Fighting in Yemen escalated in recent weeks after around six months of abating. Iran-backed Houthi rebels resumed attacking Saudi Arabia while the Saudi-led coalition is increasing its military pressure on the rebels.
Earlier this week, the Houthi militia announced that it captured Al-Hazm, capital of the northern province of Al-Jawf. Though Al-Jawf has been mostly controlled by the Houthis, its capital — 150 kilometres from the Saudi border — had been under government control.
According to media outlets close to the Houthis, the rebel militia advance would enable them to surround Marib, the most significant territory in the hands of the government, and also secures supply lines between the capital Sanaa and the Houthi northern stronghold of Saada.
Government forces, backed by coalition forces, are going through hard times, especially as the southern reconciliation process — which culminated in the Riyadh agreement in November last year — is stalled. Optimism last year that the agreement could pave the way to ending the war in Yemen is now dashed with the recent escalation.
Just couple of days before reaching a prisoner swap agreement between Houthi rebels and the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Amman, Houthi rebels claimed the downing of a Saudi Tornado fighter that the coalition said crashed with the rebels shooting its pilots who ejected before the crash. This was followed by a coalition air raid on Houthi-held areas.
It is not clear if the UN-brokered prisoner swap agreement, signed in mid-February, will materialise. As a Dubai-based Gulf analyst said, “implementation of agreements in Yemen is the indicator, not its ceremonial signing.” He referred also to the Riyadh agreement between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Hadi’s government as an example.
Last week, the coalition spokesperson announced that missiles from Yemen targeting Saudi cities were intercepted. That’s another sign of escalation, as these cross-border attacks came to a lull in recent months. There was also strong hope that discreet negotiations between the Saudis and Houthis might lead to an end of the five-year-long war in Yemen.
That convergence started after the missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September that led to a halt of around 50 per cent of Saudi oil production. Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but it was clearly an Iranian attack. The coalition has always maintained the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, but the Saudi-exiled Hadi government is not enjoying strong popularity in Yemen. And now with the local Muslim Brotherhood included in that government, that popularity is eroding further.
The Houthis are moving closer to Iran, and Tehran is relying more on them to keep its Arab adversaries on their toes, particularly after other Iranian proxies are facing popular protest in Iraq and Lebanon.
A London-based Gulf expert notes that, “As Iran is being more squeezed, it directs its reaction to softer targets, as they know they can’t fight America despite their patriotic rhetoric.” He concluded that, “using Houthis in Yemen against Saudi Arabia might be cheaper for Iran while costing Gulf countries billions.”
There’s almost agreement that the defining factor in pacifying the region, and not only Yemen, is American involvement. But it’s an election year in the United States, where domestic issues prevail on the agenda of all politicians, including Trump. Washington also knows that there are no electioneering gains from ventures in Yemen.
In a blog post for the Brookings Institution, Bruce Riedel from the Centre for Middle East Policy wrote about US reluctance to get involved. Yet he indicated that the Trump administration’s support for the Saudi position is not changing, though Riyadh is frustrated by what it regards as Washington taking a step back when it comes to the Saudi-Iranian struggle. His conclusion was that America sees the war in Yemen as part of the “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran, without getting involved militarily.
The day an American raid killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in Iraq, on 3 January, the Iranian commander in Yemen, Abdul-Reza Shahli, escaped an assassination attempt. That could be seen as a planned double-blow to Iran and to appease Saudi Arabia, rather than indication of increased American involvement in Yemen.
However, American commitment to fighting terrorism leaves Yemen unavoidable, especially now, as Emirati forces in the coalition left Yemen completely, where the UAE had played a central role in combating terrorist groups.
In January, a US drone strike killed Qassim Al-Rimi, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The escalation of fighting is an opportunity for terrorists, like AQAP and the Islamic State group to resurge in the war-torn country. The inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party in the internationally recognised government is another catalyst for that resurgence. So, American involvement — at least in fighting terrorism — in Yemen will probably continue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly