The statement on Saturday by Abdul Malik al Houthi, the leader of the Houthi insurgency, that he would accept the government's offer of a conditional truce injected a small dose of optimism in the otherwise dismal outlook in Yemen. That optimism seemed short-lived, however, as the government rejected the truce and launched a fresh offensive. Ceasefires lasting mere hours have become a hallmark of this civil war, but recent events still point to a possible road out of the impasse.
The fighting in northern Yemen has been raging since the collapse of the previous truce last summer, after which the government committed vast resources to defeat what it considers an Iranian-engineered attempt to establish a position on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia joined the fight in November after a series of skirmishes on the border and sent troops deep into Yemen's northern region. The movement has denied any connection to Iran and claims its demands for better governance have been ignored for so long that it has stirred the resentment of the local population. There is truth to that: the government of the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has performed poorly and steadily lost legitimacy in recent years. This, however, is no excuse for the Houthis' resort to violence.
Squeezed from the north by the Saudi troops and from the south and east by government forces, with few secure supply lines and a sizable civilian population facing humanitarian hardship, the insurrection could hardly sustain a long war. Thus the overture by Mr al Houthi.Of course, there is a large gap between a statement of intent and a settlement of the conflict. The Yemeni government has said it will only accept the ceasefire if the Houthis agree to halt attacks on Saudi territory. But the Houthis are unlikely to do so as long as Saudi forces remain in Yemen. Previous truces have repeatedly collapsed because there was little political will to live up to commitments. The Yemeni authorities may even consider that the acceptance of the truce vindicates their strategy of relying primarily on force.
That would be a major blunder. The Yemeni government must not adopt a piecemeal approach to the country's problems, going about crushing one insurgency after another outside of a unified political framework. It must do more than divert military resources from the northern front against the Houthi rebellion to the southern front against the secessionist movement. Any progress must be sustainable, not tactical, and this means giving a stake to former enemies in a lasting arrangement.
Only testing his offer can determine whether Mr al Houthi is sincere. Now is the time for the kind of magnanimity that paves the way for political reconciliation. After all, the Zaydi community that the Houthis represent is an integral part of the country's fabric - indeed, Mr Saleh himself belongs to that community. That comes with baggage, but also a shared responsibility.