The Houthis Still Have the Upper Hand in Yemen

A tenuous U.N. truce has provided relief to civilians but may only entrench a power imbalance in the country’s civil war.

By , a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
People gather for a demonstration demanding the end of a yearslong siege imposed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the city of Taiz, Yemen, on May 25.
People gather for a demonstration demanding the end of a yearslong siege imposed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the city of Taiz, Yemen, on May 25.
People gather for a demonstration demanding the end of a yearslong siege imposed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the city of Taiz, Yemen, on May 25. AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP via Getty Images

On June 2, Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a two-month extension of a United Nations-negotiated truce. Initially begun on April 2, the truce is the first cessation of hostilities since 2016 and has delivered short-term reprieve for many Yemenis after nearly eight years of civil war: Civilian casualties in the country are down, commercial imports are up, and humanitarian organizations’ access has improved. What’s more, small confidence-building measures implemented during the truce could finally lead to a negotiated resolution to a conflict that once seemed intractable. U.S. President Joe Biden heralded news of the truce’s renewal and called for parties to “move expeditiously towards a comprehensive and inclusive peace process.”

A September 2014 coup by the Houthi militant group sparked Yemen’s civil war, which has since become entangled in regional conflicts. The Houthis, an Iranian-backed Zaydi Shiite group, claimed their seizure of power from the internationally recognized Yemeni government as part of a revolution against a corrupt regime. But Saudi Arabia saw the specter of the Houthis on its border and, in March 2015, pulled together a military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates to restore the previous government. The United States, which initially supported the Saudi-led military intervention, sought to end its entanglement as civilian casualties mounted by halting direct military support and offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Washington has remained committed to helping its strategic partner defend against cross-border attacks enabled by Iranian-sourced weapons.

The conflict’s toll on civilians has been catastrophic, deepening the world’s largest and worst humanitarian crisis. Indiscriminate shelling by the Houthis—including on camps of displaced persons—and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes remain the leading causes of civilian casualties since 2018. Deadlier still has been the conflict’s indirect impact on civilians: A U.N. Development Programme report found that of the estimated 377,000 deaths caused by the conflict as of the end of 2021, nearly 60 percent were caused by lack of access to food, water, or health care. Today, 2 out of 3 people in a country of 31 million rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their daily needs. Soaring food prices are also pushing Yemenis closer to starvation—42 percent of Yemen’s wheat comes from Ukraine, where a Russian blockade is preventing wheat products from being exported to global markets—while preventable diseases, such as cholera, dengue, malaria, and diphtheria, are spreading rapidly.

On June 2, Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a two-month extension of a United Nations-negotiated truce. Initially begun on April 2, the truce is the first cessation of hostilities since 2016 and has delivered short-term reprieve for many Yemenis after nearly eight years of civil war: Civilian casualties in the country are down, commercial imports are up, and humanitarian organizations’ access has improved. What’s more, small confidence-building measures implemented during the truce could finally lead to a negotiated resolution to a conflict that once seemed intractable. U.S. President Joe Biden heralded news of the truce’s renewal and called for parties to “move expeditiously towards a comprehensive and inclusive peace process.”

A September 2014 coup by the Houthi militant group sparked Yemen’s civil war, which has since become entangled in regional conflicts. The Houthis, an Iranian-backed Zaydi Shiite group, claimed their seizure of power from the internationally recognized Yemeni government as part of a revolution against a corrupt regime. But Saudi Arabia saw the specter of the Houthis on its border and, in March 2015, pulled together a military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates to restore the previous government. The United States, which initially supported the Saudi-led military intervention, sought to end its entanglement as civilian casualties mounted by halting direct military support and offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Washington has remained committed to helping its strategic partner defend against cross-border attacks enabled by Iranian-sourced weapons.

The conflict’s toll on civilians has been catastrophic, deepening the world’s largest and worst humanitarian crisis. Indiscriminate shelling by the Houthis—including on camps of displaced persons—and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes remain the leading causes of civilian casualties since 2018. Deadlier still has been the conflict’s indirect impact on civilians: A U.N. Development Programme report found that of the estimated 377,000 deaths caused by the conflict as of the end of 2021, nearly 60 percent were caused by lack of access to food, water, or health care. Today, 2 out of 3 people in a country of 31 million rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their daily needs. Soaring food prices are also pushing Yemenis closer to starvation—42 percent of Yemen’s wheat comes from Ukraine, where a Russian blockade is preventing wheat products from being exported to global markets—while preventable diseases, such as cholera, dengue, malaria, and diphtheria, are spreading rapidly.

War has also impeded the flow of commercial goods and humanitarian assistance into Yemen, which the U.N.’s truce seeks to fix. The Saudi-led coalition limits access to Houthi-controlled air- and seaports to prevent Iran from smuggling arms to the Houthis. Yet this loose blockade also slows shipments of much-needed food and fuel into the country—with Houthi authorities at times exacerbating shortages for political benefit. And humanitarian organizations face significant bureaucratic hurdles to delivering aid across the country.

A resolution to Yemen’s war would be most welcome for Yemeni civilians and the international community, which has struggled to respond to the humanitarian crisis. But peace comes at a cost that few people discuss openly: The Houthis would be negotiating from a position of strength and thus would almost certainly retain outsized influence in the country. This is true despite the recent developments that pushed the war into a mutually hurting stalemate. Giving the Houthis—a minority in Yemen—a majority stake in the national government would extend rather than end Yemen’s cycle of conflict.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, the Houthis broke the 2016 cease-fire with an aggressive offensive to capture the oil-rich province of Marib and the northern parts of a neighboring province, Shabwah. Houthi control of Marib would have been a turning point in Yemen’s war, but UAE-backed forces countered the Houthi advances in late 2021 and declared recaptured territory liberated in early 2022, disabusing the Houthis of any notions of further territorial expansion.

Although they thwarted the Houthis’ advance, coalition-backed Yemeni forces have seemed to otherwise accept the informal border that the conflict’s front line traces through the country: The Houthis have been the de facto authority in northern and central Yemen for the past seven years, holding off sporadic efforts from other Yemeni forces to claw back territory.

Regional actors are unlikely to tip the balance of the war at this point. Iranian-sourced drones and missiles expanded the conflict deep into Saudi and Emirati territory, destabilizing the region to Iran’s advantage rather than enabling the Houthis to make and hold significant gains on the ground. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made it clear they will train, equip, and advise Yemeni forces but will not fight in their stead. The Saudi air campaign, which had been ineffective in defeating the Houthis and resulted in a significant number of civilian casualties, has now transformed into more limited, punitive strikes on Houthi targets. In 2019, the UAE drew down its commitments in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia began seeking an exit from the war.

The ongoing truce provides a way out for both sides. For the Yemeni government and its Persian Gulf backers, the truce sets conditions to seek a political resolution to end the war, which the Biden administration and others have repeatedly called for. Seven years have proved anti-Houthi Yemeni forces to be incapable of weakening the Houthis militarily, and factional infighting paired with a lack of coordination among various forces have been an obstacle to success. The formation in April of the Presidential Leadership Council, an eight-member body vested with presidential authority, has sought to unite these factions.

The truce also meets the Houthis’ conditions for any dialogue, primarily their demand for an end to the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen. The agreement included terms that have helped reopen the war-torn country: the resumption of some commercial flights from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to Jordan and Egypt; the entry of 18 commercial fuel shipments into Hudaydah, the Red Sea port city under Houthi control; and road access for all parties around Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, which the Houthis have besieged. The first fuel shipment entered Hudaydah on the first full day of the truce. The first commercial flight in six years took off from Sanaa for Amman, Jordan, on May 16, and the first flight to Cairo departed on June 1. The full reopening of roads around Taiz has yet to occur, however. Talks that began on May 25 stalled and resumed on June 5.

The truce’s extension provides space for these confidence-building measures to take effect and jump-start more comprehensive negotiations. Yet it also buys more time for forces on the ground to reset for renewed campaigns once the truce expires. Ongoing violations by both sides show that even though the national truce holds, skirmishes still occur along the front lines.

For the Houthis, the truce has paved the way for the group to translate its success on the battlefield into political gains. Over the past five years, the Houthis have taken on the vestiges of a state, exchanging ambassadors with Iran and seeking international recognition as the government of Yemen. The group keeps an ambassador in Syria and has diplomatic representatives in Iraq, Lebanon, and Oman.

For the Houthis, the truce has paved the way for the group to translate its success on the battlefield into political gains.

The Houthis have also taken steps to impose their fundamentalist interpretation of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam on Yemeni society, severely restricting certain freedoms in the name of religion. Historically, Zaydi practices were nearly indistinguishable from those of Yemen’s Shafi’i Sunnis, who comprise more than 60 percent of Yemen’s population, and Zaydis and Shafi’is practiced together in the same mosques. Yet the Houthis have changed the education curriculum, limited space for non-Zaydi Islamic practices, and persecuted religious minorities. They have also cracked down on women’s liberties—restricting access to education and increasingly excluding women from public spaces. The internationally recognized Yemeni government is nowhere near as hard-line.

In exchange for the loss of liberties, Yemeni civilians don’t benefit from a better government under the Houthis either. Their government is equally inept and corrupt as the previous one was: The Houthis retained many of the Yemeni government structures in their territory, except Houthi advisors now oversee official posts to ensure all actions and decisions benefit Houthi interests—and coffers.

The Houthis still hold the upper hand in Yemen’s conflict and, in potential peace negotiations, are unlikely to make concessions that diminish their ability to rule or limit their access to Red Sea ports and revenue streams. Without a doubt, the Houthis will refuse to break ties with their Iranian sponsors, with whom they enjoy decadeslong ties. Any concessions the Houthis do make could be fleeting given the group’s disingenuous track record. Their hard-line approach to leadership and lineage also threatens to undermine the republican principles of any power-sharing agreement.

This is problematic for the United States and its Gulf partners. The internationally recognized Yemeni government will be negotiating from a position of weakness. Yemenis may see relief from their immediate suffering but only under the prospect of a more illiberal government. Although the current alternative to a Houthi-dominated government has its own problems—an endemic system of corruption and patronage, for one—the internationally recognized Yemeni government has trended toward being more representative of a broader constituency.

If the renewed truce breaks, continued war won’t improve the lives of Yemeni civilians. But it buys time for the international community to bolster the Presidential Leadership Council, which stands a chance of reunifying the opposition against the Houthis. The council has sought to integrate the armed forces under a national command structure, and such integration could be sufficient to tip the scales slightly toward the internationally recognized government, improving its position at the negotiating table and the prospects for a better political resolution.

In short, the only way to strike a better political deal with the Houthis would be to weaken them, and that would require military action. The cost of war is steep, however, and it is possible that pursuing peace today is still the least bad outcome in Yemen. But although it is tempting to focus on all the benefits of the ongoing truce—which have provided much-needed relief to a suffering population—we must remember that any peace negotiated at this moment comes at a cost to all the Yemenis who have rejected the Houthis’ vision for their country.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and an advisor to the AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Twitter: @KatieZimmerman

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