The Houthi rebels currently feel emboldened in Yemen’s war. The Iran-aligned movement believes that it is winning this gruesome conflict. This belief is well-founded. Ansar Allah (the dominant Houthi militia) controls the land where roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives. Other factors contributing to Houthi confidence are the shift in Washington’s Yemen foreign policy with new leadership in the White House, and the continuation of Ansar Allah’s strikes against Saudi Arabia, recently exemplified by the Ras Tanura attacks of March 7 that targeted one of the largest oil shipping ports in the world. Rather than laying down their arms and agreeing to what U.S. special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking called a “sound” ceasefire plan, the Houthis have decided instead to continue their armed struggle to capture the hydrocarbon-rich Marib province.
Why Stop a War You’re Winning?
A major dilemma for the Biden administration is how to deal with the Houthis’ resolve to continue fighting. Because the Houthis are currently on the offensive, it will be extremely difficult for the U.S. leadership to figure out how to incentivize them to lay down their arms and trust a peace process that will require them to make concessions to their domestic, regional, and international adversaries. Much of the difficulty for Biden’s team stems from the fact that the U.S. has basically zero direct influence over the Houthis. By virtue of Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia in the war, the Houthi rebels understandably see the U.S. as an enemy. As soon as the Washington-backed Saudi campaign — Operation Decisive Storm — began in 2015, the Houthis began eyeing deeper relationships with Iran, China, and Russia in an effort to counter-balance Riyadh’s support from Western and other Arab governments.
Inspired by and aligned with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis have gained an immense amount of power. The group will probably never have the strength to control all of Yemen, and the fluid nature of the war suggests that some of their gains could possibly be reversed if the conflict continues. However, the extent to which the Houthis control Yemen today should give all policymakers reason to discount the possibility of Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s weak government defeating Ansar Allah militarily. “One thing is abundantly clear: The Houthis will not succumb to pressure,” wrote the Brookings Intelligence Project’s Bruce Riedel. “Almost six years of Saudi bombing, blockade, and humanitarian catastrophe have not moved the rebels.”
Marib First, Negotiations Later
Indeed, the Saudi bombing campaign’s greatest achievements have been negative. It has built up extreme vitriol and worsened tribal and sectarian divisions in Yemen, which makes it far harder for sufficient or even minimal levels of trust to form among the warring parties. Ansar Allah is concerned that disarming without sufficient guarantees for protection of the Houthis would be too risky. Ultimately, the Houthis justifiably fear being attacked by their Yemeni and Saudi enemies after they have been defanged through peace negotiations. Within this context, Houthi fighters have been pressing on with their offensive on Marib and their increasingly sophisticated rocket and drone attacks against Saudi targets. As the rebels see it, both serve to increase Houthi leverage prior to roundtable talks.
There is a certain short-term logic to this strategy. If serious negotiations on peace begin after a Houthi takeover of Marib, Ansar Allah would be in a far stronger position to dictate terms. Strategically located east of Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, Marib hosts much of Yemen’s oil and gas resources and serves as the Hadi government’s last northern stronghold. Described by experts as the “beacon of relative stability” that was a “haven in the middle of a war”, Marib is now a major hotspot where both the Houthis and their adversaries have high stakes. If the Houthis could take control of this city, Ansar Allah would feel all the more emboldened, especially given how such a change on the ground would inevitably add to the Hadi government’s sense of weakness and probably greater pressure to agree to terms for peace that are favorable to the Houthis.
On the other hand, Ansar Allah is taking significant risks in its push to capture more land prior to negotiations. The Houthis’ aggression in their quest to conquer Marib may unite the previously divided anti-Houthi forces against them. It also might make the Biden administration less open to engaging in dialogue with a group clearly committed to an escalation, rather than a reduction, of the conflict.
Bringing the Houthis to the Table
In line with Biden’s expressed commitment to resolving the Yemen war diplomatically, how could Washington give Ansar Allah reason to see a ceasefire as a better path than continued warfare? To begin, the U.S. could demonstrate goodwill by convincing Saudi Arabia to end the blockade of Yemen, including the airport in Sana’a and the port at Hodeida, both under Houthi control. This siege has had a minimal effect on the Houthis’ ability to fight, but has been directly responsible for the deaths of countless Yemenis. Such a step would signal the Biden administration’s commitment to concrete steps aimed at helping to wind down this conflict and address unfolding humanitarian concerns. In the process, if the Saudis agree to lifting the blockade, the Houthis could, in turn, agree to halt all attacks on Saudi territory to address Riyadh’s legitimate security concerns.
Additionally, Washington should take advantage of all future opportunities to engage the Houthis in constructive dialogue in search of trust-building measures and achievable outcomes, generating momentum for eventual negotiation of a political settlement. The U.S. will most likely depend on other countries that can facilitate dialogue between Washington and the Iran-aligned rebels whom the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition has been fighting for six years. States uniquely qualified to play this role include Oman, Qatar, and possibly Russia — all of which have some history of engagement and dialogue with the Houthis. Muscat, Doha, and/or Moscow’s abilities to play bridging roles will be critical given the absence of trust between the United States and the Houthis.
Regardless of how the Biden administration approaches the Houthi movement, it is safe to say that the future of large areas of northern Yemen will remain under Houthi control, even after an end to the fighting with the Houthis which is but one of several zones of conflict in Yemen today. In terms of the country’s political landscape, there will be no return to past eras in Yemeni history. What comes after the dust settles will inevitably be a unique product of the past six years of civil war and human suffering. Any realistic foreign policy that Washington adopts in relation to Yemen must accept this, and certain other de facto realities, to engage with the war-ravaged country on pragmatic terms.
Looking ahead, it is safe to assume that Yemen will remain a deeply fractured country that needs far more international aid than it currently receives. However, there is no doubt that the continuation of the armed conflict is the main reason why outside groups are unable to provide the necessary help to the millions of Yemenis, who, in the words of UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley, are “knocking on the door of famine”. Ultimately, the Biden administration would be wise to back up its words about addressing humanitarian disasters in Yemen with concrete actions that prioritize the need to save lives above any other purpose. The only way that this can be done is through more engagement between Washington and the Houthis, and President Biden’s negotiating team must use these channels to slowly add to the scope and scale of negotiations.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.