What Congress Needs to Know About the Truce in Yemen

Fighting is starting to escalate in Yemen and peace is seeming more and more elusive.

It’s been almost two months since the UN-brokered truce in Yemen expired. Fortunately, the warring parties have not returned to the level of violence that helped precipitate the truce last April. Specifically, the Houthis have refrained from launching missiles and drones across the border of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have yet to reinitiate airstrikes on Yemen. If this relative calm prevails, hope persists that the parties might agree to recommit to a truce and perhaps even a lasting ceasefire.

That is not to say that violence has been absent. The Houthis have launched attacks on civilian areas inside Yemen. In a new development, they have warned oil companies operating in parts of Yemen outside their control to cease operations and have launched drones at various oil facilities to attempt to prevent the government of the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council from profiting from Yemen’s oil resources.

While members have proposed a range of legislation aimed at reining in US-Saudi military cooperation, the Yemen War Powers Resolution is the most viable for several reasons.

The Houthis’ stated position is that the sale of this oil should pay Yemenis’ salaries, specifically the salaries of Yemenis living under Houthi control, which are the majority of the population. The question of the payment of salaries was central to why the truce expired: the Houthis demanded that the Presidential Leadership Council pay the salaries and pensions of Yemenis in their territory, including military salaries. The Presidential Leadership Council refused, and the truce expired.

Because violence has not significantly escalated and specific aspects of the truce remain in place — flights from Sana’a to Amman continue, and ships continue to unload fuel at Hodeidah port — the case of Yemen may appear less urgent. However, without the truce, there is no formal mechanism preventing the Saudis from restarting airstrikes, ending flights, or once again preventing fuel ships from docking at Hodeidah.

If the Saudis and the Presidential Leadership Council reimpose a full blockade, fuel would again become scarce in Houthi-controlled areas. Prior to the truce, fuel scarcity contributed to the consolidation of Houthi control, both over the functions of daily life as well as the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate. As the Yemeni analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani noted, “the weaponization of the economy has been the [Saudi] coalition’s greatest gift, empowering the [Houthi] extremists and delegitimizing a complicit [Yemeni] government.” The kinetic and economic violence wreaked by Saudi Arabia and its proxies has significantly empowered the Houthis. For this reason, the Houthis may even decide to provoke Saudi airstrikes in order to coalesce support, which is otherwise likely to unravel in the absence of foreign aggression.

WHAT CONGRESS CAN DO

This is why it is imperative that the 117th Congress take action to hold the warring parties accountable and try to bring them back to the negotiating table. There are several steps Congress and the Biden administration can take to support peace.

Lawmakers in Washington should pass the bipartisan Yemen War Powers Resolution to end US military support for the Saudi-led coalition during the lame-duck session. By removing the possibility of more US support for Riyadh and its partners to renew airstrikes in Yemen, Congress can play a constructive role to keep the pressure on the Saudis to negotiate an extension of the truce.

While members have proposed a range of legislation aimed at reining in US-Saudi military cooperation, the Yemen War Powers Resolution is the most viable for several reasons. First, it only needs a simple majority in the House and Senate to pass, while other proposed legislation would require 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a filibuster. And second, thanks to the expedited procedures under the act, it can also be brought to the floor without delay and, if passed, would go directly to the president’s desk.

Unfortunately, this move would have little effect on pressuring the Houthis to rejoin the truce, which partly reflects the fact that the United States lacks leverage over the group. Critics of the Houthis assert that one point of leverage could be to label the group a terrorist organization. At the end of his term, former President Donald Trump took this step. Aid groups and lawmakers widely condemned the move for having little impact on the Houthis themselves, who hold few foreign assets, and instead pointed out that the designation significantly impacted humanitarian organizations’ ability to operate in Houthi-controlled areas. President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy decision was to reverse the designation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have called for the United States to reimpose the label, but the same concerns still apply. Moreover, the fact that the United States remains a party to the conflict undermines its ability to act as a mediator. By ending support for the Saudis, US efforts at diplomacy would have more credibility.

An alternative source of accountability was one that the Saudis removed: the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen at the UN, which is a war crimes accountability mechanism. The Group of Experts had its mandate expire last year when the UN Security Council failed to renew it as a result of Saudi pressure. In the months following the mechanism’s lapse in the fall of 2021, the Saudis carried out some of the heaviest shelling of the war. Houthi aggression against civilians in Marib, Taiz, and other parts of the country escalated. The Biden administration and Congress should join Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Joaquin Castro’s (D-TX.) recent call to support the restoration of the Group of Eminent Experts by urging the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield to use the voice and vote of the United States at the UN Security Council to push for its renewal or a new independent mechanism to replace it.

Lawmakers must also prioritize supporting financial assistance and aid delivery to Yemenis in need. Currently, relief efforts in Yemen experienced an over $2 billion budget shortfall in 2022. This has greatly exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, with 17 million Yemenis experiencing acute food insecurity. The United States should increase its contribution for fiscal year 2023 and convince Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have a moral responsibility as parties to the conflict as well as the resources available, to support a more significant portion based on Oxfam’s fair share assessment.

International humanitarians must also work to reform their approach to aid delivery in Yemen and ensure that assistance empowers local peacebuilders and helps sustain long-term livelihoods. As independent Yemeni journalist and human rights activist Afrah Nasser recently wrote:

“… there are serious problems that the international humanitarian community needs to address in order to truly relieve human suffering in Yemen. Problems include a weak strategy that focuses on short-term solutions, counterproductive stances of neutrality and impartiality, reluctance to speak out against warring parties’ abuse of aid and humanitarian workers, and a lack of sufficient inclusion of Yemeni professionals.”

Humanitarians must address these issues and prioritize direct financial aid to support civil servants’ salaries, social welfare cash aid, agricultural and fisheries sectors, education, health services, water and sanitation, and combating child soldier recruitment. Steps like these will simultaneously help support alternatives to the thriving war economy in Yemen.

In addition, the Biden administration and Congress should support a fair replacement of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, the resolution that has governed the international community’s flawed response to Yemen since Saudi Arabia initiated hostilities in 2015. An inclusive peace process is essential to ensure that all stakeholders — including women, youth, and civil society — are heard and given a seat at the negotiating table. A new UN Security Council resolution should also call for an end to outside military forces on Yemeni territory, including the archipelago of Socotra and Perim or Mayun Island, both effectively occupied by the United Arab Emirates and its proxies, and al-Mahra governorate, in eastern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has increased its military presence.

It is critical that lawmakers act on these policies with urgency. The window for peace is closing fast, and violence could escalate if the truce is not extended. While the United States can’t, on its own, bring about an end to the war in Yemen, Congress and the Biden administration have important policy levers to make a difference in the lives of millions of Yemenis. It’s time they used all the tools at their disposal to help Yemen get back on the long road to peace.

Annelle Sheline is a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Her research focuses on religion and politics in the Middle East. 

Hassan El-Tayyab is an author, songwriter, and the legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.