By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
The Problem With Yemen
Saudi Arabia looked on in alarm as the Houthi rebels took over the capital of Sanaa in September 2014 before driving the GCC-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in the southern city of Aden in February 2015. To make matters worse, a swift push south into Aden by Houthi militias forced Hadi to flee to Riyadh, affording Iran’s allies all but total control over the country. In the face of this development, Riyadh reassessed its threat perception.
For many in Yemen this week, the World Cup has offered a welcome distraction and a break from discussions about the continuing conflict.
Furthermore, in April 2022, the opposing sides in Yemen’s devastating civil war achieved a rare breakthrough. After eight brutal years of conflict, they signed on to an UN-brokered truce that significantly curtailed the fighting that had driven an impoverished country into a massive humanitarian crisis. Though it was unclear whether the two-month truce would even last that long, some observers hoped it could be the first step toward a broader peace process. In the best-case scenario, they believed, it might even lead to a political settlement for a conflict that has pitted Houthi rebels, who control large parts of the country and are backed by Iran, against the internationally recognized Yemeni government and an allied Saudi-led coalition that, for much of the war, received logistics, intelligence support, and weaponry from Washington. But the twice-extended truce agreement lapsed on October 2, and the Houthi have resumed their intermittent attacks on Yemen’s oil-exporting infrastructure. It is unclear whether Yemen’s fragile respite from full-blown conflict will hold.
For U.S. President Joe Biden, the war in Yemen is both a tragic legacy and an uncomfortable loose end. When Biden came into office, he made no secret of his desire to swiftly disentangle the United States militarily from the conflict, then approaching its seventh year. Still, he also committed his administration to work toward the war’s resolution. This strategy was, in part, born of regret. Many of his foreign policy hands, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, were serving under President Barack Obama when, in March 2015, his administration agreed to support Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their war against the Houthi insurgency. Already in 2018, many of those same U.S. officials—including one of us—issued a public statement acknowledging the war’s terrible costs for the Yemeni people and noting that the United States had never intended to hand the Saudi-led coalition a “blank check.” In March 2021, two former Obama officials—again one of us, along with Robert Malley (who is now serving in the Biden administration as the U.S. special envoy to Iran)—wrote an article for Foreign Affairs anticipating the road map for ending the war that the administration would try to follow.
But it is easier to help start a war than to help end one. Although the administration moved quickly to withdraw its backing for the Saudi war effort and support a brokered peace, the truce’s lapse shows the challenges that would-be peacemakers face in Yemen. Whether the current impasse will lead to a dramatic new escalation by either side is unclear, but if it does, there is no obvious path to peace, and there is little Washington can do to create one. For whatever positive impact the Biden administration’s efforts have had—and they have had one—the United States has neared the end of what its waning influence over the Saudis and Emiratis can achieve. It does not have the leverage needed to bring the Houthis to the table.
Still, there are compelling moral and practical reasons for Washington to stay the course. The United States may lack the means to end this horrible multifaceted war, but its diplomatic engagement still matters. U.S. diplomacy opens doors in the Gulf for mediators who might otherwise not have access to the region’s governments and greases the wheels of deal-making. If and when the time comes, Washington can also promote a format for settlement discussions that includes not just the principal antagonists but also Yemen’s more minor factions, which have their interests and disputes and will have much to say about whether a peaceful future is in store for this war-ravaged state.
At the same time, the United States should learn what it can from its Yemen misadventure. And that means its policymakers should develop internal safeguards that can help steer the country away from becoming a party to such disasters in the future.
When the Biden administration came into office, it threw its weight behind a four-point peace plan for Yemen that then-UN envoy Martin Griffiths had been promoting since 2020. According to Griffiths’s proposal, the warring parties would first agree to open the Sanaa airport and lift shipping restrictions on Hodeida’s ports, agree to a nationwide cease-fire, and then agree to renewed political dialogue. The UN and the United States hoped these actions would mitigate the humanitarian crisis and calm fighting so meaningful peace talks could occur.
For an increasingly war-weary Saudi Arabia and UAE, which saw the Houthis gaining ground in the conflict and the United States pulling back (including through the Biden administration’s decision to stop selling sure key arms used in offensive operations), the Griffiths plan made sense. The internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi may have been less enthused. Still, given the position of the Saudi coalition, Hadi had little choice but to support it. The Houthis, however, were far more resistant. The rebels were on the verge of routing Hadi’s forces in Marib governorate: the last government redoubt in Yemen’s north and the site of significant oil and gas facilities. They saw more to gain from pressing their advantage on the battlefield than from trying their hand in negotiations.
The Houthis changed their minds only after their presumed military edge had eroded. As they advanced on Marib throughout 2021, the rebels also moved into the Shebwa governorate in Yemen’s southeast. This move crossed a red line for the UAE, which has deep ties to the region’s anti-Houthi militias, which then rallied its proxies to push the Houthis out. (The UAE denies playing a direct role.) The Houthis responded with escalating cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi and UAE territory, prompting more airstrikes from Riyadh on Houthi-controlled territory, which hit civilian targets, drawing international condemnation. The resulting stalemate was painful enough for both sides that Griffiths’s replacement, Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg, was able to bring them to the table. It was in this context that, in April 2022, the war’s main parties agreed to a two-month truce.
Some observers worried that the pause in fighting would allow both sides to regroup before resuming hostilities. But in practice, the truce has offered the country’s beleaguered civilians a reprieve, especially after the parties twice extended it. The truce has also halted cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed, the warring parties have not returned to full-scale fighting even now that it has lapsed.
Other promising developments accompanied the truce announcement. The UN proposed three confidence-building measures that would act as a bridge to the next phase of negotiations. For its part, the Hadi government was to loosen restrictions on shipping into Hodeida and commercial air travel into and out of Sanaa. The Houthis aimed to ease their five-year partial siege on Taiz—Yemen’s third-largest city and a trade hub linking the country’s north and south. And shortly after the truce announcement, Hadi, widely seen as an impediment to settlement efforts, declared that he would relinquish power to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council. (He likely agreed to this at Riyadh’s behest.) These measures, then, went some distance toward laying the groundwork for what could become a meaningful peace process.
U.S. policy was not the paramount driver behind the April truce and subsequent developments; the breakthrough was mainly attributable to the parties themselves, who had by then fought to a stalemate and were ready for a rest. Still, Washington’s actions helped. The United States, for instance, spent several years signaling a growing detachment from its Gulf partners on the subject of Yemen, which shaped perceptions of the war (albeit while straining relations with these states). In 2018, for instance, Washington pressured Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to halt a military campaign targeting the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida. It rattled both governments by issuing what the Gulf considered muted response to the 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil-processing facilities and the 2022 strike on Abu Dhabi, both of which the Houthis claimed responsibility for. (According to Western intelligence officials, the former strike was likely orchestrated by Iran.) Additionally, the Biden administration’s decision to hold back certain military sales as part of its Yemen policy limited the Saudi coalition’s military planning and operational capacity. Worried that they could not count on U.S. support, by the middle of 2021, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had begun looking for new ways to manage their security concerns, including by opening channels to Tehran and seeking an exit from the war in Yemen.
The Biden administration’s shoe-leather diplomacy also advanced last spring’s developments. By all accounts, the UN’s Yemen team has done a good job of forging the truce and encouraging progress on confidence-building measures. But it would have struggled to do so without strong U.S. support. Washington helped open doors for the UN with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and even the Yemeni government. Other regional actors have also facilitated peace talks. But ultimately, U.S. involvement proved crucial in making the April truce happen.
A New Impasse
Unfortunately, for all the progress made in the spring and summer, the efforts to expand and further extend the truce have foundered in recent months. Riyadh did make important—if halting—progress toward allowing more shipments into Hodeida and flights into Sanaa, two crucial aspects of lifting the trade and travel restrictions that the Saudi-led coalition has maintained against Houthi-held areas. But the Houthis have shown little sign of making significant concessions, which they justify by saying that the truce was a concession. Most importantly, they have failed to lift their siege of Taiz. The Houthis have subsequently made additional demands, including insisting that the government pay Houthi military salaries using oil export revenues: a requirement so outlandish that it appears intended either to foreclose further talks or to humiliate the government and Saudi coalition.
Nevertheless, the parties continued to propose trade offers through intermediaries and refrained from significant new hostilities. But there has been an uptick in Houthi strikes on oil infrastructure, and should the truce fully unravel. More significant battles unfold, and it is unclear what any power from outside the region can do to stop the violence. Washington would undoubtedly have limited influence. The most significant gap in the administration’s 2021 Yemen policy—its lack of meaningful leverage over the Houthis—has become more glaring as the rebels hold up peace efforts. Some analysts have suggested that the United States should again designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization and use revocation as a bargaining chip. Still, this tactic is unlikely to elicit significant concessions. Moreover, a redesignation would place humanitarians and peacemakers in peril of violating U.S. sanctions, impeding their work, and exacerbating humanitarian suffering.
Analysts have argued that Congress and the White House should cut off almost all arms sales to the Saudis. But although the United States has used its influence over Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to some good effect, its power is waning, partly because it has already significantly curtailed its supply of weapons that can be used in the Saudi air campaign. In any case, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also have their redlines. If the Houthis try to take control of Marib or venture again into Shebwa, the fighting will likely resume regardless of what Washington does with its arms sales.
Furthermore, neither the Houthis nor the Saudis should get the last word on what peace means in Yemen. Multiple parties and actors have their reasons for fighting in the region. The factions that make up the new Presidential Leadership Council represent a broad spectrum of views, derive support from different sources, and constitute a fragile alliance against the Houthis. The best formula for reaching an enduring peace deal would bring together representatives of these groups and key underrepresented constituencies that play a critical role in local mediation and peacebuilding, such as women’s organizations and civil society actors. Without those efforts, even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to abandon their political and military actions in Yemen, the Houthis could face fierce armed resistance from local groups defending their territories from encroachment.
Of course, U.S. diplomacy alone won’t be able to compel this disparate set of actors to engage in peace efforts earnestly. But it still has an important, even essential, role to play. As long as the UN is working the Yemen beat, it will need Washington’s support—coaxing the war’s parties with which it has influence, marshaling pressure from international actors who may be able to make inroads with the Houthis, and, with luck, someday helping frame settlement discussions in a way that will make them as inclusive as possible. Given its military involvement in earlier phases of the conflict, the United States has a moral obligation to do what it can to help.
Finally, Washington can do more to draw lessons from its Yemen misadventure. The United States already knows its support for the Saudis has proved counterproductive. In addition to contributing to terrible suffering, it helped cause the strategic setbacks it sought to prevent. For example, the lengthy and violent war has deepened ties between the Houthis and Iran. It has increased the Houthis’ military sophistication. And it has led the conflict to spill into Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
But although the Biden administration took an important step when it stopped supporting offensive operations in 2021, it has been far more reluctant to embrace legal changes that might keep the United States from wading into future quagmires. The U.S. Constitution divides war powers between the executive and legislative branches to ensure that weighty decisions about entering foreign wars are collective and deliberate. Yet, for decades, the executive has increasingly become involved in conflicts without congressional authorization. Although the United States was not part of the shooting war in Yemen, its level of involvement—which in the views of many international lawyers, made it a party to the conflict—is part of this trend. The War Powers Act of 1973, passed at the end of the Vietnam War, was intended to reverse this tendency, but it has proved inadequate. The only way to restore Congress to its constitutional role is through forward-looking legislation that imposes new, tighter requirements on when and how Congress must authorize and periodically reauthorize U.S. participation in foreign conflicts.
Bills that would force such requirements have stalled in both the House and the Senate. But policymakers would be wise to move them forward. No road map will take Washington where it undoubtedly wishes it could go: back to early 2015 before the United States started helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen. That world no longer exists. Now, the best Washington can do is help Yemen’s antagonists find peace while stopping itself from repeating the same errors in the future.