The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
A degree of normalcy has returned to Yemen’s biggest seaport, Hodeidah, thanks to a cease-fire among the country’s warring factions that has held since December 2018. But beyond the port’s outskirts, a vicious fight between Houthi insurgents and a Saudi-led military coalition rages on. The death toll keeps climbing; malnutrition and hunger are rampant. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the United Nations warned in February, is the worst in the world today.
In Washington, a growing chorus of analysts and politicians has called on the United States to step up, withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi war effort, and turn the UN-brokered cease-fire into a lasting peace. Doing so, they argue, is the only morally and strategically defensible course of action. But of all the options before the United States, this one is the least likely to stop the killing, the dying, and the complications for U.S. interests.
The Saudi-led intervention may have exacerbated the situation in Yemen, but it did not start the war. Getting the Saudis to pull out will no more end the bloodshed in Yemen than getting the United States to abstain from the civil war in Syria halted the violence there. Nor will a Saudi withdrawal lead to a negotiated settlement. Instead, the fighting will go on, and innocent Yemenis will continue to die until one side—most likely the Houthis—have won.
True peace in Yemen will remain elusive unless both sides accept that they have nothing to gain from more fighting. We are not there yet. To get there will require not cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia but threatening to double down on it unless the Houthis honor their commitments to the UN and are ready to disgorge most of their initial conquests. If Washington is serious about ending the war, it must come to terms with this uncomfortable fact.
Historically, civil wars like Yemen’s end either when one side wins a decisive military victory or a third party negotiates a settlement among the warring factions.
In the Middle East, the former option—letting the fighting run its course—often means accepting horrific bloodshed and ethnic cleansing. Examples abound: the leveling of Hama, Syria’s onetime opposition stronghold, in 1982, or Saddam Hussein’s systematic mass murder of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, or his violent suppression of a nationwide rebellion in 1991. Those “victories” ended the conflicts swiftly and surely, but at the cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives.
A negotiated settlement can end a war earlier and thus with less bloodshed. But combatants generally don’t agree to such settlements until they have reached a military stalemate such that all sides are convinced they cannot win a military victory. Even then, the warring parties need to know that they can disarm without being slaughtered—a condition that can sometimes be met only with an outside peacekeeping commitment for a decade or more. And once the parties have come to the table, any successful negotiated settlement will have to include a power-sharing arrangement that grants all factions political power and economic benefits roughly commensurate with their demographic weight (adjusted for military realities).
In the case of Yemen, withdrawing U.S. support—which has largely consisted of intelligence and logistical assistance—from the Saudis will hinder the coalition’s war effort and embolden the Houthis and their Iranian supporters, making them much less likely to accept a nationwide cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement.
In fact, U.S. congressional criticism of the Saudis has already encouraged the Houthis who, far from giving up, appear determined to fight on. Since the UN brokered a cease-fire for the strategically important, Houthi-held port of Hodeidah in December, the Houthis have energetically fortified their positions in the city, in direct violation of the agreement’s terms. In fact, the Houthis have defaulted on one withdrawal deadline after another—first in early January, then in mid-February, thereby reneging on explicit commitments to the UN.
UN negotiators are now trying to implement a third plan to move Houthi forces out of Hodeidah and other Red Sea ports, and for both sides to then pull back from the frontlines in Hodeidah city. But unless the Houthis are given a powerful incentive to step back, there is little reason to expect they will do so.
Rather than produce a stalemate, cutting U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition might enable the Houthis to win a military victory, much like the one the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia are slowly achieving in Syria. This outcome is hardly desirable. The Houthis are anti-American, anti-Semitic, and increasingly anti-Sunni. In fact, Houthis, who are of Zaydi Shiite faith, are just one clan of hundreds in the country. There is no historical or popular basis for the Houthis to rule the capital, Sanaa, or the ports. As a result, a post-conflict Yemen under Houthi rule would likely require considerable repression to hold it in place.
U.S. members of Congress may not like the civil war or the Saudi intervention, and critics rightly blame that intervention for increasing the Houthis’ dependence on Iran, thus strengthening Tehran’s influence in the country. But that influence is now a reality. The Houthis have already fired Iranian missiles at Riyadh and at ships (including U.S. military vessels) in the Bab el-Mandeb, the vital shipping lane connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. A bloody end to the civil war that leaves the Houthis victorious and beholden to Iran would only further undermine the United States’ interests and terrify its allies in the region.
U.S. congressional criticism of the Saudis has encouraged the Houthis who, far from giving up, appear determined to fight on.
The status quo, however, is not acceptable from a humanitarian perspective. The partial cease-fire met with a collective international sigh of relief, with observers hoping that Hodeidah could once again serve as a lifeline to the war-ravaged country. But only 619,085 tons of food were shipped in during the first quarter of 2019—a far cry from the 1.7 million tons of food that moved through the port during the same period in 2016, according to the World Food Program. Commercial food shippers will not return until the long-term status of Hodeidah and other Red Sea ports is settled, the Yemeni currency has stabilized, and household purchasing power is restored by the resumption of government payroll. As a result, the risk of famine still looms large.
The hard truth is that the cease-fire in Hodeidah came about only because of military pressure from the Saudi-led coalition. The prospect of a Saudi assault on Hodeidah forced the Houthis to choose between making a deal while they still held onto the city, and could use it as a bargaining chip, or doing so later, after they might have lost it and had much less leverage. Now that there is a cease-fire, the Houthis are no longer under such pressure to follow through with a more comprehensive peace deal. They know that making a deal will only diminish their power, whereas a military victory would enhance it. The United Nations and the international community, for their part, have failed to replace the military pressure on the Houthis with countervailing diplomatic pressure. What remains is best described as peace theater: an illusion of progress that offers a welcome breather from full-on warfare in Hodeidah while leaving the underlying crisis in place.
So what can the United States do to stop the fighting? The history of civil war, in Yemen and elsewhere, suggests a counterintuitive approach: increase U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, enable it to capture Hodeidah, and then use the resulting leverage to force both sides to end the fighting and sign a power-sharing agreement.
Not only is this scenario plausible but it is probably the only near-term solution that could end the civil war, stop the killing, and remove both the Saudi and Iranian presence.
A coalition victory in Hodeidah is difficult but achievable. The government forces assembled outside the city have racked up numerous military successes, thanks to heavy support from the United Arab Emirates. In 2016, a much smaller force of Yemeni and UAE soldiers captured Aden, a city far larger than Hodeidah. The UAE and tribal forces marched into Mukalla, another large port city, the following year.
Since then, the UAE and its allies have only grown more experienced. In the intense street fighting that took place in Hodeidah just before the cease-fire, the coalition liberated three square miles of the 17-square-mile city space in just over a week, using precise, small-warhead munitions to neutralize Houthi snipers in residential areas.
Victory in Hodeidah would allow the Saudis and Emiratis to signal to their regional rival, Iran, and to their own people that they are strong and should not be provoked. Meanwhile, losing the city should convince the Houthis that they cannot win, and that if they persist, they might lose their hold on Sanaa and other territory they have captured since 2014. And the fact that Iran will probably encourage the Houthis to keep fighting a lost battle should help them understand that Tehran’s interests are not their own.
Losing the city should convince the Houthis that they cannot win.
The United States would not be favoring the Saudi-led coalition by backing this strategy. If anything, the United States would gain leverage over the coalition by setting the conditions under which it would acquiesce to a renewed offensive on Hodeidah or supply intelligence support. In return for Washington’s help, the coalition would have to accept a realistic peace plan—one that accommodates Houthi demands for internal redistricting, sets forth a process for forming a new government with proper power-sharing arrangements, and perhaps stipulates a change in leadership on the government side. The Houthis, for their part, would need to evict Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military advisers and admit a third-party peacekeeping force to secure key locations such as ports. Such a force could consist of European, Arab, and African troops, perhaps under the leadership of NATO, the Arab League, or even the United States.
A negotiated settlement would be the best—or least bad—outcome to the brutal war in Yemen. And a renewed offensive on Hodeidah would pave the way for its enactment. The Houthis would be most receptive to a generous offer after losing the city. As for the Saudis, Washington could warn them that if they obstruct the peace process, the United States will suspend any and all military aid—not just to their Yemen operations. That ultimatum ought to convince them to quit while they are ahead, not least because their operation in Yemen has bogged down and is provoking much ill will internationally. A military victory at Hodeidah would give Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the fig leaf he needs to declare victory and go home.
The approach comes tried and tested. It parallels the strategy that U.S. diplomats employed to end the Bosnian civil war in 1995. The United States helped the Croat and Bosniak Muslim militaries smash the Bosnian Serb forces and take roughly half of their territory. Then, during peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke offered both sides a power-sharing agreement. The Serbs grudgingly accepted, realizing that to decline it would mean losing what remained of their territory to the U.S.-backed enemy. The Croats and Bosniaks gave in even more grudgingly, because Holbrooke threatened to withdraw U.S. support if they didn’t. Holbrooke’s playbook would serve the United States just as well in Yemen today.
U.S. interests and values both demand an end to the war in Yemen. The conflict threatens to tip the country into famine. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited the chaos of war to avoid the full force of joint U.S.-UAE-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts. Saudi Arabia and the UAE face catastrophic diplomatic, economic, and reputational harm. Only Iran benefits from prolonging this dirty war.
But bringing an end to the fighting calls for making hard choices that can actually succeed, not easy ones that likely won’t. If the battle lines stay where they are now, the Houthis will effectively have won the war, having gained both Yemen’s capital and its largest port. If the coalition retakes Hodeidah, by contrast, it can afford to end the war while the Houthis’ control of Sanaa will leave them with some bargaining power. What Yemen needs now is tougher U.S., European, and UN diplomacy, backed by reinvigorated military pressure. Only then will both warring parties understand that if they keep on fighting, they can only lose.