More than seven years into a conflict that has created “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations, there are signs that the war in Yemen may be finally turning a corner. A two-month ceasefire that went into effect on April 2 has largely held, and after a flurry of negotiations that went down to the wire, the warring parties agreed last Thursday to extend the truce for another two months.
While the initial ceasefire offered a tentative diplomatic opening for the Yemeni government and its Saudi-led allies to engage with the Houthi rebel movement that controls most of northern Yemen, Thursday’s extension must go further if it is to be successful. The parties will have to patch the lingering holes in the April agreement and take substantive steps to finally end this destructive war. Only a permanent cessation of hostilities can resolve the humanitarian crisis and bring desperately needed relief to the Yemeni people.
Yemen’s April ceasefire, the first nationwide peace since the war began, was the product of United Nations–brokered talks between the rebels and the pro-government coalition that initially focused on a security truce for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The talks ultimately achieved a more comprehensive deal whose main provisions included:
- A two-month pause of hostilities, covering both the war within Yemen and rebel missile/drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
- A relaxation of the Saudi air blockade on rebel-controlled northern Yemen to permit a limited number of commercial flights into and out of Sanaa’s international airport.
- A similar easing of the Saudi sea blockade to allow some fuel deliveries to Yemen’s main port at Al Hudaydah.
- A pledge to reopen major roads between rebel- and government-held territory, especially around the long-besieged city of Taiz in southwestern Yemen.
Save for the final provision, all of these terms were at least partly fulfilled. The ceasefire was honored despite reports of isolated violations. The Saudis allowed at least twelve fuel shipments to dock at Al Hudaydah (fewer than the eighteen the agreement stipulated, but still providing badly needed relief for fuel-starved northern Yemen). After extended negotiations over travel paperwork, commercial flights between Sanaa and Amman resumed on May 16 and between Sanaa and Cairo on June 1. These flights gave ailing Yemenis who have been denied proper medical care because of the war an opportunity to go abroad to seek treatment.
The primary lingering issue is the status of Taiz, which is held by pro-government forces but effectively besieged by the rebels. Conditions inside the city are reportedly dire, and relieving them must be the first priority for the warring parties under the ceasefire’s new extension. There is positive news on that front: the UN reported over the weekend that the two sides had resumed direct talks in Amman, with the question of reopening roads around Taiz and elsewhere foremost on the agenda.
Assuming the ceasefire holds and the parties come to an agreement about Taiz, the next two months are an enormous opportunity to bring the war to a close. But several obstacles remain. The Yemeni government, unsettled by a Saudi-engineered upheaval shortly after the April ceasefire took effect, has yet to demonstrate the political will to negotiate a settlement to the war. The Russia invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, threatens to intensify Yemen’s humanitarian crisis while also diverting international attention from the war and Yemen’s potential postwar reconstruction.
Just days after the April ceasefire went into effect, Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi ceded his authority to a newly formed presidential council chaired by former interior minister Rashad al-Alimi. Any question as to whether this transition was engineered by Saudi Arabia and the UAE was answered almost immediately, when the two Gulf states pledged a collective $3 billion in new aid to support the council’s work.
What is less clear is why they orchestrated Hadi’s ouster. There’s no question the move reflected collective frustration with Hadi, whose lack of real authority in Yemen was readily apparent. The council also seems designed to unite what’s become a heterogeneous anti-Houthi coalition, incorporating Islamists and tribal leaders allied with Saudi Arabia as well as southern Yemeni separatists and followers of ex-Houthi ally Tareq Saleh, who are backed by the UAE.
Thus far there’s no indication that the presidential council has played a significant role in the peace process. The new body cannot possibly have less independent legitimacy than Hadi, who served entirely at the Saudis’ behest, but the fact that it was created by the Saudis and the Emiratis strongly suggests that the council doesn’t have any more autonomy than Hadi. Is the presidential council meant to unite the various anti-Houthi factions in order to better support a peace deal, or in order to better coordinate the war effort? Although the renewed ceasefire does indicate a genuine Saudi and Emirati interest in terminating the war, this remains an open question.
The war in Ukraine has added additional urgency to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, even as it draws international eyeballs away from the war. Rising global prices of both fuel and food have left the Yemeni government — which depended on imports of both even before the war — and international aid organizations struggling to cope. At the same time, the international donor community — whose interest in supporting Yemeni relief efforts was already waning — has shifted its focus to Ukraine to the detriment of Yemeni aid. A UN conference in March raised only $1.3 billion of the $4.2 billion that agencies had requested to fund Yemeni projects in 2022, a shortfall that Norwegian Refugee Council secretary-general Jan Egeland said would ensure that “more lives will be lost.” If the parties manage to negotiate a peace deal, the postwar reconstruction period promises to be tenuous enough as it is. Any intensification of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis brought on by insufficient international support will risk plunging the country back into conflict.
One thing, though, is certain: the United States, which fancies itself a mediator in the Yemen conflict, has by its own actions (and inactions) sidelined itself in the peace process. The decision of three successive administrations to back the Saudi and Emirati war effort has stripped Washington of any credibility when engaging with the Houthis. And the Trump administration’s choice to scrap the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, exacerbated by the Biden administration’s inexplicable decision not to revive it, means that there are no diplomatic channels through which the United States could appeal to the Houthis’ Iranian backers to support negotiations.
The Biden administration’s ability to influence the Saudis and Emiratis, meanwhile, has been severely undercut by the Ukraine war and domestic political considerations. The war has triggered a global spike in oil prices that’s hammering US consumers. Desperate to minimize the effect of that price hike on the November midterms, Joe Biden has gone from pledging to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” to scrambling to repair his frayed relationship with Saudi and Emirati leaders in hopes that the Gulf states will agree to boost oil production. In recent days, Axios has reported that Biden’s outreach to the Emiratis may take the form of a “strategic security agreement” that could oblige the United States to intervene militarily on the UAE’s behalf.
There is considerable reason to believe that Saudi and Emirati leaders signed onto the latest ceasefire — and dragged their Yemeni clients with them — because they no longer see the war as beneficial to their national interests. If the United States steps in and forcefully defends either or both states, it could change that calculation and encourage them to return to conflict — a devastating outcome for the Yemeni people.
At this point, the best thing the United States could do for Yemen is to leave well enough alone.