The Dangers of Peace in Yemen

June 27, 2022 | Katherine Zimmerman
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Since 2014, Yemenis have been engaged in a devastating civil war that pits the Houthis—an Iran-backed tribal and religious group—against the pre-war government, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and at times the U.S. The UN managed to broker a truce in April, which was extended for an additional two months on June 2. Efforts are now underway to negotiate a more permanent end to the conflict, but, as Katherine Zimmerman observes, the current peace process could potentially make the situation worse.

A resolution to Yemen’s war would be most welcome for Yemeni civilians and the international community, which has struggled to respond to the humanitarian crisis. But peace comes at a cost that few people discuss openly: the Houthis would be negotiating from a position of strength and thus would almost certainly retain outsized influence in the country. This is true despite the recent developments that pushed the war into a mutually hurting stalemate. Giving the Houthis—a minority in Yemen—a majority stake in the national government would extend rather than end Yemen’s cycle of conflict.

This is problematic for the United States and its Gulf partners. The internationally recognized Yemeni government will be negotiating from a position of weakness. Yemenis may see relief from their immediate suffering but only under the prospect of a more illiberal government. Although the current alternative to a Houthi-dominated government has its own problems—an endemic system of corruption and patronage, for one—the internationally recognized Yemeni government has trended toward being more representative of a broader constituency.

[T]he only way to strike a better political deal with the Houthis would be to weaken them, and that would require military action. The cost of war is steep, however, and it is possible that pursuing peace today is still the least bad outcome in Yemen. But although it is tempting to focus on all the benefits of the ongoing truce—which have provided much-needed relief to a suffering population—we must remember that any peace negotiated at this moment comes at a cost to all the Yemenis who have rejected the Houthis’ vision for their country.

Zimmerman also notes the fate of the 2016 ceasefire, which the Houthis broke with two deadly offensives that expanded the area under their control. Worse still, the Houthis have already used their territory and Iranian weapons to launch attacks at Saudi Arabia and the UAE; they could just as easily use the same weapons against Israel, at Tehran’s behest.

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