The new administration in Washington has initiated moves to contain and hopefully end the seven year-long Civil War in Yemen. It is the longest war in the country since its independence in 1967, and it has engendered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. And that is what informed the State Department’s vigorous defence of its request to Congress to revoke the “terrorist” designation for the Ansarullah (more familiarly known as the Houthi) movement.
The State Department argued that this will facilitate the resumption of humanitarian relief operations which the Houthis have prevented from reaching their intended recipients, as documented in international reports. Along with other members of the international community, Washington has also argued that removing the Houthis from the US terrorist list will make it possible to include them in the peacemaking processes to be promoted by the newly appointed US Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking.
At the same time, the US administration has reaffirmed its determination to strengthen Saudi Arabian defences against strikes from Yemen. In this framework, US Army Central Command (CENTCOM) has launched a joint training programme with the Saudi army focusing on intercepting assault drones.
It appears that, where Yemen is concerned, the US is operating on the basis of a conceptual separation between “the war” and “the peace process”. According to this thinking, halting the warfare immediately has more to do with addressing the humanitarian crisis than to with resolving the political crisis. Going past the impasse reached between the legitimate Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels is a process that is clearly long and complex, especially given the numerous regional and international dimensions into which it plays.
It is an approach that deviates from that of previous administrations. President Barrack Obama favoured diplomacy as the key to ending the war while the Trump administration shifted tack to assert pressure on the Houthis. It framed the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war waged by Tehran, the backer of the rebel movement, against its adversaries in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular.
The Houthis, on the other hand, have opted for unprecedentedly rapid military escalation on several fronts. The idea is to achieve a strategic breakthrough on the ground that will bolster them up at the negotiating table. To the east of Sanaa, they renewed their offensive in the vicinity of Marib, a front which had been relatively quiet for several months. Houthi officials have offered varying explanations for this move.
According to Houthi leader Mohamed Al-Bukhaiti, the purpose is to pressure for access to oil. He argued that as long as the US was blockading the arrival of oil by sea, the Houthis had no alternative but to take control of the oilfields in Marib. “Oil has become the artery of life for all peoples,” Al-Bukhaiti said. “Therefore, the people has no choice but to mobilise to break the blockade and pour men and money into Marib in order to recover our usurped wealth.”
However, it was also reported locally, citing remarks by Houthi leaders, that the Iranian Ambassador to Sanaa, Hassan Irlou “pushed” the Houthis into that battle with the aim of reordering the balance of power on the ground. He would have had an eye to achieving a definitive victory in an area of symbolic importance to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-coalition. In addition to the oilfields there, the pro-government joint forces have a command headquarters in Marib.
Local and foreign news reports also say the Houthis have simultaneously redeployed forces along the borders with governorates to the south of Sanaa governorate in order to secure their control over the north in advance of a resumed negotiations. The Houthis believe this will strengthen their hand in their push for a reformulation of the multi-regional, federal option that had been adopted in the Yemeni National Dialogue before the Houthi coup in September 2014.
In his last briefing to the UN Security Council last week, the UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths expressed his sorrow over the “sharp escalatory turn [in the conflict in Yemen] with Ansar Allah’s most recent offensive in Marib governorate”. He said, “I will repeat my call now: the attack on Marib must stop.” Washington has echoed that call. Referring to figures cited by the UN Humanitarian Affairs coordinator, the US State Department warned that the upsurge in fighting will aggravate the humanitarian plight of Yemen and cause the displacement of some two million people.
No responses to these appeals were forthcoming from Houthi leaders, militarily on the front or politically through a demonstration of flexibility on a solution. Griffiths voiced his “disappointment” at the second round of negotiations over a prisoner swap. In the opinion of the Yemeni government Spokesman Rajeh Al-Badi, the rebel movement is taking advantage of the relaxation of US pressure on it to stipulate impossible-to-meet conditions in the negotiations.
He warned that his government might withdraw from the 2019 Stockholm accord between the legitimate government and the Ansarullah because of the latter’s failure to abide by the security and political terms of the agreement.
Many Yemeni observers believe that the US administration does not have a comprehensive vision for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. This is despite the impression created by bringing it back to the centre of international attention after Lenderking’s appointment as US Special Envoy to Yemen.
Although Lenderking recently visited Riyadh to discuss the possibility of a diplomatic solution, with Riyadh expressing a willingness to cooperate to that end, it is premature to assume that Washington has a fully fledged action plan that will lead to a breakthrough any time soon. Perhaps the US administration, at present, is practising short-term crisis management through its envoy for now. In the long run, it may pit its efforts behind a UN-sponsored project and/or regional mediators keen to keep excessive foreign military involvement in Yemen from spilling over.
According to several Yemeni observers interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly, Washington’s current premises may not yield their hypothetical conclusions because it relinquished a pressure card on the Houthis when it revoked the terrorist designation without asking for anything in return. Thus the Houthis were in a position to merely say thank you for righting a presumed wrong and continue as usual. The observers added that there were no grounds to assume that the revocation of the designation would be greeted by a Houthi ease-up on obstructions to humanitarian relief.
They pointed out how the militia impeded the arrival of humanitarian relief flights to Sanaa Airport earlier this year, citing the suspension of “bilateral” understandings with the UN mission through which the Houthis could receive oil derivates through the port of Hodeida in exchange for letting in humanitarian relief shipments. Yet, the observers predict that the Houthis will soon back down on this matter, if only because, as is documented in international reports, they have been diverting a portion of the relief to support their war effort.
It could be argued further that, just as there is no direct correlation between easing pressures on the Houthis and reducing impediments to the flow of relief, there is no direct correlation between an easier flow of relief and reducing the scale of human suffering as long as the US does not possess the means to pressure the Houthis to stop fighting. Perhaps Washington realised this after the recent escalation in Marib.
At another level, Washington has withdrawn its support for the Saudi-led coalition and now contextualises Houthi missile threats to Saudi Arabia as a cross-border problem between neighbouring countries. Washington has pledged to support Saudi Arabian defences against such threats, but this does not guarantee stability in the security situation in the long term.
The US has also told Iran to cease its military support of the Houthis, but once again it lacks the means to pressure Iran into doing so. The instruments to monitor and prevent arms shipments are still very limited. And it appears from the current escalation that the Houthis possess a strategic reserve of arms and are counting on it to change the course of the battle by means of a persistent war of attrition on the government and coalition forces.
In short, there is considerable scepticism regarding the efficacy of the Biden administration’s strategy of containment of the Yemeni crisis, given the absence of effective leverages. In the light of the lack of positive responses to its approach, Washington will probably need to revise its position.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly