Red lines on Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

Battles are continuing over the red lines drawn up over the course of the seven-year conflict in Yemen, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Red lines on Yemen
A photo taken from a video broadcast by Yemen s Houthi rebels showing an Emirati-flagged vessel in the Red Sea seized by the Houthis (photo: AFP)

Although the battle has begun to shift in favour of Arab Coalition forces in eastern Yemen following a series of intense skirmishes with Southern forces in the Shabwa Province, Houthi forces are gaining on the western front where they now control the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeida.

The most salient manifestation of the threat is the Houthi seizure of the UAE-flagged Rwabee vessel, after which the Houthi “navy” with Iranian support threatened to block the southern entrance of the Red Sea at Bab Al-Mandeb.

The Houthi control of Hodeida means that this threat is looming regardless of whether the Houthis can actually carry it out. The strategic value of the port is surpassed only by that of the capital, Sanaa, since it is the Houthis’ main source of foreign military support as well as a main source of revenue.

The war in Yemen thus remains a series of battles over the “red lines” that have been drawn in the course of the seven-year conflict.

The Saudi-led Coalition to defend the legitimate Yemeni government has until recently abided by the 2018 Stockholm Agreement between the government and the Houthis that aims to demilitarise the western coast as much as possible.

The coalition has drawn a red line around Mareb, where its forces have been trying to prevent a Houthi advance for nearly a year.

In addition to its geostrategic and geopolitical importance, the northeastern governorate of Mareb has symbolic value as a stronghold for government forces and as the coalition operational headquarters.

The Houthis have pressed ahead with attempts to cross the red line despite the UN and other key international stakeholders siding with the coalition.

This international position may be informed by fears of the human toll that would take place were conflict in Mareb allowed to settle the Yemen war. In addition to the numbers of dead, a battle for Mareb would precipitate further waves of displacement. Already more than 200,000 civilians have fled the area in the past months alone, and some refugee camps have been targeted by the Houthis.

The Houthis have drawn red lines on the west coast of the country at Hodeida in particular. Before the Houthi attack against the Rwabee, the coalition had begun to broaden operations against Houthi targets in the Yemeni capital, such as military stores.

However, the coalition command recently concluded that as long as Hodeida remained a source of military supplies and economic revenues for the Houthis, they would be able to hold out indefinitely.

There has been a consequent shift in the tone of coalition discourse. In addition to intimating an intention to broaden operations towards Hodeida, the coalition claims that the UN has caved in to Houthi violations of the Stockholm Agreement, which provides for a mechanism to control the influx of arms through the port.

The rules of engagement reflect the patterns of the red lines, as can be seen in the shift of attention from inland Shabwa to the west as well as in the part played by the Southern forces. These are generally not interested in fighting outside of South Yemen.

This helps to explain recent talk of government forces playing a larger role in the Baida governorate, despite their failure last year to hold their positions there.

Baida is a key juncture in the supply routes to the Houthi forces in Mareb, and it offers strategic access to the capital. It is home to many of the Popular Resistance Committees, a collection of armed groups that are pro-government but need a professional unifying command.

The coalition has tactical reasons for shifting its focus westward, namely to diffuse the Houthi focus on Mareb and compel them to thin out their forces. It appears that the coalition is also banking on the intervention of international forces because Hodeida is a lynchpin in the course of the battle and key to peace negotiations.

The Houthis have begun to escalate their actions against the UAE because they believe that Abu Dhabi is behind the change in military thinking in the coalition command. The UAE is the main backer of the Southern forces that have been deployed in attempts to rout the Houthis in Shabwa and Mareb.

Internationally, the mood appears to have swung in favour of the coalition’s attempts to pressure the Houthis militarily in order to force them to back down and submit to the negotiating process.

Before the Stockholm Agreement, international pressure had compelled the coalition to halt its operations along the coast just as its forces were on the verge of retaking Hodeida. Instead of generating a breakthrough to peace, that development inspired the Houthis to escalate in turn, which brought Iran more squarely into the picture as a direct supporter of the Houthi forces.

It is now unclear how Iran stands. Tehran is engaged in negotiations over its nuclear programme in Vienna, and it needs some leverage to alleviate the pressures of sanctions. Its influence over the Houthis could serve this purpose.

At the same time, Tehran has to factor in the lobbying efforts by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to pressure the US and other countries involved in the Vienna talks to compel Iran to abandon its designs for regional expansion using its proxies in Arab countries in ways that threaten their national identities.

Judging from recent UN reports on Iranian military support for the Houthis, it appears that international stakeholders are now more determined to pressure Iran to cease that support because of the Houthi threat to navigation in the Red Sea, through which pass much of the world’s energy supplies.

Egypt, as a regional power, has been keeping a close eye on developments there in view of the importance of the Bab Al-Mandeb and the Red Sea to its national security. Observers in Cairo believe that any action Egypt takes in this regard will be within the framework of its joint responsibility for the safety of international maritime traffic in the region.

What happens next is contingent on the aims of the coalition and developments in the region of Hodeida.

Will the coalition threaten to launch an offensive against Hodeida as a means of pressuring the Houthis to return to the negotiating table? According to Yemeni sources connected with the UN, the coalition will work to improve its position on the ground in the west, but it will calibrate its actions so as to ensure that the situation does not spiral out of control.

The UN fears that military activity in the vicinity of Hodeida will obstruct desperately needed relief. However, coalition forces may stage some operations elsewhere along the coast targeting arms supplies arriving from the sea or other locations such as Salif or Ras Isa.

Of course, much depends on developments on the ground in Mareb, where the coalition hopes to see another breakthrough in its favour. There is also the Iranian factor. The general thinking is that Tehran will use various channels of communication to try to contain the situation, if only temporarily.

Iran lost an important asset in its management of the Houthi militia in the person of the Iranian ambassador to Sanaa who died of Covid-19 last month. The battle for Mareb has not panned out as Iran had hoped, despite nearly a year of support for the Houthi military on that front. But for Iran the primary determinant of its actions is the negotiations in Vienna.

An improvement in the Iranian position there would be reflected in a containment of the escalation in Yemen and, of course, the reverse could also be the case.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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