“Yemen is not Afghanistan”, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on his visit to Sanaa more than a decade ago, long before the start of the civil war that has torn the country apart since the Houthi rebel group seized control. Friedman was referring to the liveliness of Yemen’s capital city at a time when most in the West knew it for being a base for the terrorist group Al Qaeda.
Today, Sanaa is in the hands of the Houthis, a group ideologically unrelated to Al Qaeda but with a similarly extreme worldview. The city is now a hollow shell of its former self, paralysed by the civil war, which is now in its eighth year, and suffocated by Houthi oppression. And while Yemen is still not Afghanistan, where the Taliban terrorist group has won the Afghan civil war and conquered the entire country, the Houthis hope it may be.
The Taliban’s victory, in which it forced the Afghan government and its western allies out without compromise, is a template of sorts for what the Houthis are trying to achieve. The Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition, which backs Yemen’s internationally recognised government and other local resistance groups, has repeatedly offered the group opportunities to negotiate, but all have been rejected. This week, after suffering major defeats on the battlefield in central Yemen, the Houthis doubled down, launching deadly drone attacks into Saudi and Emirati territory.
In May of last year, Martin Griffiths, who was then the UN’s envoy to Yemen, said a peace deal appeared to be nowhere in sight. The sense of hopelessness has gradually driven the UN to adopt an appeasement strategy, in which it has sought to legitimise the Houthis as a future player in Yemeni politics – albeit one among many – in exchange for a chance at peace. It has not worked.
The UN’s mission in Yemen is critically underfunded, and among the smallest in any major conflict zone. The Houthis have repeatedly denied UN representatives permission to conduct humanitarian operations, diverted UN aid money and refused access to the FSO Safer, a leaky oil tanker anchored off the port of Hudaydah that threatens environmental catastrophe. Two months ago, the Houthis detained two UN employees, who continue to be held without charge.
The group has also abducted dozens of local employees of the US embassy, in spite of Washington following the UN’s lead by removing the Houthis from its formal list of terrorist organisations last year. On Wednesday, two days after a Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi, US President Joe Biden said he would “consider” reversing that decision.
There is a wilful self-deception on the part of both the Houthis and the international actors appeasing them that allows this dire situation to continue, and gives false hope that a peace deal lies at the end of the road currently being followed. For western countries and the UN, it is the notion, contrary to all evidence, that the Houthis are a rational actor willing to make concessions. For the Houthis, it is the delusion that they have a monopoly on power in Yemen; that the diverse array of armed forces resisting them are not strong enough to prevent their assertion of total control.
For a durable compromise to be achieved, this combination of naivety and hubris must be dispelled. The international community must be prepared to restore a sense of accountability in its dealings with the Houthis, and to extract, as well as entice, future concessions. It must demonstrate solidarity with the thousands of fighters and millions of civilians who are making sacrifices to stop Houthi advances in their tracks. To get the Houthis to stop fighting, the group must be shown firmly that it cannot win.