Announced Monday, Saudi Arabia’s initiative for a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen is yet another attempt to cease all military operations and start a political process that can bring an end to the ongoing Yemeni conflict that has been stuck in an unceasing quagmire of negotiation.
This announcement is not the first of its kind, the Arab coalition announced in 2020 a unilateral ceasefire that lasted for almost two months before it collapsed due to the Houthis insurgency and constant missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Yemeni cities.
Like the former initiative, the new proposal has the prospects of success and failure – the outcome of which is entirely based on how the Iran-backed Houthi militia will respond to it. So far, the reaction by Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam is not encouraging.
The international community welcomed the Saudi initiative, and statements issued by London, Washington, Brussels and the UN show a positive reaction by western governments, but it takes more than welcoming statements to achieve peace in Yemen.
Over every round of peace talks, the international community has consistently leveraged the Yemeni government and Arab coalition into giving concessions – but the same has not been true for the Houthis. This dynamic has created an imbalance in the peace track led by the UN envoy. It is time for this to stop: The international community needs to create leverage on the Houthis in order to guarantee the success of the Saudi initiative.
The international community’s failed narrative
In reviewing statements issued by the UN Envoy and the discussions on Yemen at the international level, it is impossible to fail to notice the huge gap between diplomats and the reality faced by people living on the ground.
On March 3 the US special envoy to Yemen met with the Houthis in Oman and presented a road map that was meant to set the roadmap for a political settlement in Yemen. This came after President Biden announced on February 4 that he will stop all support to offensive operations by the Arab coalition stressing that “this war has to end.” The announcement was celebrated by aid groups and human rights organizations, but in reality is reflective of an ongoing disingenuous narrative that has framed the Yemen conflict.
By merely ending support for Arab coalition operations, this narrative assumes, the war will end. The UK-based charity Oxfam went as far to accuse the British government of prolonging the war in Yemen for not following suit with the Biden administration.
While western media outlets remained plastered with headlines celebrating what was deemed to be a way to end the war, the story on the ground is more complex.
The Houthis, since early January, have been launching a sustained assault on the Marib governorate, an attack which threatens to displace more than 1.5 million people who have found refuge in the region. The Houthis have also hit the main city of Marib with ballistic missiles and armed drones more than 90 times since February. In the areas they control, the Houthis have executed more than 24 senior tribal leaders, despite some of them being former allies. The latest was tribal leader Mohammed Abu Shawarib from Amran province, north of Sanaa.
The Houthis have become more violent and oppressive since the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in late 2017. Since then, they have launched a brutal campaign to prevent all political parties from operating or running activities. No political party is operating today from Sanaa. In a capital that once hosted all Yemenis from all backgrounds there is no longer breathing space for any voice other than the Houthis. Activists, journalists, and women groups have been targeted and jailed by the Houthis security apparatus.
In December 2020, the United States designated the Houthis top security commander in Sanaa, Sultan Zabin, under the Magnitsky act for running a network responsible of detaining, torturing and raping women activists. He was later sanctioned by the UN Security Council for the same reason. Sultan Zabin remains in Sanaa, recruiting people to fight for the Houthis in Marib.
Marib is not the only battlefront for the Houthis. Just three days after they met the US special envoy to Yemen, the Houthis launched 10 armed drones against Saudi Arabia. These attacks, carried out on March 19 and targeting Saudi Aramco oil facilities in the Kingdom’s capital of Riyadh, were carried out using Iranian-made or Iranian-supplied weapons, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir later said.
The celebrations and statements issued by aid groups and human rights campaigners on Yemen reflect how short-sighted and ill informed such groups can be. Repeating one narrative and running media campaigns doesn’t change the truth.
Two approaches, one conflict
Like the UN envoy, the US special envoy is reaching a roadblock. This is because it is trying to resolve a different conflict than the real conflict Yemenis face.
The prevalent international discourse suggests that the conflict is simply a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Yemeni groups fighting as proxies. Since his appointment as UN Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths has been trying to strike a deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia away from the rest of the Yemenis who are witnessing the Houthis’ war machinery first-hand. He believes that giving the Houthis enough incentives will eventually result in halting their attacks on Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Yemenis will happily join the peace deal since they are paid by the Saudis.
For the Yemenis, the Houthis are a theological armed movement that is struggling to coexist within the Yemeni political framework. Their transnational ambitions threaten to destabilize Yemen for decades to come. There is no political solution without exerting military pressure on the Houthis – enough pressure to bring them to the negotiating table.
The international community should realize that military force is necessary to prevent the Houthis from further conquests. Many Yemenis are looking to the international community to help them restore the state institutions and start rebuilding Yemen, and not legitimizing the rule of militias. Caving into the Houthis demands without security military concessions is a recipe for chaos, not stability.
The Saudi initiative is simplifying the narrative for the international community and giving them the chance to view the conflict through the Yemeni lens. The Houthis will continue their violent trend and soon violate the ceasefire and launch missiles inside and outside Yemen.
The international community can seize on the opportunity and take serious steps to prevent the Houthis from foiling peace efforts once again, or they can sit back and watch the Houthis drag Yemen back into the conflict.