Timid Initiatives to Bring Yemen out of War

Yemen has recently returned to international headlines. The UN has admitted that famine is affecting Yemenis, the Huthi movement has intensified its offensive on Marib. Following the new Biden administration, the Saudis have also announced their proposals for a ceasefire towards ending the war.

Sana’a, 26 March 2021. Rally marking the sixth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention. In portrait, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi
Mohamed Huwais/AFP

While the worsening humanitarian disaster, indeed, the famine, is the priority for most Yemenis, the international community is not seriously addressing the issue. On 1 March, the UN Secretary General, appealing to funders at the annual pledging conference, recalled that “More than 16 million people are expected to go hungry this year. Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions.” A few hours later he expressed “disappointment” at the low level of pledges, which amounted to USD 1.7 billion, less than half the USD 3.8 billion called for. Under funding of humanitarian appeals is common, the only exception in Yemen was in 2019 when the UN received 86% of the highest amount ever requested, because both Saudi Arabia and the UAE contributed close to USD 2 billion between them which is, of course, a fraction of their war expenditure in the country.

Although most world attention focuses on the Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes, the majority of deaths and suffering are caused by the naval blockade on the Red Sea ports, particularly Hodeida where most food, fuel and medical supplies arrive. Fuel is essential to transport goods, to operate water pumping stations and the multiplicity of (larger and smaller) private electricity generators which have replaced the state network destroyed by the war. Fuel ships have been systematically delayed by the Saudi-led coalition in agreement with the IRG: in the first quarter of this year, 8% of diesel requirement was unloaded and 0% of petrol; not surprising therefore that hospitals have stopped operating their generators due to the lack of electricity, let alone the closure of factories and other facilities.

Marib escalation

Regardless of starvation, disease and other horrors, the war continues and war profiteers on all sides are benefiting. Since early February, military activities focused on the renewed Huthi offensive threatening the city of Marib, about 170 km east of the capital Sana’a. Started in early 2020, it recently intensified with significant numbers of Saudi air strikes preventing the Huthi from advancing across the remaining short distance of open ground which separates them from the city, though they have already occupied some of the more than 130 settlements where displaced Yemenis have relocated. Marib City now has a population of more than one million, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

The importance of Marib is demonstrated by the determination of both sides. Anti-Huthi forces have depleted other fronts to strengthen resistance, including elements whose relationship with the internationally recognised government (IRG) is, to say the least, problematic. Marib is the last major city under full control of the IRG which has little presence in its official “interim” capital of Aden due to the ongoing conflict within the anti-Huthi forces between the IRG and a separatist faction known as the Southern Transitional Council. (STC). Marib hosts the IRG’s senior military officials, specifically those originally from the northern part of the country, and its powerful governor is loyal to the IRG.

Up to now, supporting air strikes from the Saudis have enabled the IRG forces to resist, but their progress on the ground is hindered by inadequate material support for front line regular and tribal troops who lack ammunition. There is speculation that corruption within the military supply chain contributes to the weakness of the anti-Huthi forces, and that shortages are due to Saudi concern that significant amounts of materiel would, as in the past, end up in Huthi hands. A more distant but equally important element is the muted rivalry between the KSA and the UAE, with the latter’s continued support for its southern separatist allies, the STC, which challenges the IRG, despite both officially sharing power since December 2020. With its separatist agenda, STC interests may coincide with those of the Huthis, as defeat of the IRG might lead to negotiations between the “north” and the “south” in which it would claim to represent the latter. The Huthis, however, continue to argue that they support a united Yemen throughout which they would have considerable influence, if not exclusive power. Losing Marib City and governorate would be a major setback both for the IRG and the Saudis as it would weaken them enormously in any negotiations.

The Huthis persist with their offensive despite very heavy losses in terrain unfavourable to their forces and equipment. Although frontally attacking the city, their priority is elsewhere: in the past year, they have taken much of the governorate and are currently focused on a pincer movement to reach the governorate’s hydrocarbon resources, refinery and power station. Taking them intact would significantly contribute to solving Huthi financial, let alone fuel, problems. An additional bonus would be cutting the main road from the Saudi border to the governorates of Shabwa and Hadhramaut, thus opening the way to these governorates and, eventually, possibly as far as al-Mahra and the Omani border, though that is far way (some 900 km as the crow flies).

While the battle for Marib lasts, there is time for internal tensions to intensify in each party. Among the Huthis, some are ready to negotiate from what is already a position of strength, while others want to pursue their military advantage to the end. For the IRG, retaining control over Marib is essential but while it goes on, the “internal” struggle with the STC festers. Meanwhile the STC has not given up control of Aden and appears in early April to be preparing for a new military push against the Hadi group, while fighting in Abyan has already started.

Initiatives by Joe Biden and Saudi Arabia

Yemen rose to the top of the Biden administration’s agenda in its earliest days: on 4 February, in his first foreign policy speech, President Biden announced that ending the war in Yemen was a diplomatic priority “to impose a ceasefire … and restore long-dormant peace talks.” The US would “end all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” but would also “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” In view of almost daily Huthi drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia, this might not be the best time for the US to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia as, without air strikes in Marib, the IRG would most likely be defeated within weeks. The US Special Envoy, Tim Lenderking, appointed that day, has been on a lengthy tour of the region discovering, in the process, that ending the war is not just a matter of pressuring the Saudi regime.

Biden may have been misguided into believing that Yemen would be relatively easy by comparison with the other major tripwires left behind by Trump: major tensions with China and Russia, North Korea, a flux of immigrants on the US southern borders, and the Covid-19 crisis at home. Ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia is popular everywhere in Congress and would show Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) that the days of unconditional support were over. It might help in negotiations with Iran over the JCPOA. Two months later, it is clear that the situation is far more complex and demanding.

In addition to the fact that increasingly frequent Huthi drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabian territory justify continued military support to the Saudis, there are other difficulties. The Biden administration’s stated goal of working within the framework imposed by the UN Security Council is a major hurdle. The determining Security Council resolution on Yemen is 2216 of April 2015 which, in plain English, demands Huthi surrender and withdrawal to their positions prior to 2014. As the Huthis now control the majority of Yemen’s population and areas way beyond those under their influence in 2014, the likelihood of them agreeing to this demand is zero. There have been numerous calls over the years for the replacement of UNSC 2216 by a more realistic one recognising the reality on the ground, forming the basis for serious negotiations. They fell on the deaf ears of the UK, the “pen holder” on Yemen at the UNSC which prioritises its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the welfare of 30 million Yemenis. The Biden administration could take the initiative thanks to its influence on the UK and the UNSC.

Almost two months after Biden’s initiative, the Saudis announced their own “ceasefire plan” as they had done prior to Ramadan last year: that one barely reduced the level of fighting. The current one is likely to meet the same fate: it was immediately rejected as completely inadequate by the Huthis who said it was no improvement on earlier proposals. Reading it confirms this assessment: it yet again calls on the “three references” explicitly mentioning UNSC 2216. Its proposals for the reopening Sana’a airport and access to Hodeida Port are conditional and ignore the Huthi’s demand for unconditional and complete ending of the blockade complemented by a complete cessation of air strikes.

Internal cheating

During the last six years, Yemeni leaders, UN and all other international officials concerned have constantly repeated that the only solution to the Yemeni crisis is political while pursuing a military strategy in practice. UN supported diplomatic efforts produced three meetings in the first two years, including three months of failed negotiations in 2016. The December 2018 Stockholm Agreement was widely promoted as a first step towards peace, but only achieved a limited ceasefire in Hodeida, and the installation of the UN Mission for the Hodeida Agreement in the city whose activities were halted more than a year ago. The Yemeni IRG has stuck to its slogan of the “three references” including UNSC 2216, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (ended in early 2014) and the GCC agreement of 2011, the latter two sufficiently flexible to be included in negotiations.

The paralysis of formal Yemeni politics in recent years is striking, manifested only by the establishment of rival Southern organisations, both separatist and others, and individuals competing for positions in the government. This may be about to change: on 25 March a new political organisation was announced by Tareq Saleh, nephew of former president Saleh and leader of the main UAE supported military organisation operating in the Tihama. Lacking any programme, it proposed to participate in future negotiations, on the same basis as the STC. This was followed shortly thereafter by indications that a National Salvation Front is under discussion: its initial members are a miscellaneous group bringing together Islah, Southerners and isolated GPC elements, which have publicised to programme.

The emergence of new political groupings is welcome but these two are composed of old guard leaders with doubtful credentials. They are unlikely to set up organisations responsive to the social, economic, development or political demands of the majority of Yemenis. Their establishment may be an incentive for others, seriously committed to equity and development to come up with alternatives.

The current international moves, whether US or Saudi, claim allegiance to a UN process which has failed Yemenis abysmally for the past half decade, with a Special Envoy now entering his fourth year without any notable achievement. These developments and the worsening Covid crisis combine to further disappoint 30 million long-suffering Yemenis, whose expectations have been sobered by the experience of the past six years. Their scepticism and distrust of leaders, whether military or political, national or foreign, has certainly been confirmed by events. The outcome of the fighting in Marib, combined with political developments may bring a significant change to the overall crisis in Yemen.