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Yemen conflict escalates as peace moves falter

Yemen conflict escalates as peace moves falter
A boy carries water in the Yemeni city of Aden last April. Cholera is among several diseases threatening the lives of millions of children in Yemen, where a war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition has raged for six years now. (Photo: © UNICEF)

With Saudi Arabia’s March 22 ceasefire offer collapsing within hours of being made, Yemen’s years-long conflict shows no signs of abating, as renewed U.N. peace efforts remain stymied and the specter of colossal humanitarian disaster looms large yet again.

U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths warned in mid-March that the country was “speeding toward a massive famine,” while World Food Program chief David Beasley said that some 16 million people in the country “now face crisis levels of hunger, or worse.” The result, he said, would likely be “the biggest famine in modern history.”

Yet the formula for finding a way to open supplies and halt the fighting between the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government forces and the Iranian-backed Houthis has still proven elusive.

Hopes were high that the election of Joe Biden would alter dynamics in the region. Shortly after taking office, Biden announced that the U.S. would end its support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen that have been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths. It was a stark departure from former President Donald Trump, who was an avid supporter of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite growing bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill with the brash young ruler — in large part for his role in creating the humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

In the face of U.S. condemnation and pressure at home for what has become a six-year military quagmire for the Saudis, Riyadh seemed to have relented and offered the ceasefire, which would, among other things, reopen the airport in the capital of Sanaa and pave the way for political talks.

But the Houthis rejected the offer, saying it provided “nothing new” and calling for Saudi Arabia to completely lift its air and sea blockade to allow much-needed humanitarian aid into the country.

It’s clear the Houthis have gained the upper hand over the embattled Saudis and thus may have little incentive to make political concessions. Instead, they may be escalating attacks to gain even more leverage ahead of any talks.

So while the Houthis and Saudis ostensibly say they are still committed to negotiations, the attacks have continued, including a recent barrage of Houthi missile and drone attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, both sides “have quibbled incessantly over timing, sequencing and the details of each aspect” of the proposed ceasefire, said Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, in a Twitter thread. He predicted that the parties will use “all tools at their disposal to improve their bargaining position.”

Another obstacle is that from the beginning, the Saudis have predicated negotiations on the Houthis’ surrender — an unlikely prospect given that the rebels now control more territory than when the war began. That’s why some experts such as Jamal Benomar, the former U.N. special envoy for Yemen, argue that a U.S.-led push for a power-sharing agreement is the only way forward.

Yet any eventual power-sharing arrangement that divvies up territory would encounter tremendous obstacles, both internal and external. Not only has Yemen been riven by competing tribal factions throughout its entire existence as a nation, but it also has become a strategic pawn in the wider proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Amid this combination of local and international political machinations, Yemen’s 30 million people — already the poorest in the Arab world even before the war — are trapped in the middle. Some 80% of the population is reliant on aid and millions are on the brink of starvation.

“I’m afraid that neither the government forces or the Houthis have shown much concern over the looming famine,” Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, told The Washington Diplomat. “Unfortunately, their self-interest is trumping everything else.”

On Dec. 27, 2020, seven-month-old Rawabi Mutahar Ahmed Hassan undergoes a five-day treatment for severe acute malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported hospital in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Currently, some 400,000 Yemeni children are suffering from malnutrition. (Photo: © UNICEF / Ahmed Haleem)

Multiple Fronts

As of late March, the conflict on the ground had centered on a key battle for control of the northern provincial city and district of Ma’rib.

The energy-producing region has been held by government forces allied with local tribes, but in recent months, the Houthis have launched repeated attacks against this vital strategic center.

“Ma’rib is very important,” Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen expert at Oxford University’s Pembroke College, told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s the last corridor between Saudi Arabia and the south of Yemen. Losing it would be highly symbolic, as well as a real turning point in the war.”

In late March, repeated Saudi airstrikes and additional military aid enabled government forces to retake strategic points overlooking the city, but the Houthis have pressed ahead with a counterattack.

Whoever ultimately controls Ma’rib will have significant sway over the contours of a future political settlement. For government forces, the city could be its last major stronghold in Yemen. But if rebels seize Ma’rib, they would control its oil and gas fields, have the upper hand in negotiations and be in a position to move further south.

Losing Ma’rib would be “the final bullet in the head of the internationally recognized government,” Al-Iryani recently told the Associated Press. “It will set the stage for the dismemberment of the Yemeni state. You’re looking at a generation of instability and humanitarian crisis. You also will look at a free-for-all theater for regional meddling.”

Al-Iryani told us that even if the Houthis are defeated in Ma’rib, it may only be a temporary setback because “the Houthis have a population of 20 million to draw from,” while the Saudi-led coalition and its allied tribes number a few hundred thousand. “Attrition serves the Houthis,” he said.

Meanwhile, further south, renewed fighting broke out in March in the city of Ta’izz, which is also under government control, but with Houthi forces located to its north, west and east.

At the same time, there were renewed battles in Hodeidah, the country’s main port that is largely under Houthi control. Clashes around Kilo 16, on the N3 highway that connects the port with Houthi-controlled territory, threatened a U.N.-brokered local ceasefire.

In addition, a dangerous new front has opened up inside Saudi Arabia itself.

March saw repeated Houthi-claimed drone and missile strikes on cities, airports and oil facilities in the kingdom. The most spectacular was a March 7 attack on Saudi Aramco facilities at Ras Tanura, one of the largest oil shipping ports in the world, located on the Saudi east coast. Simultaneously, drones and missiles hit the Asir and Jazan regions on Saudi Arabia’s western Red Sea coast.

Since then, there have been more attacks, with Saudi Arabia suggesting that several of these originated in southern Iraq or Iran.

U.S. Hopes

The fighting has escalated despite hopes that 2021 might see the opposite happen, given the new attitude toward Saudi Arabia by its close ally, the U.S.

President Biden, in fact, used his first foreign policy speech after taking office to declare that the war in Yemen “has to end.”

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, delivers remarks during a press conference on Feb. 10 at the Pentagon. In his first foreign policy speech since taking office, Biden declared that the war in Yemen “has to end” and announced that he was cutting off U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations in the country. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

Biden’s February announcement that he was cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive was largely symbolic, though, because the U.S. already plays a limited role in the military campaign. Still, it put Riyadh on notice that the new administration won’t have the same patience as the previous one for the humanitarian stalemate in Yemen.

To that end, the Biden administration rescinded Trump’s eleventh-hour designation of Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization so as not to restrict critical humanitarian supplies from reaching the country.

In addition, the U.S. has for the first time appointed a special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, an experienced diplomat with extensive knowledge of the region.

He made the proposal for a ceasefire and resumption of political dialogue in late February after meeting with Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdel Salam in Oman — a nation known for its good relations with both the U.S. and the Houthis’ main backer, Iran.

Yet this gesture of goodwill was not reciprocated.

Instead, “the Houthis seem to feel that everyone is tired of the war and Saudi Arabia no longer enjoys the kind of full support from the U.S. it used to,” said Kendall. “So they have ramped up their attacks, seeing a sign of weakness in their opponents.”

Abdul-Salam rejected the Saudi offer, which had called for a U.N.-administered nationwide ceasefire; the resumption of negotiations; the reopening of the international airport in the Houthi-controlled capital; and the depositing of tax and customs revenues from oil derivative shipments through Hodeida into a joint account in the Central Bank of Yemen.

Reopening the airport and getting things moving again through Hodeida were demands that the Houthis had previously made. The rebels say the Saudi plan is just a reiteration of what the U.N. and U.S. have already proposed, and they insist on a full lifting of the crippling Saudi air and sea blockade.

Yet the Houthis have also insisted on an end to the Saudi-led coalition’s military support for the exiled government, although, without air support provided by the coalition, “the government forces would collapse,” said Al-Iryani.

A Rocky Road

Finding a way forward now will be extremely difficult, with armed conflict likely to continue. Indeed, the renewed Houthi offensive against Ma’rib seems to signal that the rebels still favor a military solution over a political settlement.

Finding a way to encourage Houthi moderates is therefore all the more important.

“The hardliners [on both sides] need to be sidelined, somehow,” said Kendall.

Diplomatic efforts by nations such as Oman and Qatar might be key, as they may be able to leverage good relationships with the Houthis’ international backer, Iran.

“A consistent regional approach to the conflict has to be found,” argues Kendall.

The U.N. has recently reached out to Iran more directly, too, with Martin Griffiths visiting Tehran in early February for the first time. Lenderking has also expressed a readiness to talk with the Iranians, although this may be inevitably tied up with wider U.S.-Iranian disputes, namely Biden’s efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran also has presidential elections in June, likely hardening positions toward the U.S. in Tehran.

Some experts say Iran may use Yemen as a bargaining chip to extract concessions in the nuclear negotiations.

“It is in Iranian interests to prolong the conflict until negotiations over the JCPOA start,” said Al-Iryani, “so the Iranians can reap the benefits of the conflict.”

Yet it’s also debatable how much control Iran exerts over the Houthis, who have their own distinct religious identity and long history in Yemen’s complex power dynamics. For decades, the Houthis accused Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh of marginalizing them. But in 2014, after Saleh’s ouster during the Arab Spring, the rebels teamed up with their former nemesis to kick out the internationally recognized but unpopular government that was installed under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. (Eventually the partnership soured and Saleh was killed.)

In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign to restore the exiled government to power — and retain influence over its southern neighbor, which controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a strategic chokepoint for the global transit of oil.

Amid all this geopolitical jockeying, it’s the Yemeni people who have paid the ultimate price.

According to U.N. estimates, some 230,000 Yemenis have died from violence, starvation or preventable illnesses since the Saudi-led offensive began. Some 400,000 children are currently suffering from malnutrition and in danger of dying from diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and measles, with around 4 million Yemenis now also homeless.

So, despite recent talk of possible negotiations, for the people of Yemen, this long war increasingly looks to be a never-ending one.

Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.