Attaining the Difficult Peace in Yemen

After displaying some optimism about reaching a cease-fire and peace deal in Yemen, the Biden Administration is facing the stark reality that these objectives are much more difficult to achieve than initially envisioned. In particular, the Houthi rebels have stubbornly refused to stop their missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and their offensive in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province, while members of the Saudi-led coalition have refused to fully lift their blockades on Houthi-controlled ports and airports until a genuine cease-fire is reached.

Iran’s influence on Houthi policies and actions is the subject of much speculation, but it is difficult to ascertain. Although the recent Saudi-Iranian talks have probably dealt in part with the Yemen conflict, it is not known if Iran is encouraging Houthi intransigence and what its objective might be. The Houthis may be operating on their own agenda, hoping to control as much of the country and its resources as possible before agreeing to any cease-fire. With the United Arab Emirates continuing to enhance its interests in southern Yemen without participating in the fighting and with the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi losing popular support in the area it nominally controls, the Houthis may feel they have little to lose at this point despite some recent punitive measures by the Biden Administration.

The Biden Team’s Fresh Approach

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden was highly critical of both Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. He stated: “I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” He also said that he would end the sale of war material to the Saudis “where they’re going in and murdering children.”

These comments were welcomed by most Democrats, especially those from the progressive wing of the party, and even some Republicans who had voted with their Democratic colleagues to invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 on the Yemen war as a way of trying to end US support for the conflict. Although former President Donald Trump vetoed that legislation in 2019, wishing to protect the Saudis, Biden understood that Congress would likely support his efforts to try to end this tragic conflict, in which over 130,000 civilians have been killed. Such a fresh approach would not only assuage the progressives in Congress, whose support Biden needs for his legislative agenda, but would conform to his comments that he would try to obtain bipartisan support whenever possible.

In early February 2021, only a couple of weeks after being sworn in as president, Biden did indeed change policy. He stopped the sale of offensive military weapons to the Saudis in the Yemen war, reversed the Trump decision to designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, and appointed career diplomat Tim Lenderking as US special envoy for Yemen with the goal of obtaining the cease-fire and an ultimate peace settlement. Lenderking traveled to Oman, which has been the venue where conflicts in the region have been mediated (including previously failed ones on Yemen), and he was tasked to work closely with Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to the Yemen conflict.

Encountering Major Roadblocks

It seems that the Biden Administration was banking on the fact that its new policies, which were harsher on Saudi Arabia than on the Houthis, would make the latter more willing to reach a cease-fire with the Saudi-led coalition. That did not happen, however. Instead, the Houthis have used the past few months to launch even more missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and mount a major military offensive to take the Marib province, where Yemen’s oil fields are located. The Houthis have said they will not enter into a cease-fire until the Saudi-led coalition completely lifts its blockades on the port of Hodeida and the airport in Sanaa. The Saudis have allowed some humanitarian supplies to come through these venues but are wary of allowing their complete opening for fear that Iran might send more military supplies to the Houthis. The fact that the US Navy on May 8 seized a dhow vessel in the Arabian Sea carrying weapons reportedly from Iran and bound for the Houthis has undoubtedly reinforced Saudi concerns about a full opening of the Hodeida port.

It seems that the Biden Administration was banking on the fact that its new policies, which were harsher on Saudi Arabia than on the Houthis, would make the latter more willing to reach a cease-fire with the Saudi-led coalition. That did not happen, however.

The ongoing war and the inability to reach a cease-fire has frustrated both American and UN officials. Lenderking has taken five trips to the region since February but has come up short, while Martin Griffiths has expressed his dismay publicly. On May 31, he told reporters: “Nobody can be more frustrated than I am … We have spent a year and a half on things which are relatively simple to describe, the cease-fire, the opening of Sanaa Airport, and opening of Hodeida ports, the much-delayed start of the political negotiations.” He went on to say that whenever “we think … we will get an agreement … the war intervenes and one or other party thinks they will gain more in the battlefield.”

Now More Blame on the Houthis Than the Saudis

The ongoing Houthi offensive in Marib has increasingly frustrated the United States. In response, on May 20, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two Houthi military leaders—Mohammad Abd Al-Karim al-Ghamari, chief of the general staff directing the Marib operation, and Yusuf al-Madani, who is leading the offensive on the ground. The State Department even designated Madani as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Lenderking underscored that if there were no offensive and if the parties were dealing constructively with Griffiths, “there would be no need for designations,” implying these penalties could be removed if the Houthis stopped their attacks. He added that the Houthis are not winning in Marib but are instead “putting a great deal of stress on an already very fragile humanitarian situation.” Although Lenderking also called on the Saudi-led coalition to remove the restrictions on Houthi-controlled ports and airports, his ire was chiefly directed at the Houthis.

Although Lenderking also called on the Saudi-led coalition to remove the restrictions on Houthi-controlled ports and airports, his ire was chiefly directed at the Houthis. 

This assessment was reinforced by an early June 2021 telephone call by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (who is in charge of the Saudi-led coalition). According to a report about the call from the Pentagon, Austin, besides talking about ways to end the Yemen war, underlined to the crown prince the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia “defend its territory and people.” Austin noted the Saudis’ recent successes against Houthi missile attacks and discussed “ongoing bilateral efforts to improve Saudi Arabia’s defenses.” The Pentagon even described the Saudi kingdom as a “pillar in the regional security architecture.” These words were a far cry from Biden’s statements on Saudi Arabia during the presidential campaign.

Although US pressure on the Houthis appeared to have played a role in getting the chief Houthi negotiator in Oman, Mohammed Abdulsalam, to meet with Griffiths in late May after he had snubbed him earlier, it does not appear that this meeting led to any breakthroughs. Abdulsalam simply stated on Twitter after the meeting that the two discussed Houthi demands about lifting the blockades that would pave the way for a cease-fire.

Even Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who was one of the most vocal critics in Congress of the Trump Administration’s support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, was critical of the Houthis in the aftermath of his fact-finding trip to the region in May 2021. Murphy stated that there was “an offer on the table which is significant, and the United States is willing to be active and present in those negotiations” but the ball is in “their [the Houthis’] court … if they persist with this offensive [they] will have to answer to the world for the humanitarian catastrophe that will be created.”

After more Houthi attacks, on June 4 the State Department issued a statement that read in part: “the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people.”

Is Iran the Key?

Murphy did express some hope that a dialogue with the Iranians that would accompany a restart of the Iran nuclear deal would be helpful on the path forward in Yemen, adding that “if you want to be working on peace in Yemen, you have to be talking to both the Saudis and the Iranians.”

Meanwhile, Lenderking has said he welcomed the Saudi-Iranian talks in Iraq because they may not only lead to reduced tensions in the region but also potentially have a “positive impact on the Yemen conflict in particular.” He implied, however, that he has yet to see positive engagement by the Iranians on the issue.

Although the Iranians have given the Houthis some offensive weapons and have supported them politically, are they really calling the shots in Yemen? This is a difficult question to answer. 

But is Tehran the key in this conflict? Although the Iranians have given the Houthis some offensive weapons and have supported them politically, are they really calling the shots in Yemen? This is a difficult question to answer. It is possible that the Iranians may be encouraging the Houthis to continue their belligerency as a way of strengthening their own bargaining position with Washington over the nuclear talks, as well as with the Saudis in light of a possible rapprochement. On the other hand, the Houthis may have their own reasons that feed their intransigence.

Why the Houthi Intransigence?

Given that the incoming Biden Administration was eager for an end to the Yemen conflict and was highly critical of the Saudi-led military campaign, the question arises as to why the Houthis have continued their military attacks. Their actions have not only incurred US anger but have now helped to bring about an easing of tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

One reason may stem from territorial ambitions. The Houthis may feel that capturing more territory, especially the Marib province, will put them in a stronger negotiating position for an ultimate settlement. As Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, whoever controls its limited oil resources would have an advantage at the negotiating table.

Another reason may be political. The Houthis may feel that it is unrealistic to put Yemen back together again. Therefore, they may ask, why be reasonable in reaching a cease-fire and a peace settlement when perhaps the main objective is simply to consolidate their position, especially as the Saudis are seeking a way to exit from the conflict?

The Houthis may feel that it is unrealistic to put Yemen back together again. Therefore, they may ask, why be reasonable in reaching a cease-fire and a peace settlement when perhaps the main objective is simply to consolidate their position. 

Most of the southern part of Yemen is already operating, in essence, as a separate country, run by the Southern Transitional Council that is backed by the UAE. Although the UAE has reportedly ended its military activities against the Houthis as part of the Saudi-led coalition, recent press reports have indicated that it is constructing an air base on the island of Mayun (also known as Perim Island) in the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait. This base, which includes an expanded runway and three hangars, will allow the UAE to project power not only in southern Yemen but also in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. Reportedly, President Hadi had objected to the UAE’s desire to have a 20-year lease on this island, and officials in his government are angry over this UAE air base.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, said recently that the ongoing fighting is “ultimately behind the risk of famine, the spread of disease and economic collapse,” noting that millions of Yemenis are close to starvation and COVID-19 cases are multiplying across the country.

Recommendations for US Policy

Given the grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Biden Administration, despite its frustrations, should not give up on trying to end this conflict. It should underscore to the Houthis directly that US patience is wearing thin and that more Houthi officials, including civilians, will be sanctioned unless they stop their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and their offensive in Marib. The United States should continue to reassure the Saudis of support for their territorial integrity but underscore to them that their ongoing blockades of Houthi-controlled ports and airports are unacceptable. Washington should put on the table a sequence of proposed events that would ease these blockades while the Houthis scale back their military operations, with the ultimate goal of reaching a true cease-fire and then beginning a process for a political settlement.

Meanwhile, US officials in Vienna, Austria, where indirect US-Iran negotiations are taking place over the nuclear issue, should make it clear to the Iranians that Houthi intransigence is serving no meaningful purpose and is only making a terrible humanitarian situation worse. If Iran wants to maintain its influence in Yemen over the long term, then alienating the civilian population there does not serve its purposes.

Although there may be those in the Biden Administration who will argue that spending the time and effort to end the Yemen conflict may now be a bridge too far and that more diplomatic resources should instead be devoted to East Asia, President Biden should resist such entreaties. The United Nations, despite the best efforts of Martin Griffiths, can only be effective in this case with stepped up US engagement. This would probably require the direct involvement of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and not just special envoy Tim Lenderking; that would signal to all the parties that the Yemen issue is being elevated as a top concern for Washington. The lives of millions of Yemenis are literally at stake.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here