Tonhey yes A rare scene of joy in a war that brought eight years of misery. For three days, rows of smiling men (and occasionally women) disembarked from Red Cross planes in Yemen’s largest cities, Sana’a and Aden. After years of captivity, some looked worse: gaunt faces, black hair turning gray. But they long to hug their families and celebrate their newfound freedom.
A total of 887 people were released this month in a prisoner swap between the Houthis, a Shia rebel group that controls much of Yemen (see map), and the Saudi-led coalition that has fought the Houthis for eight years. After the confrontation was completed, the Houthis immediately proposed another confrontation of a larger scale. It was a further sign that the two sides are getting closer to a deal to end the war. But in our time, peace is not like that: it is more likely to be the end of one conflict and the beginning of another.
This is the most senseless war. Initially, Saudi officials said Operation Decisive Storm would eliminate the Houthis within weeks and restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. That was 421 weeks ago. The Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed some 9,000 civilians, including wedding guests, children on school buses and mourners at funerals. United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), the coalition’s most effective army, began withdrawing most of its troops in 2019 after ending the campaign at a stalemate.
Where they once sought to overthrow the Houthis, the Saudis now have one priority: ending the war they themselves are involved in, and the deluge of missiles and drones it invites across borders. The Houthi rebels have carried out more than 1,000 rocket or missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and sent at least 350 drones to the kingdom since the war began, according to the Armed Conflict Locations and Events Data Project, a U.S. monitoring group.
Their attacks are increasingly accurate: only 15 percent used guided munitions in 2015, a figure that rose to 89 percent last year. Fatalities are rare. Reputational damage no. Last year, the Houthis attacked a fuel depot in Jeddah just days before the Formula 1 race in Jeddah. The Saudis hope to attract investors and tourists to help diversify their economy. Ballistic missiles tend to scare off both.
The cross-border attack worked. After months of talks, a Saudi delegation arrived in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on April 9 to discuss terms. A first step could be to extend the temporary truce reached last April. Although it expired after six months, both parties are more or less continuing to comply and can now make it permanent. The Houthis also want the Saudi-backed government to pay civil servants in areas they control.
For the Houthis, victory will be outweighed. They survived to rule a ruined country. Fully 80 percent of its 30 million people depend on foreign aid, and disease and famine killed at least 131,000 people between 2015 and 2020. They force children to be cannon fodder, steal foreign aid, oppress women, and turn schools into factories for brainwashing. None of this endeared them to the populace.
The group has been waging a civil war with the Yemeni state since the 1990s. Many Yemenis fear this will continue despite any peace deal. The Houthis have been vague about power-sharing. “If we do not seek total control during the war, we will not seek total control at any other time,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, one of the group’s leaders, told CNNAstute observers may recall that during the war, the Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital in central and major ports in the west, then tried to seize Aden in the south and oil fields in the east, in what looked a lot like a struggle for full control.
Add to this a dizzying array of other disputes.rebels in the south, they got support from the south United Arab Emirates, wants their region to be independent, like it did from 1967 to 1990. West Coast militias want some degree of autonomy. The same is true for the people of Hadhramaut, in the southeast, which has long had a distinct character from the rest of Yemen. The groups have found a common purpose against the Houthis to some extent, but their unity could crumble if they no longer perceive a common threat.
Yemen has long been difficult to govern. With so many enemies and so little wider popular support, the Houthis may find the task impossible. The country will continue to be divided. The Saudis do not want a hostile regime on their southern border. But what they and their allies have helped create over the past eight years — a patchwork of competing militias and ungoverned spaces — isn’t much better. ■