The Saudi-Houthi Stalemate in Yemen

Saudi Arabia launched its war on the Houthis in March 2015; the Houthis launched their war on the rest of Yemen in September of 2014. Four months after the former and close to a year after the latter, Yemen stands on a precipice and neither has accomplished their declared goals. It is time for both parties to consider a change in strategy.

Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015 after the Houthis had occupied Sana’a, put President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest, and marched southwards to the outskirts of the southern capital Aden. The Saudis hoped to reverse Houthi gains, get them to abandon their heavy weapons, and withdraw from all cities outside their home region of Saada. The Saudis, buttressed by UN resolutions 2201, 2204, and 2216, sought to reinstate President Hadi as the legitimate president of Yemen and send a message to Iran that it would no longer tolerate what it considered the latter’s incursions into the Arabian Peninsula. 

After four months of aerial bombardment and fierce battles with Houthi forces and military units still loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the situation on the ground has not changed. This Houthis still firmly control the capital Sana’a and still fight for control of cities and governorates south and east of Sana’a. In the very cities the occupation of which raised alarms both in Riyadh and Washington—Taiz, Aden, and Hudayda—the Houthis remain present militarily, albeit facing stiff resistance. About the only military goal achieved in the Saudi-led campaign is that the Yemeni popular resistance to the Houthis has been emboldened by Saudi political and military support. The Houthis, as a result, have not been able to complete their takeover of these cities and governorates east of Sana’a such as Marib.

The Houthi military effort has also resulted in few gains. The Houthis successfully occupied Sana’a, facing only token resistance before their opponents could mobilize a military response against them. The Houthi campaign to subdue the south and claim the oil and gas fields of Marib, however, has stalled and their threats to confront the Saudis on their own turf have not materialized beyond the occasional mortar fire in the Najran and Asir regions along the Yemen-Saudi border. Politically, the Houthis’ goals were not transparent as they moved south of their base in Amran towards the capital. Few believed the Houthis meant to take the city, but seeing no resistance in sight, they did exactly that. Emboldened by the victory, their appetite and ambitions became boundless as they sought to govern a united Yemen. Young Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s speeches, sounding increasingly like Hassan Nassrallah, signaled that he indeed felt he could become a regional player. Under current circumstances, with the constant aerial bombardment of his forces and his home region in the north, al-Houthi has come up against the reality: his military is not strong enough to conquer all of Yemen, let alone confront a region aligned against him. Worse still, he woefully lacks the political experience to achieve reconciliation and govern Yemen by the consent of its people.

The number of casualties in Yemen over the past four months has topped 2,600 and continues to rise; the humanitarian organization Oxfam estimates at least a million homeless and those threatened by hunger and disease are estimated at 60 percent of the population. International aid has not reached Yemen and life has neared a standstill in Sana’a. If the situation in Yemen continues unabated, the situation could match the Syrian conflict in complexity and exceed its ugliness, given the current crises reached after only four months. Neither the goal of pacifying and ruling Yemen nor that of subduing the Houthis and reinstating Hadi is worth that prospect. Yemen has not yet passed the point of no return. Diplomacy still has a chance, but that chance has to be taken soon.

A world leader, unburdened by the international baggage carried by the United States and with the credibility to talk to all parties in the conflict, could call on Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, and Southern Hirak Movement to adhere to an immediate ceasefire without any preconditions. The Houthis could show good faith and judgement by agreeing to pull their forces and heavy weapons out of all cities occupied after their conquest of Sana’a, particularly given their inability to subdue this region even without Saudi resistance.

Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Southern Hirak leaders, the heads of the two major tribes of Marib, and President Hadi could then meet in Muscat. (Given his failure to maintain national unity, President Hadi has forfeited his role as a transitional leader. Nevertheless, and for the sake of continuity, he should be included in the Muscat dialogue.) Saudis and Iranians need not attend. Yemeni leaders convened in Muscat would agree to form a new coalition government representing equally north, south, and central Yemen. Conferees would then agree on the broad outlines of a federated Yemen: North, South, Center and the Hadramawt, with generous borders to give each a sense of security within their federal confines. They would also agree to each region of the federation would enjoy cultural, economic, and internal political autonomy with the right to raise and maintain a national guard for internal defense.

A Second National Dialogue Committee (NDC)—smaller and more manageable than the one convened by the United Nations in 2012—would also be set up to draw out the details of the federation, something that the last NDC left unresolved.

The parties to the conflict in Yemen could implement this transitional plan if the political will exists to recognize the current stalemate and mitigate its fallout. Each side has to be convinced of the impossibility of achieving their maximalist goals. A UN envoy, or another mediator working alongside, would have the international backing to credibly promise each of the Yemeni parties the benefits of cooperation or the threat of indefinite warfare and opposition to their goals should they continue the fight. A diplomatic failure in Yemen means not only the death of its people but also the death of a cultural heritage that has survived millennia, the suffocation of yet another democratic experiment in the Arab world, and the perpetuation of the destructive and meaningless struggle of Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy.

Nabeel Khoury is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a Visiting Associate Professor for the Program on Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter: @khoury_nabeel

Related Experts: Nabeel Khoury

Image: Houthi militants stand in front of the Defense Ministry compound after it was hit by Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen's capital Sana'a on June 10, 2015. (Reuters)