The Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement in Yemen rejected a ceasefire proposal made by US Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking during a meeting with Houthi representatives in Oman on 4 March.
Neither side disclosed the substance of the US initiative, which came after Lenderking’s visit to Saudi Arabia where he met with officials of the legitimate Yemeni government, leaders of the Arab Coalition that backs it and UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths.
However, subsequent statements by Houthi officials indicated that the proposal echoed Saudi positions and did not depart from the framework of proposals that Griffiths had made in his previous mediating rounds.
The war in Yemen has also taken a new turn since the US State Department revoked the terrorist designation from the Houthis on 12 February, only two months after the administration of former Donald Trump blacklisted them.
The Houthis then initiated a new ground offensive against Marib and escalated drone and missile strikes into Saudi territory. According to the militia’s statements, the most intensive barrage targeted areas in Dhahran, Dammam and Khobar on 7 March.
The joint forces of the Yemeni army backed by the Saudi-led Coalition retaliated with qualitative counter-strikes against Houthi positions, and, for the first time in several years, they reinforced their defences and advanced on multiple fronts.
On the Taiz front, they have retaken strategic areas in Kadha in an attempt to break the Houthi blockade around Taiz and open the road to the western coast. This would enable army forces in Taiz to link up with the Amaliqa (Giants) Brigades and facilitate a second prong of support for the defence of Marib at a subsequent stage.
In tandem with the army’s advance on the ground in Taiz, coalition airforces bombarded Houthi positions in the area as well as on other fronts in Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda, Hajjah and Saada.
The only conclusion observers have drawn from these developments is that all sides though speaking of ending the war in Yemen are in fact doing nothing to bring it about. A diplomatic solution is also moving further out of reach because they are bent on winning an elusive round of combat that will definitively tilt the balance of forces in their favour.
These have a major regional dimension, given the intrinsically proxy nature of the Yemen War from the outset. Iran has utilised the Houthis as a means to strengthen its hand in its confrontation against the US and US allies in the region. It has also been resisting the US approach to halting the war as a means to leverage a more favourable resumption of the nuclear deal with the US.
Tehran insists that Washington should return to the deal as it stood when Trump withdrew from it, while the US is pressing for negotiations that would not only aim to amend some of the original terms, but that would also address other concerns such as the Iranian missile programme and regional expansion.
Since Trump withdrew from the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, Tehran has hastened to increase its missile arsenals and bolster and mobilise its regional clients.
In the process, it increased its attacks against the interests of the US or US allies in the region. Not only did they strike bases in Iraq where US forces are stationed, but the Iranians also struck, or engineered strikes against, Aramco Oil Company facilities and the Ras Tanura Port and oil tankers in the Gulf and Arabian Sea, conveying the message that Tehran is able to reach both US military and oil interests in the region.
Recent statements by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer and Al-Quds Force Commander Esmaeil Qaani in support of the Houthi attacks on Dhahran, Dammam and Khobar illustrate the nature of the Iranian approach.
In remarks reported by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Qaani lauded the Houthi fighters, who had “stunned the world by staging eight successful operations in fewer than ten days, targeting Saudi regime locations.”
He added that “we said that we would smash the bones of criminal America, and we will hear their crushing sound when the time comes.”
Iranian diplomacy echoed this general thrust, and in an interview with Iranian Press TV on 21 February following his first-ever meeting with Griffiths, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “we told the UN envoy that we were ready to end the war in Yemen... But Iran has not received a proposal calling on it to cease support for the Houthis in exchange for Washington’s halting its support for the Coalition’s operations in Yemen.”
Riyadh, by contrast, has expressed its readiness to help realise US and international hopes for an end to the Yemen War and to support humanitarian relief operations. However, the recent military developments in Yemen have forced the Saudis’ hand, compelling them to act quickly to prevent a Houthi takeover of Marib.
Not only is Marib of symbolic importance to the coalition because it is where the Joint Forces Command is based, it is also the location of large oil reserves. The Safer Exploration & Production Operation Company (SEPOC) produces 40 per cent of Yemeni oil. At the same time, Riyadh argues that the lifting of its blockade on the Sanaa Airport and the Hodeida Seaport would be tantamount to legitimising the Houthis’ de facto rule in Sanaa, obviating the return of the internationally recognised government to the Yemeni capital.
Observers believe that the Saudi position engages a broader perspective that sees a possible Houthi takeover of Marib and its oilfields as a potentially permanent geostrategic and geopolitical threat to Saudi Arabia.
If the Houthis gain control of Marib, they will have essentially regained control of the boundaries of the Yemeni Imamate, the ruling order that prevailed before the establishment of the Yemen Republic in the 1960s. This would cut the Saudis off from their areas of influence, including in the Yemeni region of Hadramawt.
The Iranians are fully aware of this dimension, which is why Tehran’s Ambassador to Sanaa Hassan Irlou, an IRGC commander, has prioritised the Houthi offensive against Marib. Irlou has been cited by various local news reports as saying that he regards a ceasefire proposal as “a ruse to weaken the Houthis in negotiations that will draw the boundaries of the areas of control and the balances of power in them.”
Contrary to the expectations of some, the US decision to withdraw its support for the coalition has not had a strategic impact on the war. Moreover, Washington might be forced to reassess its position.
Under the administration of US President Joe Biden, Washington has downgraded its handling of the Houthi threat to Saudi Arabia to a question of border security and, accordingly, has agreed to strengthen the country’s southern defences in the framework of the US commitment to protect the Kingdom.
However, this formula is well-suited to the Houthis, who are keen to exclude Riyadh from Yemen’s domestic scene so that they can have the dominant say on the areas under their control as they assert their sectarian plans. It is in this context that Houthi leader Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi’s statement that the militia would stop targeting Saudi Arabia when Saudi Arabia stops its aerial bombardments, ceases its support for the Yemeni army, and lifts its blockade on the Sanaa Airport and Hodeida Seaport needs to be understood.
After the Houthis rejected the US ceasefire initiative, which aimed to facilitate the flow of humanitarian relief and create a climate conducive to negotiations, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that his country would now double down on its efforts to promote a ceasefire.
This approach is in line with the policy outlook that Biden expressed during a noteworthy visit to the state department and that gives almost exclusive priority to diplomacy in the handling of the war in Yemen and the conduct of US foreign relations in general.
Unfortunately, Tehran’s response was Qaani’s call for audible “bone crushing” and Zarif’s bartering strategy.
Washington cannot persuade Riyadh to forego the military option while the Houthis are escalating militarily. After all, the US was forced to strike pro-Iranian Iraqi militias in Syria in retaliation for similar strikes against US forces in Iraq, and US forces increased their military presence in Syria exactly one week after the Biden administration took office.
It also now appears unlikely that Washington will continue the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in accordance with the timeframe that ends in 2022. Blinken has recently indicated that the situation in Iraq following the recent Iranian-backed attacks against US forces there underscores the need for the US to remain in the country.
This toughening stance is reflected in Washington’s insistence that Iran meets its conditions for any return to the negotiating table in order to resume the implementation of the nuclear accord.
Washington has also made it clear that it is also looking out for the interests of its regional allies, who have been urging the US not to make concessions that would give Iran licence to strengthen its military capacities and resume its drive for regional superiority and military expansionism, something it was able to pursue with few restraints while the nuclear deal was still in force (2015-2018).
The scenario that appears to have the greatest prospect of playing out is that the US initiative for halting the war in Yemen will lose steam and degenerate into something akin to the UN’s Stockholm 2018 initiative. This was broken down into partial measures that local stakeholders could accept in theory but were never induced to implement in practice.
It looks as if the Americans are still unable to grasp one of the most basic lessons of the Yemen War: don’t give anything away for nothing. They struck the Houthis from the terrorist list on the grounds that putting them on the list had prevented the arrival of humanitarian aid to its intended recipients. But in return the Houthis escalated the war, and, as the state department has confirmed, they diverted the aid (especially oil derivatives) for their own use.
The militia took advantage of the US concern for delivering humanitarian aid and found ways to intercept it and channel it to their military needs or to some form of black-market profiteering.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly