The last two months of each year have become an opportunity to be optimistic about the end of the war in Yemen and the start of a political settlement over the last couple of years, and all eyes now are on Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use the UN as a means of ending the conflict in the country.
Reports in recent weeks have been hopeful about a new initiative by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, which could form the basis of a lasting political solution.
The anticipated moves are backed by Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab Coalition supporting legitimacy in Yemen along with the European Union. Britain in particular is understood to be playing a role in drafting the legal resolution to be adopted by the UN Security Council.
The parties have been encouraged by the implementation of the prisoner-swap parts of last year’s Stockholm Agreement between the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that control the Yemeni capital Sanaa and large parts of Northern Yemen.
Yet, some are not so optimistic about any imminent end to the war in Yemen, which started with the Houthi rebels ousting the Sanaa government and militarily dominating most of the country six years ago and the subsequent intervention by an Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2015 to quell the rebellion and restore Hadi’s government.
The war, first thought to be over in a matter of a few months once it had restored legitimacy and defeated the Houthi militia, is still dragging on, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and many more wounded. Millions of people have been made refugees or have been displaced.
Almost 22 million people out of Yemen’s total population of around 29 million are now facing famine and disastrous humanitarian conditions. There is also the sheer destruction of the country’s infrastructure and the depletion of its resources.
Though the coalition has repeatedly said that its goal is to reinstate the legitimate government and bring about a political solution to the conflict, many attempts at a negotiated settlement have failed to put an end to the war.
The Houthi rebels recently intensified their attacks, not only on government positions in Yemen, but also across the border on Saudi targets. Almost every day Saudi-led Coalition forces announce the intercepting and downing of missiles or explosives-laden drones launched by the Houthis against Saudi targets in the south of the kingdom.
It looks as if Iran is supplying its proxy Houthi militia with more missiles and drones than before, with Tehran possibly stepping up its proxy war against rival Saudi Arabia in response to the increasing US squeeze on Iran, as one Western diplomat in the Gulf put it.
Some analysts see the escalation as an Iranian attempt to strengthen its anticipated negotiating position once the new Democratic administration takes office in the US in January.
Last week, US Special Envoy to Iran Elliot Abrams visited the region and met the Yemeni President in Saudi Arabia. But the outgoing administration of present US President Donald Trump might not have much room to move now, aside from imposing more sanctions on Iran.
Tehran is waiting to see how US President-elect Joe Biden will act once his administration takes office and whether it will reverse Trump’s sanctions and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
The Arab Gulf countries also might not have the same leverage that they had with Trump to ask for any new deal to include provisions related to Iran’s intervention in the region, mainly in Yemen through its Houthi allies.
As one Western political analyst in the Gulf put it, “the Iranians are not in a hurry to solve the crisis, and they are providing their Houthi allies with more weapons to keep feeding the flames.”
“Tehran is waiting to see how a Biden administration will act on the nuclear deal and the sanctions. The Persians will never give anything away for free, and they now know the maximum potency of the Saudi pressure.”
Reflecting on the role played by Oman as a host of the secret American-Iranian negotiations that led to the nuclear deal under the former US Obama administration, some American analysts now expect Muscat to play a role in any possible settlement in Yemen.
One US academic with knowledge of the region said that “Oman might be wary of the war on its borders and going through economic difficulties, but as the stakes of a settlement in Yemen increase, Muscat will be seeking to play a role, even though subtly.”
Saudi Arabia has been trying since last year to bring the Hadi government and the Southern Yemen factions together as a bloc opposed to the Houthis in any negotiations. But last year’s Riyadh Agreement between the government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has still not been implemented.
The STC is not flexible when it comes to Islamist participation in government, represented by the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party. Other regional parties are also concerned about Al-Islah’s rising role, exploiting the apparent Saudi desire to end the war quickly.
Terrorists like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other groups are also stepping up their attacks in Yemen. Areas in the south and south-east of the country have witnessed a resurgence of the AQAP and the Islamic State (IS) group after a lull in their activities following military action against them by local southern militias and tribal fighters supported by coalition forces, particularly Emirati forces before they left the country in June last year.
One source in the Gulf expressed this concern bluntly. “Terrorist groups emboldened by their political patron the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party have been gaining ground in the government, and they are trying to regain the influence they lost in the early years of the war,” he said.
“They are also capitalising on internal disputes within the ‘legitimacy’ camp and the waning coalition support for the government forces.”
The rush to find a solution to end the war in Yemen might be genuine, but many doubt it has a serious chance before the new US administration expresses its intentions and outlines its foreign-policy priorities in the region.
“If the local and regional parties could end this dilemma themselves, they would have done so two or three years ago and spared themselves the consequences of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. So, why do you think they can do so now,” one source asked, stressing that tangible change will likely only come with the advent of the new Democratic administration in Washington.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly