Adversaries of Yemen’s Huthi rebels say they will never negotiate in good faith. Others think they might, given the right mix of incentives. With a nationwide truce in place, diplomats should give the latter hypothesis a shot.
What’s new? A two-month truce and reconfiguration of executive powers in Yemen’s internationally recognised government represent an opportunity, if not for peace, then at least for negotiations aimed at achieving it. But getting to talks will require overcoming a barrier many see as insurmountable: dialogue with the Huthi rebels.
Why does it matter? The Huthis remain an enigma to many outsiders but are instrumental to a negotiated solution. They have given few signs of late that they will make compromises necessary to end the war, but efforts to engage them stand a better chance than further isolation of convincing them to do so.
What should be done? Diplomats will need both carrots and sticks to bring the Huthis in from the cold. International stakeholders should establish a working group to make overtures to Sanaa and prepare for inclusive Yemeni-Yemeni talks to chart a way out of the conflict.
A whirlwind of events has opened a small window of opportunity, if not for peace, then for a shift from violent competition to political negotiations in Yemen. This moment is a litmus test for two hypotheses about the Huthi rebels who have controlled Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since 2014. The first, advanced by their rivals, holds that the group is an extremist organisation in thrall to Iran that is incapable of engaging in good faith, let alone making the compromises needed to end the war. The second posits that the Huthis (aka Ansar Allah), presented with the right mix of incentives and a realistic peace proposal, will come to the table, even if only to give themselves a reprieve from fighting and economic privation. In any case, the fact is that the war will not end without the Huthis’ acquiescence. With a nationwide truce in place, diplomats should reach out to the Huthis, seeking their approval of an extended truce and their participation in inclusive intra-Yemeni talks aimed at bringing seven years of terrible conflict to a close.
The UN announced it had mediated the truce on 1 April after shifts on the ground brought the military balance close to equilibrium for the first time in several years. Less than a week later, Saudi Arabia engineered the ouster of Yemen’s internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who over the course of the conflict had turned from a deeply imperfect vessel of state legitimacy into an impediment to both prosecuting the war and finding pathways to peace. Hadi’s replacement, a presidential council consisting partly of prominent leaders involved in fighting the Huthis, along with political elites close to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, presented the Huthis with both confirmation of Saudi influence over the government and a more credible negotiating counterpart, as the UN sought to translate the truce into dialogue about ending the war. Days after the council’s appointment, the UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, travelled to Sanaa in an effort to extend the truce and lay the groundwork for political negotiations.
Earlier in 2022, the Huthis had made headlines by claiming responsibility for missile and drone attacks on the United Arab Emirates in response to gains made by UAE-backed anti-Huthi forces on the battlefield. The strikes were a reminder that, after more than 100,000 deaths, the war remains a threat both to millions of lives inside Yemen and to the Gulf region’s stability. They also reignited a debate over the nature of the Huthi movement. The Huthis’ rivals say they are a theocratic Iranian proxy that rules through fear and harbours expansionist ambitions. The Huthis paint themselves as revolutionaries and plucky underdogs in a Saudi-led war of aggression. They claim that they have been sincere in their efforts to end the war and have clearly stated their terms, but that until now their adversaries’ counter-proposals have been unrealistic.
Neither narrative provides a full picture of the Huthis or life in areas they control. The Huthis tell a story of a revolution with democratic intent thwarted by Saudi-led airstrikes and siege warfare. But the Yemen war is a civil war first and foremost. The Huthis neglect to mention that many Yemenis are not on their side and that those fighting them on the ground are resisting their rule rather than acting as guns for hire. For their part, the Huthis’ rivals say the group is hellbent on installing a caste-based theocratic order, pointing to Huthi attacks on populated areas and police state tactics as examples of their extremism. But they downplay the war’s human toll in Huthi-controlled areas and local leaders’ excesses in areas under the government’s nominal sway. Their backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, focus on Huthi cross-border attacks, demanding that the U.S. assist them in ending the Huthi (and, they say, Iranian) threat to the Gulf security. But they seek impunity for the carnage their own bombardment has caused.
Recent Huthi gains – and losses – on the ground, their latest attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the truce and the push for a political settlement have brought renewed urgency to questions about who the Huthis are, what they want and how to bring them to the negotiating table. For some, the answer is to isolate and pressure them militarily and economically. For others, it is to find the right incentives to bring them in from the cold, for example, by meeting longstanding Huthi demands to lift restrictions on the Red Sea port of Hodeida and reopen Sanaa International Airport to commercial flights.
As part of the truce both of these conditions have now been met, on paper and in a limited form: the agreement allows two flights per week to land in Sanaa and eases the embargo on fuel shipments arriving in Hodeida. Whether that is enough to get the Huthis to the table is about to be put to the test. But first, its terms must be honoured – at the time of writing, almost a month into the truce, wrangling over passport control had prevented the inaugural flights from arriving. The Huthis, for their part, also need to make compromises to sustain and expand the truce: they need to restore road access to the city of Taiz that they have besieged for the past seven years.
Whatever happens next, efforts to end the war must grapple with four main considerations related to the Huthis. The first is the fact that, until early 2022, they appeared to be winning the war for Yemen’s northern highlands and that they remain the dominant power in the country’s most populous areas, including Sanaa. The second is that the risk of more Huthi strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and the menace to maritime trade around Yemen – will remain constant as long as the war continues. The third is that, even if the war is a multi-sided struggle that can only be brought to a close through a wider peace process, it cannot end without an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis, with the former deeming intolerable a settlement that would leave the group in absolute control, closely aligned with Iran and armed with medium- and long-range weapons.
The fourth and final factor is that the Huthis’ domestic rivals reject the notion of living in a Huthi-dominated state and, in many cases, have vowed to fight on in the event of a settlement that does not address their fears. Even the most fervent of anti-Huthi Yemenis perceive that they may soon have no choice but to broker some kind of settlement with the Huthis that upholds the status quo, given that Riyadh is widely understood to be set on finding an exit from the conflict. Yet, absent a shift in Huthi military and political tactics, many in this camp predict, instead of a peace process, a prelude to a new phase of war in the event that some kind of interim settlement can be achieved.
An end to the war’s current phase could be in sight, in other words but not necessarily an end to Yemen’s civil strife. External actors will need to use both incentives and pressure to bring all parties to the bargaining table. But it is hard to see how the Huthis, in particular, can be convinced to negotiate without a permanent end to what they see as the Saudi-led siege of the areas they control. With these restrictions now temporarily lightened as part of the truce, mediators need to mount a diplomatic surge on Sanaa to ensure that the group feels heard, as well as to tell them what the outside world expects from them.
It is important to calibrate the aims of this effort carefully. Diplomats will need to be realistic about the limits of the Huthis’ capacity for compromise, particularly around power sharing and when it comes to their relationship with Iran. The immediate goal should not be a hastily assembled comprehensive deal and a rush to settling the war’s most divisive issues, regional and international security concerns. Rather, it should be to make the Huthis part of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue made up not just of regional players’ favourite politicians, but of the broad range of social constituencies who can build peace.
Sanaa/New York/Brussels, 29 April 2022