June 15, 2022

The Houthis Still Have the Upper Hand in Yemen

Originally published in Foreign Policy

On June 2, Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a two-month extension of a United Nations-negotiated truce. Initially begun on April 2, the truce is the first cessation of hostilities since 2016 and has delivered short-term reprieve for many Yemenis after nearly eight years of civil war: Civilian casualties in the country are down, commercial imports are up, and humanitarian organizations’ access has improved. What’s more, small confidence-building measures implemented during the truce could finally lead to a negotiated resolution to a conflict that once seemed intractable. U.S. President Joe Biden heralded news of the truce’s renewal and called for parties to “move expeditiously towards a comprehensive and inclusive peace process.”

A September 2014 coup by the Houthi militant group sparked Yemen’s civil war, which has since become entangled in regional conflicts. The Houthis, an Iranian-backed Zaydi Shiite group, claimed their seizure of power from the internationally recognized Yemeni government as part of a revolution against a corrupt regime. But Saudi Arabia saw the specter of the Houthis on its border and, in March 2015, pulled together a military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates to restore the previous government. The United States, which initially supported the Saudi-led military intervention, sought to end its entanglement as civilian casualties mounted by halting direct military support and offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Washington has remained committed to helping its strategic partner defend against cross-border attacks enabled by Iranian-sourced weapons.

The conflict’s toll on civilians has been catastrophic, deepening the world’s largest and worst humanitarian crisis. Indiscriminate shelling by the Houthis—including on camps of displaced persons—and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes remain the leading causes of civilian casualties since 2018. Deadlier still has been the conflict’s indirect impact on civilians: A U.N. Development Programme report found that of the estimated 377,000 deaths caused by the conflict as of the end of 2021, nearly 60 percent were caused by lack of access to food, water, or health care. Today, 2 out of 3 people in a country of 31 million rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their daily needs. Soaring food prices are also pushing Yemenis closer to starvation—42 percent of Yemen’s wheat comes from Ukraine, where a Russian blockade is preventing wheat products from being exported to global markets—while preventable diseases, such as cholera, dengue, malaria, and diphtheria, are spreading rapidly.

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