An international crisis researcher tries to answer the question: How can the war in Yemen end?

An international crisis researcher tries to answer the question: How can the war in Yemen end?


With all of U.S. President Donald Trump’s troubles at home and abroad, his administration could use a win. There is low-hanging fruit in Yemen, and the ripple effects of success there could go far beyond the impoverished and war-torn country. Houthi rebels (who prefer to be called Ansar Allah) have made an offer of de-escalation that, if built on quickly, could help extract the United States from the bloody and unwinnable war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. It would reduce threats to Saudi Arabia and its oil infrastructure at a time of rising tensions with Iran. And it would open a door to wider de-escalation inside Yemen and possibly across the region.

On Sept. 20, the Houthis—who control northwestern Yemen and have been at war with a variety of Yemeni groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2015—announced a unilateral suspension of strikes on Saudi Arabia. In return, they asked for a halt to Saudi airstrikes and a lifting of restrictions on access to northern Yemen.

They did this on the heels of claiming the Sept. 14 attacks against Saudi Aramco oil facilities, a claim that few believe and which has bound the group closer than ever to Iran in the eyes of its opponents. While the Houthis routinely fire missiles and send drones into Saudi territory, experts say the sophistication of the swarm attack points to Iran. According to Saudi and U.S. officials, the direction of the attack was from the north, rather than from Yemen to the south.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Saudi response to Houthi overtures has been mostly positive. They have not suspended airstrikes but have reportedly reduced them in some areas. They have facilitated the entry of a number of fuel shipments into Houthi-controlled territory, albeit not enough to address the ongoing fuel crisis. The Houthis unilaterally released almost 300 prisoners, including three Saudis. Both sides have exchanged unusually positive public signals indicating interest in de-escalation, and they have reportedly reopened back-channel discussions.

For Riyadh, ending the war in Yemen likely acquired new urgency in the wake of the Saudi Aramco attacks, which brought home the stakes of a hot war with Iran while piercing a gaping hole in the U.S. security umbrella. At a minimum, the Yemen war is a costly and dangerous distraction that keeps the Saudis focused south when attention could be directed elsewhere.

It tests and uncovers the kingdom’s military vulnerabilities and potentially allows Iran plausible deniability through the Houthis to launch attacks. And there are no easy military options for turning the tide against the Houthis. After the United Nations prevented an attack on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida in December 2018, Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner, the UAE, redeployed its forces and now sees little point in continuing the effectively stalemated war in the north.

The political stars are aligning in a way that offers an offramp from a war that has caused immeasurable humanitarian damage and threatens to become a trigger for a regional conflagration This opportunity should be embraced, particularly by the United States, which has been complicit in Riyadh’s war and could now encourage its Saudi allies to reach an understanding with the Houthis that includes significant reductions in cross-border attacks.

If successful, this could serve as a foundation for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement between Yemeni antagonists—including the Houthis, the Yemeni government, and Emirati-backed southern separatists, among others—and the resumption of intra-Yemeni negotiations to end the civil war. But the offer will not be on the table indefinitely.

De-escalation overtures are fragile and easily reversible. Failure to reach a mutual agreement that addresses airstrikes and fuel access will almost certainly prompt the Houthis to renege on their offer, with attacks resuming and perhaps intensifying. For their part, the Saudis will likely want assurances that the Houthis will not use cross-border de-escalation to regroup, reposition, and advance on the ground inside Yemen against various Yemeni foes and along the border against the Saudis.

Hard-liners on the Houthi side reportedly were opposed to the unilateral suspension of strikes. Some among them view a regional war, in which they would be siding with Iran, as almost inevitable and even beneficial to them, as it would draw Saudi Arabia’s attention away from its southern flank. For now, more pragmatic voices among the Houthi leadership appear to have won out, but they need a lifeline.


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