How to End the War in Yemen

Since the September attack on Saudi oil facilities, Riyadh and the Houthis have taken a step back from all-out war. All parties, including the United States, should seize this rare opportunity to resolve the conflict.

Yemeni supporters of the Houthi movement rally in Sanaa.
Yemeni supporters of the Houthi movement take part in a rally in Sanaa on Sept. 21. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

With all of U.S. President Donald Trump’s troubles at home and abroad, his administration could use a win. There is low-hanging fruit in Yemen, and the ripple effects of success there could go far beyond the impoverished and war-torn country. Houthi rebels (who prefer to be called Ansar Allah) have made an offer of de-escalation that, if built on quickly, could help extract the United States from the bloody and unwinnable war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. It would reduce threats to Saudi Arabia and its oil infrastructure at a time of rising tensions with Iran. And it would open a door to wider de-escalation inside Yemen and possibly across the region.

On Sept. 20, the Houthis—who control northwestern Yemen and have been at war with a variety of Yemeni groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2015—announced a unilateral suspension of strikes on Saudi Arabia. In return, they asked for a halt to Saudi airstrikes and a lifting of restrictions on access to northern Yemen.

They did this on the heels of claiming the Sept. 14 attacks against Saudi Aramco oil facilities, a claim that few believe and which has bound the group closer than ever to Iran in the eyes of its opponents. While the Houthis routinely fire missiles and send drones into Saudi territory, experts say the sophistication of the swarm attack points to Iran. According to Saudi and U.S. officials, the direction of the attack was from the north, rather than from Yemen to the south.

For Riyadh, ending the war in Yemen likely acquired new urgency in the wake of the Saudi Aramco attacks

Somewhat surprisingly, the Saudi response to Houthi overtures has been mostly positive. They have not suspended airstrikes but have reportedly reduced them in some areas. They have facilitated the entry of a number of fuel shipments into Houthi-controlled territory, albeit not enough to address the ongoing fuel crisis. The Houthis unilaterally released almost 300 prisoners, including three Saudis. Both sides have exchanged unusually positive public signals indicating interest in de-escalation, and they have reportedly reopened back-channel discussions.

For Riyadh, ending the war in Yemen likely acquired new urgency in the wake of the Saudi Aramco attacks, which brought home the stakes of a hot war with Iran while piercing a gaping hole in the U.S. security umbrella. At a minimum, the Yemen war is a costly and dangerous distraction that keeps the Saudis focused south when attention could be directed elsewhere.

It tests and uncovers the kingdom’s military vulnerabilities and potentially allows Iran plausible deniability through the Houthis to launch attacks. And there are no easy military options for turning the tide against the Houthis. After the United Nations prevented an attack on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida in December 2018, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner, the UAE, redeployed its forces and now sees little point in continuing the effectively stalemated war in the north.

The political stars are aligning in a way that offers an offramp from a war that has caused immeasurable humanitarian damage and threatens to become a trigger for a regional conflagration. This opportunity should be embraced, particularly by the United States, which has been complicit in Riyadh’s war and could now encourage its Saudi allies to reach an understanding with the Houthis that includes significant reductions in cross-border attacks.

If successful, this could serve as a foundation for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement between Yemeni antagonists—including the Houthis, the Yemeni government, and Emirati-backed southern separatists, among others—and the resumption of intra-Yemeni negotiations to end the civil war. But the offer will not be on the table indefinitely.

De-escalation overtures are fragile and easily reversible. Failure to reach a mutual agreement that addresses airstrikes and fuel access will almost certainly prompt the Houthis to renege on their offer, with attacks resuming and perhaps intensifying. For their part, the Saudis will likely want assurances that the Houthis will not use cross-border de-escalation to regroup, reposition, and advance on the ground inside Yemen against various Yemeni foes and along the border against the Saudis.

Hard-liners on the Houthi side reportedly were opposed to the unilateral suspension of strikes. Some among them view a regional war, in which they would be siding with Iran, as almost inevitable and even beneficial to them, as it would draw Saudi Arabia’s attention away from its southern flank. For now, more pragmatic voices among the Houthi leadership appear to have won out, but they need a lifeline.

The Saudis seem to be giving them one, and the United States should encourage this shift and redouble diplomatic efforts to bring this war to a close and limit Yemen’s potential as a flash point for a regional confrontation. Skeptics may argue that this is impossible. If regional tensions rise, they say, Iran will use the Houthis to strike at Saudi Arabia. Certainly, if the war continues in Yemen, this will be the case.

The Houthis are clear that they would be on Tehran’s side if a regional war erupted and the war in Yemen were still raging. But they also claimed, in discussions with the International Crisis Group, that they want to de-escalate with Saudi Arabia and that they will remain neutral in a fight if the Yemen war ends. Saudi Arabia and the United States have little to lose and much to gain by pursuing the proposition.

In a best-case scenario, de-escalation in Yemen could serve to lower tensions more broadly between U.S. allies and Iran—if the Iranians were seen at least to not undermine any agreements the Houthis reach. If a successful agreement were signed, the Iranians could quietly communicate to Riyadh and others that they did not object and encourage the Houthis to de-escalate.

The alternatives are bleak. If the initiative fails, those Houthis who have promoted de-escalation will be sidelined, the war will likely resume with renewed vigor on both sides—with all its horrific humanitarian consequences—and the Houthi movement will tighten its embrace of Iran. In light of regional tensions, Yemen could be a flash point that ignites a regional conflict that neither the United States nor Iran wants. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a Houthi strike into Saudi territory that results in American casualties.

Houthi opponents, including some Saudi and U.S. policymakers, have argued that the better approach would be to continue the war and economic strangulation, which would eventually weaken the Houthis domestically and curtail the threat they pose to the kingdom. But experience teaches otherwise. Nearly five years of this policy have succeeded in limiting Houthi control of territory to the north, albeit at enormous humanitarian cost.

But the Houthis have won the war for the northwest, developing a vicelike grip in their areas, including the capital. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, they have grown closer to Iran (with which they had only a limited relationship before 2015) and have acquired new military technology to threaten Gulf neighbors and international waterways. Continuing the same strategy will not lead to different results.

Saudi-Houthi de-escalation is far from a panacea. Yemen’s war is multilayered and multipolar. The regional power struggle is layered on top of a civil war that itself is metastasizing and can be resolved only by Yemenis. Over time, the regional dimension has shaped and transformed the conflict, and it has ultimately become a hindrance to Yemenis’ ability to negotiate an internal settlement, including by fueling a lucrative war economy.

A workable start to de-escalation in Yemen is currently on offer. Compared with the alternatives, it is a good deal. But it may not be available for long. The Trump administration should take it, build on it, and encourage U.S. allies to do the same.

April Longley Alley is the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

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