Since US President Joe Biden administration’s announced on February 4 an end to “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and a reversal of Donald Trump’s terrorist designation of the Iran-backed Houthis, the Houthis have ramped up their efforts to gain control of the Marib governorate. Since February 8, the faction is aiming to capture as much territory as possible to leverage future peace talks.
The current conflict could be a turning point for Yemen’s future, as it is the last stronghold of the government of Adeb Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and has been relatively stable, with functioning oil and gas facilities, and a growing trading hub within Yemen.
Meanwhile, Biden’s pledges fail to guarantee a permanent withdrawal of Saudi-led coalition forces, as his administration has still shown sympathy towards Saudi Arabia’s national security. Additionally, the Houthis have gained a new lease of life, given the latest offensive coincides with Washington’s declaration. There are limited international efforts to achieve a political solution and truly reign in on actors complicit in the conflict. The situation is therefore likely to prolong the instability in war-ravaged Yemen.
Throughout February, the Houthis have pushed relentlessly to capture the governorate, after ramping up their offensive in January 2020. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on February 26 that over 100,000 have been displaced so far, including around 9,000 in just the last few weeks. It also warned that humanitarian aid deliveries were threatened due to the intense fighting between the government forces and Houthis.
The latest conflict could derail already fragile peace initiatives. Recently, Yemen’s deputy minister of human rights Majed Fadhail warned that the current conflict jeopardized a prisoner swap agreement between the Houthis and the government. It may also encourage the Hadi government to pull out of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement over the Hodeidah governorate, and the fall of Marib could enable the Houthis to advance on the Shabwah and Hadramawt governorates.
Though the foreign minister of the Houthi’s Ansur Allah administration, Hisham Sharaf, claimed in early February the faction would end its offensive if Saudi Arabia withdrew, having cited what it calls “Saudi aggression” to justify military action, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam later said its forces would keep fighting until the entire country is “liberated.”
The Houthis are trying to consolidate as many gains on the ground as possible before agreeing to any concessions, and the faction’s own words reveal that it is determined to continue the offensive on Marib. However, it has faced some setbacks as government forces were able to repel them from key areas, even as heavy casualties are inflicted on both sides. The government has also collaborated with local tribal forces to uproot the Houthis and target their sleeper cells. A more drawn-out conflict is likely to continue, leaving an even worse humanitarian catastrophe in its wake.
Meanwhile, though Saudi Arabia has faced countless accusations of causing Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and hitting civilian areas, it may have growing concerns. Its border is close to Marib, and it has operated a military base there which coalition forces have used to fight the Houthis in the north. The Houthis have fought to capture the base previously due to its importance to its rivals.
Saudi Arabia has still faced setbacks in Yemen, having spent upwards of $100bn USD and with diplomatic costs due to its role in the war, with fruitless results. Moreover, Riyadh may temporarily aim to preserve its public image due to intense criticism over its role in the war, as it praised Biden’s announcement on February 4 and said it supported a peace solution.
Significantly, Riyadh on February 27 blamed the Houthis for firing a missile near its capital, Riyadh. The Houthis have increased their firing on Saudi territory throughout the war, particularly since early 2019. Should this escalate further, Riyadh may see it as provocative and pursue further intervention, which Washington could bless as a defence of Saudi national security.
Following a call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted on February 11: “Saudi Arabia is an important security partner. We won’t stand by while the Houthis attack Saudi Arabia.” A letter on February 24 from US lawmakers including Peter DeFazio, Ro Khanna, and Debbie Dingell and signed by 38 other lawmakers also urged Biden to clarify his position, showing that a permanent withdrawal of Washington’s military support to Riyadh is unlikely.
Moreover, though Biden claimed that he would be more critical of Mohammad bin Salman, who is the architect of the war on Yemen, there is little indication that he will punish MbS any further than a diplomatic ‘slap on the wrist.’ And as Washington has not fully banned future arms sales to Riyadh, Biden’s administration may even tolerate some future Saudi involvement in Yemen. Other coalition backers like the United Kingdom and France have made no indication of wishing to suspend arms sales; therefore, there is little general pressure to end the war.
Another key risk factor is the lack of support for a political solution in Yemen. The Riyadh Agreement, which aimed to unify the Hadi government and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) in a power-sharing administration, is still fragile. Though it can temporarily salvage some Saudi influence in Yemen via the Hadi government, it risks collapse, and efforts to impose it could further prompt the Houthis to retaliate.
The UAE has also continued under-the-radar involvement in Yemen, including its support for the STC, despite its claims of a withdrawal last October, which poses further risks to a stable political solution. The governor of Socotra in late February once again accused the UAE of sending military equipment to STC forces on the island, under the guise of providing humanitarian aid, after previously complaining about Abu Dhabi’s activities there. This follows repeated accusations of Abu Dhabi aiding the STC in south Yemen to gain control of its ports and secure a military presence in Socotra. It still has freedom to expand its influence in Socotra and Yemen’s south through the STC as there has been comparatively less pressure on Abu Dhabi from the Biden administration.
Overall, many Yemenis feel that Biden’s announcement has not gone far enough, particularly as he has given greater impunity towards the Houthi rebels. Though Washington’s removal of the Houthis’ terrorist designation may tie in with efforts to reduce tensions with Iran, the Houthis have capitalized on the opportunity to pursue their military objectives, rather than respond in good faith.
Washington should support a peace initiative which could include giving a platform to all local voices. A peace settlement would be a difficult process, given the mutual distrust after nearly six years of conflict and the Houthis’ determination to expand its control over Yemen. However, working towards it would be a necessary starting point for the sake of Yemen’s future stability.