Although peace consultations between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Ansarullah, more commonly known as the Houthis, are currently under way just outside of Stockholm, Sweden, chances for a diplomatic breakthrough are slim. This is because, up until now, the Houthis have consistently shown that while they are happy to negotiate concessions that will strengthen their hold over North Yemen, they have no interest in a negotiated settlement. If the Stockholm talks are to succeed, the United Nations and the international community must do a better job of holding the Houthis accountable for actions and rhetoric that undermine the legitimacy of the UN-sponsored negotiations and the prospects of a negotiated peace.
The current consultations, led by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, are not an attempt to reach a comprehensive settlement but are focused on confidence-building measures to cultivate trust between the two sides. Thus, the discussions are likely to center on measures that will stabilize Yemen’s economy such as strengthening the Central Bank of Yemen and reopening Sana’a airport, as well as prisoner exchanges. Indeed, the UN envoy just announced that the two sides have already agreed to a prisoner swap. The Stockholm discussions are meant to restart September’s failed Geneva talks, which collapsed after the Houthi delegation’s last-minute decision to condition their participation on the UN’s evacuating their wounded for medical treatment abroad. In advance of Stockholm, the UN envoy secured the transfer of fifty injured Houthis to Oman.
The Houthis understand that they will be publicly held to account if they are not seen by the international community as actively participating in the UN-sponsored peace process. So, they have decided on a strategy of paying lip service to the peace process in order to extract unilateral concessions to keep prosecuting the war while conceding as little as possible. For example, while the Houthis backed out of Geneva, they used the UN-sponsored cease-fire that preceded those talks to triple the number of deployed militiamen and dig new trenches along key roadways around the contested port city of Hodeidah. In October, the UN overlooked the Houthis’ assault and arrest of sixteen female students peacefully demonstrating against Yemen’s deteriorating economic situation and the Houthis’ new crackdown on practitioners of the Baha’i faith, whom the Houthis, like their Iranian backers, have ruthlessly repressed, to secure a Houthi meeting with Mr. Griffiths in Muscat that achieved nothing. Now, the UN has acceded to demands for medical treatment for Houthi personnel without securing anything concrete in return—save for a prisoner exchange that the Houthis wanted anyway.
At the same time, the Houthis employ rhetoric and actions that are at odds with their professed interest in a negotiated peace. In Yemeni media and in speeches to his followers, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has repeatedly derided the UN process to his followers as a “Western plot” advancing an “American-Israeli agenda” that serves the interests of “America’s allies [Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates].” Houthi militiamen appear to be taking their leader’s words at face value. In August, for example, they targeted a World Food Programme truck in Hodeidah and kidnapped UN staff. This violence on the ground has often been sharpened as a result of a perception that utilizes “us against them” logic, which is advanced in every al-Houthi speech. The Houthis do not just talk the talk when it comes to resisting peace; they also walk the walk. On the eve of the failed Geneva consultations, they launched ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, injuring at least twenty-six. Ahead of Stockholm, they did the exact same thing, firing off another volley into the kingdom.
As long as the Houthis maintain the power of the gun, peace is not in their favor. Prolonging the conflict through interminable negotiations prevents Yemeni forces from recapturing the Hodeidah seaport, which gives the Houthis direct control over 70 percent of Yemen’s food, medical, and humanitarian aid. This aid gives the Houthis leverage over the population they control and preserves al-Houthi’s elaborate patronage networks. In Sana’a, where the Houthis exercise absolute control, they have packed government ministries with loyalists and confiscated government and private lands to build illegal housing for their supporters. The Houthis have also created an entire class of specialists in illicit war tax collection, soldier—including child soldier—recruitment, and intelligence gathering. These specialists’ livelihoods depend on the continuation of the war.
There is also an international dimension at play. Iran is using its support for the Houthis in Yemen as a means of putting pressure on the Trump administration (and its regional allies) for trying to roll back Iranian expansionism. At the same time, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has managed to bog down archrival Saudi Arabia in a seemingly interminable conflict that has strained Riyadh’s military and budget while costing Tehran comparatively little in both men and matériel. Al-Houthi also knows that any permanent peace will require him to disband his militias and forfeit his followers’ medium and heavy arms, which is something he and Iran are loath to do.
Understandably, the UN envoy is in a bind; he needs to maintain an open channel to the Houthis, who incidentally attempted to assassinate his predecessor in 2017, if he is to have any chance of advancing peace. But peace cannot be served if the UN does not hold all sides equally accountable. The Houthis have consolidated their power by leveraging UN-sponsored negotiations to pocket concessions, silence opposition, and reinforce their military, and they have directly undermined the UN-sponsored negotiations through their rhetoric and their actions. In their desire to maintain a peace process, the UN and the international community have allowed the Houthis to undercut the chances for a negotiated peace. This is perhaps why, despite widespread support for the UN’s efforts, there are no great expectations of success in Stockholm. After all, if the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition is going to bear sole responsibility for Yemen’s plight, what incentive is there for the Houthis to negotiate in good faith?