A combination of offensive military actions by the Houthi rebels and stalled peace talks to try to end the civil war in Yemen have changed the way the United States and other international actors are now viewing the conflict. Instead of taking advantage of the early days of the Biden Administration’s fresh approach to Yemen, which included an end to offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and removal of the Houthis from the terrorism list, the Houthis have instead doubled down on the military option by increasing their attacks in Marib province and launching more missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia. In the process, the Houthis are now losing the public relations aspect of the war as the international community, including the US Congress, had tended to be more critical of the Saudi-led coalition for most of the conflict. Such self-defeating policies by the Houthis do not augur well for a cease-fire and a peaceful resolution of this tragedy, one that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian disaster since World War II.
Instead of taking advantage of the early days of the Biden Administration’s fresh approach to Yemen, the Houthis have instead doubled down on the military option.
Spurning the Biden Approach
Soon after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, he seemed determined to change US policy toward the war in Yemen, in which the Trump Administration had heavily supported Saudi Arabia amid mounting Yemeni civilian casualties. Some of this change in policy may have been the result of Biden’s own guilt feelings for having been part of the Obama Administration’s initial support for the Saudi-led effort in 2015, when he was vice president. It probably also reflected the mood in Congress—led primarily by fellow Democrats but also including some Republicans—to end US involvement in the Saudi-led campaign. Only a couple of weeks after he was sworn in as president, Biden removed the Houthis from the foreign terrorist designation list and vowed not to provide US support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” to Saudi Arabia. Roughly at the same time, Biden appointed an experienced US diplomat, Tim Lenderking, to try to seek a peaceful solution to the Yemen conflict.
However, the Houthis decided to step up their military campaign in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province which, just in the past month, has resulted in thousands of displaced civilians as well as hundreds of casualties not only for the Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces but among Houthi troops. While not formally foregoing diplomatic initiatives, the Houthis charged that they would not stop their offensive until the Saudis first lifted their blockade of the Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeida.
While not formally foregoing diplomatic initiatives, the Houthis charged that they would not stop their offensive until the Saudis first lifted their blockade of the Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeida.
Whether this Houthi demand in exchange for stopping the fighting is genuine or merely a ruse remains an open question, but it seems that neither side wants to appear weak by making the first move. Some analysts have speculated that that the real aim of the Houthi offensive in Marib is not only to take the province to strengthen their negotiating position vis-à-vis the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but perhaps also to permanently control this province in case Yemen breaks up into several states. The oil and gas fields in Marib would provide export revenue that is crucial.
It is important to note that for most of the war, Marib province was outside of Houthi control and was an area where many internal Yemeni refugees found safe haven. Because of its oil resources Marib city became relatively prosperous and grew to nearly 3 million people. Until 2019, the area was protected by Emirati forces but when the UAE decided to draw down its troops in Yemen, Marib was left largely defenseless. After the Houthis mounted an offensive there in early 2021, the Saudis and their Yemeni government allies stepped in to protect the area with the support of some Sunni tribes, aiming to deny the province and its resources to the Houthis.
Leaving aside the tactical aspects of this military campaign, the Houthi decision to spurn the Biden Administration’s new approach is partly due their own ideology, which is strongly “anti-imperialist” and sees the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as part of a cabal that has to be opposed. That both the Obama and Trump administrations aided the Saudi-led effort against them only reinforced this ideological stance. Moreover, as Zaydi Shia (a different branch from the Twelver Shia practiced by most Shia in the Middle East), the Houthis have long resented Saudi Arabia for supporting Yemeni Sunnis against them and for funding Sunni proselytizers in the country’s northern provicnce Saadah (their traditional home), prior to the civil war. The fact that many errant Saudi bombs have fallen on Houthi civilian supporters, attacks which the Houthis see as deliberate, also contributed to this animosity toward the Saudis.
The Houthi decision to spurn the Biden Administration’s new approach is partly due their own ideology, which is strongly “anti-imperialist.”
Furthermore, as the much poorer neighbors, many Yemenis have long resented the patronizing attitude that the Saudis have sometimes displayed toward them and their position at the mercy of Saudi political and economic decisions. For example, during the first Gulf War (1990-1991), Saudi Arabia expelled more than a million Yemeni workers from the kingdom after the Yemeni government sided with Iraq in that conflict. More recently, in summer 2021, Riyadh began to lay off hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Yemeni workers as part of a campaign to reduce unemployment among Saudi citizens. This policy has brought economic hardship for many struggling Yemeni families who have relied on remittances from their male family members in Saudi Arabia to survive. Hence, it was not without political significance that Yemenis celebrated enthusiastically the recent win by their national youth football (soccer) team over Saudi Arabia’s team in the West Asia junior football championship games.
Changing Stance by the Biden Team and Congress
The Houthis’ anti-US ideology has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the wake of the Houthis’ unwillingness to stop their militarily offensive in Marib and nearby areas as well as their stepped-up missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory, Biden Administration officials have changed their tune. In response to these ongoing attacks, State Department spokesman Ned Price stated on December 6, 2021: “We have made very clear that we stand with our Saudi partners who have, for quite some time, endured terrorist attacks by the Houthis in Yemen … [who] have demonstrated through their actions on the ground, including their offensive against Marib, through their continuing attacks against Saudi Arabia, including attacks that have the potential to inflict grievous harm on civilians in Saudi Arabia, that at the current moment, they are the obstacle to diplomacy.”
In the wake of the Houthis’ unwillingness to stop their militarily offensive in Marib and nearby areas as well as their stepped-up missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory, Biden Administration officials have changed their tune.
In addition, in mid-December, the ambassadors of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to the Yemeni government issued a statement that expressed “deep concern about the continued Houthi assault on Marib, and stresses the need for an immediate ceasefire, especially given the large numbers of Yemenis displaced as a result of the fighting.”
In the US Congress, the sentiment on the Yemen conflict has also shifted, albeit not as much as within the Biden Administration.
In the US Congress, the sentiment on the Yemen conflict has also shifted, albeit not as much as within the Biden Administration. Although many congressional members are still very critical of Saudi Arabia, and the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would bar logistical support, maintenance, and spare parts to Saudi warplanes in the fight against the Houthis, the amendment did not survive in the final passage of the bill by the full Congress. Similarly, a bill that aimed to block a $650 million arms sale deal to Saudi Arabia failed to pass the Senate, with two-thirds of that body voting in mid-December against it. The Biden Administration, much to the dismay of some progressive Democratic senators, opposed the bill, saying it would “undermine the President’s commitment to aid in our partner’s defenses at a time of increased missile and drone attacks against civilians in Saudi Arabia.”
These failed congressional attempts to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reflect a weakening of the congressional position from the spring of 2019, when both houses of Congress passed bills to invoke the War Powers Act on the Yemen conflict that would have ended US support for the Saudi-led coalition. That legislation was vetoed by President Donald Trump.
Iran’s Controversial Involvement
The extent of Iran’s involvement in the war in Yemen has been a subject of much controversy. While Yemen was already awash in weapons prior to 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition initiated the first air strikes, it is probably true that Iran has provided the Houthis with missiles and some other arms. For example, in May 2021, the US Navy intercepted an arms shipment aboard a vessel in the Arabian Sea (containing thousands of assault weapons, machine guns, and sniper rifles) that was apparently bound for the Houthis. And in early December 2021, the US Justice Department announced it had disposed of Iranian oil and munitions that were found aboard two vessels seized by the US Navy from 2019 and 2020, both of which were also likely bound for the Houthis. Such incidents have bolstered the claims by Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government that Iran is providing substantial weapons to the Houthis on an ongoing basis, though the claim is likely exaggerated. In the wake of the recent Justice Department report, the Yemeni government called on the UN Security Council to “name and shame” the Iranian government for such activities.
Undoubtedly, the Houthis have appreciated Iranian support because it helps to boost their military capabilities, though the extent to which Iran can influence Houthi decision-making is uncertain
Iranian assistance to the Houthis is reportedly part of the discussions that have been taking place periodically in Baghdad between the Saudi and Iranian governments. In Vienna, where indirect talks are taking place between Iran and the United States over a possible return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iranians have indicated that regional issues are off the table, however. Undoubtedly, the Houthis have appreciated Iranian support because it helps to boost their military capabilities, though the extent to which Iran can influence Houthi decision-making is uncertain.
Working with the UN but without Progress
US diplomats continue to work with the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who has been trying hard to broker a cease-fire, to be followed by a peace deal—but to no avail. Reportedly, the latest efforts involve a proposal in which the Saudis would allow the United Nations to monitor the port of Hodeida and the airport in Sanaa in exchange for a Houthi agreement to a cease-fire. So far, the Houthis are not budging, and the Saudis seem uninterested at this point as long as Houthi attacks on their kingdom continue.
US diplomats continue to work with the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who has been trying hard to broker a cease-fire, to be followed by a peace deal—but to no avail.
In the meantime, the military stalemate persists. Although the Houthis have made gains in Marib province, at times they have encountered stiff resistance from the Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces and have suffered hundreds of casualties in recent weeks, along with losing a key highway linking Hodeida with Sanaa. But Yemeni government forces have also lost hundreds of fighters in recent fighting, including a prominent military commander, Major General Nasser al-Dhaibani. In the air campaign, the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia have been matched by Saudi air attacks on Houthi-controlled positions.
Sadly, the humanitarian crisis worsens by the day. In a new report, the UN estimates that since the conflict began, about 377,000 Yemenis will have died by the end of 2021, 60 percent of whom will have succumbed due to the lack of food, water, and health care. Malnutrition among children is particularly acute, and some parts of the country are facing famine. Grundberg has emphasized that military options are not sustainable solutions and all concerned must prioritize the needs of civilians and revive a political process.
Recommendations for US Policy
The Biden Administration has been trying to thread the needle of pressing the Houthis to come to the negotiating table and showing the Saudis that it still has their back—all while maintaining its position of providing no offensive military weapons to Saudi Arabia (it is noteworthy that the recent deal was labeled a sale of defensive weapons). The Saudis want an exit strategy from the Yemen conflict, one that has been a disaster on many counts; however, they believe they must respond to Houthi military attacks with counterattacks of their own. Such policies, however, will merely prolong the military conflict, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more innocent Yemeni civilians will suffer.
Current US policies will merely prolong the military conflict, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more innocent Yemeni civilians will suffer.
To break the stalemate, the Biden Administration should provide both carrots and sticks to the warring parties. Although the recent approval of the arms sale to Riyadh was controversial, the administration should now capitalize on it to press the Saudis to be more flexible on the Houthis’ demands to end the blockade on ports and airport. At the same time, it should redouble efforts to work with the Omanis (who have been playing a mediation role in the conflict) and the United Nations to underscore to the Houthis that it is unlikely a military solution could be realized and that they will be even more marginalized regionally and internationally if they continue down that road. Iran seems to be the only friend the Houthis have, and if the Saudi-Iranian talks in Baghdad move ahead, Tehran may come to believe it is no longer in its interest to continue to supply the Houthis with arms.
To break the stalemate, the Biden Administration should provide both carrots and sticks to the warring parties.
Although Washington has little sway with the Houthis, and the softer approach that the Biden Administration initially tried did not work, the Omanis could impress upon the Houthis that continued military attacks are not going to end the conflict; a cease-fire, at least, would help to bring more humanitarian aid to Yemen’s very hard-pressed population and win them points in the international arena. No movement, no matter how tough it wants to appear, seeks to remain a pariah.