WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN YEMEN?
Photo: Ilustration, source: EPA
Regional and international mediators are pressing the Republic of Yemen Government and the opposition Houthi movement to extend a two-month truce set to expire today. United Nations, U.S., and other outside mediators perceive that an extension would provide political space to convert the temporary ceasefire into productive talks that might end the eight-year long conflict in Yemen. According to U.N. estimates, the war had killed more than 377,000 people as of late 2021 and caused untold human misery there, including a major cholera outbreak. U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said in late May that the truce was in place because of a sense of war fatigue within Yemen, as well as efforts by regional powers and U.N. Special Envoy Hans Grundberg. The U.S. envoy added that Yemen’s neighboring states, Saudi Arabia and Oman, both supported the temporary ceasefire, and that U.S. officials were encouraged that Iran had welcomed the truce as well.
Its relative success has raised optimism among U.N., U.S., and regional officials that the truce will be extended, assuming remaining disagreements over confidence building measures can be adequately addressed. By all accounts, military violations of the agreement have been minor. The pause has benefitted the two main backers of the Yemeni government’s forces – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – by halting Houthi barrages of Iran-supplied missiles and drones on their civilian infrastructure. The reopening of Sanaa’s airport to civilian flights has enabled more than 1,000 passengers to fly between Sanaa and Amman, Jordan. The flights have provided key support for Yemenis in need of medical treatment or who sought to join family abroad. On May 24, Egypt agreed to allow civilian flights between Sanaa and Cairo. This has been hailed as a key step toward ending the Houthis’ self-imposed isolation. During the truce, the Saudi-led coalition has also eased its naval blockade, allowing much needed fuel shipments to reach Hodeida, a major Houthi-controlled port that serves as the main conduit for the flow of goods into Yemen. The deliveries have alleviated massive fuel shortages in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. On the other hand, prisoner exchanges conducted in April faced unexpected obstacles. In a war defined by conflicting narratives and opaque intentions, the head of Yemen’s Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, said that the group was not opposed to extending the U.N.-brokered truce, despite describing it as “not encouraging enough.” The May 21 statement has been seen as a signal that Houthi leadership may be amenable to continued dialogue and an extension of the agreement.
To assess the prospects for an extension of the truce, the international community is looking to U.N.-brokered talks in Amman that began on May 25 to resolve outstanding disagreements between the conflict parties to the conflict. Most significant is whether the talks in Amman can prevail on the Houthis to end their blockade of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city – which has been largely cut off since 2015. Unable to flee the fighting and without sufficient access to humanitarian aid, residents of the city have been forced to contend with dire conditions for years. Saudi and Yemeni government officials have indicated to outside stakeholders that they will not agree to an extension unless the Houthis concede their blockade of Taiz. Three days of talks that ended May 27 failed to resolve the issue, but the negotiators remain in Amman to continue the discussions. Although it is not a direct combatant in Yemen, on May 27, the United States renewed its call for the Houthis to release detained U.S. embassy staff after a retired employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) died in rebel custody. Several Yemeni employees of U.N. organizations remain in Houthi captivity.
Even if the truce is extended, political settlement of the conflict remains a distant possibility. Experts see mistrust between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis as a key driver of the conflict. Many are skeptical that the Kingdom will be realistic about the limits of the Houthis’ capacity for compromise, particularly when it comes to their relationship with Iran. It was, in large part, the Houthis’ expanding ties to Iran that precipitated the intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are working to roll back Iran’s regional influence. Many doubt that Iran and the Houthis will accept a political settlement that dismantles the capacity of the Houthis to help Tehran project power in the region. U.N. and U.S. officials indicate that a key goal of peace talks will be to avoid another formal North-South split – as was the case during 1967-1990 – but doing so will require difficult agreements on an inclusive government, a new structure for the state, and eventual elections. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen, but some experts have criticized the resolution as overly accommodating of Saudi interests and in need of replacement by a more balanced U.N. roadmap. U.S. officials are concerned that the Houthis’ anti-American posture is deeply rooted in the origins of the movement, a legacy of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which helped to radicalize the group. Although no solution will thoroughly satisfy all parties, years of inconclusive fighting appears to have reached a mutually hurting stalemate that may convince the warring factions to abandon hostilities and seek a political settlement, alleviating the severe humanitarian crisis still gripping Yemen.