Less than two months ago, Yemen’s civil war threatened to engulf the broader Middle East. The stalemate between Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition had already killed an estimated 100,000 people and spawned what the United Nations considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. If that wasn’t bad enough, a split in August within the fragile anti-Houthi alliance risked igniting a civil war within a civil war. And an attack claimed by the Houthis on Saudi Aramco oil facilities in September provoked threats of retaliation against Iran by Riyadh and Washington. Both within Yemen’s borders and in the wider region, further bloodshed seemed inevitable.
Yet, in an unexpected turn of events, these flare-ups appear to have opened a pathway to peace. On November 5, the chief rivals within the anti-Houthi bloc—the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC)—signed a power-sharing deal known as the Riyadh agreement. The deal was brokered by Saudi Arabia, which took parallel steps to ease its own cross-border conflict with the Houthis, expanding dialogue with the rebels and limiting air strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have halted all attacks on Saudi Arabia, and a broader Saudi-Houthi de-escalation initiative is now reportedly being discussed. If both the Riyadh agreement and the Saudi-Houthi initiative survive, and UN mediators are able to weave them into a single negotiation track, a national political settlement could be possible.
That is a big if. Reaching a national political settlement in Yemen will require both winding down the Saudi-led military intervention and bridging the gaping divides among the country’s many armed groups and political factions. It is entirely possible that current negotiations will grind to a halt or fall apart. If that happens, the conflict will likely deepen and expand. Saudi Arabia and Iran will both intensify their struggle for influence, and Yemen will dissolve further into a mess of warring mini-states, each with its own international
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