Despite more than six years of Saudi-led military offensive against the Houthis, the situation in Yemen remains extremely complex and challenging for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have captured large parts of the Yemeni territory in the north-west of the country including the capital Sanaa. The Saudi-led military coalition’s twin objectives of pushing the Houthis back from Sanaa and reinstating the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi remain unfulfilled.
Thousands of civilians have been displaced in Yemen’s Marib after a Houthi offensive that began at the start of September saw the rebel group take control of a key district in the south of the governorate.
Rahabah, which lies to the east of the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, was captured on September 8 after heavy fighting that led to at least 65 fighters’ death on both sides.
Sixty-five Houthi rebels and pro-government forces have been killed in renewed fighting for the strategic Yemeni city of Marib, a military official told AFP on Thursday.
The clashes erupted when the Iran-backed rebels attacked pro-government positions south of the city, making progress despite losing dozens of fighters in coalition air strikes.
Houthi rebel fighters during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, March 16, 2019. Image: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa
Strikes on Yemen’s largest airbase Sunday killed at least 30 pro-government troops and wounded scores more, medical and loyalist sources said, blaming Iran-backed Huthi rebels for the attack.
The strikes were carried out on Al-Anad airbase, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Yemen’s second city Aden in the south of the conflict-riven country.
At least 30 soldiers were killed and more than 65 injured on Sunday in an attack by the Iran-backed Houthi militia on a military base in southern Yemen.
A ballistic missile followed by two explosives-laden drones struck a barracks housing about 50 troops at Al-Anad air base in Lahj province, 70 km north of Aden.
Ending Yemen’s ongoing famine is an “overarching humanitarian priority” amid a litany of crises, the UN’s outgoing special envoy for the country said.
Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council on Monday that roughly two-thirds of the war-ravaged country’s population – about 20 million people – rely on humanitarian aid for their day-to-day needs.
U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking arrived in Saudi Arabia today, where he will meet with senior officials from the Saudi and Republic of Yemen Governments. Special Envoy Lenderking will discuss the growing consequences of the Houthi offensive on Marib, which is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and triggering instability elsewhere in the country. The Special Envoy will address the urgent need for efforts by the Republic of Yemen Government and Saudi Arabia to stabilize Yemen’s economy and to facilitate the timely import of fuel to northern Yemen, and the need for the Houthis to end their manipulation of fuel imports and prices inside of Yemen. Finally, Special Envoy Lenderking will meet with representatives from the international community and the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen to discuss the importance of an inclusive peace process and a rapid appointment of a new UN Envoy. Now is the time to stop the fighting and enable Yemenis to shape a more peaceful, prosperous future for their country.
The United Nations has warned that Yemeni children’s education and futures were under threat because of the continuing war in the Middle Eastern country.
In a report titled Education Disrupted: Impact of the conflict on children’s education in Yemen, UNICEF said on Monday more than two million children were not in school because of the years-long conflict and extreme poverty.
When Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in the spring of 2015, Riyadh expected a decisive campaign in which its air force would blaze a path for troops loyal to Yemen’s government to regain control of the capital. Analysts warned the Saudis that a quick victory was unlikely without a credible plan for a ground campaign, and without close ties to several key tribal groups whose links with Riyadh had withered over the previous decade. Such warnings fell on deaf ears, and Saudi Arabia became the latest state to take up arms in the false expectation of a short, victorious war.
The campaign was conducted under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which demanded the restoration of the Yemeni government and Houthi disarmament. The resolution – akin to CPR for the Yemeni state – has remained the basis for all attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict. The expectations of a resuscitation from CPR diminish with time. Nevertheless, the UN continues to go through the motions. Everyone else has moved on.
The Houthis have changed since they seized Sana’a in 2014. Upon their arrival they left many government officials in their posts. They neither knew how to govern, nor showed much interest in doing so. Since 2018, however, they have started to behave more like a (capricious) government, segregating education and prescribing new curricula, using bureaucratic mechanisms to apply taxation, and reorganising the state intelligence apparatus to identify tribal discontent and repress opposition. Their aspirations have also continued to expand; from a desire for recognition as a legitimate power in Yemeni politics, they are now demanding that Saudi Arabia acknowledge defeat. Whether the Houthis can take and hold additional territory beyond Marib is debatable, but if they take the resource-rich province then they will eliminate any viable route to dislodge them from the land they already hold without a major external intervention.
The sense of permanence that the Houthis themselves have started to feel secure in is changing how external actors are engaging with them. Iran has supported the Houthis from the beginning of the war, but its involvement in Yemen was opportunistic. It was a way of imposing costs on Tehran’s opponents. Although Iran has never – and likely will never – direct Houthi activity, its influence has grown significantly. Iran refuses to exert any diplomatic pressure on the Houthis in their negotiations with the GCC or the UN. But the Houthis consult with and seek the advice of Iranian officials extensively. The Houthis have also started to publicly message coordination with the ‘Axis of Resistance’, indicating a desire to be seen to assert interests beyond Yemen’s borders.
The expectation that the Houthis will remain is also shaping the policies of the UAE. Initially heavily engaged in the conflict, Emirati troops withdrew out of frustration with an international community that was eager for them to change the facts on the ground but highly critical whenever they set about doing so. Now the UAE has quietly begun to establish an air base on Mayun Island. Not subject to Eritrean approval like the former Emirati base at Assab, less politically contentious than moving forces to Socotra, and less vulnerable than Al Anad, Aden or Mocka, the base will give the UAE a strong military position in the middle of the Bab-el-Mandeb. The re-establishment of infrastructure suggests the UAE is anticipating a need to protect its interests in the long term. The Yemeni government has objected, but to little avail.
The Saudis want out, but not at any price. They must regain control of their southern border and politically they wish to be seen to have achieved something. So far, the Houthis seem disinclined to give them the option of peace with honour. Peace in this context would not mean peace for Yemenis. The slow, attritional struggle in Marib and Taiz would likely grind on. But for the Saudis the entrenched ballistic missile threat on their southern border has caused a realignment of their defensive infrastructure, and a growing realisation that the threat will likely persist even if strikes from Yemen are halted.
In this context the international community faces a choice. Is a long-term Houthi quasi-state tolerable? If it is, then Resolution 2216 must be redrawn. There are important issues that the international community must address – like the fate of the FSO SAFER – and which the current negotiating framework is abjectly failing to resolve. Nevertheless, accepting a long-term Houthi presence also means abandoning Yemenis to a repressive and regressive government, indoctrinating their youth with an aggressive religious ideology that lays claim to large swathes of Saudi territory. The humanitarian cost of that decision is high. Any diminution in the blockade also risks allowing Iran to threaten freedom of navigation in the Bab-el-Mandeb, vastly complicating the existing problem in the Straits of Hormuz.
If a long-term Houthi quasi-state is unacceptable to the international community, then external powers cannot simply let the war grind on, with the opposition increasingly fragmented. Trend lines must be reversed, with an acceptance that peace will take years to become a realistic expectation. The process of forging an alternative course will also categorically fail if straightjacketed by diplomatic nostalgia for the outcomes of the 2013–2014 Yemeni National Dialogue. Someone will need to tell UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths that he can stop attempting chest compressions on the administration of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Developing a viable alternative will require imagination, working with Yemeni groups to forge agreements that bring local and regional security. Cohering that process requires leadership. The question is whether members of the international community care enough to expend the effort.
There is a risk that progress in Yemen is measured in narrow terms of national interest; judged on these terms, international powers can probably tolerate the tragic status quo. But there is a broader strategic question. The UK’s Integrated Review emphasised great power competition and a struggle for influence. Yet if the UK will only exert itself when vital interests are at stake, then it can expect to progressively lose influence in countries where competitors care more and commit resources. If the UK lacks the capacity, then it speaks to a wider overambition in UK policy, whereby rhetoric fails to reflect the reality of when and where the UK will actually try to shape events. After all, competition in international affairs is as much about incremental gains as grand strategic plays.