of the U.N. and that Kuwait was willing to host such talks. “Once again, Kuwait reaffirms that there is no military solution to this conflict and continues to back U.N. efforts.” At the same time, the Secretary General of the League of Arab States met with Martin Griffiths on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York. Saudi Arabia, no doubt to “test the waters” has responded with a partial ceasefire in four Yemeni areas. Other States at the U.N. must now play their part.
The second sign of hope was the statement on 13 September 2019 of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterreo that a constitutional committee of 150 persons had been agreed to for Syria. The Constitutional Committee will have 50 people chosen by the Government, 50 people from the opposition within the country and 50 persons chosen by the U.N. – all Syrians.
The Foreign Ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey at the U.N. General Assembly welcomed the agreement. The three States have been promoting the creation of such a committee. The Committee will start to met in Geneva hopefully toward the end of October.
Every constitution is an answer to unstated questins about important challenges which the society faces. Every constitution distributes power, explicity and implicity, and every workable constitution will do so in ways which reflect the distribution of power in the society. Constitutions must be seen as desirable. They must have positive merits related to immediate and widely felt needs. It is likely that drafting a constitution with a broader base of public support would have been more possible during the first months of protests prior to the armed conflict. We will watch the work of the Constitutional Committee as closely as possible.
There are signs of positive change in both Yemen and Syria. We do not underestimate the difficulties, but for a just peace, chances must be acted upon.