Why the Houthis refused to extend Yemen's truce

5 min read
17 October, 2022

The United Nations and international organisations have continued to urge warring sides in Yemen to revive an expired truce that had offered massive relief to millions of civilians over the last six months.

Two weeks have now elapsed since the ceasefire expired and an agreement on its revival has not yet materialised.

The UN-sponsored truce began on 2 April and ended on 2 October, with the Houthi group's demands for renewing the accord bringing the country closer to war.

In the context of Yemen's conflict, making challenging demands reflects a degree of military preparedness for fighting, and this is exactly what the Iran-allied Houthis have demonstrated.

Their inflexibility on dialogue points to a reliance on their military capability should the war erupt afresh. It also reveals an understanding of the weakness of their rivals.

"The Houthis have used two techniques to deepen their influence: developing their military power and earning popular support [...] Should their demands go unmet, they will go to war"

One demand the Houthi defacto authorities have made is that their opponents should pay the salaries of public servants, including their fighters, in areas under their control.

The Yemeni government and the UN envoy to Yemen did not expect such a request, which effectively doomed efforts on a truce extension.

Amidst this deadlock and uncertainty, UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg is continuing his efforts to prevent the country's slide into further hostilities. On Thursday, he briefed the Security Council on the latest developments related to the situation in Yemen.

While he thanked the Yemeni government, he expressed sorrow that Houthi demands had hindered the peace process.

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Grundberg said, "I appreciate the position of the government of Yemen on engaging positively with my proposal, and I regret that Ansar Allah [the Houthis] came up with additional demands that could not be met".

No matter how hard the UN envoy tries to persuade the Houthis to moderate their demands, they keep displaying an unwillingness to change their attitude. It is no exaggeration to say that Houthi flexibility could be decisive in reviving the truce or reaching a peaceful solution in Yemen.

Indeed, regional or international diplomatic pressure may lead to a temporary calm, like the past six-month truce. However, such an approach is not a recipe for better Houthi political engagement.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthi spokesperson, reiterated their demands on Thursday for the truce to be extended.

Recruits of the Houthi movement take part in a military parade held on 15 September 2022 in Sanaa, Yemen. [Getty]

He said, "The truce ended and was not extended due to the intransigence of the aggression countries [that rejected] the humanitarian demands and the natural rights of the Yemeni people in opening Sanaa International Airport and Hodeida port without any obstacle and benefiting from the country's oil and gas resources in favour of the Yemeni employees".

In a news briefing earlier this month, the US envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, said that the Houthis had "imposed maximalist and impossible demands" over the payment of public sector wages. 

Thus far, this dispute has not been addressed, and it remains unlikely that the Houthis will drop such a condition.

"While the Yemeni government is internationally recognised, it is internally fragmented"

Yemeni government's deepening fragility

The fragility of the Yemeni government has deepened over the last seven years of war, and its position on the truce extension has exposed the extent of its military weakness.

It accepted many of the UN proposals and offered multiple concessions in the hope of extending the ceasefire while insisting on expanding the period of calm.

On 6 October, Yemeni Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak said they have no interest in resuming the war. "We are determined to renew the ceasefire and address all problems through dialogue," he said.

Though the government has displayed concern about the humanitarian situation, its inadequate military preparedness for a new cycle of war is the prime reason for wanting to extend the truce.

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Any renewed strife could bring the government further territorial losses, given the military strength of their opponent, the Houthis.

While the Yemeni government is internationally recognised, it is internally fragmented, and all attempts to restore its leverage have failed. In April this year, a new Yemeni leadership came into being after exiled former president Abdurabbu Mansour conceded power.

At the time, multitudes of Yemenis thought that the new leadership would prevent any infighting in southern Yemen, which is Houthi-free, and would impose a new reality forcing the Houthi group to opt for dialogue.

But neither has the infighting stopped nor has the new leadership posed a serious threat to the Houthis. Instead, the Houthi group keeps threatening the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates with further destructive attacks.

Yemeni security forces take part in a military parade marking the 56th anniversary of the 1962 revolution which established the Yemeni republic, in the third city of Taiz on 26 September 2022. [Getty]

These threats are very real, and downplaying the Houthis’ military strength is a miscalculation.

In their latest military parade, the rebel group demonstrated their massive military prowess, including helicopters, for the first time since they toppled the government in 2015. It was a substantial power display that shocked Yemenis nationwide.

Unlike the Houthis, the UN-recognised Yemeni government relies heavily on international support.

During a meeting with the assistant Secretary-General of the European Union, Enrique Mora, on 12 October, the head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, now the UN-recognised president of Yemen, called on European officials to further pressure the Houthis towards peace.

"If hostilities break out, I see no victory for the Yemeni government, and I think the Houthi group will score more gains on the ground"

Pressuring the Houthis, however, has proven futile because the group cannot be weakened or defeated by international actors.

"The Houthis have used two techniques to deepen their influence: developing their military power and earning popular support. That is why they have high demands to extend the truce. Should their demands go unmet, they will go to war," a political researcher in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Arab.  

"If hostilities break out, I see no victory for the Yemeni government, and I think the Houthi group will score more gains on the ground."

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.