Yemen’s hour of truth
In the wake of Houthis’ attempted attacks on US naval vessels, the cease-fire, first agreed by Yemen's President Mansour Hadi and then by the Houthis, went into effect shortly after midnight Wednesday. While the cease-fire is naturally on wobbly ground, it enables humanitarian supplies to reach those caught amidst the conflict. The agreement, pushed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, is a brief window to de-escalate tensions and try to bring the parties back to the table.
More realistically, this cease-fire could merely be a convenient breathing space. Expected to announce a new government and parliament in Sanaa in the coming weeks, the Houthis have given no indications so far that they are seriously committed to a peace process. They have repeatedly rejected any of the substantive offers to de-escalate the conflict.
An Opportune Moment
This cease-fire could opportunistically instead serve as an avenue for ramping down tensions with the US. The militant group cannot afford Washington as an opponent and likely their patrons in Tehran sternly reminded them of that (despite providing them the missiles). However, beyond concerns with Washington, the militant group isn’t looking any time soon to withdraw from Sanaa and hopes that the longer the conflict drags on the better position they will be in to shape the terms of the settlement. There’s no advantage now to agree to withdraw from the capital when the Houthis don’t trust their negotiating partners’ intentions.
For the government in Aden, this cease-fire is merely a lull in fighting. Despite the numerous challenges facing President Hadi’s government, Aden is already considering moving ahead on their own path regardless of reaching an agreement with the Houthis. In the absence of a political process, President Hadi is looking to build an alternative government in the South. The GCC-led coalition has prioritized and continues to focus on a solution for all of Yemen, not just the South, but in absence of one, this could be a more viable short-term path as it weighs different options.
A Wake-Up Call
For Washington, though, the attempted attack by the Houthis on the US Navy and Washington’s counter-strike this week is a clear and present wake-up call: The Yemen campaign has never been a “war of choice.” Riyadh and its GCC partners, with Washington’s support, didn’t intervene in Yemen because it was a convenient incursion. It was critically a war of self-defense after the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh and his forces overran the legitimate government of Yemen.
This is an inconvenient truth that frankly Iran and the Houthis have capitalized on in terms of both inflating casualty figures and reporting misinformation. This narrative has received traction among some commentators in the US and members of Congress (notably Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Chris Murphy) who see the conflict in Yemen as purely a humanitarian crisis that Washington is aiding and abetting without seeing the bigger picture. Despite numerous failed rounds of talks, brokered by the UN and the US, these talks have gone nowhere.
The myth that somehow the US could do more to bring an end to the conflict is naïve and distracts from the immediate challenge for Washington, the Houthis aren’t purely a challenge for the GCC but for the US. They are also a group Iran could use to their advantage with their conflict with Washington.
While the Houthis existed long before Iran, their position today in Yemen isn’t purely because of their collaboration with Ali Abdullah Saleh. This militant group continues to be armed and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah.
Instead of condemning the attacks on naval vessels, Tehran publicly has responded by sending warships off Yemen’s coast. Tehran isn’t merely a by-stander; it’s an active participant who is fueling the conflict.
Ending the Conflict
Yemen’s future can be secured, but only through an open and honest set of negotiations. These talks will not succeed if Iran continues to operate in the shadows. The Houthis need to make a critical choice: Will they legitimately seek peace and reconciliation with their fellow Yemenis or will they choose to continue to fight a war with no end at the expense of the future of Yemen?
Steps could include the Houthis withdrawing from their positions on the Saudi-Yemeni border and removing heavy weaponry from the border. This would be a clear commitment to the sovereignty of the Kingdom and the Houthis’ desire to live in peace with their neighbors. Tehran could take steps to shore up their arms flows to Yemen and put pressure on their proxies. In exchange for the recognition of political autonomy and representation in the state, the militant group and Saleh’s forces could withdraw from Sanaa.
A political dialogue process would ideally begin that would lead to a unified and representative government in Sanaa. Yemen’s future, at peace with its neighbors, is the only sustainable path forward. For all those who chide the GCC intervention in Yemen and Washington’s support, a more constructive response would be to actively advocate for an actual political settlement.
• Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.