Saudi Arabia’s Cease-Fire Offer Leaves the Houthis Isolated

Saudi Arabia‘s announcement that it has offered to the Houthis a cease-fire arrangement, along with its quick endorsement by the government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Manour Hadi, has left the Houthi rejectionist position exposed and increasingly difficult to maintain.

While the initial response from the Houthi side that the Saudis “had not offered anything new” is correct, the fact is that it incorporated consistent Houthi demands for reopening the airport at Yemen’s capital of Sana’a and lifting the blockade of the port at Hodeidah. In that regard, the Saudi offer parallels the key planks of the Joint Declaration initiative that UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been tabling with the parties since last year, as well as the proposal that U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking has offered to the parties in his two recent visits to the region. Thus, the Saudis have now firmly aligned their policy on ending the Yemen conflict with that of the broader international community.

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The Saudi initiative potentially changes the Houthi international environment dramatically. During the past several years, most international attention has focused on the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil conflict and especially the humanitarian impact of the Saudi air campaign and its naval blockade. At the same time, relatively little attention was paid to the Houthi military campaign or its horrific record of human rights violations in the areas under its control. With the Saudis now joining the international consensus on ending the conflict, the days of the Houthi “free pass” may be drawing rapidly to a close, as attention pivots to consider their continued rejection of cease-fire proposals as the last remaining obstacle to ending Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe.

The Houthi movement, known as Ansar Allah, has long been factionalized between those who favored seeking a negotiated end to the conflict and those who believed they could achieve a military victory in the conflict. Over the course of the conflict, both sides have appeared to enjoy the upper hand. The Houthi inner circle will now need to address conditions that contrast starkly from where they rested in the immediate preceding period.

In the weeks since President Joe Biden’s dramatic announcement that the United States would withdraw support from the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention and emphasize a diplomatic initiative to end the fighting, the Houthi militarists appeared energized. They insisted that their military campaign in Yemen’s strategic Marib governorate, along with their intensified drone and missile attacks into Saudi territory, would force a resolution of the conflict on terms favorable to them.

Whether their campaign was designed to improve their negotiating position once political talks resumed or whether they believed that they could actually secure a comprehensive victory on the battlefield, those advocating a continuation of the fighting appeared to have the ear of Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

The shifting international dynamic may now move the balance within the Houthi movement toward those who favor negotiations.

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