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The Sana'a Center Editorial Protect Yemen’s Path to Peace

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Just six months ago, backchannel Saudi-Houthi peace talks were nearing their conclusion. The basic outlines of a deal were known to government parties and the external players involved in the Yemeni crisis. Many objected to its terms, but Saudi Arabia’s stranglehold over the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) made it feel like a fait accompli. Members of the PLC doubted that the Houthis would ever invite them back into a unified government, except in the most superficial manner. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) feared that the right to self-determination in areas of the former southern state would slip down the agenda. The US, which had been pushing for Saudi Arabia to end the war since 2021, became nervous that Riyadh was rushing into a deal that could work to Iran’s advantage. No one was happy, but there was a clear path forward.

Deescalation and the Saudi roadmap acquired a momentum of their own. Ordinary people clearly welcomed the respite from years of crushing conflict, benefiting from a series of formal and informal truces that began in April 2022. Though some frontline areas remain tense, the Saudi-Houthi talks facilitated the reopening of Sana’a airport and the easing of international restrictions on the ports of Hudaydah, alleviating conditions somewhat within Houthi-run territories. The combination of Saudi pressure from above and popular pressure from below gave a sense of inevitability to the talks, despite ongoing Houthi escalation on the frontlines. There appeared to be little that could deflect the Saudis from their determination to ensure quiet on their southern border and protect their fantastical development plans.

All that has changed since October 7 and the ongoing stand-off between Western powers and the Houthis over their attacks on Red Sea shipping. A heightened atmosphere of fear and repression has swept Houthi areas as authorities crack down on dissent. The economy has deteriorated as ships avoid the ports of Hudaydah. The full effects of the US re-listing the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group will likely become apparent in the coming weeks. Money transfers running through Sana’a are drying up, hitting businesses and humanitarian organizations hard. According to the UNHCR, 18.2 million people are in need of assistance in Yemen. Military leaders on the government side have begun maneuvering to win US favor and support as a buffer against Houthi forces.

Without a miraculous end to the war in Gaza, the situation will get worse. The Biden administration is under congressional pressure to list the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which could completely freeze money flows into the country. It is also considering ramping up its support of government military outfits through direct arming of anti-Houthi factions – the major candidates being the National Resistance forces or Giants Brigades on the Red Sea coast, or parts of the STC. If such a policy comes to fruition, it would follow in the dubious footsteps of similar US efforts with local proxies in Iraq and Syria. There is a fundamental imbalance in military strength between the Houthis and the government that does need to be addressed. But backing individual elements will be nothing more than a stop-gap solution that increases government divisions in the long term. Over the past 10 years, the Houthis have been able to use division and competition among the political factions on the government side to expand their power base. They will easily manage to do the same again, while civilians die in greater numbers if the war escalates once again.

Worst of all, there is no plan among regional or international actors for how to exit this quagmire. The Houthis are hunkering down for prolonged operations in the Red Sea, and even threatening to disrupt ships in the Arabian Sea that have rerouted to the Cape of Good Hope. The US is hunkering down with plans to further its military and financial responses, though notably the US envoy recently renewed an offer to revoke the terrorism designation if the Red Sea attacks stop. Yemen, meanwhile, is suffering real harm from the Houthis’ adventurism and ideological obstinacy. It’s hard to see the Saudi-Houthi talks being revived in the near future, and with them gone, the hope evaporates for a host of other measures, such as the regular payment of public sector salaries, economic reconstruction, or a resumption of oil and gas exports.

Amid this bleak outlook, one of the most serious dangers of the current moment is that key international actors will start to view Yemen primarily as a security problem and set aside the peace-building efforts that have begun to show real benefits. Giving up on incremental initiatives such as reopening roads, promoting political dialogue and inclusivity, prisoner releases, economic de-escalation, supporting Yemeni civil society and so much other work – which might not seem important to foreign leaders – risks exacerbating the very security threats that worry them.

In order to avoid this scenario, there is a desperate need for a strategic approach that considers how to restore a balance of power in the country as the basis for a meaningful peace process, while also putting the precarious economic and humanitarian situation at the forefront of policy. International support for Yemen should strengthen the central government rather than its individual components – primary areas of focus could include combatting corruption, increasing its military cohesiveness, and economic support. Washington in particular should resist further sanctions that would, counterproductively, impact ordinary Yemenis more than the Houthis.

The Houthis, meanwhile, must reconsider the consequences of their actions for the impoverished people they govern. Worryingly, their primary goal increasingly appears to be the pursuit of greater and continual confrontation with Western powers, rather than supporting Gaza and the Palestinian people. For Yemen’s sake, now is not the time for further escalation.