After Aramco: Will halting Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia end Yemen’s war?
On Sep. 20, Mahdi al-Mashat, a senior leader in the Houthi insurgency (Ansar Allah), announced that the group would halt attacks on Saudi Arabia, whether by drones or missiles, in the hopes that the kingdom would reciprocate.
At a time when the Houthis have been relentless in asserting their responsibility for the unprecedented Sep. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, the importance of such a move must not be exaggerated, but nor should it come as a surprise to policymakers in London, Washington, or Brussels.
Reactions to Houthi offer
The Houthi offer received international praise, but the Saudis were more cautious. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths immediately welcomed Mashat’s initiative on Sep. 21, urging the parties to “take advantage of this opportunity” to “reduce violence,” without mentioning the underlying causes of the conflict.
In an official statement, EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic supported de-escalation vis-à-vis Riyadh, reiterating there’s no military solution, as did UK Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron. Most recently, Kuwait, Germany, Sweden, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council issued a joint communique describing the announcement “an important first step towards de-escalation.”
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, however, expressed skepticism, saying, “We judge other parties by their deeds, actions and not by their words.” Media reports later suggested Riyadh responded with a partial ceasefire, but the Houthis rejected the move, saying they would only accept an official, comprehensive Saudi ceasefire and an end to the blockade. Yemen Ambassador to the UK Yassin Saeed Noman emphasized that “Mashat’s initiative is driven by their rejection of the fact that the root of the problem is their rebellion” in an attempt to frame the war as a conflict with Saudi Arabia, not the Government of Yemen (GoY).
After five years of indecisive war, there is a clear desire on the part of the international community to bring the conflict in Yemen to an end, and this UN-endorsed Houthi initiative seems predicated on the assumption that ending the fighting between Riyadh and the Houthis would achieve this. A closer look at the situation, however, suggests this assumption is flawed. Peacebuilding and conflict resolution efforts require far more than just a mutual cessation of hostilities; a truce should be an integral part of a comprehensive peace agreement between Yemenis, rather than just a confidence-building measure between two of the parties.
The narrative is short-sighted
Although international calls to bring an end to Yemen’s catastrophic five-year war underscore the importance of conflict termination, sustainable peacebuilding is essential to avoiding the outbreak of another conflict. In October 2018, Jeffrey Feltman wrote in Foreign Affairs that the only way to end the war is by halting the Arab coalition’s “military campaign unilaterally and challenge the Houthis to respond in kind.”
What ended up happening, however, was different: given its changing priorities on Yemen, the UAE decided to draw down its forces in July 2019. At the time, Abdulkhaleq Abdullah wrote that if the UAE’s drawdown were “reciprocated by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, it could serve as the long-awaited breakthrough.”
Whether it is the Houthis that cease hostilities first, as Mashat offered, or Saudi Arabia, as Feltman described, doesn’t really matter when it comes to resolving the conflict — but it does matter to Saudi national security, which is why the Saudis convened covert talks with the Houthis, for example, in Dhahran al-Janoub in 2016. The cessation of hostilities between Yemenis is of far more importance in paving the way for peace.
The argument is frequently made that ending hostilities between Riyadh and the Houthis is the key to peace, but this tends to either 1) overlook the domestic roots of the conflict that derailed Yemen’s relatively peaceful and inclusive transition following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, or 2) succumb to the violence that non-state actors, including the Houthis, have utilized to accomplish their political objectives. Against this backdrop, it is crucial to reassert that the leading causes of conflict are primarily internal, not external.
The Yemeni conflict is primarily internal
Recent history should not be distorted by those in policy or advocacy circles with an anti-Saudi agenda that only ends up benefitting sectarian militias at the expense of the Yemeni people.
Broadly speaking, the current conflict is the result of accumulated grievances, unequal distribution of wealth, poor governance, entrenched corruption, and social inequalities left unaddressed during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. More immediately, however, it was sparked by the capture of Sana’a by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh in September 2014 and the overturning of the transitional authority of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — and more broadly, the UN-endorsed, GCC-sponsored peace process. Therefore, the leading cause of today’s conflict is armed rebellion.
In March 2015, six months after the Houthi coup d’état, Saudi Arabia, along with around 10 Sunni Muslim countries, established a military coalition at President Hadi’s request to curb Iranian influence and restore his government to power in Sana’a. In December 2017, the Houthis killed their most resourceful local ally, Saleh, who helped bring their rebellion to power in 2014. Understanding this history is essential to shaping conflict resolution efforts and what will doubtless be a complex peace process.
We must not forget that it was the Houthis who resorted to violence, for instance, against the Salafis of Dammaj during the National Dialogue Conference in 2013-14, the most inclusive effort to date to resolve Yemen’s long-standing issues of contention — a dialogue in which they were also involved. Not only has Houthi violence jeopardized Yemen’s transition, but their quest to make Yemen a bargaining chip for Iran has had broader ramifications as well, threatening the stability of the country, along with Gulf security, global energy supplies, and regional maritime trade.
Most recently, the Houthis attempted to expand in Hodeida governorate, in violation of the UN-brokered 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council forced the GoY out of Aden in August 2019, undermining the notion of an unconditional, unilateral, or even mutual ceasefire. Surrendering to political violence by non-state actors also psychologically legitimizes militias’ activities and will likely increase the struggle for power in the event of a fragile truce.
The Houthis frame the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen (or them) to manipulate international perceptions, creating a narrative that projects the Houthis as victims rather than perpetrators to the Western media on the one hand, and as a resistance movement that protects Yemen vis-à-vis “external aggression” to average Yemenis on the other. By embracing the Houthi narrative, state and non-state actors are deliberately discarding what actually happened and spreading disinformation to accomplish their own objectives, whitewashing Yemen’s history of armed uprisings, including the six Houthi wars against the central government between 2004 and 2010 that led to the conflict in the first place. External actors are fighting a different battle from Yemenis.
What does the Houthi initiative mean for Yemen?
A cessation of hostilities between Riyadh and the Houthis would bring about a reduction of violence, but not an end to the war. It does not in any way suggest that the Houthis will stop their attacks on other Yemenis. For instance, they fired missiles at Amran and Sa’ada provinces on Sept. 24, shortly after they announced their de-escalation — a clear sign that it is limited to Riyadh and that their violence against fellow Yemenis will continue.
Unless it is conditional on a broader Yemeni peace process, Saudi reciprocity would only put the Houthis in a more favorable position. First, it would remove the pressure from the Saudi aerial campaign that has partly constrained their ability to capture more territory, furthering the Houthis’ perceived sense of victory following the UAE’s drawdown.
Second, it would give the Houthis room to regroup, rearm, and redeploy their forces ahead of the next military escalation to tighten their control over Hodeida and extend their influence along the coast, as well as on other frontlines, including Marib. Third, detached from a broader national conflict resolution effort, the move might end up actually reducing the Houthis’ incentives to engage in peace talks.
Without a doubt, the cessation of hostilities between regional actors and the Houthis remains important, but an overarching peace agreement that would bring about an end to hostilities locally and regionally must take priority. In calling on Riyadh and the Houthis to unconditionally cease military operations against one other, the risks are high.
For six decades now, Yemen has been trapped in a cycle of conflict of varying intensities, and the Yemeni people deserve a sustainable and credible peace process — one which the Stockholm Agreement has so far proven unable to deliver.
A coalition withdrawal or a mutual cessation of hostilities should be an integral part of a broader political settlement whose implementation is internationally monitored and includes clear national reconciliation and transitional justice measures. Without addressing the roots of the conflict in an inclusive manner and without an awareness of the growing imbalance of power in favor of militias and terrorist groups, there cannot be a credible resolution to the war; instead, there will likely be a further localization of conflict dynamics, exacerbating security issues for both Yemen and the Gulf. To look forward we must also look backward.