The new U.S. administration has outspokenly slammed the Houthi group for the recent escalations in Yemen’s Marib province, yet the admonishment has not changed the dynamics on the ground. The U.S.’ stern rhetoric cannot stop the Houthi offensive operations, and it will not be enough to pave the road to peace in the country. The Houthis have not heeded any calls for de-escalation and they are betting on the power of their weaponry to secure their aim of ruling Yemen.
In early February, President Joe Biden nominated Timothy Lenderking as the first U.S. envoy to Yemen, as an initial move showing Biden’s keen interest in ending the destructive conflict. Indeed, hopes ran high when the news of Lenderking’s appointment broke out. However, no calming of the fighting has been seen so far, even after the U.S. envoy’s talks with the parties to the conflict.
On February 22, Lenderking kicked off a tour of the Middle East, meeting with Houthi representatives, Yemeni government officials, and leaders in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. At the end of the 17-day visit, he announced that a “sound plan” was presented to the warring parties, and he gave the Iran-allied Houthis a “number of days” to respond. Lenderking stated he would “return immediately when the Houthis are prepared to talk.”
Lenderking recently returned to the Middle East on April 29 to continue his efforts to end the war in Yemen, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. Yet, as seven years of conflict in Yemen has demonstrated, diplomacy with the Houthis apparently leads to nowhere. Hence, the U.S. envoy to Yemen will need to make even more extraordinary efforts to get the Houthis to engage in constructive peace talks.
In essence, Lenderking may accomplish little more than the other three U.N. envoys have—the two former and the present one, each of whom has pushed for a peaceful solution in Yemen without success. This lack of diplomatic progress in Yemen is due to some considerable hurdles.
The formidable challenge is the ideology of the Houthi group. The Houthis believe that they descend from the family of Prophet Muhammad.
First, the formidable challenge is the ideology of the Houthi group. The Houthis believe that they descend from the family of Prophet Muhammad; thus, in their belief, they have the divine mandate to govern the Yemeni people. They have long embraced this dogma, and will not depart from it.
Therefore, just as it would be hard to convince a practicing Muslim to convert to any other religion, it would also be hard to dissuade the Houthis from their sense of superiority and destined rulership.
It will be a tremendous challenge for a U.N. envoy or a U.S. envoy to convince the Houthis to negotiate seriously, stop the war, and agree to elections so that the Yemeni people can choose their rulers freely. Without addressing the ideological notions held by the Houthis, it is difficult to foresee an end to the chaos in Yemen.
Second, the Houthi arsenal is still rich in weapons, as they continue arming thousands of fighters and deploying them to the frontlines. The abundance of arms is a significant factor behind the Houthis’ preferance for the military solution. Houthi drones and missiles hitting Saudi Arabia have multiplied since the start of this year, and the Houthi military operations on the battleground in Yemen – particularly in Marib – have increased. This reality reflects the relentless military capabilities of the group.
The ongoing smuggling of weapons from Iran has contributed to the Houthi military might.
Indeed, the ongoing smuggling of weapons from Iran has contributed to the Houthi military might. In February, the U.S. Navy caught two small ships off the coast of Somalia loaded with thousands of Kalashnikov-style rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, light machine guns, heavy sniper rifles, and crew-served weapons. The Navy said there were “some indications” the arms were bound for war-torn Yemen.
In September 2020, reports said Yemeni Coast Guard forces in the Red Sea intercepted a boat at sea and arrested Houthi smugglers. Indisputably, the trafficking of weapons is fueling the war in Yemen. In light of these circumstances, the U.S. envoy’s attempts may not pay off so long as the Houthis have their depots packed with diverse sorts of military equipment and the flow of smuggled weapons is uninterrupted.
The third hurdle that may impede the success of the U.S. envoy is the ongoing rivalry between the anti-Houthi parties in Yemen, especially the UN-recognized government and the southern separatists. The rapid Houthi takeover of Yemen’s capital and several Yemeni provinces in late 2014 and 2015 was the fruit of partisan and political disputes.
Presently, Yemen has four leading political and military players: the Houthis, the Yemeni government with its military forces, the separatists, and the forces of Brigadier Tareq Saleh, who is the nephew of former President Ali Abdulla Saleh. Overcoming such fragmentation is crucial to finding a lasting peaceful solution.
Lenderking must consider the need for preventing any tensions and clashes between the anti-Houthi parties who have conflicting agendas.
Lenderking must consider the need for preventing any tensions and clashes between the anti-Houthi parties who have conflicting agendas and visions. The focus should be devoted to brokering an agreement between the Houthis and the government supported by the Saudi-led coalition. This mission is indeed demanding, but achieving it would be a step in the right direction towards peace.
Ultimately, the months to come will likely reveal one of two possible outcomes: Washington’s envoy succeeds in offering great peace ideas which appeal to Yemen’s warring sides, or the response to Lenderking’s efforts will be no different from that of the U.N. envoys who have hit dead ends since 2015.
In other words, the U.S. envoy will either be hailed as the architect of peace in Yemen; or, he will be seen as a veteran diplomat who did his utmost, but could not defeat Yemen’s intractable war. If he faces such a setback, it will not necessarily be his personal failure, though it may point to a decline in the weight of U.S. influence and its role as a world power.