fifth year of a pitiless war between Ansar Allah, the Iranian-supported
movement known as the Houthis, and the Saudi Arabia-led and United
States-backed coalition, Sana, the capital of Yemen, doesn’t see many American
visitors. For good reason.
control Sana and about a fifth of the country’s landmass in all; a majority of
Yemen’s 30.5 million people live in Houthi-controlled areas. Misery extends far
beyond. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is ranked the world’s worst by the United
Nations: Two-thirds of its population need some form of assistance, 10 million
suffer malnutrition. Almost a quarter of a million are starving to death.
ago, I travelled with a few colleagues to Sana. Our first impression was of its
overwhelming sense of isolation from the outside world. Sana had the air of
being stuck several decades in the past even before the war. Since then, its
few pockets of modernity — barista-style coffee shops, car showrooms and
shopping malls trying to imitate tacky Gulf aesthetics — have either been
shuttered or fallen into disrepair.
borders with Saudi Arabia are cut off by front-line fighting, as are links to
all but one of Yemen’s ports. Sana has a small, badly damaged airport, but
Saudi Arabia, which controls the airspace, makes sure that commercial planes neither
fly in nor out. The sick, in need of urgent medical care, can’t leave. People
separated from loved ones abroad can’t travel.
Sana carries dire consequences for its inhabitants. Ignoring those who govern
it has political costs too. The Houthis bear considerable blame for the tragedy
— but they hold the keys to the war’s resolution or extension. An ill-timed or
ill-placed Houthi missile or drone strike aimed at Saudi Arabia, the United
Arab Emirates or Red Sea shipping lanes could spark a broader conflict
involving the United States, its Gulf allies and Iran. It defies logic for
Saudi or American officials not to engage them.
residents of Sana seem stunned and angry at what they view as the wildly
disproportionate international attention garnered by every single Houthi
missile or drone attack on Saudi Arabia, compared to the regular, destructive
Saudi-led coalition bombings Yemenis have endured since March 2015.
It is hard
to know how freely locals can speak. Many perhaps privately fault the Houthis
for recklessly taking on their northern neighbour. If so, the sentiment is well
hidden. Even the leaders of a party traditionally close to the Saudis and at
odds with the Houthis expressed heartfelt fury at Saudi Arabia.
doing the rounds in Sana: If the Saudis just handed me the price of a missile,
I would destroy my house for them. Sana residents are exasperated at the
bombing of a cemetery: even our dead are unsafe, they tell you.
supporters are also puzzled as to why their attacks on Saudi Arabia are
attributed to Iranian dictates, as if their being at war with the kingdom
wasn’t explanation enough. The world’s focus on their cross-border operations
has only further convinced them that this is what it will take to attract
global interest and get the Saudis to change course. Saudi Arabia has too much
to lose to risk it; Yemenis have too little to lose to care.
in Sana also notices a surprising sense of internal stability. The Houthis are
building something akin to a police state — the lack of checkpoints or other
markers of security in the capital announcing their effective stranglehold.
in Sana, rightly, consider the United States to be complicit in the war, an
enabler of the Saudi-led coalition that wages it. Americans, understandably,
would recoil at the Houthis embracing “Death to America” and “Curse the Jews”
as their slogans, scrawled as graffiti on the city’s walls. But Sana’s
residents warmly welcome the rare American visitor.
leadership knows all this — the popular hostility toward the Saudi-led
coalition; the remarkable control the movement has achieved — and finds other
justifications for self-confidence. Time, they feel, is on their side. Despite
formidable military disparities, they have stood up to a coalition of wealthy,
powerful states backed and armed by the West.
are essentially frozen. Their domestic foes, nominally led by the Aden-based,
internationally recognized government of President Abd Mansour Hadi, show signs
of fracture. The Emiratis recently announced a redeployment that greatly
diminishes the risk of a coalition assault on the vital port city of Hudaydah.
Anti-Saudi sentiment is rising in the halls of the United States Congress.
their confidence, the Houthis don’t know how or when this war will end. Their
singular refrain is that they are ready to talk. Not with Mr. Hadi or his
allies, whom they dismiss as “mercenaries” — but with the Saudis, who they
claim pull Mr. Hadi’s strings, or with the United States, which they believe
pulls the strings of the Saudis.
a road map: They promise to stop cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia if
the Saudis halt attacks against them. They will withdraw from Saudi territory.
Riyadh will allow Sana airport to reopen. And they will discuss a longer-term
relationship that, they assert, will be closer than the Houthis’ relations with
in one breath about a peaceful settlement and close ties to Saudi Arabia; in
another they warn of surprises that lie in store if Riyadh doesn’t agree to a
cease-fire. They take offense at being labelled Iranian proxies, but
acknowledge the war brought them closer and offer lacklustre denials when asked
if Iran supplies them with weapons. At times they emphasize the purely local
nature of their fight; at others its more revolutionary, Pan-Islamic identity.
Saudi and American officials can be forgiven for being confused.
also ambiguity in the Houthis’ description of an eventual internal settlement.
Once the war with Saudi Arabia ends, the Houthis claim they will sit down with
other Yemenis to negotiate the formation of a technocratic government, new
elections and the disarmament of all armed groups. Yet again, the claims are
conditional. They say they will give up their heavy weapons once trust has been
restored — which, after such brutal fighting, could be a while. Their opponents
suspect it will be never: The Houthis will not easily, and certainly not
willingly, give up the power they have accumulated.
uncertain how the Houthis would respond if the United States stopped assisting
the Saudi-led coalition and the coalition ended its campaign. But the past four
years give us a pretty good sense of what will occur if not. The Houthis are
likely to be stronger, the opposition more fragmented, Iran more influential,
Saudi Arabia less safe and more vilified. And the Yemenis more impoverished and
departed Sana, residents repeatedly asked us what the United States would do to
end their misery. We wished we could answer.
Malley is the president and C.E.O. of the International Crisis Group.
Source: The New York Times