Getting Yemen’s Houthis to “yes” on a ceasefire

Soldiers ride on the back of a patrol truck during the burial of Brigadier General Abdul-Ghani Shaalan, Commander of the Special Security Forces in Marib who was killed in recent fighting with Houthi fighters in Marib, Yemen February 28, 2021. REUTERS/Ali Owidha

President Joe Biden has rightly made ending the horrific war in Yemen a top foreign policy priority. He has cut off American support for offensive operations by the Saudis, although it is uncertain what that covers. But perhaps the biggest barrier to ending the fighting is now the Zaydi Shia rebel Houthis, who believe — correctly — that they are winning the war. The administration needs to develop incentives to get the Houthis to agree to a ceasefire, when they believe that they are on the cusp of a major victory against the Saudi-backed government in Marib.

A broken Yemen

Yemen today is a fractured state. The Houthis control most of the north and 80% of the population. The last major holdout is Marib province in the northeast, which is controlled by loyalists to President Abdu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis are engaged in a major campaign to take Marib. The Saudis have responded with air strikes. Hadi shares control of Aden and the surrounding area uneasily with southern separatists and local militias. There are few Zaydis in the south. The far eastern provinces of Mahra and Hadrawmuat are occupied by the Saudis, who see them as a gateway to the Indian Ocean.

Map of YemenSource: Peter Fitzgerald/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

The last 20 years of Yemeni history have seen repeated attempts by Yemen’s leaders — including Hadi and his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, often with Saudi assistance — to pressure the Houthis. One thing is abundantly clear: The Houthis will not succumb to pressure. Almost six years of Saudi bombing, blockade, and humanitarian catastrophe have not moved the rebels. They are ruthlessly callow about the suffering of the Yemeni people.

They are undoubtedly encouraged in their resistance by Iran and Hezbollah, which provide technical expertise and support for their missile and drone operations that strike Marib and targets in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh was targeted last week; the Saudis say that they have intercepted almost 900 missiles and drones in the last six years of the war, fired by the Houthis. The blockade has had no tangible impact on the Houthis’ military capabilities.

The Iranians provide aid to the tune of perhaps tens of millions of dollars per year, a pittance compared to what the Saudis pay to fund the war. For Tehran, the war in Yemen is a gift that ties Riyadh down in an expensive quagmire. The Iranians do not control the Houthis, but they have influence.

Washington must go beyond talk

For the war to end, the Biden administration will need to lay out a political process that entices the Houthis to a ceasefire. A good place to start is the Saudi blockade, which is the cause of the humanitarian catastrophe. Washington should call for the immediate and unconditional end to the blockade and allow civilian traffic to Yemen’s ports and airports. The United Nations says that 16 million Yemenis are malnourished, and the situation is getting worse at an alarming rate.

The blockade is an offensive military operation that kills civilians. Opening the blockade would be an act of goodwill and expose the war to more outside observers. Linking lifting the blockade to a ceasefire is a recipe for prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people. The two issues need to be decoupled.

The Houthis are a fact we cannot wish away.

The United States should also open a direct dialogue with the Houthis. They are thuggish and violent, they have created a police state in the north. But that is the norm across most of the Middle East. The Houthis are a fact we cannot wish away. Their rhetoric is anti-American and anti-Semitic, but they have not matched their rhetoric with action. They believe America has been at war with them for six years, with good reason. Even now, the State Department is far more eager to condemn Houthi attacks than Saudi air strikes.

The Biden administration needs to address the United Nations Security Council Resolution passed during the Obama administration that blames the Houthis as solely responsible for the war and authorizes the blockade. A new, more balanced resolution is an essential step toward ending the war. It should condemn the blockade and call for a new, inclusive government.

It is highly unlikely that any diplomatic effort will produce a political settlement in Yemen in the immediate future. The country is simply too fractured to be reunited. The more likely outcome is multiple Yemens, like in the past. Before 1990, there were two Yemens, north and south. Before 1968, South Yemen was a loose confederation of semi-independent emirates under British rule. We should be prepared to deal with a Houthi-dominated North Yemen.

The administration should also demand the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country. The Saudis should be leveraged to get out of eastern Yemen. The Emiratis need to get out of the island of Socotra. Iranian advisers should go home. We should not make such withdrawals contingent on each other, the Saudis should leave Mahra now.

The sad reality of Yemen today is that it is broken beyond retrieval by six years of war that two American administrations supported. Biden has broken with that position. His top priority now should be to reduce the humanitarian catastrophe as much as possible. The territorial integrity and unity of Yemen is probably irretrievable.

The United States should organize an international conference for reconstruction in Yemen. The Saudis, Emiratis, and other Gulf states should pledge billions to rebuild Yemen’s shattered infrastructure, which they destroyed. Washington should also pay for the damage. But the reconstruction should hinge on a comprehensive ceasefire. The U.N. could control the fund to ensure all parts of the country get help. We need to do more than talking about ending the war.