The Surprising Success of the Truce in Yemen
Building on Diplomacy Requires Decoding the Houthis
June 28, 2022, Foreign Affairs
- Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
- Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
- Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
PETER SALISBURY is Senior Analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group.
ALEXANDER WEISSENBURGER is an Associate Researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Just a few months ago, the war in Yemen looked like one of the most intractable conflicts in the world. After seven years of brutal fighting, the country had disintegrated into a patchwork of increasingly well-armed rival groups backed by an array of outside powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). None of the actors involved in the conflict—the Houthi rebels who control Sanaa, Yemen’s capital; the numerous Yemeni groups battling the Houthis on the ground; Yemen’s internationally recognized government; or the Saudi-led coalition that backs the government—appeared willing to make the compromises needed to end the conflict. With Yemeni cities under siege, Sanaa’s airport shuttered to commercial flights, and the government and coalition limiting the flow of fuel into the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a vital trade conduit, the population was facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Severe fuel shortages rocked Houthi-controlled areas, and a collapse in the value of the national currency was rendering food unaffordable in the parts of the country under the government’s nominal control. The UN and other mediators seemed to have few options for breaking the stalemate.
Today, by contrast, fighting is at some of the lowest levels since the war began. Cross-border attacks—whether by the Saudi-led coalition hitting Houthi-held areas or by the Houthi rebels launching missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE—have stopped altogether. For the first time in six years, commercial flights have resumed in Sanaa. And in Hodeidah, a steady flow of tankers is now bringing badly needed fuel to the country. All this has been made possible by a UN-brokered truce reached in April between the Houthis and the Yemeni government (and by extension the Saudi-led coalition). Remarkably, the truce not only has held but has been extended for an additional two months. Moreover, in mid-June, the Houthis and the Saudis reportedly resumed direct talks to discuss long-term border security and other unresolved issues, dialogues that have long operated in parallel to UN-led negotiations and will be an essential part of any efforts to end the war.
But the extension of the truce does not mean that peace is imminent. Most important, although the Houthis’ demands addressed in the UN truce agreement—namely, the reopening of Sanaa’s airport to international flights and the loosening of restrictions on the Hodeidah port—have been met, the Yemeni government’s demands that the Houthis restore access to the roads connecting the government-controlled city of Taiz with the rest of the country have not. The Houthis have besieged Taiz since 2015, making it one of the most dangerous and expensive places to live in Yemen and turning travel in and out of the city into a treacherous ordeal for its residents. Without progress on Taiz, the country’s second most populous city and a vital industrial hub before the war, direct talks over ending the conflict permanently are unlikely to go anywhere. But some kind of movement, literal or figurative, is desperately needed. Yemen’s dire food security crisis has seen the cost of subsistence skyrocket out of the reach of many millions of Yemenis. Despite the truce, the risk of famine is rising amid surging prices for basic items, such as wheat and fuel, in international markets.
The truce remains fragile. A combination of power shifts on the battlefield, the threatened expansion of Houthi cross-border attacks, a reshuffling of power within the Saudi-backed government, and a series of crushing economic and humanitarian crises have aligned to create a moment of opportunity for progress. The world cannot let this opening go to waste. Establishing serious talks, let alone reaching a peace agreement, will require the UN and other international players to achieve something that has previously proved impossible: extracting major concessions from the Houthis over Taiz. To do that, the international community must first understand who the Houthis are and what they want.
For years, the Houthis have been variously described as Islamist extremists who seek to install a hyperconservative theocracy in Yemen, Iranian proxies, anti-Western revolutionaries, and even terrorists, after being designated as a terrorist group by the Trump administration. None of these labels gives the full picture. The Houthis themselves call their movement Ansar Allah (supporters of God) and frame themselves as revolutionaries pushing back against the corrupting and subjugating influence of the Western powers and of Israel, which is often referred to as “the Zionist entity.”
The group adheres to the Zaydi Shiite branch of Islam, which is closer in many ways to mainstream Sunni practices than to the predominant branch of Shiite Islam known as Twelver Shiism. Zaydi Shiism specifically claims that the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad are best qualified to rule over the Islamic umma, or the Muslim world, and as a result, the Houthis have been accused of seeking to reinstate the autocratic and theocratic imamate that ruled Yemen for a millennium until a revolution in the 1960s. (The Houthis deny this.) The Houthis’ ideology is centered on the teachings of their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar and cleric who in the years after 9/11 built up a large following in northern Yemen. Strongly influenced by Iran’s Islamic Republic, by political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and by the second Palestinian intifada and angered by the United States’ so-called war on terror, al-Houthi argued that Western interventions in the Middle East—and support for Israel, in particular—were designed to subjugate the Muslim world and steal its resources. Only by returning to the correct form of Islam could the umma avert foreign domination.
A mixture of repressive tactics by Yemen’s U.S.-backed government and a Houthi quest for political power have precipitated the current conflict. Houthi himself was killed by Yemeni security forces in 2004 in the first of six wars between his followers and the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Houthi’s younger half brother Abdul-Malik rose to replace him as the movement’s head, leading an increasingly capable military force in battles against Yemeni troops in the Houthi’s home territory, which borders Saudi Arabia. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi remains the group’s leader to this day, although he has not been seen in public for many years. Then, in the fall of 2014, the group seized control of Sanaa and ousted Saleh’s successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, leading Riyadh to declare that it faced a “Hizbollah on [its] southern border”—or, in other words, an Iranian proxy that posed an interminable threat to Saudi security. The following March, as the Houthis and their former enemies turned allies, loyalists of the former president Saleh, pursued Hadi south to the coastal city of Aden, Riyadh assembled a military coalition that it said would defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. Soon after, it began a brutal aerial assault of Yemen—aided by U.S. intelligence and U.S. weapons systems—in support of Hadi’s government, which claimed the backing of numerous groups who had taken up arms against the Houthis.
In seven years of fighting, however, neither side has fully gained the upper hand, with the balance of power swinging between the rival forces. Most recently, up until late 2021, the Houthis appeared to be on the verge of seizing the oil- and gas-rich province of Marib from forces allied with the Yemeni government. Had they done so, they would have essentially won the war for Yemen’s north and secured oil, gas, and electricity production facilities that would have gone a long way toward making their de facto state economically viable. But in January and February 2022, anti-Houthi forces aligned with the UAE succeeded in halting the Marib campaign and inflicted considerable losses on the Houthis. Although the group says it continues to seek control of Marib, setbacks on the ground appear to have forced the Houthis to contemplate the novel truce brokered by the UN with the government this spring. But that also has left unanswered the larger question of what kind of broader settlement the Houthis—or their rivals—might be prepared to accept.
Peace Before Politics
Since at least 2019, the Houthis have proposed a broad plan to end the war that includes a cease-fire, a transitional period of internal dialogue overseen by a neutral non-Yemeni third party, and reconstruction. But they have also set conditions. In 2020, the Houthis made the reopening of Sanaa International Airport and an end to the restrictions on ships entering the Hodeidah port a condition to dialogue of any kind. Only then, the Houthis said, would they pursue peace. In and of themselves, these are reasonable demands that would help alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni population. But for diplomats seeking to mediate an end to the war, the devil is in the details.
The Houthis believe that they face two linked but separate conflicts: the first, a war with Saudi Arabia; the second, a struggle for political power in Yemen that can be resolved only when foreign forces are expelled from the country. They reject the notion that the fighting on the ground in Yemen constitutes a civil war, describing it instead as a “U.S.-led, Saudi-executed act of aggression” against their own legitimate government in Sanaa. They characterize their Yemeni rivals as al Qaeda supporters and as mercenaries armed and paid for by Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Houthis have long maintained that the only path toward peace would be a halt to Saudi-led airstrikes and a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Yemen; in exchange, the Houthis would end their own cross-border attacks—but, importantly, not the ground fighting. Only after these steps are achieved would talks over ending the war with the Saudis begin, followed by discussions about Yemen’s political future. In the Houthis’ view, therefore, agreeing to halt both the air and ground war according to the terms of the UN truce in exchange for a partial effort to address their demands would be a significant concession. (Although the Saudis and the Yemeni government have relaxed their controls, they still determine the number of fuel tankers arriving at Hodeidah and the number of flights transiting Sanaa’s airport.) Other measures outlined in the truce agreement, including the reopening of the roads to Taiz, would be an additional act of goodwill on their part.
The Houthis have done little to build trust among their rivals.
The Houthis’ Yemeni rivals consider the Houthis’ approach to be a nonstarter. Anti-Houthi forces both inside and outside the country fear that the Houthi proposal would allow the entire country to fall under Houthi control, which they see as synonymous with the installation of a repressive theocracy. If the Saudi-led coalition were to withdraw its support for anti-Houthi forces in Yemen, the Houthis would be the most powerful faction in the war-torn country. For the Saudis, agreeing to the Houthis’ conditions in their entirety would effectively mean ceding victory to the group to no advantage other than ending the drain on Saudi resources; in particular, the Saudis would fail to obtain the vital security guarantees related to border security that they have pursued throughout the conflict. Despite these reservations, most armed groups on the ground rely on either Saudi Arabia or the UAE for support and had little choice but to agree to the truce once Riyadh and Abu Dhabi decided it was in their interests. But many in the anti-Houthi camp are quietly hopeful that the truce will not hold and that the Saudis will again pursue complete victory over their Houthi rivals.
The Houthis have done little to build trust among their rivals. It is of little reassurance to the rest of the country that the ways in which the Houthis’ ideology will affect their vision for governing Yemen remain unclear. Although Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was stridently opposed to Yemen’s republican system of government—in part, he said, because it could permit a Jew to become the head of state—he did not propose another form of rule. And the movement’s current leaders have said they are committed to a republican system, do not seek to restore the imamate, and even, with some caveats, hope to install a democracy.
But many of the Houthis’ Yemeni opponents believe that Houthi rule would entail a caste-based theocracy allied with Iran. Notably, in most areas they control, the Houthis have built a police state that suppresses any speech critical of the movement; enforces conservative social norms, including music bans and the separation of the sexes; and imposes the group’s ideology in schools and government institutions. In addition to this record of repression, moreover, another element of Houthi governance has stoked fear and suspicion in Yemen’s Gulf neighbors: the group receives military backing from Iran.
Tehran’s Lethal Weapons
At the start of the war, many outside observers judged that Iranian support for the Houthis was limited. During the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, for instance, intercepted communications between the Houthis and Iranian officials showed that the group repeatedly ignored Tehran’s advice. But the relationship has clearly grown and deepened over the course of the conflict. The Houthis have obtained and manufactured Iranian missile and drone systems and deployed them over a growing range. Their arsenal can now reach targets 800 miles or more away, including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Israeli officials fear the Houthis will soon be able to launch attacks on southern Israel. Efforts to crack down on smuggling networks operated through trading vessels crossing the Red Sea into Yemen have yielded some weapons seizures but have not stemmed the flow of arms.
Although the Houthis deny taking orders from Tehran, their regional alliances are clear. The Houthis have long described themselves as an increasingly significant player in the so-called axis of resistance—the alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and, at times, Hamas and Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq—against perceived Israeli and U.S. hegemony in the region. For its part, the Iranian government has exchanged ambassadors with the Houthi leadership in Sanaa, tacitly acknowledging that it sees them as Yemen’s legitimate rulers, although it maintains that this is as far as the relationship goes. But as long as the Houthis attack regional rivals with weapons based on Iranian technology, any nuanced assessment of the relationship will not hold much water in Washington or other Western capitals. U.S. officials are also aware that the Houthis are unlikely to abandon their anti-imperialist rhetoric and commitment to the axis of resistance even if the war ends. Iran, meanwhile, is equally unlikely to cede a strategic partnership with a major military power on the Arabian Peninsula.
The truce and the Taiz negotiations are a stress test for peace efforts in Yemen.
In attempting to navigate the Houthis’ quest for power, diplomats and other foreign officials have sought for some time to find a workable set of arrangements that would reconcile four key realities of the current status quo. First, the Houthis have gained the upper hand in the northern highlands and are the dominant power in the country’s most populous region. They likely control 70 to 80 percent of Yemen’s population. Second, trade and regional security will continue to be threatened as long as the war continues, especially since the Houthis control much of Yemen’s Red Sea coast and could shut down a vital international trade route by preventing maritime traffic from passing through the Bab el Mandeb Strait—particularly if they are able to acquire more sophisticated weapons systems from Iran. Third, the war cannot end without the Saudis and the Houthis reaching some kind of understanding over cross-border security and governing arrangements. And finally, the Houthis’ domestic rivals—now represented by a presidential council installed to replace Hadi in March 2022—cannot accept the idea of life under Houthi rule, and many have vowed to fight on in the event that the coalition pulls out.
These are the considerations foreign diplomats must navigate as they search for a way to make Yemen less of a hub for instability and establish a workable modus vivendi between the Houthis and their domestic rivals and international enemies. Until now, the main challenge has been creating an opportunity for progress. With the truce in place and prospects for direct talks between the Houthis and their various opponents seen as promising, that moment has arrived.
With the government having made concessions to enable movement on Sanaa’s airport and Hodeidah’s port, all eyes are now on the rebels to see whether they will work with the government to reopen the roads in and around Taiz. Over the course of two highly contentious rounds of UN-led negotiations in Amman in May and June, the UN envoy Hans Grundberg presented a series of proposals to reopen some of the roads. The government accepted the most recent proposal, but the Houthis have yet to respond to the envoy. With many anti-Houthi Yemenis fearful that the truce is a prelude to a sudden Saudi withdrawal, a peace deal will only become more difficult the longer negotiations stall regarding Taiz. If the truce is to be a step toward a sustainable end to the war, the Houthis must likewise work to build confidence with their opponents.
The truce and the Taiz negotiations are a stress test for peace efforts in Yemen. It is not unthinkable that if the Saudis and the Houthis can find the right set of border security agreements, Riyadh might pressure the Yemeni presidential council to move toward negotiations with the Houthis without Taiz’s roads being reopened. Some diplomats might breathe a sigh of relief, as might officials in the Biden administration, who badly need some kind of foreign policy win. The administration made ending the Yemen war a centerpiece of its Middle East policy in early 2021, alongside the censure of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. With Biden traveling to Riyadh to meet Prince Mohammed and other officials to discuss energy prices in July, his administration may seek a quick win in Yemen to dampen opprobrium from progressive critics regarding his about-face.
But pressuring the Saudis and Yemen’s government to work out a settlement with the Houthis without addressing any of their rivals’ demands would be setting any peace process up for failure. If the Yemeni government conceded, it would quickly lose legitimacy on the ground, and fears would rise among the Houthis’ rivals that the group was set to dominate the country for decades to come. Many Yemeni groups would pledge to fight on, with or without Saudi support. The war would become more intractable. Getting the Houthis to agree to reopen at least some of the roads that the government proposes will be a hard slog and will require careful diplomacy with Houthi officials in Sanaa. But any effort that lets Taiz—and Houthi concessions—fall by the wayside is a recipe for further disaster.