Despite its rhetoric about “ending the war in Yemen”, the Iran-backed rebel Houthi militia this week launched a concerted attack on southern Saudi Arabia, with the coalition fighting on behalf of the legitimate government announcing that it intercepted numerous drones and missiles. For its part the Saudi-led coalition intensified raids against Houthis attempting to advance on oil-rich Maarib.
Maarib and its surrounding oil fields make up the last significant pocket of government-held territory in the north, the rest being under rebel control, including the capital Sanaa. At an earlier stage in the war that began in 2015, Houthi rebels were driven out of Maarib, a campaign in which the Emirati forces within the coalition played a significant role; the UAE was to withdraw from Yemen in 2019.
According to some reports, the Houthi rebels are a few miles from the Maarib city centre. Other reports say that government forces are resisting the Houthi advance, aided by coalition aerial bombardment of the rebel militia.
The coalition seems frustrated with the inefficiency of its Yemeni allies, the forces of the government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Southern Yemeni fighters, of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), are supposed to be fighting alongside government forces against Houthis. But it seems the rift between the legitimate government and STC is not fully healed, and the southerners are not fully involved in the Maarib conflict.
Last month’s offer of ceasefire by Saudi Arabia is on hold for now following the present escalation. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and American envoy Tim Lenderking spent weeks pushing the peace initiative but achieved nothing tangible. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames expressed the Saudi frustration: “There is no progress on the Saudi peace initiative as the Houthis meant to nip it in the bud, not responding to the peace call and the global community’s demands for a peaceful settlement of the struggle in Yemen.”
The Houthis had rejected the initiative last month, demanding that the blockade and sanctions should be fully lifted before they come to the negotiating table. They had the support of their Iranian backers, and aimed to gather more bargaining chips by way of military advances.
“The Houthis see themselves in a better position and able to impose de facto realities on the ground, that is why they do not want peace. They have not been defeated militarily, so why go for negotiations. Look at Maarib, which they didn’t capture yet but are still fighting for. This is a militia war, and in such wars militias won’t agree to a ceasefire unless they are defeated. Only then would they resort to peace to regroup and rebuild themselves,”Alkhames said.
Some analysts feel that any settlement in Yemen must await the results of the Vienna talks regarding the return of America to the Iran nuclear deal. But no regional issues are on the table in the indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Vienna. The Houthi rebels are also exploiting the rift within the legitimate government. That is why Abdul- Aziz Alkhames said, “I think the fighting is going to escalate more. If the Houthi militia manages to capture Maarib, that will be the end of the political solution offered by the coalition. The secession of the south might be inevitable in that case. There won’t be a solution for a unified Yemen. But if they are defeated in Maarib, and retreat militarily, a ceasefire and negotiations for a political settlement will be possible.”
Coalition forces are growing sceptical about US interests and Washington’s proactive role in ending the conflict. “Besides continuous and strong Iranian support for the Houthis, there is America letting down its allies. Removing Houthis from the American list of terrorist groups emboldened the militia, not only politically but militarily as well. Many tribal leaders in Yemen saw that as a change in the rules of the game on the ground – even if it is not explicit American support for the Houthis, it is a downturn in American support for the legitimate side,” Alkhames said.
But the Saudis are recognising more and more how Yemen will always be a headache. Apart from Iranian meddling and American indifference, there are intrinsic factors. “There is a problem with the legitimate government as well, led by a weak and unpopular figure. It is in miserable shape, and army officers work for tribal and sectarian allegiances rather than for a patriotic nationalist cause. Corrupt government and corrupt army officers make it easier for the Houthi militia to advance their cause,” the Saudi commentator acknowledged.
With the escalation of fighting and no apparent prospect for a peaceful solution, millions of ordinary Yemenis are suffering. As one Yemeni citizen described it, “it is another miserable Ramadan, compounded by Coronavirus and scarcity of basic needs.” The optimism for peace last month faded quickly and the people of Yemen are again feeling abandoned by outside world and Yemen’s own warring factions alike.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly