Despite the substantial reduction, even the near cessation of military offensives between the Houthi armed group and the Saudi-UAE-led coalition, and especially following the October 2 expiration of a UN-brokered truce, Yemen today is far from peaceful. In fact, a state of “no war, no peace” currently prevails, while the country suffers from an economic collapse and an escalating humanitarian crisis consisting of scant food supplies, health problems, unaddressed trauma, and widespread displacement.
Yemen’s Ongoing Stalemate
The most recent UN-brokered truce expired on October 2 after the Houthis and the IRGY failed to reach an agreement on its renewal. Subsequent peace talks have also stalled. The Houthis continue to launch both conventional and drone attacks against civilian and vital economic targets in Yemen. Occasional fighting also continues between the IRGY’s forces and the UAE-backed STC. Meanwhile, escalating economic warfare between the Houthis and the IRGY is further exacerbating the country’s dire humanitarian situation, and Yemen continues to be ranked as one of the most food-insecure countries in the world.
More than half of Yemen’s population of nearly 30 million are expected to experience a high level of food insecurity by the end of the 2022 due to multiple impacts of the conflict, including still-rising levels of internal displacement (with over four million people already internally displaced) and a collapsing economy, and due also to disastrous flooding and other effects of climate change. One key factor, though, has been the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on global wheat supplies, including supplies to Yemen, since until recently Russia and Ukraine supplied nearly 45 percent of Yemen’s imported wheat.
Even though there is a perception that the country is enjoying a period of relative calm—the longest such period that the country has experienced since the beginning of the conflict—internal dynamics and armed violence continue to shatter lives. In June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported on dozens of civilian casualties that occurred during the truce because of landmines, and sniper and drone attacks. And in November, the OHCHR reported on additional civilian casualties and called on IRGY forces and on the Houthis and their allies to “choose peace for good.”
As important as it is to silence all gunfire in Yemen’s conflict, landmines planted in many parts of the country remain among the most destructive and lethal weapons used in the conflict, and their presence requires immediate and comprehensive action. In the last six years, nearly 2,000 civilians have been killed and about 3,000 structures have been damaged due to landmines. A striking reminder of the danger posed by these weapons was a December 6 landmine explosion that struck an armored vehicle carrying UN officials during a field visit in Yemen’s al-Hodeidah Governorate, an explosion in which, luckily, nobody was hurt. Thus, the civil war continues, despite the perception that the country is experiencing the longest calm it has so far witnessed.
As important as it is to silence all gunfire in Yemen’s conflict, landmines planted in many parts of the country remain among the most destructive and lethal weapons used in the conflict, and their presence requires immediate and comprehensive action.
Rather than simply aiming to freeze the conflict, the international community must instead show more courage in addressing actions by the various parties to the civil war that delay conflict settlement and deepen the unspeakable suffering of Yemen’s civilians.
The IRGY’s Diminishing Influence
As new attempts to revive collapsing peace settlements are coming to the fore, the IRGY’s role in them continues to weaken. An exchange of visits in October between delegations from Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which occurred without the presence of any IRGY officials, represented an unprecedented step in the course of the conflict, and raised questions about the possibility of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic acknowledgement of the Houthis as the de facto authority in northern Yemen.
The IRGY’s response to a series of major Houthi attacks during October and November on an oil tanker near the al-Dhabba oil terminal in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate and on numerous ports in areas under its control was ineffective. Instead of ensuring the availability of an adequate and powerful mechanism to defend against such attacks, the IRGY’s response was only to issue a decree on October 23 designating the Houthi armed group a terrorist organization, an act that ultimately held no serious repercussions.
In the current situation, in which there is no war yet no peace, fuel and energy facilities are likely to form a new battlefield between the Houthi armed group and the IRGY. Houthi attacks on fuel targets in IRGY-controlled areas have disrupted fuel flow, and for several days now, Aden Governorate, where the IRGY is based, has been suffering a major blackout due to severe fuel shortages.
In the current situation, in which there is no war yet no peace, fuel and energy facilities are likely to form a new battlefield between the Houthi armed group and the Yemeni government.
The public’s discontent with the IRGY has recently reached a high level. Earlier this month, leaked official documents provided details about scholarships that the IRGY gave to the relatives of its own officials, including a relative of Rashad al-Alimi, the president of the government’s executive body, the Presidential Leadership Council, without any legitimate reason or merit. Given the endless obstacles that Yemeni students face to receive such scholarship opportunities, widespread condemnation from all across Yemen understandably followed the release of this information.
The question remains: Does the IRGY still have the capability to play a vital role in any potential peacemaking process? Although both its role in the next chapter of resolving the conflict and its public popularity have been dramatically diminishing, one of the key factors that has enabled this government to survive so far is the fact that it is still recognized by the international community as being the legitimate representative of the Yemeni people.
The Houthis: Spoilers of Peace
The Houthis continue to be one of the truce’s biggest beneficiaries, as most of their conditions have been met, including ending the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes and the closure of Sanaa International Airport. However, the group refuses to compromise in return. It remains reluctant to end its siege on Taiz Governorate, which was one of the truce’s terms, and in fact is trying to maximize its gains by setting conditions for peace, such as having the IRGY pay salaries to public sector workers, including Houthi security and military forces. Houthis have long been described by both Yemen experts and international diplomats as spoilers of peace. US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, for example, notably stated on December 6 that the Houthis were the ones who are “walking away from peace.”
The cessation of large-scale fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition that opposes it has enabled the group to recharge, reorganize, strengthen its military capacity, and train its fighters. And news reports came out in June revealing that the group is increasingly recruiting children to build up its forces during the truce, despite its pledge to the UN that it would stop the practice. Meanwhile, several separate incidents occurred during the truce wherein marine shipments carrying Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis were confiscated by authorities. In November, the US Navy said that it had seized more than 70 tons of rocket and missile fuel on a ship bound for Yemen, signaling that the Houthis are still continuing to prepare for conflict.
News reports came out in June revealing that the Houthis are increasingly recruiting children to build up their forces during the truce, despite their pledge to the UN that they would stop the practice.
The Houthis’ fortified military capacity is evidently fueling their gains, and they clearly have no plans to stop. In addition to carrying out drone attacks on the IRGY’s ports, in December the group threatened any foreign oil and gas companies operating in Yemen if they looted “the wealth of the Yemeni people.”
More tragically, the cessation of large-scale fighting creates a favorable environment for the Houthis to continue waging their parallel war on personal liberties and basic human rights. And indeed, the lull has enabled them to shift their focus toward escalating their political oppression. In November, the group announced a new code of conduct binding all civil servants working in the public sector in Houthi-controlled areas, one that has been met with widespread rejection because of the limits it places on the right to freedom of speech and opinion, and to freedom of mobility. The new code also imposes the group’s sectarian ideas on society. Additional repressive Houthi regulations include restrictions on university professors to prevent them from working in private universities and enforcing the male guardianship rule for women traveling inside the country and abroad.
The Southern Transitional Council: Influential but Disregarded
The STC has been one of the most crucial and yet disregarded actors influencing the current situation of no war, no peace. The STC was not mentioned in the truce’s agreements, thus treating the organization as if it has no role to play in the cessation of violence. This is a mistake, since the STC authorities are predominately in control of the south of Yemen. And in fact, the STC enjoys more military power than the IRGY.
At many points during the conflict, UAE-backed, STC-affiliated forces successfully led military offensives against the Houthis’ armed forces, as happened, for example, earlier this year in Yemen’s Shabwa Governorate. In early August, forces affiliated with the STC also fought security forces affiliated with the IRGY. And later that same month, the UAE reportedly attacked IRGY forces in a show of support for STC forces. As long as there remains a disregard for the STC’s potential role in ending the conflict, it will be impossible to pave the way for a durable truce, let alone a durable peace agreement.
New Approaches to Peace
Stakeholders in ending Yemen’s conflict must truly think outside the box. This could entail giving women a chance to join the peacemaking process by creating mechanisms that facilitate their political participation in all peace efforts. Making statements in support of women’s political participation may sound quite wonderful, but what is more crucial is to actually create effective mechanisms to make that change happen. Despite the high prevalence of sexism and male chauvinism in all aspects of life in Yemen, Yemeni women have proven themselves to be diligent and hardworking, and possessing both a humanitarian consciousness and a peace-loving spirit. To be sure, no peace process would be complete without the inclusion of women, youth, local civil society organizations, and marginalized minority groups. And their inclusion must not be merely for decoration or for a good photo op, but instead needs to mark a meaningful step toward their real participation in determining the country’s future.
Stakeholders in ending Yemen’s conflict must truly think outside the box. This could entail giving women a chance to join the peacemaking process by creating mechanisms that facilitate their political participation in all peace efforts.
Another important step would be to end the practice of granting diplomatic impunity to those who work to spoil peace efforts. US Envoy Lenderking, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, and UK ambassador to Yemen Richard Oppenheim, along with other European diplomats, officials from Oman, and any other relevant stakeholders who engage in regular meetings with parties to the conflict in Yemen must hold accountable those who work to prevent peace. As Lenderking stated in December in reference to the Houthis, “It is the international community’s responsibility to hold them accountable.” One starting point could be sanctioning the officials of groups that work to stymie peace efforts.
After nearly a decade of civil war, a resolution to the conflict in Yemen will require political courage from the IRGY, the STC, and the Houthis. Only meaningful negotiations with the participation of all of Yemen’s relevant actors can address the root causes of the civil war and eventually pave the way for a lasting peace. And importantly, peacemaking efforts must adopt a critical approach that goes beyond merely pausing the conflict. The last thing the Yemeni people need is an incomplete peace. What they need is a definite and permanent end to the conflict.