Yemen’s Sham Ceasefire

Yemen’s civil war is commonly described – not without reason – as having given rise to this century’s worst humanitarian disaster. United Nations officials and national leaders condemn the killing it has seen, the displacement it has caused, and the hunger and disease its continuation has allowed to spread. Whenever they are asked, foreign politicians without a stake in events intone that a ‘political solution’ is necessary and that peace must be achieved through dialogue.

A little over a week ago, such a ceasefire was proposed. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, announced the planned break in fighting with optimism, proposing the reopening of the airport in Sana’a (the country’s capital, occupied by Houthi rebels) as a gesture of good faith and the beginning of new cooperation. Supplies of food and medicines could be on the first flight in. Shortages and privation might be reversed with the effort of all.

But the problem with the prince’s ceasefire is, at root, the same reason why you may not have heard of it. This ceasefire is not a deal; instead, it is the unilateral offer of one side of a civil conflict which has drawn in regional powers. Without agreement of the other, it has no chance of being accepted or coming into force.

The fact that this offer was made says rather less for peace and more for war. If someone wasn’t winning the war, no ceasefire would have been conceived. The Saudis are keen to extract themselves from Yemen after over five years of direct intervention in support of the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. A ceasefire would give honourable cover to that withdrawal – if only it were credible.

Hadi and the Saudis are fighting Ansar Allah, as the Houthi movement is also known. The Houthis have been fighting this phase of the country’s civil conflict since 2014. They have not done so alone. Who has provided decisive international support for the Houthis is in no doubt – Ansar Allah is backed by Iran, equipped with Iranian weapons, and engaged in fighting Iran’s enemies.

The extent to which the Houthis are a project of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps remains fiercely disputed. A recent report by Oved Lobel convincingly argues that the Houthi movement is best understood as an outgrowth of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution: a pure expression of the revolution’s pan-national aspirations of ‘resistance’ against Israel, the United States, and their allies – one which has now been incorporated entirely into Iran’s international patchwork of proxy forces, inseparable from its goal of regional domination.

Assuming that this force would willingly conclude a peace deal seems straightforwardly naive. But even if the Houthis were inclined to consider peace, there is no chance they would seek it now. They are winning the war too obviously to justify that.

With Iranian weapons and support, Houthi forces are no longer insurgents. They possess large stretches of territory in Yemen’s populous west, including many of its major settlements. Houthi forces have controlled Sana’a, Yemen’s former capital, for years. They are entrenched in the western port of Hodeida and in the city of Ta’az. Next to fall will likely be Marib province, for which the Houthis have prepared and threatened a bloody offensive which is of a piece with the insurgency’s increasingly open brutality.

The southern port of Aden, a former British colony, remains in the hands of forces opposed to Houthi rule. But it is not beyond the Houthis’ reach. They possess the technology to attack targets far distant from their bases of operation.

In many ways this is the story of the war. The Houthis were largely opposed by nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have large air forces and make use of heavy bombing campaigns. These campaigns are carried out at great expense, and have elicited sustained international condemnation.

But the Houthis have their own long-range weapons, including Iranian-supplied missiles and drones, which they have used to attack not only targets in Yemen – the Houthis attempted to assassinate the entire Hadi cabinet at Aden airport in December – but also to bomb the Saudi capital of Riyadh and numerous sites of the Saudi oil economy. If this was done by ISIS, it would not only be considered terrorism; it would be the biggest story in the world.

Why would an insurgency seek peace when it is able to carry on its revolutionary war on such favourable terms?

Perhaps appreciating that Iran has managed to draw them deep into the quicksand, the Saudis are desperate to draw down their own intervention. Some in Yemen and America fear they would accept ‘peace’ at almost any price. But while Iranian support remains, it has become painfully clear that even a confected end to the fighting is unlikely. The Houthis will not cease their fire nor decrease their brutality willingly – and not when they feel they at last have the upper hand in this bloodiest of civil wars.

This piece was originally published at The Critic.

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