Yemen remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 17 million are food insecure with over 150,000 people experiencing famine like conditions. In late March the heads of all the main UN humanitarian agencies said Yemen was “teetering on the edge of outright catastrophe.”
But after nearly eight years of war, the United Nations brokered a truce to coincide with Ramadan and last two months. So far, over two weeks in, this truce is holding. Can it lead to a broader peace agreement?
On the line with me to explain how we got to this ceasefire agreement and what happens next is Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Is the Ramadan Truce in Yemen and Saudi Arabia Working?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:25] The outbreak of the current conflict in Yemen nearly coincides with the start of this podcast back in 2014. Since then, I’ve had many, many guests on the show to discuss the latest iterations of the conflict and, above all, its humanitarian impact. And now, all those years later, Yemen remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. The crisis began in the wake of the Arab Spring. A rebel group known as the Houthis captured much territory, including the capital Sana’a. The internationally recognized leader, President Hadi, fled to Saudi Arabia, and in March 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in the Civil War on behalf of the internationally recognized government and against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia perceives to be backed by its archrival, Iran. What followed was the destruction of a country and wide scale immiseration, hardship and death to the point where Yemen is routinely cited as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that includes Ukraine. But then, after years of fighting, the United Nations brokered a truce on April 2nd to coincide with Ramadan and last two months. The truce is intended to stop fighting inside and outside Yemen, open up a key port for fuel delivery and allow some commercial air traffic in and out of the Houthi controlled capital city. So far over two weeks in this truce is more or less holding. On the line with me to explain how we got to this cease fire agreement and what happens next is Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute. We kick off discussing some very recent events in Yemen, including the cease fire agreement and the Saudi backed ouster of President Hadi, before having a longer conversation about the history of this conflict and how US policy may shape events going forward. Yemen has not gotten the attention I think it deserves in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but obviously there has been some very significant developments in this conflict, which of course we discussed at length in this episode.
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:04:09] Essentially, the cease fire came about following some momentum from the two of the main warring parties. So essentially, we had seen the Houthis themselves unilaterally declare a ceasefire that was supposed to last for three days and that was declared following a major high-profile attack that the Houthis carried out on an Aramco facility near Jeddah, and this almost derailed the Formula One race that was supposed to happen—did end up happening, but the drivers were panicked. This was an attack on the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah. So, following the Houthis truce, we then also saw Saudi Arabia declare a truce in the context of talks that the Saudis had convened among various Yemeni parties, not the Houthis, the Houthis were invited, but they declined to attend given that Saudi Arabia is an aggressor in this conflict. So, it was this momentum that the Houthis themselves declared a truce and then the Saudis declared a truce in the context of these talks. And then it was this that then UN special envoy Hans Grunberg was able to build upon to then declare not only a truce for Ramadan, which was the initial hope, but a truce that is supposed to last for two whole months. Thus far, it is shakily holding. There have been reports of violations on both sides, but the Yemen Data Project has reported that they have not recorded any new Saudi airstrikes since the truce. I’ve heard some conflicting reports of that, but I usually trust the Yemen Data Project on this. However, unfortunately, two of the terms of the truce may be in danger of breaking down. So, the Saudis did allow in two fuel ships to the port of Hodeidah, which is part of the agreement for this truce, but they thus far have not allowed in anymore. And we also have not yet seen any flights resuming through Sana’a International Airport. These are two very important aspects of the truce, and if they continue to not be fulfilled by the Saudi led coalition, unfortunately the Houthis may decide that the truce has been effectively broken.
Has the Ramadan truce been broken by either the Houthis or the Saudi-led coalition?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:52] And just to be clear, for those unaware, the Houthis control Sana’a, the capital city, and the airport on the ground but the Saudi and its coalition controls the airspace and thus far throughout the duration of the conflict, has denied commercial aircraft from landing and taking off in Sana’a more or less.
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:07:13] Yes.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:13] And I’ve also seen reports from credible journalism outlets that Houthis—there have been perhaps violations of the cease fire not on a large scale, but on smaller scales in and around Marib, which is this contested oil rich area that is sort of mostly outside Houthi control. Have you seen those as well?
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:07:37] Yes, I have definitely heard from friends in Marib that say the Houthis have violated the terms of the truce and some journalists and observers on the ground who say that that both sides have violated the terms of the truce. This is not totally unexpected, and you know, it is possible that the sort of overarching truce itself could hold despite some of these sorts of smaller violations on the ground. But again, for me, I think the most important thing to keep in an eye on will be whether additional fuel ships are allowed in and whether flights are permitted. Because if those continue to not happen, I do worry that that we’re likely to just see an all-out resumption of hostilities. One factor there is also the outcome of the Riyadh talks, which was, as you mentioned—President Hadi, who has been the official internationally recognized president of Yemen, although he had been effectively powerless and in exile in Riyadh since escaping in 2015. That he delegated under pressure his authority to a new presidential leadership council, which is essentially an anti-Houthi coalition. So, this is a conglomeration of individuals, some of them backed by the UAE, some of them definitely not backed by the UAE because some are members of the Islamist political party that the UAE views with suspicion. And so, the question after this Presidential Leadership Council was formed was is their primary objective to form a unified front to negotiate with the Houthis or to form a unified front to fight the Houthis? And this is where I think US pressure can be really instrumental here, because if the US makes it clear to the Saudis that if the Presidential Leadership Council—which was effectively put together by the Saudis—if the Saudis resume hostilities, that the US will no longer provide any kind of military support. This would be one way to really try to make it clear to the Saudis that we, the United States, intends to support this cease fire and are really uninterested in continuing to offer any kind of support for military involvement. This is what I would suggest. However, it’s not clear necessarily that that’s what the Biden administration intends to do.
What is the function of the Saudi-coordinated Presidential Leadership Council of Yemen?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:40] So the Wall Street Journal reported just yesterday, I think, or perhaps the day before that indeed, it was under heavy Saudi pressure that Hadi was forced to basically delegate his powers to this presidential leadership council. And I’m interested to hear you frame that decision as perhaps going one of two ways: either to present a unified front in diplomacy with the Houthis or militarily against the Houthis. Have you seen anything yet in these early days to suggest which way that might go?
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:11:20] So thus far the statements that have been made by the head of the Presidential Leadership Council have indicated that their intent is to negotiate. So I certainly hope that that remains their position and again, I do think that part of why we saw the Saudis really put this level of pressure on Hadi to the extent that he was finally willing to step aside—I think a lot of it did come from this high profile attack on Jeddah because essentially Mohammed bin Salman is trying to use high profile events like this, the Formula One race or the various concerts or wrestling matches that he’s been holding in Saudi Arabia, to try to show evidence that the Saudi kingdom has changed, that it is open to investors, it is open to tourists. And so even just a single attack like that can really damage that image. This was a similar dynamic to what we saw when the Houthis successfully launched a drone attack on Abu Dhabi back in mid-January that unfortunately did kill three workers at an oil facility outside of Abu Dhabi, and similarly punctured this very carefully crafted image of the UAE as a bastion of stability and security and a hub for travel and investment in in a region that unfortunately does remain quite volatile. I do think that it only takes one attack like that for travelers and investors to feel nervous about traveling to these places and so it really raises the stakes in terms of what the Saudis and the UAE—sort of changes their calculus in terms of their preferred outcome for the war. It’s a little frustrating for me as someone who watches Yemen, given that Yemen has dealt with hundreds of air raids a day frequently, and so then just a single attack on Abu Dhabi, for example, or this very high-profile attack on Saudi Arabia and suddenly everything shifts. It just sort of is an indicator of the extent to which Yemen is just not really a priority or the people of Yemen are just not really counted. But again, I do think it has shifted, the perception of both the Emirati leadership and the Saudi leadership. And I mean, unfortunately, on the one hand, we could see their response be one of aggression. We did see the UAE retaliate with airstrikes following their attack, and we then saw the UAE pushing very hard for the Houthis to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization, despite the fact that the lifting of this designation was one of the very first things that Biden did when he came into office, such that it would be fairly surprising for him to reverse himself there, but the Emiratis were really insistent on this. It hasn’t happened yet, but there is still a question. We’ve heard people like State Department spokesperson Ned Price say things like referring to the Houthis as terrorists more frequently than he had previously, even though they’re not officially designated. So again, I do think this is why the US role is so crucial here, because if the US signals that we agree with this more aggressive stance from the Presidential Leadership Council and from the Saudis and Emiratis, and that we’re going to keep supporting their aggression against Yemen, then I think they would be all in. Whereas if the US makes it clear that that we are unwilling to continue to sell any weapons to either of these security partners as long as they remain involved in military hostilities in Yemen, this is an opportunity right now because there is this truce, and the Saudis and Emiratis could potentially get out of the war and save face to a certain extent.
Why did Yemen become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world? Why did the Houthis take over?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:12] I do want to get more in depth with you on the role of the United States in this conflict. I do want to take a brief moment now, though, for listeners who are not as enmeshed into the ins and outs of this Yemen conflict. Can you briefly explain how we got to this point? I mean, I’ve been publishing episodes of this podcast since 2014, which roughly coincides with this rebel group that I had not really heard of before, called the Houthis, basically taking over control of much of Yemen. And now, eight years later, we’re at this point where this once ragtag group of rebels are able to launch sophisticated airstrikes and military attacks in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Can you just kind of briefly explain for listeners how we got to this point, how this conflict began?
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:17:11] Sure. So essentially the Houthis themselves are a movement that originated in northern Yemen. They are Zaydi Shia and originally, they coalesced around opposition to Saudi efforts to spread Wahhabism in their area of Yemen, so this was sort of a religious revivalist movement that was frustrated with Saudi efforts to infiltrate their part of the country. And then subsequently they fought a series of six wars with the central government of Yemen, led by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Then, during the Arab Spring, major protests finally ousted Saleh, who had been a very corrupt dictator, ruling Yemen for decades and there was a political transition process put in place to try to establish a more just framework for governing Yemen. One of the outcomes of that was to try to establish a federal system whereby different areas of Yemen would have more autonomy. However, the Houthis were concerned about this because it would have essentially relegated them to their small and fairly impoverished corner of Yemen, and they were just concerned about what that would mean for their future. So unfortunately, they took up weapons in response. Also, groups from the South that would like South Yemen to again be independent as it used to be, to be its own country, also took up weapons to oppose the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference. It was at that point that then we saw the Houthis transition from merely one of several sorts of disgruntled groups to accumulating a lot more power and part of the way they did this was by allying with President Saleh, who at that point was no longer president but was eager to try to reestablish himself as being in power and he saw the Houthis as a good bet. This is part of where some of the Houthi’s weapons came from because they were allied with Selah, who still had the control of the Yemeni military. So, the Houthis took control of the capital city of Sana’a, and the interim president Hadi was forced to flee. It was at that point, Hadi requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and from the international community and the U.N., for example, supported the Saudi intervention and supported efforts to prevent Iran from smuggling in any weapons to the Houthis. There was this general perception that the Houthis had acted as a spoiler and thrown Yemen’s political transition off the rails, which is accurate, that is what happened, but unfortunately, in the intervening seven years, the Houthis have merely consolidated power. They have received additional support from Iran, although in general, I think some of the paranoia about Iranian support is somewhat overblown, especially given the scale of the weapons and resources that the Saudis and Emiratis are pouring into supporting their preferred groups in Yemen, for example. But essentially, the Houthis have managed to really consolidate power in the former North Yemen. As you mentioned, they have been trying to take control of Marib, which is essentially the last stronghold of the internationally recognized government, when that was still led by President Hadi. Now, with the Presidential Leadership Council, you have this coalition of anti-Houthi forces that represent a much broader swath of territory from all over the territory of Yemen. However, again, the vast majority of Yemenis, about 80% of the population live in the former North Yemen, much of which is controlled by the Houthis. And so, when you look at a map, sometimes it looks like there are large swathes of territory that are not controlled by the Houthis but when you actually think about who the people are that are affected by things like the Saudi led blockade, that is again 80% of Yemen’s population.
What is the War Powers Resolution and how could it affect US involvement in Yemen?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:08] That’s, I think, a very helpful sort of catching up for those who have not followed this terribly closely. But throughout this conflict, we are now in the third US presidential administration that has had to deal with this conflict, has been involved in this conflict in one way or another, and you know, it’s interesting to me to note that this cease fire agreement, which is more or less holding, coincides with some momentum perhaps in Congress around a war powers resolution that would tie the administration’s hands in terms of how it would support the Saudi led coalition. Can you explain what this war powers resolution stipulates and whether or not you see any connection between the timing of this cease fire and growing momentum in Congress towards reining in US support for the Saudi led coalition?
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:23:12] Yes, well, and what’s interesting is that US actions and especially US congressional actions in the past have often correlated with things like the frequency of air raids. So we know that Saudi Arabia is paying close attention to what the US is doing again, because Saudi Arabia is so dependent on the US to wage this war—two-thirds of the Saudi Air Force are US made and thus could not fly without the assistance of US military contractors—and so the Saudis do not want to be in this humiliating position of not being able to fly their own planes if the US does decide to withdraw support. So previously, for example, we had seen Congress successfully pass for the first time ever since the War Powers Act was established in 1973—they passed a war powers resolution in spring of 2019 that would have ended all US support for this war. And unfortunately, President Trump vetoed it but as you said, now, momentum is building again. We’ve had Representative Jayapal, and Representative DeFazio commit to introducing a Yemen war powers resolution that again would end any kind of US support for military action against Yemen. We’ve now heard from Representative Ro Khanna, for example, as well as Representative Adam Schiff and on the Senate side, Bernie Sanders, have all committed to supporting this war powers resolution. So, I do very much think that the Saudis are paying close attention to this. Thus far, the Biden administration—even though early on in Biden’s tenure, he had said that this war must end and that the US was going to end all support for offensive military action—unfortunately, we did not see any kind of decline in Saudi airstrikes, which really then leads one to question whether US support declined at all because we would have expected airstrikes likewise to decline if the US were really ending support for offensive actions. Unfortunately, we saw them maintain similar levels of airstrikes as the final year of the Trump administration and then we saw a big uptick in in airstrikes. There was a recent Human Rights Watch report that just came out sort of detailing the level of the civilian deaths that were carried out in the early part of 2022 as a result of this escalation in airstrikes. I very much think that the US has a lot of leverage here. We’ve heard people like former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes speak to this effect as well. Unfortunately, however, I think there are certain members of the Biden administration that would rather continue to support the Saudis and Emiratis on this and are willing to sacrifice Yemen because they view those relationships as more important than the future of Yemen and the lives of Yemenis.
Does it seem like the Ramadan truce in Yemen and Saudi Arabia will lead to positive change for Yemen?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:51] Lastly, we’re at this seemingly very consequential inflection point in the history of the Yemen conflict, where we have a cease fire fragile, albeit holding more or less. In the coming days or weeks or months, what will you be looking towards that will suggest to you either whether or not this cease fire can be harnessed into some sort of meaningful truce or on the opposite side, whether or not this will just kind of fall apart and will return to the awful status quo of the last several years?
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:27:28] Well, as I said, the two indicators I’m especially watching are whether Saudi Arabia allows in additional fuel ships to the port of Hodeidah. They had agreed that ships would be allowed in during this truce. And also, that Sana’a airport would reopen for commercial flights. I believe it was two flights a week to Cairo and Amman, Jordan. And we haven’t seen that happening yet and so I do worry that if we continue to see no progress there, that essentially the Houthis will see no reason to negotiate or to maintain the cease fire—they will see it as having been violated. Just one note about the Houthis themselves. They are good at fighting and thus far, have not necessarily been terribly good at governing, and so unfortunately, to a certain extent, the Houthis themselves may be more interested in continuing to fight than in trying to settle down to the business of governing. This is part of why I think it is so important that even for people within the Biden administration, for example, who might fear a Houthi led government in Yemen, because they see them as Iranian proxies, or they just don’t like the idea of the Houthis controlling or asserting partial control over this very important geographic area of the Bab-el-Mandeb straight at the bottom of the Red Sea. But again, the longer this war has lasted, the more control the Houthis have managed to accumulate and somewhat similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where you have this narrative of legitimacy because they are fighting against foreign aggression. So even if there are Afghans who wouldn’t have supported the Taliban or there are Yemenis who don’t support the Houthis, they would rather survive under Houthi control or Taliban control than continue to be killed by the violence coming in from foreign aggression. I would just say that it’s really imperative that Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US and the other European countries that continue to profit from selling weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia, that the most important thing, even if they are very opposed to the notion of a Houthi take over, their continued involvement is just making that more likely. And so, it really is imperative for foreign involvement to cease and to try to return control of this conflict to the Yemenis themselves.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:40] Well, Annelle, thank you so much for your time.
Dr. Annelle Sheline [00:30:44] Thanks so much for having me, Mark.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:48] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Annelle. That was very helpful and timely. And again, the events in Ukraine obviously have dominated the media in recent weeks and, you know, understandably so. But it’s also, I think, worth recognizing and of course, spending time discussing other key events around the world, which, of course, this podcast and I promise to do as I always have done since 2014. I will see next time, bye!