A highly classified Pentagon document sheds light on what the United Nations has deemed the worst humanitarian crisis in the world: war-torn Yemen. Pitting Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the Middle East, against Yemen, the poorest, the conflict has seen some 85,000 Yemeni children under age 5 die of starvation since the conflict began.
The assessment is a window into the strategic calculus of Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, Yemen’s de facto ruling tribe, in the final weeks before the Chinese government brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthi movement.
Since the détente, the Saudis have reportedly agreed to much more significant concessions than were on offer in mid-February, demonstrating that a more direct path to peace was available given the right diplomatic maneuvering. If successful, the ceasefire bid would put an end to a grinding war that has brought Yemen to the brink of famine.
At the time the classified Pentagon memo was written, however, quick movement to a ceasefire agreement seemed a dicey proposition. Part of a cache of Pentagon documents circulating publicly in recent weeks, the document reveals the fraught negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen regarding a potential peace agreement. The document describes Saudi Arabia’s alleged intention to “drag out negotiations,” an ominous reminder that, even with this month’s surprising progress, peace is far from certain.
“The Department of Defense and the intelligence community are actively reviewing and assessing the validity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media sites,” National Security Council spokesperson Rebecca Farmer told The Intercept, “but we are not in a position to confirm or comment on any specific information they contain.”
The document — marked “Top Secret,” with its dissemination limited to the U.S. and its closest intelligence allies, the so-called Five Eyes — provides the most detailed glimpse yet into secret backchannel conversations unfolding between Houthi and Saudi officials. Titled “Huthi Spokesman Receives Update on Saudi Negotiating Positions,” the document describes negotiations between the parties on the issue of Yemen’s public sector salaries. The salaries have gone unpaid for several years, leaving the state unable to function.
Until this month’s apparent breakthrough — Saudi and Houthi leaders reportedly met for the first time in public last week in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a — the government worker payments had been a sticking point, not just for Saudi Arabia, but also for its U.S. allies as well. The Houthis’ demands that the Saudis pay public sector salaries, including military and security workers, were considered by the Biden administration to be beyond the pale. In an October press briefing, Tim Lenderking, the U.S. envoy for Yemen, decried what he called the Houthis’ “maximalist demands, insisting that salary payments be paid first to — first to Houthi military and security personnel.” It was, he said, “a threshold that was simply too hard for the other side to contemplate and was entirely unreasonable.”
Yet that’s precisely what the parties have since agreed to, following the Chinese reconciliation. It wasn’t that the deal was impossible; it was that the U.S. didn’t want it.
The newly revealed intelligence report makes clear that there were contacts between the two parties over salary payments weeks before the Sunday, April 9, meeting in Sana’a. According to the document, in mid-February, Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber privately updated Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdul-Salam on Riyadh’s negotiating position. He laid out two options for paying Yemeni public sector employees in stages, allowing an independent body to assess the nearly decade-old roster of government employees before paying all workers.
As the intelligence report notes, the Houthis’ patience was wearing thin, and the Saudis may have had no intention of cutting a deal at the time.
“Huthi intelligence source apparently assessed that if the Huthis issued a ‘strong statement,’ it would increase pressure on the Saudis, as the Saudis intended to drag out negotiations and avoid making firm commitments,” the document states, referring to the possibility that the Houthis make a “strong” demand on salary payments. “The consultant warned that the Huthis’ patience was ‘misunderstood,’ and that the Saudis hoped to gradually decrease Huthi demands based on the belief that the Huthis were under pressure and in need of a détente on humanitarian issues before the beginning of Ramadan on 22 March.”
The account contrasts sharply with the sunny public rhetoric from the Biden administration at the time. On April 2, President Joe Biden issued a statement touting the one-year anniversary of a temporary truce as a “significant milestone.” Though the truce had formally expired, full-fledged fighting between the sides had not resumed. Biden said the truce “has saved countless Yemeni lives” and “set the conditions for a comprehensive peace.”
Experts, though, say that direct warfighting accounts for a far smaller portion of Yemen’s deaths than the blockade imposed on the country by Saudi Arabia and that the groundwork has not been laid for a truly comprehensive peace agreement.
“While thousands of Saudi airstrikes caused vast devastation over 8 years, the primary cause of suffering for Yemenis today is the Saudi blockade on imports of many basic goods that amounts to collective punishment against innocent Yemenis,” Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, told The Intercept, adding that the average Yemeni has not seen much real benefit from the ceasefire.
The U.S. had long condoned the Saudi resistance to lifting the blockade. The goal was to apply such extreme pressure to the Houthis that in the ultimate peace agreement, the Houthis would agree to an “inclusive” government that left open a role for the U.S. and Saudi-backed proxies.
In the wake of the China-backed détente, the Saudis have largely been willing to abandon their proxies in the interest of ending what has been a draining war. The U.S. responded with alarm, rushing diplomats to the region to insist that pressure continue being applied to the Houthi government in the hope of undermining the deal in the works. Lenderking rushed to Riyadh on April 11, as news broke of a peace deal, to remind Saudi leaders of the U.S. desire that they continue to back their proxies in the war.
Instead, the ceasefire talks appear to have become possible because of an agreement in principle that Saudi Arabia would abandon its puppet government, back down from the blockade, and — as the Houthis hoped — use its vast oil wealth to pay Yemeni civil servants.