By Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and Fatima Abo Alasrar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and senior analyst at the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies.
After eight years of stalemate, efforts to push Yemen toward a political settlement have been reenergized—aided by strong leadership from U.S. President Joe Biden, who prioritized ending Yemen’s conflict at the beginning of his term. The United Nations-brokered truce between the warring parties—the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led military coalition fighting to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government—that was agreed upon at the beginning of Ramadan in early April has been renewed for a third two-month period, albeit only after Omani negotiators exerted tremendous pressure on the Houthis to accept the extension.
The cease-fire agreement had two main components: a halt to all offensive land, aerial, and maritime military operations inside and outside Yemen, and a freeze in current military positions on the ground, with confidence-building measures that would prepare for an environment for a future political settlement among the warring parties.
But many Yemenis remain skeptical about the prospects of peace talks with the Houthis. They often say that the Houthis are not sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, given their continued violence and rhetoric against their opponents. The Houthis themselves never claimed any interest in a peace process or a negotiated settlement, nor are they actively seeking to engage in de-escalation efforts. In their public statements and private meetings, the Houthis have reflected a consistent position that has conditioned any peace talks on meeting their demands, such as opening Sanaa airport, which provides them with a comparative advantage should they back out of implementing their side of the deal.
This raises an essential question of whether the Houthis are willing to compromise. The difficulty of achieving an agreement on simple humanitarian measures, such as easing the yearslong siege of the city of Taiz, makes it difficult to be optimistic about their willingness to make concessions on fundamental issues related to power-sharing, governance, and implementing a political system that all Yemenis can endorse.
According to an analysis of data provided by the Yemen Truce Monitor, the Houthis’ use of missile, drone, and artillery attacks constituted 97 percent of the truce violations. Moreover, the Houthi attack on a residential neighborhood in Taiz in July, just two weeks before the truce renewal, where 11 children were injured and one killed, drew U.N. condemnation. The group’s swift return to violence heightened suspicions that the Houthis may simply be biding their time before renewing their military offensive once the cease-fire is over.
Even beyond their ideological commitment to pursuing their political and religious aims through conflict and violence, the Houthis have benefited institutionally and personally from the rise of the war economy. The more the Houthis can keep the war going, the more they can control further state resources while relying on aid handouts, illegal taxes, and further economic empowerment that is keeping the upper echelon of their movement content with the status quo.
Millions of dollars coming into Houthi areas through their control of bank coffers, natural resources, taxes imposed on ships docking in Hodeida, and collection of telecommunication sector profits as well as taxes on major industries have helped them manage some of the negative impacts of corruption as well as maintain the support of their followers by diverting aid to their fighters and the families that depend on them. Meanwhile, their resources are going into the war effort, as seen in their large military parade that was held in the beginning of September, a month after the renewal of the truce, and in violation of the Hodeida cease-fire agreement that was forged in Stockholm at the end of 2018.
While experts have often suggested that the Houthis might see a reduction of violence as a means of achieving international legitimacy, it could be argued that this legitimacy has already been attained. The U.N. recognizes them as the main conflict party in Yemen and has worked to secure their demands in different peace initiatives. Their leader has been referred to by his religious title, “sayed,” which many Yemenis refuse to use due to the class connotation and theological baggage associated with it. Similarly, the U.N. and other agencies have referred to the movement as Ansar Allah (“supporters of God”), a name many Yemenis believe legitimizes the Houthi movement as a political institution—the Houthis have been attempting to rebrand themselves by the use of this name, to move away from being perceived locally as a subnational insurrectionist group based on the Houthi clan’s pursuit of absolute power through insurgency and violence.
Through the course of six rounds of conflict with the former government of Ali Abdullah Saleh from 2004 to 2010, U.N.-brokered negotiations with the Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi government in September 2014, and the Stockholm negotiations in December 2018, the Houthi track record of making and then violating agreements is well established.
In the case of Stockholm, the deal, which was rushed and ambiguous in its write-up, stipulated an immediate cease-fire in Hodeida, as the Saudi-led coalition in cooperation with Yemeni military commander Tareq Saleh’s forces had prepared for a ground battle to push the Houthis out of the port city. Had the planned offensive been successful, it would have severed the Houthis’ access to the Red Sea and limited their territorial reach to Sanaa, the capital, and a few other areas in the north that they controlled. However, with the threat to their position in Hodeida removed, the Iran-backed Houthis redeployed all their troops to solidify their grasp on Hodeida, expand deeper into government-held territory in Jawf and Dhala, and start a brutal offensive in Marib. This displaced millions of people and put at risk or reversed all the gains that Yemen’s government had achieved since the start of the conflict.
The Houthi leadership is most likely avoiding a political settlement because any power-sharing agreement will leave a substantial part of their political and intelligence establishment without total control. This also means they stand to lose a significant amount of political and economic power that will not immediately be available to them in a negotiated political settlement. Adding to this, the already existing divisions among the Houthi militia members, especially on the part of the members who do not feel beholden to Iran, have caused internal mistrust that Houthis do not want to expose. These dynamics suggest that Houthis are not entirely ready for a political settlement.
Despite the problematic Houthi track record, giving up on negotiations is not an option, because negotiation failure could mean an even worse outcome for Yemen’s future. It will also undoubtedly leave the Houthis’ power uncontested in the areas they currently control, which is not in Yemen’s or the broader region’s interest. Thus, the issue for the Yemeni government and the international community that supports a negotiated resolution of the conflict is how to ensure that any peace agreement includes appropriate guardrails to prevent Houthi backsliding.
Recent improvements in the regional atmosphere may increase prospects for a successful negotiation. The return of Emirati and Kuwaiti ambassadors to Tehran, as well as Saudi proposals to upgrade their bilateral dialogue with Iran to the ministerial level, provide bilateral channels for engagement with the Iranian regime and an opportunity to press for Iranian cooperation in U.N.-brokered Yemeni political negotiations. Similarly, the possibility of an agreed return to enforcement of the Iran nuclear deal could also serve to lower regional tensions and improve prospects for a successful negotiation.
It remains unclear, of course, whether the Iranian government, even in a better environment, will have either the willingness or the capacity to pressure the Houthis to reach a political resolution in the absence of a Houthi commitment. But even a decision in Tehran to withdraw Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah personnel from Yemen, as well as an end to weapons supplies to the Houthis—which are continuing despite the cease-fire—would be sufficient to tilt the balance on the ground toward a political deal.
But the challenge for the U.N. and the international community will go beyond simply reaching an agreement and ensuring that the Houthis abide by its terms. The U.N. should ensure that incentives for a return to violence are neutralized and that the conditions for a sustainable peace agreement that would treat all the parties involved fairly are in place. For the process to be fair, breaches of the agreement should be dealt with immediately, and sanctions could be agreed upon beforehand to address noncompliance. Moreover, given the increased militarized activity around the city of Taiz, the U.N. should put in place peacekeeping measures to prevent Houthi expansion into new territory.
Any agreement will, therefore, require prolonged engagement by the international community to monitor implementation. This should include a sufficient U.N. peacekeeping contingent to enforce the terms of the agreement, oversight of any political components of the agreement, and equal representation of women, youth, and civil society in governing institutions as well as any new round of talks within the National Dialogue framework. The Friends of Yemen group, which includes nearly 40 governments and international organizations that constitute Yemen’s closest international partners, will be an essential element of international engagement in support of the U.N. special envoy to promote the political, economic, and security recovery of Yemen going forward.