At the beginning of June, United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg announced that Yemen’s fragile two-month truce, which began in April, was being extended for an additional two months. Two weeks later, during a briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Grundberg allowed himself a brief pat on the back, calling the truce “unprecedented” and “something that seemed unimaginable at the beginning of the year,” before acknowledging the massive amount of work still needed to bring the conflict in Yemen to an end.
Grundberg is right on both accounts. In midwifing the truce into existence and now an extension, Grundberg has done something that none of his predecessors were able to accomplish. The biggest beneficiaries of the truce are Yemeni civilians. During the first month, civilian casualties decreased by more than 50%. But, as the rest of Grundberg’s briefing made clear, turning this truce into a lasting and sustainable peace will require a significant effort.
To begin with, the truce in Yemen was extended because, at the moment, a truce is in the best interests of all of Yemen’s many warring parties. Unfortunately, few of these actors, foreign or domestic, see a negotiated settlement and the return to a unified state as similarly in their best interests. The Yemeni state, as dueling economies and the increasing number of armed groups make clear, is broken, and no one appears ready to make the difficult compromises necessary for peace. There are, however, a few steps that outside actors, like the United States, can take to at least narrow the gap between opposing parties.
On the government side, a two-month extension of the truce was necessary to give the presidential council time to organize. After all, the eight-man council was formed only two months ago when then-President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi dramatically resigned in a televised speech – under strong Saudi pressure. But the presidential council, which is clearly an attempt to reimpose unity on a fracturing anti-Houthi coalition, is composed of rival groups with differing goals.
The council desperately needs the additional two months that the extended truce provides to form a common front. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be bringing all of Yemen’s various armed groups under government command and control. At the end of May, the government formed a 59-person joint security and military committee to coordinate this task, but already there have been challenges.
An extended truce also benefits the Houthis, who are still reeling from battlefield losses in northern Shabwa and southern Marib in January. In order to make another push on Marib and its oil and gas fields, the Houthis need to reorganize and rethink the offensive, and the truce gives the group the time to do that.
None of this, however, should take away from the very real and positive gains that the truce has provided. As Grundberg detailed in his brief to the Security Council, there have been no reported Saudi airstrikes on Houthi territory and no cross-border missile strikes into Saudi Arabia, and the Sanaa airport was reopened for the first time in nearly six years. So far, eight commercial flights have “transported 2795 passengers from Sana’a to Amman and Cairo.” The Houthis and Saudi Arabia have also restarted direct, virtual talks.
However, despite all of the progress, the end of the war in Yemen remains a long way off. The Houthis have no intention and no incentive to give up unilateral control over much of northern Yemen to be part of a reunified Yemeni state. The group may not be able to take Marib’s oil and gas fields, which would provide the economic base it so desperately needs, but neither has the anti-Houthi coalition forced the group into a position in which it has to compromise.
On the government side, members of the presidential council continue to attempt to undermine and outmaneuver one another. For instance, in early June, a brigade backed by the Saudi-led coalition began a recruiting drive for more fighters in Abyan. Worried that it was being outmanned, the Southern Transitional Council began recruiting more fighters in Aden. Actions and responses like this, obviously, do little to foster a sense of unity within the presidential council or present a common front against the Houthis. The Southern Transitional Council, despite its president being a member of the presidential council, continues to state that its end goal is an independent Southern state.
There are also deep, structural issues that will need to be overcome prior to any peace agreement. In April, following the formation of the presidential council, Saudi Arabia announced it would deposit an additional $3 billion in the government-controlled central bank in Aden – the Houthis control Yemen’s other central bank in Sanaa – in an attempt to stabilize the Yemeni rial. Initially, the influx of cash seemed to work, as in Aden the rial went from trading at around 1,100 to 1 against the dollar to 650 to 1, roughly the same amount as in Sanaa. By early June, however, most of those initial gains had evaporated, and in Aden the Yemeni rial was back to 1,026 against the dollar. (Prior to the beginning of the war in 2014, the Yemeni rial sat at 250 to 1.)
Making matters even worse, food prices have increased 10% since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and could rise by 50% by the end of the year. Fuel costs are also rising, leading to some small-scale protests in Aden, which will likely worsen and expand as the summer heats up.
Neither the U.N. nor the United States can end this conflict on its own. The administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has, however, been pressing Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen since it came into office in January 2021. Those efforts have not always yielded the desired outcomes, and it is clear that simply pressuring Saudi Arabia to cease military operations in Yemen will not end the war so much as cement a Houthi victory.
Instead, when Biden travels to Saudi Arabia in July, he should press Saudi Arabia to dramatically increase its financial support to the Yemeni government and the presidential council. Strengthening the value of the rial and making food and fuel affordable for more Yemenis won’t end the war, but it might make the war easier to end.