Saudis Cannot See the Forest for the Houthis

An armed Houthi follower attends a rally against Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa June 14, 2015. Houthi forces and their army allies in Yemen seized the capital of a large desert province on the border with Saudi Arabia on Sunday, residents said, an important victory for the group ahead of peace talks in Geneva. (Reuters)

As Yemeni factions involved in the ongoing conflict entered talks in Geneva on June 15, prospects for a ceasefire look bleak as the Houthis and Saudis—by no means the only participants, but certainly the two most destructive actors—have intensified their attacks. Moreover, while the Houthis face growing pressure from Yemeni constituents under immense strain, Saudi Arabia has few reasons to end its coalition’s daily bombing campaign. For any ceasefire to last, the Saudi calculus must change.

The domestic actors chiefly involved in the ongoing conflict—the Houthi Movement, former President Abdullah Ali Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC), the popular resistance committees—are likely willing to engage seriously in ceasefire talks and begin making arrangements for long-term political arrangements. All of these parties to varying degrees feel compelled by their circumstances and constituencies to bring hostilities to a close, in one way or another. However, the Saudis have no immediate political incentives to stop the aimless campaign pulverizing neighboring Yemen, including numerous strikes on heritage sites.

Some reports have suggested that President-in-exile Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi fears he will be marginalized in the Geneva negotiations, but this fear has already come to fruition. Hadi’s representatives are the de facto Saudi delegates, subject to negotiating parameters set by Riyadh. Furthermore, it is difficult to identify significant constituencies still residing in Yemen that would embrace the appellation “Pro-Hadi.” Local cadres in Taiz, Aden, and elsewhere have agendas based around local security. They fight against the Houthis—a far cry from fighting for Hadi. What legitimacy Hadi gained from his ascension from Saleh’s Vice President to the head of government in an uncontested election has long since run its course.

Negotiators will likely impress upon the factions their mutual interest in ending hostilities. Saudi Arabia’s closest partners—like the United States—should be prepared to buttress these arguments. Chief among them is the growing threat of terrorist groups that are taking advantage of the chaos. Practitioners of Zaydism, a prominent Shia sect associated with the Houthi Movement, have been targeted numerous times in recent months with mass casualty attacks claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL); Saudi Arabia’s own Shia population faced similar attacks by ISIS in Dammam and Qatif. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has consolidated control over Mukalla by brokering agreements with local tribesmen—a grand achievement for a group openly hostile to Houthis and Saudis alike.

Beyond those mutual security concerns are the immediate humanitarian crises that will inevitably feed them. Twenty-one million Yemenis are in need of emergency water, sanitation, and hygiene support due to a countrywide fuel shortage, as pumps do not have the power to access aquifers. The fuel shortage has also disrupted medical services as hospitals and clinics simply do not have electricity, resulting in millions without access to healthcare. Finally, 12 million are food insecure. A recent statement published by thirteen humanitarian agencies noted that without a ceasefire, an end of the blockade, and a massive commitment to Yemen’s reconstruction, millions of lives could be lost.

The United States, European, and regional powers have little to gain from sitting on the sidelines while Saudi Arabia continues its bombardment of Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s mission in Yemen has made the Kingdom far less safe and there is excess evidence available to its allies to make this case. Houthis have now fired missiles at targets within the Kingdom and attempted to stage cross border raids. The intensified misery and suffering across Yemen has the potential to pressure the Houthis to make a deal. But as greater desperation sets in, more Yemenis would blame the Saudi blockade and support Houthi aggression against the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia intends to send a message to Iran with this war, but this message may fall flat given the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) exaggerated perception of Iranian involvement. Additionally, the message sent to the United States—that the Kingdom can act independently—has resulted only in embarrassment: after three months of war, Saudi Arabia has little to show for it aside from bringing a country often described as one ‘on the brink’ to a new level of catastrophe. The best way to save face at this stage is to commit earnestly and more deeply to the country’s reconstruction. Previous Saudi promises, while generous, have yet to be delivered upon.

The Saudi-led campaign that has wreaked so much havoc must end. There is simply no short-term or long-term rationale for perpetuating the crisis. Mutual confidence building measures could and should be agreed upon: the Saudis could rescind the previous military order that declared all of Sa’ada province a military target and cease the broader air campaign; the Houthis could quit immediate battlefields in Taiz, Marib, and Aden. Sana’a, along with other central and northern cities where the Houthis have consolidated their rule, must be left to political dialogue. In any event, bombs have had no effect on the Houthi ability to hold territory.

Ramadan provides an ideal pretext for ceasefire and negotiation. If social media is anything by which to judge, Yemeni expectations are low as most simply hope for a momentary respite. Despite the opportunity that Ramadan provides, the Saudis will no doubt struggle to save face in the context of the looming catastrophe in Yemen. Despite the high stakes and the many lives at risk, it nonetheless all comes down to the ability of Saudi political and military leaders to admit failure.

Adam Simpson is the Project Assistant for the Middle East Strategy Task Force, an initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.