March 26, 2021 will mark six years since the Saudi-led coalition’s first airstrike in Yemen as part of “Operation Decisive Storm,” heralding the start of a disastrous military campaign that has exacerbated a famine and humanitarian crisis across the country. The campaign began in response to a distress call from Yemen’s internationally recognized government, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which had been ousted by the Iran-aligned Houthi militia and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in an armed coup. Despite Saudi Arabia’s newly proposed peace deal on March 22 to end the war – including calls for a nationwide ceasefire and reopening of the airport in Sanaa – the Houthis have reportedly rejected the offer, leaving no clear end in sight for the conflict.
The Houthis, who had been party to the National Dialogue in 2013-2014 and signatories to its outcomes—including promised elections, had reneged on the agreement and marched on Al-Jawf and Amran on the pretext of “fighting terrorism.” In reality, they had embarked on a military campaign against their powerful rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party. The tribes that would normally have come to the assistance of the Islah feared the possibility of losing the patronage of Saudi Arabia, which had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” organization. This left Islah isolated, and they were soon defeated by the Houthis.
In partnering with the now deceased former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ousted by a popular uprising in 2012, the Houthis were then able to obtain heavy weaponry which allowed them to mount a two-week assault on the capital Sanaa. President Hadi was subsequently captured and placed under house arrest. While the Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors in protest, other countries – including the United States – did not.
Emboldened by the absence of any action on the part of the international community, the Houthis proceeded to march southwards into Taiz, Lahj, Al-Dhaali’, and soon reached the outskirts of Aden. President Hadi, who had escaped Sanaa earlier and had made Aden his new capital, fled with his government to Riyadh where he beseeched the Saudis and the international community to assist him against the Houthis. Saudi King Salman declared Operation Decisive Storm and an Arab coalition commenced a campaign of airstrikes that drove the Houthis out of the southern territories and as far back as the capital Sanaa.
Saudi Arabia has failed to deliver a decisive victory while the death toll mounts with widespread destruction, collateral damage, disease, cholera, famine, and rampant poverty.
However, the war has ripped open old wounds in Yemeni society. Separatists have taken advantage of the conflict to re-emerge as a powerful entity intent on dividing the country once more between north and south. The UAE has also taken advantage of the chaos to expand its maritime policy and has thrown its weight behind the southern separatists at the expense of the internationally recognized government. Saudi Arabia has failed to deliver a decisive victory while the death toll mounts with widespread destruction, collateral damage, disease, cholera, famine, and rampant poverty, all of it aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic.
International opinion was never in favor of intervention, irrespective of the nature of the Houthis’ coup. Moreover, the poor conduct of what was supposed to be a rescue mission has compounded the ability of the internationally recognized government to present its cause as legitimate. The Saudi campaign has been so destructive, and at times incompetent, that even supporters of the internationally recognized government no longer defend its intervention. Prominent Yemeni commentator Kamal al-Badani declared on Twitter that: “Anyone who takes Saudi Arabia as an ally has no need of any enemies,” suggesting that Riyadh has damaged the cause far more than the Houthis, or their supporters in Tehran.
Biden’s Push for Negotiations
While the Obama and Trump administrations were relatively apathetic to the conflict, the Biden administration has made it clear that ongoing military efforts will not be supported and that it is time for a return to negotiations. Unlike previous administrations that were reluctant to reflect this sentiment through action, Biden has appointed a special US envoy to Yemen to highlight its priority in the administration’s foreign policy ambitions. The appointed envoy, Timothy Lenderking, is respected among experts on the Yemeni conflict as someone well-informed of the intricate dynamics of the political scene. This suggests that careful thought has been put into the roadmap towards negotiations by US policymakers.
There have already been significant diplomatic movements since the appointment of Lenderking. The Biden administration ceased support in early February for Saudi Arabia’s military efforts to restore the internationally recognized government in Yemen. UN envoy Martin Griffiths then visited Tehran for the first time to discuss the prospect of negotiations, and presumably to sound out Iran’s readiness to apply pressure on the Houthis to engage with Biden’s new diplomatic initiative. This was followed by a tour of the Gulf capitals by Lenderking, in a bid to gauge the extent to which the parties are prepared to engage and compromise, before a face-to-face meeting took place on February 26 in Muscat between US officials and Houthi representatives. Most recently, in light of Saudi Arabia’s latest peace offering, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on March 22 that he had spoken to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud beforehand about ending the conflict in Yemen and supporting humanitarian efforts there.
Lenderking’s appointment has also come about under the umbrella of Biden’s wider aim of re-engaging with Iran in the pursuit of a new nuclear deal. This naturally requires a dialogue and discussion over possible US-Iran security cooperation in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—where Iran’s allies wield significant power both politically and militarily. The macro engagement with Iran suggests a potential de-escalation in the individual conflict areas to facilitate effective dialogue and a viable framework for reaching a deal.
However, there are significant challenges to achieving this outcome, further compounded by a sense among Yemenis that Biden’s pragmatic approach will come with a democratic “deficit.”
The Houthis’ Leverage
For the Houthis, Biden’s push for negotiations and exertion of pressure on Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government is a momentous victory. The Houthis still retain control of the capital Sanaa, the vital port city of al-Hodeida, and swathes of northern territory, including Al-Jawf and Amran. Therefore, in calling for negotiations under such circumstance, Biden has effectively eliminated the relevance of any discussion over the Houthis’ original coup against the democratic transition, which plunged the country into war in the first place.
In the Houthis’ view, Biden is essentially offering them a seat at the negotiating table without any preconditions requiring them to give up their military gains. This would effectively render the National Dialogue and its outcomes obsolete, and gift the Houthis an international legitimacy that has been denied to them throughout the conflict by virtue of their illegal armed uprising.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia has failed to drive the Houthis from the territories that they forcefully seized, failed to restore the internationally recognized government in the capital Sanaa, and is now being heavily pressured by Biden and the international community to sit down and negotiate a settlement that will see the Houthis entrenched and empowered on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. It is this assessment that has driven the Houthis to escalate their current attack on Ma’rib, a vital city that has the potential to further open significant possibilities for the Houthis at the negotiating table.
The Houthis believe that Biden is hell-bent on talks irrespective of the military dynamics on the ground.
The Houthis believe that Biden is hell-bent on talks irrespective of the military dynamics on the ground. In other words, if the Houthis successfully take Ma’rib, then their negotiating position becomes much stronger. If they do not, Biden will step in to prevent any credible counterattack by Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government forces that might curtail the Houthis’ military gains. In this win-win situation, the Houthis have thrown significant resources and firepower into the battle to seize Ma’rib and its important resources.
The lack of credible engagement from the Houthis has already presented Lenderking with a significant challenge. Realistically, he cannot commence negotiations until the fate of Ma’rib becomes clear. However, he is likely well aware of the grave implications if the Houthis were to take it. Thus, the increased condemnation of the Houthis from US officials coinciding with the sudden absence of any condemnation of Saudi military activity against the Houthis attacking Ma’rib, suggests that the Biden administration is willing to permit a limited extension of the war in so far as it promotes a more conducive environment for talks.
There has also been a resurgence in the resistance against the Houthis in Taiz. As the Houthis have concentrated their resources in the Ma’rib offensive, they have begun to suffer losses in one of Yemen’s most important cities. On March 9, 2020, a top Houthi commander was reportedly killed in Taiz, which has raised morale among government forces who have begun to make gains. While it remains too early to gauge the potential of this counter-offensive on the overall conflict, there is nevertheless an implicit suggestion that the Biden administration understands there are insufficient checks on Houthi’s military capabilities to guarantee the implementation of any outcomes of negotiations. Therefore, Lenderking is likely to wait and see the outcome of the battle for Ma’rib before landmark negotiations begin.
Difficulties Around Fostering Compromise
It is difficult to see how Lenderking will be able to leverage concessions from the Houthis who are unlikely to give up any of their military gains politically. Moreover, the Houthis are convinced that Washington has no appetite to deploy force, nor to allow any of its allies to continue using force. Therefore, they believe their gains are secure. The Houthis have also reneged on numerous political agreements on the basis that they are not bound to any deal that is not in accordance with their wider ambitions of restoring the Imamate that was overthrown in the 1962 revolution, and over which they have fought more than six wars already.
Moreover, Lenderking will find it challenging to coax Iran into convincing the Houthis to offer concessions. Iran sees Yemen as part of wider negotiations with Washington over its role in the region. For Tehran, Yemen is a pressure point alongside Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon through which to extract concessions from Washington. While Biden and Lenderking would prefer to deal with each conflict on its specific dynamics, Iran will seek to ensure that Yemen is part of wider regional considerations in its prospective talks with Washington.
For Tehran, Yemen is a pressure point alongside Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon through which to extract concessions from Washington.
Furthermore, it is unclear how Lenderking will be able to leverage concessions from the southern separatists – known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – who believe they are the closest they have ever been to an independent state since unification in 1994. Even if Lenderking seeks out the UAE for support, the STC are unlikely to be cooperative in any initiative that does not grant significant autonomy. While the STC are often described as a proxy of the UAE, the reality is that the STC are ready to align with anyone who is willing to help them with separatism, and equally willing to abandon any ally that forsakes their push for separatism. The leader of the STC, Aidarous Al-Zubeidi, has also suggested that he would normalize ties with Israel if his southern state is established, in a bid to secure influential allies to lobby Washington in his favor.
Indeed, Biden has already applied significant pressure on Saudi Arabia. The UAE are also wary of unnecessarily antagonizing a Biden administration that appears intent on reasserting US power after a general retreat from the region by the Trump administration. Washington’s regional allies are likely to toe the line as they seek to insulate themselves from what are expected to be a turbulent four years in their relationship with the White House. Hence, Lenderking is likely to find sufficient cooperation from these actors.
Lenderking’s ideal solution under such circumstances would be to implement the standard method of US conflict resolution: creating a quota government in which ministries are divided based on the different groups, “sects,” and military strengths. This would be a similar model to what is in place in Iraq. A power-sharing model would at least end the conflict and move the battle to a political arena with significantly less bloodshed. While any government that emerges from such an arrangement would likely be impotent, the expectation for the US would be that such an agreement would foster a wider nuclear deal with Iran. The idea being that the power-sharing model could encourage Tehran to cooperate positively and ensure a smoother functioning of Yemen’s government institutions.
The power-sharing model could encourage Tehran to cooperate positively and ensure a smoother functioning of Yemen’s government institutions.
To accomplish this, Lenderking would need to come up with a political mechanism to check the outsized military power of the Houthis and the STC. This would require extensive engagement with tribal actors and independent governors loosely affiliated with the internationally recognized government but strong enough to resist being pulled into Riyadh or Abu Dhabi’s orbit. It would also require significant coordination between these entities and elements of civil society so as to organize them into a “third entity,” capable of acting as a counterweight to the STC and the Houthis. Thereby, they could protect any political process from unduly rewarding brute strength. In many ways, it would be similar to Washington’s organization of the Kurds in Iraq as a counterweight to Iran’s Shia allies.
The darker alternative, though, is one that appeals more to the international actors across the spectrum. Saudi Arabia has historically never been in favor of a united Yemen. The UAE is actively working towards a divided Yemen in their support for the southern separatists. The STC are now a powerful force within Yemen. The Houthis are in de facto control of the north. The internationally recognized government is practically impotent. And Iran is keen to see its allies entrenched and has already sent an ambassador to Sanaa to “recognize” the Houthi administration.
If Lenderking were to present the option of dividing Yemen into north and south, he would likely receive much engagement from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Tehran, the STC, and even Tel Aviv—which is increasingly interested in UAE activities in the vital Bab al-Mandab strait. If the Houthis were to take Ma’rib, this would become all the more viable as the Houthis would feel they have access to sufficient resources to make their state work. While this division of power would ultimately be a disaster for Yemenis, Biden could present it as a victory that “ends the war” and “brings stability,” regardless of whether it is in line with what Yemenis want.