Given the level of regional tensions, it is no surprise that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recently concluded trip to the Middle East came with a busy itinerary. Amid questions about the abruptly announced U.S. pullout from Syria, an American response to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal al-Khashoggi, the potential of brokering a resolution to the stalemated rift in the Gulf between Qatar and its neighbors, and the Trump administration’s hard-line stance against Iran, an often overshadowed policy dilemma has shifted toward center stage: the war in Yemen.
t has been more than four years since the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite-led rebel group, took over Sanaa and forced Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile, spurring Saudi Arabia to lead a military intervention to oust the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. Long-stagnant diplomacy to end the conflict, which has torn the already impoverished country apart and created what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, finally gave way to a breakthrough of sorts in December. After three rounds of unsuccessful talks in Switzerland and Kuwait, twin delegations affiliated with Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government agreed to a tripartite deal in Sweden on Dec. 13 after over a week of consultations. The agreement struck in Stockholm may have been far from conclusive, but international diplomats cast it as a clear step in the right direction.
The deal has three key components. It aims to prevent a looming military offensive by the Saudi-led coalition on the Houthi-held port of Hodeida, a key outlet for humanitarian aid into Yemen. The parties also committed to jumpstart talks to de-escalate the fighting over Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, which remains under siege by the Houthis and their allies. And, in a prisoner exchange, both parties pledged to release thousands of detainees, some of whom had been held for more than four years.
In the weeks since then, though, there’s been little concrete progress on any front. The outcome of the prisoner exchange deal remains dependent on a follow-up meeting in Amman this week. And while a retired Dutch general, Patrick Caemmart, was dispatched to head the United Nations’ cease-fire monitoring mechanism in Hodeida, both sides have continued to bicker, failing to make significant progress toward a prospective pullout. The Houthis, meant to redeploy from Hodeida, have instead reinforced their positions and built trenches, while accusing coalition-backed forces of continuing to launch attacks. Escalation outside of the parameters of the cease-fire has continued, most of all in the form of a brazen Houthi drone attack targeting a key Yemeni military base near Aden that killed senior Yemeni officials.
While Saudi, Emirati and other coalition officials have grown increasingly open in their impatience, expressing anxiety that the Houthis are simply using the Stockholm agreement to buy time, U.N. leaders and Western diplomats have remained cautiously optimistic. The implementation has been, as many expected, quite rocky, but the “spirit of the deal,” they say, has continued to hold. In some sense, there’s truth to this—neither side appears eager to toss the deal out just yet, if only to avoid shouldering the blame.
Yet tensions have continued to build, even if the current situation does allow space for diplomacy and mediation efforts. This has only grown all the more difficult following the surprise resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who played a key role in behind-the-scenes efforts to broker the Stockholm agreement. Pompeo, for his part, is widely viewed as a hard-liner, which was underlined by his remarks during his Middle East trip effectively backing the coalition’s current position in Yemen.
If the Stockholm agreement collapses, a coalition offensive on the city of Hodeida—and a near comprehensive rollback of any diplomatic progress—seems more or less inevitable. And even if it holds, the hard work of resolving Yemen’s conflict has only just begun. As diplomats working on Yemen privately acknowledge, the current process only represents a tentative start. Crucial factions and stakeholders have yet to be fully brought into the process. And many of the key questions that any accord would need to tackle—ranging from the fate of the Houthis’ weapons, the future status of coalition troops, and the shape of a future Yemeni government—remain undecided.
This is all to say nothing of the current state of Yemen itself. Even if the conflict ends tomorrow, Yemen faces devastating fallout from years of bombardment and blockade. Fighting has left the country’s infrastructure in shambles, set back decades of development efforts, ruptured the country’s social fabric, robbed a generation of young Yemenis of peace and education, and decimated the capacity of currently divided state institutions. In short, ending the war is only a small part of the battle. Yemen needs full-scale rebuilding.
Some efforts, largely headed by the Saudi-led coalition, have already started. Both Saudi and Emirati officials have pointed to their increasing humanitarian and redevelopment efforts. It’s more than simply a cynical ploy to distract from the ongoing devastation wrought by the conflict, though it’s also more than altruism. Gulf officials have stressed that they view their role in Yemen as longer-term, noting the need for redevelopment and their anxieties over a potential power vacuum. In some sense, it’s an acknowledgement of the need to win the peace. Even in the event of a comprehensive peace settlement, Yemen remains at high risk of falling back into conflict without wide-ranging reforms, a functional transitional process, wide scale reconciliation efforts, and significant foreign aid and investment.
In some sense, all of this underlines the wider irony of the moment. The peace process, as it stands, largely hinges on Hodeida. But lasting peace will require something far more far-reaching.