It’s Time to Double Down on Diplomacy in Yemen
At 1 a.m. local time on Jan. 21, 2022, Yemen went dark. Minutes before, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike destroyed key communications infrastructure in Hudaydah, causing an nationwide internet shutdown. Simultaneously, the coalition launched an airstrike 160 miles away in Saada that resulted in over 350 casualties.
Both airstrikes were in response to a recent Houthi-led air-raid on transport infrastructure within the United Arab Emirates. The Houthi drone and missile attack against the United Arab Emirates — which represented a clear escalation in the regional conflict — coincided with increased Emirati support for a Yemeni militia named the Giant’s Brigade. The recent tactical actions of the Giant’s Brigade significantly altered battlefield calculations in both Marib and Shabwa. The city of Marib is critical to control of north Yemen and the nearby oil-rich province of Shabwa is a key “gateway to Marib.” The Houthis thus launched their strike against the United Arab Emirates for its newly increased battlefield role. An already complex and violent conflict had taken a new turn for the worse.
Some commentators have called for a punitive U.S. response against the Houthis for the attacks against the United Arab Emirates, including re-designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization. They argue that the Houthis need to know that Saudi allies will not permit further Houthi military escalation and that the only language the Houthis understand is decisive punishment.
While the Houthis’ attack against the United Arab Emirates was destabilizing, re-designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization would be a mistake. The military situation on the ground actually affords an opportunity for diplomacy. Re-designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization would likely result in reduced international aid flows and further devastate the civilian population, without any certainty that it would moderate Houthi behavior. Instead, the United States should focus its efforts on supporting U.N. efforts to reinvigorate the ceasefire process.
A new diplomatic push should include reaffirming U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, including through arms sales that help Saudi Arabia defend against Houthi drone and missile strikes. At the same time, the United States and the United Nations need to intensify engagement with the Houthis that demonstrates the resolve to prevent a Houthi takeover of Yemen, on the one hand, but a willingness to include the Houthis in a political settlement process, on the other. While engaged in this dual-track diplomacy, the United States and others should surge non-military and humanitarian aid to Yemen. This approach departs from past efforts, such as the Stockholm Agreement and the Joint Declaration, which had pursued a multilateral, comprehensive settlement. Those diplomatic efforts have focused on inclusion of the Republic of Yemen’s government, the Southern Transition Council, as well as a wide range of Yemeni parties. The proposal we offer focuses on the Houthis and Saudi Arabia as the key stakeholders and primary warring parties within the diplomatic process.
The Current State of Play in Yemen
The conflict in Yemen is characterized by an incredibly complex web of actors, shifting interests, and fraught alliances. Since the beginning of the current conflict in 2014, it is estimated that over 377,000 people have perished as a result of the war and humanitarian disaster. Within Yemen, longstanding rivals vie for control of strategic territory, profitable oilfields, and vital shipping lanes. Saudi Arabia and Iran are active players, competing for regional leadership and security. Iran supports the Houthis to gain political influence and disrupt regional stability, while Saudi Arabia leads the anti-Houthi coalition due to the high risk of conflict spillover from Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia. Even before the current iteration of the conflict, Yemen was a largely dysfunctional political system, torn asunder by north–south rivalries, monarchical–republican differences, and religious strife. Within this strained system, the United Nations estimates that 225,000 children under the age of five have perished due to hunger and preventable diseases. The persistence of warfare and the resulting humanitarian disaster suggest that Yemen stands at a critical inflection point.
At the beginning of the year, it appeared the Houthi rebels (or Ansar Allah) had reached a decisive point in the struggle for full control of North Yemen. Houthi military successes in the siege of Marib boded poorly for the Republic of Yemen’s government and the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition. Instead, during the past several weeks, the tide has begun to turn against the Houthis, largely a result of military aid and support from the United Arab Emirates. Although the United Arab Emirates has been part of the Saudi-led coalition since its inception, it has recently surged support to the Giant’s Brigade to recapture the province of Shabwah. This reversal in military fortunes has rapidly escalated the conflict and vastly increased its bloodiness and overall threat to the civilian population.
In response to the United Arab Emirates’ increased role, Houthi forces launched a series of large-scale, trans-border drone and missile strikes on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In turn, the Saudi-led coalition increased air strikes that reportedly targeted key pieces of infrastructure, resulting in large civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team, however, argued that the strikes actually targeted a suspected military camp.
If both sides continue to escalate military, the result would be a strategic and moral disaster. However, there is space for vigorous diplomacy involving Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to manage the current crisis and possibly find a durable solution to the conflict.
America’s Diplomatic Options
The question facing the Biden administration is whether to double down against the Houthis or to explore what could be a promising moment for diplomacy with them. The Houthis have rejected previous Saudi ceasefire proposals, opting instead to increase efforts to take the strategic city of Marib, which would provide substantial revenue from oil production. They have also proved adroit in building ties with local tribes and conducting the war on their own terms. If the United States chooses to act against the Houthis by re-designating them as a foreign terrorist organization, it would send a clear message that the United States is willing to back the Saudi-led coalition in a higher-intensity fight, regardless of the non-military consequences. It would also directly complicate humanitarian aid operations and worsen an already dire situation among Yemen’s civilian population.
Instead, the administration should intensify its already-robust diplomacy by focusing on dual-track bilateral negotiations. U.N. Special Envoy Hans Grundberg and U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking should push even harder now for an immediate ceasefire. Recent developments on the ground suggest that the parties are reaching what academics call a “mutually hurting stalemate.” Enhanced diplomacy could show both parties a way forward toward a reduction in violence and renewed efforts to resolve the underlying conflict.
A ceasefire would be but a start. It should lead to a number of steps designed to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis and bring about a possible resumption of the National Dialogue Conference, moribund since 2014. The ceasefire itself could lead to dual-track bilateral negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and the Houthis and the United Nations on several contentious issues: for example, enhanced operations at the port of Hudaydah for humanitarian supplies; activation of the U.N. plan to remove oil from the rapidly leaking oil tanker, the FSO SAFER, and transfer the oil to a better platform preventing a massive environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea; mutual cessation of cross-border strikes; agreement on aid corridors; and a commitment to a diplomatic process. Each of these topics, previously discussed during the National Dialogue Conference, led by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council, failed to incorporate longstanding Houthi grievances. The proposed dual-track bilateral negotiations could provide a pathway for a more effective national dialogue.
If the Houthis reject diplomacy, the option to increase pressure on them through the foreign terrorist organization re-designation would still exist. In February 2021, President Joe Biden revoked the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group to “mitigate one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.” International humanitarian and aid organizations believe re-designation would worsen the condition of the war-stricken populace. Instead, the administration should consider ways to send a strong signal of disapproval and simultaneously maintain critical economic and humanitarian aid measures.
The Biden administration and Congress ought to give diplomacy a chance in Yemen, not re-designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. During this period of escalation on the battlefield, the United States should focus its energy on engaging the Houthis and reassuring Saudi Arabia — as difficult as that may be. While there is no guarantee of diplomatic success, especially in this challenging, protracted conflict, an opportunity exists to test whether effective U.N. and U.S. diplomacy can ratchet down the violence and perhaps create a pathway toward a political settlement.
It is possible, perhaps likely, that diplomacy will not succeed. At that time, the option of ratcheting up pressure against the Houthis through foreign terrorist organization re-designation or other means can be employed. Until it is clear, however, that a pathway to a ceasefire has been closed off, it makes far more sense to engage in this parallel, dual-track diplomatic process.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Merlin Boone is currently pursuing a PhD in security studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. He is a U.S. Army special operations civil affairs officer and has experience in Syria and the broader Asia-Pacific. Merlin holds a master’s degree in international and public affairs from the University of Hong Kong.