Some Rare Good News in a Ravaged World: A Truce in Yemen

Ryan Grim and Hassan El-Tayyab discuss the Yemen cease-fire and a new Yemen War Powers Resolution.

Soohee Cho for The Intercept, Getty Images

The Yemen cease-fire, which took effect last week, is the first serious truce between the country’s warring parties in six years. The factions in Yemen agreed to a two-month truce proposed by the United Nations. And on Thursday, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s exiled president, said he would transfer power to an eight-member presidential council, suggesting progress in ending the war. All of this comes on the heels of a new Yemen War Powers Resolution — announced by Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. — to end U.S. involvement in the war. Hassan El-Tayyab, the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s legislative director for Middle East policy, joins Ryan Grim to discuss the cease-fire, efforts to end the war in Yemen, factors at play, and the likelihood of finally seeing an end to the war and humanitarian crisis in the country.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Last week, the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen agreed to a two-month ceasefire with the Houthis. It’s the most significant breakthrough in seven years of war.

Newscaster: A two-month truce has been agreed by warring parties in the country. It’s the first nationwide truce agreed since 2016 in a war which has killed nearly 400,000 people.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: This truce must be a first step to ending Yemen’s devastating war.

RG: Hassan El-Tayyab has been lobbying Congress to end it for years. Hassan joins us now.

Hassan El-Tayyab, welcome to Deconstructed.

Hassan El-Tayyab: Thanks for having me on.

RG: So Hassan is the legislative director for Middle East affairs for the Friends Committee On National Legislation. Did I get that right?

HET: That’s right.

RG: All right, nothing to it — which is a kind of Quaker anti-war organization that has been working on the Yemen war since the Yemen war has existed.

And so, you and I ran into each other at an event in Washington on April 1. You came up to me and said: What incredible news about the ceasefire in Yemen! I had been offline for the last hour or two, and I thought you were pulling the cruelest April Fool’s joke that had ever been leveled.

HET: [Chuckles.]

RG: But it turns out that no, there actually had been, out of the blue — not out of the blue, but there was not a lot of hope that this was headed in the right direction — yet, the various parties got together and have agreed to this two month ceasefire that has people now genuinely hopeful that this ceasefire could result in a long-term end to this conflict.

So what brought this about?

HET: Well, thank you so much for having me on.

And, yeah, there’s a lot of exciting news happening in Yemen. And I don’t want to overstate it. It’s obviously a fragile truce. The U.N. brokered this to be a two-month ceasefire for the months of Ramadan here, and I’m really hopeful that it will happen.

The basic framework is that there would be a cessation of hostilities and military operations, and an end to cross-border attacks. There would also be a lifting of some restrictions on ports of entry, and allowing fuel ships finally to get into the ports of entry, and also to open up Sana’a Airport for two flights per week.

So far, we’ve seen only about one ship approved to get through, and that’s been offloaded. There’s another one in the holding area. And we’re hopeful that that will enter the forts of Al-Hudaydah. And we haven’t seen any flights out of Sana’a yet. So we’re still monitoring this very closely. There have been some escalations, there has been some breakdown in Marib, but for the most part it has held and people are cautiously optimistic.

I’ll also announce that there was another shake-up here that people might have seen in the news recently. President Hadi announced this week that he was transferring the power of the presidency to an eight-man presidential council, effectively ending his term in office. And this is probably one of the most significant things that we’ve seen of late and the leadership shakeup is an attempt to try to, I think, find unity within the anti-Houthi coalition, including the al-Islah party, Southern Transitional Council, the folks that are opposing the Houthi advance. And they’ve also collapsed into infighting and a lot of people are thinking that this could break down. It’s really unclear if these folks can actually get along. But I think they are attempting to have this anti-Houthi alliance.

So, it’s really unclear what’s going to happen going forward. I do think that it’s worth mentioning that Sen. Sanders and Reps. Jayapal, DeFazio, and Khanna have announced their intention of introducing a new Yemen War Powers Resolution —

RG: Mhmm.

HET: — if we don’t see an end to the war or blockade. And it’s just interesting timing that this truce announcement happened on the heels of that announcement of Congress wanting to reassert its Article 1 war powers and terminate ongoing U.S. participation in the war. So that’s obviously pushing things in the right direction.

But obviously there’s a lot of factors. The Houthis have advanced their capabilities to attack targets inside the UAE and Saudi. You’ve also got the wheat shortage. So there’s a lot of factors.

RG: I’m gonna get to all of those in a second. But do you think that the announcement of the War Powers Resolution that progressives — or not just progressives, but some of the other anti-war elements on the right as well in Congress — are gonna push to really put that type of pressure on the situation? Do you think that that played a role in the negotiations toward the truce?

HET: It’s really hard to know. I certainly don’t think it could have hurt at all. And I think that kind of pressure is going to incentivize the Saudi-led coalition, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to stay at the negotiating table. Because if the U.S. makes clear that we won’t support in any way a resumption of U.S. participation in the Saudi air war, that might be one way to hold them to this truce, and incentivize further negotiations, and hopefully bring an end to this war once and for all, beyond the two-month truce.

RG: It feels almost easier at this point to get the War Powers Resolution through, because Trump was hostile to the War Powers Resolution when it was pushed under his administration. I mean, you would certainly see some pushback, but not in the same way. At the same time, if you’re pushing this War Powers Resolution, trying to end the war in the middle of a truce, it feels hard to say no to that. Right? It’s saying: Let’s not go to war, let’s not support a war that currently isn’t happening.

And so if you can get that War Powers Resolution in place, it really would seem to pressure the sides into entering into a permanent solution, because the alternative for Saudi Arabia would be fighting without the U.S. behind them anymore.

What is the Biden administration’s posture towards this War Powers Resolution and toward this truce? Do you feel like because there are now bigger geopolitical fish to fry, that they were putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to say: You know what? We don’t have time for this right now. We don’t have the luxury of this famine and this war right now.

HET: Yeah. Again, it’s definitely complicated. Last year, the Biden administration announced an end to U.S. participation in the coalition’s offensive operations. But we’ve continued to provide spare parts, maintenance, and logistical support for the Saudi warplanes conducting airstrikes. So we know that there’s this ongoing U.S. participation piece.

In response to the truce, they did welcome it. And I think that was a good thing for them to do. And in their statement out of the White House, they did say that we want to see an end to the blockade as well. They mentioned the fuel coming into Al-Hudaydah by name. So I think that’s good.

But we know where the administration’s been, and I think that, in particular, Congress can really push this along and give political cover for the people that want to end this war right now. Because there are even people inside Saudi Arabia that I’ve heard pushing even Mohammed bin Salman to keep the hostilities going, and: Why are we supporting a truce with the Houthis? And you see other pro-war voices. So this is one way I think we can make it stick in the threat of the War Powers and the actual vote. It’s not a binary; we don’t have to pass this thing to make it stick. Even just the threat of it right now has value-add.

RG: Mhmm.

HET: I would argue that introducing and passing it would do even more, but just pushing in this direction on U.S. complicity and U.S. participation in the Saudi-led coalition offensive operations, including the spare parts and maintenance that we mentioned before, is, I think, the right pressure point.

RG: And you had mentioned the increased Houthi capacity. I want to step back to the beginning of this war for a second to run up to that.

So, as I remember, the starting was 2015. And you have the different factions within the Yemeni government jockeying for position, negotiating over different power sharing agreements, a kind of standard coalitional dispute. The Houthis, at one point, pulled a bunch of forces, armed men outside of Sana’a, and somebody in the Houthis had the idea in the middle of one of these stalled negotiations: Let’s do a show of force. Let’s just run our guys into the Senate and that will improve our negotiating position. And as Akbar Ahmed at HuffPost and I reported at the time, Iran was actually strongly discouraging them from doing this. They were saying: Do not try to go into Sana’a with your armed forces. It’s going to be a mistake. It’s going to be a quagmire.

They did it anyway, which kind of undermines the like, Iranians are kind of running the Houthis argument.

HET: Yeah.

RG: So they did this anyway — and the U.S. knows this, the U.S. intercepted these communications — and they went in and the government just collapsed, like just pushed over kind of in a similar way almost as the Taliban just kind of walked into Kabul. And then Saudi Arabia enters the war. And here we are seven years later, when the war started, the Houthis were severely under-equipped. But as you mentioned, they have since and now Iran is helping them out. Once the conflict had started, Iran was like: OK, we’re going to back the Houthis. This is a way we’re going to drain Saudi Arabia. We’re not going to just leave them hanging out here.

And so recently, they’ve had the capacity to launch drone strikes against Abu Dhabi.

HET: Yeah.

RG: And they’ve been firing off missiles and strikes into Saudi Arabia as well. Now, there was a recent one where they lit up a Jeddah oilfield with some just absolutely massive explosions. And right after that, the Houthis offered a ceasefire. I thought they were sort of trolling the Saudis at that point. But it seems like the Saudis took that seriously and said: Let’s talk.

The Formula One race was in, what, Riyadh, at this precise time? And the racers are like: Wait a minute, you’re at war, you’re getting bombed? This is not something that we signed up for.

And so I wonder if it disrupts their kind of cosmopolitan reputation. If you’re in Abu Dhabi, you don’t want to be bombed. It’s very similar to the way that you had all of these media commentators in Ukraine saying that they just couldn’t understand how a war could be happening in Europe. But in the same way, I think a lot of people feel the same way about Abu Dhabi or feel the same way about Riyadh — wars happen somewhere else. Not there. So once it came there, do you feel like that brought pressure on the warring parties to call an end to this?

HET: I do think that that played a role. But it’s not the only factor. I mean, you’ve also got the Biden administration trying to get the Saudi-led coalition — or Saudi Arabia, I should say — to produce more oil. You’ve got the wheat shortage as a result of the Ukraine war, it’s going to impact countries all over the Middle East. And you’ve also got the Iran nuclear negotiations, which are getting closer. We’ve heard that closer to the end of April, you can see this return to the JCPOA. That’s not a done deal, there’s a lot of factors swirling around, but that’s definitely one of them, this increased capacity.

And I just say that seven years of indiscriminate airstrikes by the Saudis, and their attempts to isolate the Houthis and avoid good-faith diplomacy have really emboldened the Houthis and increased their domestic popularity. The Houthis now govern territory with over 80 percent of the country’s population. They’re closer to Iran now. Saudi Arabia’s policies, and this is what we’ve been saying for a long time, they have no prospect of achieving even its stated goals, and it’s just creating a humanitarian catastrophe.

So, like I was saying earlier, I really think that this situation could be headed in two directions: We could see this truce that’s formed turn into an actual end scenario or it could just be just one bump along the road as we continue hostilities. And I’m hoping for the former.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: And about a week before this ceasefire was agreed to, you and I were in a conversation with a Yemeni reporter in Sana’a named Shuaib M. Almosawa.

I want to play a quick clip from that interview:

Shuaib M. Almosawa: People here have lost hope that the war is coming to an end anytime soon. And they think it’s mainly because the United States hasn’t been willing to put an end to this. Whether they’re correct or not, that’s what the majority of the people here think. It’s a phone call, they said. The U.S. can end it in a phone call.

RG: What does that assumption, that the war is not going to end anytime soon, do to daily life? Like, is life still going on? I know that one reason that the world’s not paying a lot of attention to Yemen is that the refugee crisis is an internal one, rather than refugees pouring out into other countries. So how do people go about their lives, just without any hope that this is going to end?

SMA: They have all somehow adapted to the hardships they have been through for the past seven years. They’re suffering. They’re resulting to harsh coping measures to go about their daily lives. And it’s been a lot difficult. But they’re surviving — but not living, actually.

RG: And so you had mentioned that the war between Russia and Ukraine was disrupting global wheat supplies and that Yemen is heavily reliant on Russia and Ukraine for wheat. So how did that play a role? And what is the alternative? Like what type of next few months and next year is Yemen facing, given the wheat crisis the world’s gonna face?

HET: Yeah, really important point and question.

The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the humanitarian conditions in Yemen by making food even more scarce. Yemen imports over 27 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and about 8 percent from Russia. And the U.N. has reported that, in Yemen, we could see famine numbers actually increased fivefold in the second half of 2022 as a result of the wheat import shortages and the ongoing Saudi-fuel blockade.

The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on fuel are a key driver of this economic and humanitarian crisis by making needs unaffordable. And, I think, if you combine the blockade and the wheat crisis that we’re seeing, it’s really just too much for Yemen.

Yemen is already too much, because it’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But, you know, adding this wheat shortage, it’s just going to send things in a very bad direction. And I think it’s important to know that under the Biden administration, the Saudi-fuel blockade has actually tightened and, on average, they’re allowing in 3 percent of Yemen’s fuel needs or 5 percent of Yemen’s fuel needs per month. To sustain Yemen, they essentially need 544,000 metric tons of fuel through these Red Sea ports per month. And they’re allowing far less than that.

And, again, the big part of this truce that we’re watching is: Does Saudi actually allow fuel ships — U.N. approved fuel ships, I should say — through these ports of entry? And do we actually need to see a lifting of these restrictions? Because the blockade as David Beasley said to the U.N. Security Council last year, the blockade must be lifted as a humanitarian act.

RG: And there was a report recently that at least one oil tanker was diverted by the Saudis to Saudi Arabia, despite having been U.N. approved. What indications are you getting from over there that this is going to work? Do you think that these are hiccups and road bumps? Or do you think these are signs that the whole thing might collapse soon?

HET: Well, we’ve always known that this was a fragile truce and a fragile ceasefire. And I think we have to measure things in inches right now: Getting one fuel ship and getting the next fuel ship, or having one flight leave Sana’a and then having the next one leave.

So it’s, again, we’re in very early stages. Things could easily fall apart. And we’re already seeing skirmishes in Marib. So that’s exactly why I think it’s so critical we do everything we can to support the Rep. Jayapal and DeFazio War Powers Resolution push. Again, they’re lining up co-sponsors now, they have plans to introduce soon, and I think in a moment like this, it’s even more critical that we build support for that.

I’ll say that FCNL and others are working on building out a national organizational coalition. We’ve got about 60 national organizations so far, including folks like MoveOn, and Indivisible, Demand Progress, Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, and Quincy Institute is supporting. We’ve got folks like Concerned Veterans for America on board. And so we’re really trying to build out this coalition and make a splash here, because really think, again, we could be heading for more war or actually an end scenario to finally lift these restrictions and resolve this humanitarian crisis, or at least try to get it under control.

RG: This is the shot, you think?

HET: Yeah, I do.

RG: And you were mentioning the Iran deal. How does the Iran nuclear deal play into this? Iran has an interest as well in wrapping this up as part of the deal? It seems like the last piece of the Iran deal is how the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are going to be dealt with. Do they get removed from the terror list? Is there a relationship between the Yemen war and that piece of the negotiations?

HET: Well, yeah, it’s so there’s a history of it where the Obama administration, essentially early on told Saudi: Well, we’re trying to do this Iran nuclear deal. We’ll give you your support for this war in Yemen in exchange for: Don’t mess up our Iran nuclear negotiations.

And that proved to be a real disaster for Yemen. So, you know, early on, in its roots, this conflict has had unfortunate ties to the Iran nuclear deal. But, you know, I’m a strong supporter of the JCPOA. We have to get back into that deal. I think we got to put that situation under control. If anything the war in Ukraine has just shown that we can’t afford another war in the Middle East and Eastern Europe — or wherever.

I would say that the JCPOA, after getting in, also provides a platform for further diplomacy between Iran and the United States, to address the full range of areas of disagreement. And obviously, this Yemen war is one of them. And the JCPOA was meant to be a starting point. So anyway, I am hopeful that this will help ease some of these tensions, deescalate the situation, and also give hope for Yemen at the same time.

RG: But does the Revolutionary Guard aspect play into this at all?

HET: You know, I think that is the main sticking point right now, if you look at press reports, is: Can we delist the IRGC from the FTO or Foreign Terrorist Organization list? And it remains to be seen how much pushback you’re gonna see from Congress. Can the administration overcome that obstacle? Can we work out our differences? I’ve heard of some potential paths forward. But again, it’s up to the negotiators working in Viana to figure that one out.

We certainly don’t need the Iran nuclear deal to get peace in Yemen. And so I’m not saying that if that stalls that we necessarily don’t have a path forward in Yemen. Clearly we do here with this truce. But obviously, getting back into the Iran deal would put wind in the sails of this peace process in Yemen, in my opinion.

RG: And what about the UAE’s role here? My understanding from the beginning as the war unfolded, the way I always heard it described was that it was really Saudi that wanted to wage the war in Yemen, and it’s really the Saudi-led coalition backed by the UAE, backed by the United States. And it was the UAE that really wanted to go into its quasi-war with Qatar, if you remember.

HET: Yeah.

RG: They blockaded the country. There were reports that subsequently emerged that they very nearly invaded Qatar, which would have been just wild considering that the U.S. has a 10,000-strong person base in the country.

And it was sort of like the Saudis would back the UAE in its conflict with Qatar and the UAE would back Saudi Arabia in its conflict in Yemen. But at different times, it seemed like the UAE and Saudi Arabia were on warring sides and backing different factions that were fighting each other.

So where is the UAE at this point? So you’re saying that they’re supportive of this eight-person council? Are they looking to put an end to this and focus elsewhere?

HET: Yeah, so the UAE backs three of the folks on the presidential leadership council and none of them necessarily are in agreement on what needs to happen. They have ties with the Southern Transitional Council.

And though in 2020, at the height of congressional pushback against U.S. participation in the Saudi-UAE-led coalition’s war in Yemen, because obviously they’ve been heavily involved, they drew down militarily, and they saw this as giving them a black eye in the press. They didn’t want anything to do with this.

RG: Right. It used to be described as the Saudi-UAE-led [coalition], right?

HET: Yeah, exactly. And then we sort of moved to really focusing on Saudi’s ongoing involvement, because they’re behind the airstrikes and a lot of the blockade. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the UAE is still heavily involved, playing a negative and destructive role in this conflict. They have thousands of proxy forces that they fund, and train, and support in the region.

I’ll also say that this doesn’t get a lot of attention, but the UAE is also occupying some critical islands in Yemen. The Socotra islands, and that gives them this strategic military outpost in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait that they can use to monitor maritime traffic. So another thing that I’ve personally been working on is trying to get Congress to make sure that we don’t have any U.S. funds in the National Defense Authorization Act in any way going to support the occupation of these critical islands that belong to Yemen, in a way to protect Yemeni sovereignty and make sure that that issue gets resolved. And Socotra islands is this beautiful heritage site with all this incredible wildlife. So we definitely want to see them end their occupation there as well.

As far as whether or not these folks on the Presidential Council can agree, it’s really hard to say at this point. Like I said, I think it could go a number of different directions, either more fighting or towards a more lasting peace.

RG: So having worked on this for so long, what’s your level of hope, at this point, that this might be the moment that it ends?

HET: You know, [laughs] good question. I am cautiously optimistic — if we can continue the pressure. And I think Congress can play this really important role by supporting this War Powers Resolution. We’ve gotten members seizing the issue, members in the House and Senate. I will say that we’ve got a nice co-sponsor list behind the scenes here, early support from folks on the House Intelligence Committee, some folks on the House Armed Services Committee, some folks on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. So I feel like —

RG: You’ve gone beyond the hippies and the anti-war types —

HET: [Laughs.] Yes.

RG: [Laughs.]

HET: So I think that there is a strong desire on the Hill right now to see this conflict come to an end. We have such huge issues to tackle and this is one of them. And we have a path forward — unlike some of the other issues that we’re working on — it seems like we do have a path forward to resolve it if everybody does what they’re supposed to. And so I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ll leave you with that. But it’s going to take a lot of work — and ongoing work.

RG: Well, good luck, Hassan. And thank you so much for joining me.

HET: Thank you so much, Ryan.

[Credits music.]

RG: That was Hassan El-Tayyab. And that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

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