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U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending Yemen’s civil war a central pillar of his Middle East policy. In his maiden foreign policy address at the State Department, he committed to ending American support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations and announced the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for Yemen. The war, he said “has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”
Six months later, however, the catastrophe is only getting worse. The Houthi rebels, who seized the capital of Sanaa in 2014, have intensified their offensive in the governorate of Marib, the internationally recognized government’s last stronghold in the country’s north. Yemen’s twin economic and humanitarian crises have also deepened amid a fuel crisis in the north, a currency collapse in the south, a 50 percent shortfall in funding for the UN’s humanitarian response, and, for good measure, flash floods. Aid agencies believe publicly reported COVID-19 deaths vastly underestimate the real number of people killed by the virus. And diplomacy has stalled: the UN-led cease-fire initiative promoted by the new U.S. envoy has failed to make any progress, and may be beyond resuscitation.
There may be some cause for hope, however. The recent appointment of the Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen offers an opportunity for the international community to rethink its approach to ending the war. But before embarking on a new diplomatic effort in Yemen, the United States, the United Nations, and all countries involved in peacemaking should first reassess their basic understanding of the conflict. The war is far more complex than it has often been painted abroad: it is not simply a two-party power struggle between Iranian- and Saudi-backed forces, but fundamentally an internal conflict in which a dizzying array of rival factions are taking part, with outside powers fanning the flames. In order to alleviate the country’s plight, diplomats must set aside their hopes for a quick-fix solution and develop an approach that acknowledges the conflict’s complex, multiparty nature.
The war itself is the product of a coup launched by the Houthis and their then ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The odd-couple alliance seemed to be well-positioned to consolidate control over the country after taking hold of Sanaa in September 2014. But the following February, interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi escaped house arrest in the capital and fled to the southern port city of Aden. There, he called for regional military intervention to restore his government to power—and Saudi Arabia, which feared that the Iranian-backed Houthis could threaten its southern border, obliged. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a blistering aerial campaign against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, intensifying the humanitarian disaster within the country. The United Kingdom, the United States, and other Western powers provided the Saudis with arms, intelligence, and political cover, but soon soured on the conflict’s messiness and intractability.
Since the war began, Yemen’s politics have been more convoluted and locally driven than any side cares to admit. The internationally recognized government may portray itself as commanding a national army, but in reality the forces opposing the Houthis are a jumble of groups whose principal goal is defending their home turf and preventing a complete Houthi takeover, rather than restoring Hadi to power in Sanaa. Neither Iran, Saudi Arabia, nor the United Arab Emirates guides every move made by their purported Yemeni surrogates, and a Houthi-Hadi deal will go only so far toward ending the fighting.
As the war has dragged on, Yemen’s political fragmentation has accelerated. The Houthis killed their former ally Saleh in December 2017, and are now fighting a diverse group of rivals that gives lie to the idea of a united anti-Houthi front. On the Red Sea coast, the Houthis face off against Emirati-backed forces led by Tareq Saleh, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, who defected from their alliance when the rebels killed his uncle. The Houthis have also clashed repeatedly with a cadre of Emirati- and Saudi-backed Salafist fighters near the Red Sea and elsewhere in the country. In the al-Dhale governorate, the Houthis regularly skirmish with forces aligned with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), another Emirati-backed group that advocates for the secession of southern Yemen, which was previously an independent country. And since early 2020, the Houthis have been laser focused on seizing Marib, which is nominally under government control but in reality is mostly defended by local tribal groups.
The anti-Houthi groups have at times come to blows with one another. The STC conclusively wrested control of Aden and two other southern governorates from Hadi and his allies after several days of street battles in Aden in August 2019. The government blamed the UAE for the STC takeover and accused it of “acting like an occupier” in Yemen. Only Saudi intervention with the two erstwhile allies prevented a civil war within a civil war. In the frontline city of Taiz, meanwhile, government-aligned local forces are defending the area from the Houthis—even as they have also repeatedly clashed with local Emirati-backed groups.
Despite these changes in the nature of the conflict, the international approach has remained static. The UN has remained resolutely focused on brokering a two-party Houthi-Hadi cease-fire deal, with the support of U.S. Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking. It has sought to prevent a battle for Marib city by addressing core Houthi demands, which include reopening Sanaa International Airport and removing restrictions on shipments to the Hodeidah seaport. Ultimately, the UN hopes to broker an end to the fighting and the formation of an interim unity government made up of members of the Hadi government and the Houthis’ de facto authorities in Sanaa.
There are several problems with this approach. First, it does not take into account the full range of parties involved in the war’s multiple conflicts or the broad spectrum of local actors who can make or break a political settlement. Instead, it provides the Houthis, the Hadi government, and, tacitly, the Saudis with a veto over peacemaking.
Second, the negotiations between the Houthis and the Hadi government seem to be going nowhere. Neither side has been ready to compromise when it believed the military situation was trending in its favor. UN-led talks initially faltered in 2020 due to resistance from the Hadi government, which saw concessions on the airport and port as an assault on its sovereignty. Later that same year, the Houthis became the main barrier to progress. They raised their demands, first asking that an agreement on ports and airports be separate from a cease-fire. They now say that they will begin cease-fire negotiations only after the government and Saudis lift port restrictions and allow the airport to reopen unilaterally.
Finally, diplomats increasingly believe that neither side is serious about compromise. The two parties seem to be using their disagreement over the terms of a potential deal as an excuse to avoid negotiations entirely. The Houthis see Marib as a greater prize than a unity government, and Hadi and his allies fear they are too weak to survive as just one part of such an administration. Some diplomats are losing faith that a Saudi-Houthi backchannel or additional Omani mediation can make a difference. At this stage, a battle for Marib city seems more likely than a cease-fire and political talks.
The U.S. policy discussion about Yemen is similarly divorced from reality. Hawkish critics argue that Biden’s reversal of the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), which was made in the final months of President Donald Trump’s administration, has emboldened the rebel group. Many in this camp would like to see the United States reverse course and increase its military engagement in Yemen to break the back of the Houthi assault in Marib.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some question whether the Biden administration’s policy pivot went far enough. They frame the ongoing conflict as first and foremost between the Houthis and Saudis and argue that Riyadh has lost. By pressing the Saudis to admit defeat and get out of Yemen, they say, the United States would leave the Houthis to negotiate a victor’s peace with rival Yemeni factions and bring an end to American involvement in yet another Middle Eastern misadventure.
Washington politics largely rules out the first set of arguments. U.S. policymakers, many of whom worked on the conflict during its early days under President Barack Obama, are wary of doubling down on the anti-Houthi alliance given the disastrous trajectory of U.S. involvement in the war. Even the Trump administration – which was far more solicitous of Riyadh than the current White House – had little political appetite for deepening the United States’ controversial involvement in the war and was keenly conscious of the coalition’s battlefield limitations. Indeed, Trump officials pressed for the FTO designation of the Houthis partly because it was a way to escalate pressure on the group without stepping up U.S. military involvement in the war.
A dizzying array of rival factions are taking part in the war in Yemen, with outside powers fanning the flames.
U.S. resistance to involvement in the conflict is a product of the Saudi-led air war, which has inflicted a terrible toll on Yemen’s civilians, and Riyadh and the Hadi government’s failure to build a coherent military rival to the Houthis. No U.S. official wants to pursue a course that deepens American complicity in the war’s worst excesses. The bombing campaign has already tarnished the United States’ image, as multiple detailed reports have described how U.S.-made fighter jets and armaments were used in attacks that killed non-combatants. Heavy Congressional pressure led the Trump administration to halt in-air refueling for Saudi fighter jets in Yemen in 2018. Professional staff who served under both the Trump and Biden administrations are skeptical meanwhile that increased U.S. involvement could alter the course of the war given the internal rivalries that have bedeviled the anti-Houthi bloc and its regional sponsors.
The second set of arguments does not account for changes in the war’s trajectory in recent years. Although the United States successfully placed pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to halt its advance on Hodeidah in 2018, arguing that its offensive would cause a humanitarian catastrophe, that episode was not an object lesson in how to end the war writ large. Three years later, Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies are on the defensive and the Houthis have grown into a bigger threat to the Saudis, who have struggled to deal with Houthi cross-border missile and drone attacks. In 2019, the Houthis claimed a series of successful attacks on Saudi oil and gas infrastructure and airports, and they have continued to make successful ground incursions inside the kingdom this year. The United States has little, if any, leverage with the Houthis that would allow it to force a compromise from their side.
Even if a deal between Sanaa and Riyadh could be brokered—and it is virtually impossible to imagine the Saudis cutting and running if they do not have a deal to secure their territory from Houthi attacks—it would not mean an end to the war. Local armed groups who have lined up against the Houthis over the past six years, fiercely defending their areas out of fear of falling under the rebels’ hard-line rule, would continue the fight, alone or with funding from other regional patrons. This could very well tip the country into a new, bloodier, and more sectarian phase of the war, as the Houthis extend their geographical reach and their local rivals fight back. Further bloodletting is a far likelier outcome than a wave of peaceful intra-Yemeni dealmaking.
In other words, there are no quick wins to be had in Yemen. What can be done, then? The United States and its international partners should work to shift the opposing parties’ incentives away from stonewalling and toward dealmaking. Grundberg’s appointment as the new UN special envoy offers a window of opportunity on this front.
The new envoy should be given the time and space for a much-needed rethink of the international approach to mediating the conflict. He should prioritize a listening tour inside Yemen, followed by an expansion of UN-led negotiations to make them more inclusive. Such a move would prevent the Houthis, the Hadi government, and Saudi Arabia from acting as the gatekeepers to the political process and would incentivize intra-Yemeni dealmaking and coalition building.
Adding more parties to the negotiations will not necessarily make diplomats’ lives easier in the short term. But an expansion of the talks would reflect Yemen’s current reality, and as such would make a political settlement more sustainable. The Houthis and the Hadi government do not hold a duopoly over military power and territorial control, and many local groups have vowed to fight on in the event that the UN brokers a two-party deal in which they have had no say. Breaking the Houthi-Hadi-Saudi stranglehold would make it harder for them to act as spoilers and force them to build meaningful coalitions with other Yemeni groups to reach the best possible deal. Inclusion should also move beyond armed groups to the wide variety of influential local actors who can provide local legitimacy and buy-in to international diplomacy and national peacemaking.
The United States can play an important role in such a rethink. It can help run interference with Riyadh and the Hadi government, which are likely to resist such steps. Washington is also well-positioned to bring together other countries into a working group to support the UN envoy, and organize participants to pressure local and regional players in the war to cooperate with mediation efforts. This group could make clear to the Houthis what punitive measures they will face if the rebels continue to prosecute their Marib offensive. Recent U.S. sanctions against Houthi economic networks, for example, demonstrate that Washington is capable of targeted measures that focus on elite players within the movement rather than blanket, destructive maneuvers such as the Trump administration’s FTO designation.
There is no magic bullet that can end the war in Yemen. But the U.S. cannot continue with its current strategy.
Such measures should be accompanied by a renewed focus from the United States and its partners on removing barriers to trade and humanitarian assistance. After years of denying Houthi claims of a blockade on Hodeidah, the Hadi government has since January 2021 mounted a near-total fuel embargo on the port. The Hadi government says it is doing so in response to Houthi violations of UN-brokered revenue-sharing agreements around Hodeidah. But Yemeni and Saudi officials also appear to believe that doing so will slow Houthi advances in Marib. Fuel prices have since shot up in Houthi areas, worsening the humanitarian situation further.
This is a hugely counterproductive effort from the Hadi government. Even if the higher cost of fuel is the result of Houthi profiteering, as the government argues, its embargo is providing the rebels with the cover to do so. As the government readily acknowledges, the Houthis are able to access fuel that is trucked to their areas overland from parts of the country under the government’s nominal control, so they are unlikely to be starved of fuel for their military campaign. In fact, the Hodeidah fuel embargo may be helping the Houthis extract more money from fuel sales, as they sell fuel brought in overland at higher prices, citing shortages caused by the embargo. It may also be causing shortages in areas outside the Houthis’ control, as traders move fuel from government to Houthi areas in pursuit of profits.
The Hadi government says it will not cede authority over Hodeidah. This provides U.S. officials with an opening to make the argument to Hadi and Riyadh that they should unilaterally lift the fuel embargo as soon as possible, if only out of self-interest. If they do not, sustained international outrage and pressure at the high humanitarian costs of their actions may ultimately force them to permanently relinquish their authority over trade to the port—the exact outcome they say they want to avoid.
Washington can also play an important role in moderating the opposing parties’ expectations of a political settlement. However much Riyadh or the Hadi government wish it, the Houthis will not disappear or surrender their authority in Sanaa overnight. Nor is it likely that the Hadi government, Saudi Arabia, and their allies will simply accept international recognition of the Houthis as Yemen’s main governing power. Just as importantly, there are many groups beyond these two antagonists whose interests must be accounted for if a peace deal is to be sustainable. All sides will need to make compromises, starting with making space at the bargaining table for these other constituencies, including but not limited to the northern tribes and military leaders, the southern pro-independence groups, women, and civil society.
There is no magic bullet that can end the war in Yemen. An adjusted international approach is badly needed, but will not represent an algorithm to end the conflict. This is perhaps frustrating news for an American foreign policy establishment that is eager to fast-track a solution to the country’s knotty problems and move on. But continuing with the same diplomatic strategy, based on an outdated understanding of the conflict, is a recipe for disaster. The appointment of the new UN envoy represents an opportunity to build a negotiating framework that incentivizes dealmaking and can potentially lead to a more realistic and sustainable peace. But patience will be needed. Rethought and reinvigorated diplomacy will take time and will face numerous setbacks. Beginning that difficult effort, however, is the only way to halt the war’s grim trajectory.