Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen attacked a women’s prison in the besieged city of Taiz on Sunday, killing half a dozen women and a child.
On the same day, they attacked an oil pipeline in Marib, and at the end of March the militias fired two rockets towards Saudi Arabia in probably the first attack of its kind since the bombing last September of Saudi Aramco oil installations that was claimed by the Houthis and widely considered to be an Iranian attack.
The Saudi defences intercepted the rockets, but at least two people were wounded. The Saudi-led Coalition for the Support of Legitimacy in Yemen responded to the rocket attack by bombing Houthi military bases in Saada and Hodeida.
The escalation of hostilities in Yemen comes days after UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a ceasefire in the country to help avert the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. All the parties, including the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the Houthis, the Saudis and the Iranians, responded positively to the UN initiative, but little has been done on the ground.
Rumours that Saudi Arabia has invited the Houthis for dialogue on a ceasefire have not been substantiated. Riyadh has been open to a political settlement in Yemen in recent months, particularly since the Saudi-brokered agreement between Hadi’s government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the south of Yemen last November.
It looks as if the Houthis are not yet keen to see peace, seeing an opportunity in the present crisis to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Coalition when the world is facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Though no cases of the virus have been reported in Yemen, the country’s poor infrastructure means that if the virus appears it will likely let rip through the country causing a catastrophic situation.
Saudi Arabia and its allies in the coalition do not want to see any worsening of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Some analysts argue that the Houthis are exploiting the pandemic to embarrass the government and the coalition, hoping to gain a better bargaining position in any settlement talks.
But as US academic Bruce Riedel wrote this week on the Brookings Institute Website, it might not be the Houthis’ decision. “Iran is involved in Houthi decision-making. Tehran undoubtedly wants the Saudi Kingdom to remain bogged down in the Yemeni morass. Iranian-backed militias are also stepping up rocket attacks against US positions in Iraq, and Iran is mounting a well-orchestrated campaign to undercut US sanctions. And they’re doing it while entrenching their position in Iraq and the Gulf vis-à-vis the United States,” Riedel commented.
This will not be the first window to peace in Yemen that has been shut or shattered by the Houthis. Besides insensitively exploiting the global pandemic, the Iran-backed militia might think this is an opportunity to make advances on the ground.
By using the obstacles facing the implementation of the Riyadh agreement between the government and the STC, the militia is also hardening its position. According to Yemeni analysts, Hadi’s government is divided between a Qatar-allied faction and a Saudi-backed one.
“The first wing, which is funded by Qatar, seeks to control the south and crush the separatists (ie the STC),” one analyst said, while the second, allied with Saudi Arabia, “prefers to deal positively” with the STC. This reaffirms the STC’s accusation that Hadi’s government is dominated by the Islah Party, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite these indications that Iran and Qatar might be emboldening the Houthi rebels and weakening the legitimate forces in Yemen, some think that the current escalation could be a prelude to serious dialogue to end the five-year war in Yemen.
Conventional wisdom supports such an argument, since on the way to serious negotiations the parties will often try to gain leverage by escalation.
One Saudi analyst went along with Riedel’s view, adding that “Iran and its proxies don’t care about their own people dying in their thousands from the coronavirus. Instead of directing resources to fight the pandemic and save Iranian lives, the mullahs are repeating the rhetoric against their neighbours and strengthening their terrorist militias,” he said.
“The escalation in Yemen is a decision taken in Tehran and the Houthis just execute it.”
It is difficult to tell which view is correct: an escalation to find a bargaining position in negotiations or a closing of the door to dialogue.
The world is overwhelmed with fighting the virus pandemic at present and has little attention to pay to Yemen. But should there be an outbreak of the virus in the country, the world may be forced to look again.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly