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Yemen at a crossroad: Will Houthis listen to reason?

By : Mohamed Samir

In mid April, Iran-backed Houthis launched an attack towards Saudi Arabia’s Jizan, the attack was the latest of a series of hostilities against civilian targets in the Kingdom. The Saudi-led Arab coalition managed to destroy five ballistic missiles and four of the so called “suicide drones” targeting a university and other civilian sites.

 Houthis continued hostilities were condemned by the United States, EU, Egypt and several others.

“These actions by the Houthis perpetuate the conflict in Yemen, now going into its seventh year.  As U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking and UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths work side-by-side to promote UN-led peace efforts, the Houthis’ actions are prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people and jeopardizing these efforts at a moment when there is a commitment from the international community to end the conflict now,” the US State Department said in a press statement.

The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths highlighted international unity in support of ending six years of fighting between Yemeni Government forces,  the Iran-backed Houthis, while briefing the UN Security Council in mid April.

The war which marked it’s sixth anniversary on March 2021, yet, one can argue that it also marked the crossroads between war and settlement.

In March, Saudi Arabia presented an initiative to peacefully settle the Yemeni crisis and put an end to the war. It was welcomed by international and regional powers, and grabbed the attention of several European countries on the sidelines of a NATO meeting on March 24 2021.

On the other hand, Iran and the Houthi militia rejected the initiative in an indication of their desire to continue the war in Yemen and against Saudi Arabia.

The rejection coincided with the launch of a squadron of drones targeting an oil facility and university buildings in Jizan, followed by the launch of a ballistic missile at Najran.

The Saudi initiative is based on four main pillars:

First, a comprehensive ceasefire across Yemen under the supervision of the United Nations as soon as the Houthis approved the initiative.

Second, easing restrictions on the port of Hodeidah with the transfer of customs revenues to a joint account in the Central Bank in Hodeidah.

Third, reopening of Sanaa Airport to regional and international destinations.

Finally, relaunching political dialogue to end the crisis.

On the other hand, the Iranian ambassador to Sanaa, Hassan Erlo, responded to with four counterpoints: That the initiative should include a complete end to the war. He also called for a complete lifting of the “siege”, the withdrawal of military forces, and a political dialogue between the Yemenis without any external interference.

Connotations behind Iranian and Houthi response

To get a better understanding of the Saudi initiative and the Iranian response to it, several factors should be considered:

The first factor is the nature of the initiative, as a truce proposal that includes a comprehensive ceasefire, as a prelude to stopping the war later in the event that it succeeds, and it is a tactical framework that is understood as a phased process.

The final cessation of the war requires broader processes in the event that the initiative is accepted and a new path to settlement is launched. Likewise, easing restrictions on the port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport addresses with Houthi militia previous requests, but in a controlled fashion.

Opening Sanaa airport does not mean a return to the resumption of flights to Iran or Lebanon so that the airspace will not be reopened to the former and its regional agents to provide more Iranian or Lebanese Hezbollah military support to the Houthi militia.

The customs revenue sharing process in Hodeidah port is considered to be a formal abandonment of the economic separation policy after the transfer of the legitimate central bank to Aden. Thus, it paves the way for a post-settlement agreement that is supposed to produce a new form of power, most likely closer to the peace and partnership agreement that was previously proposed in conjunction with the Houthi militia’s takeover of Sana’a and was included in the Gulf Initiative agreement.

For Iran’s Erlo, the initiative does not achieve Iranian-Houthi interests, as it will not open the airspace to Iran and Lebanon, and this is clear in the Houthi anti-agreement propaganda which insists that the opening of the airspace should not be conditional.

Moreover, Erlo proposed a “military withdrawal” clause, stipulating that Saudi Arabia should withdraw its military support for the Yemeni army, without mentioning the Iranian military support for the Houthis.

In February 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif  said “We have not received any proposal to stop Tehran’s support for the Houthis in exchange for stopping Washington’s support for coalition operations in Yemen.”

Erlo also did not address the position on the Iranian-Houthi withdrawal in light of the confirmation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s presence in Yemen.

Rather, most international reports, including those of the United Nations expert group in Yemen, indicate a wide presence of the Revolutionary Guard in managing the war in Yemen and the attacks against Riyadh.

Also, according to many local reports, Erlo pushed the Houthis to continue the war on the Marib front as a step aimed at strengthening their cards upon acceptance of the truce, which would require a comprehensive ceasefire at the lines drawn by the battles.

The second factor is the engagement equation: The Yemen crisis is impacted by regional balance of power. In the recent period, Iran increased the construction of underground missile stores, and conducted maneuvers that carried hostile messages to all countries in the region, as well as doubling the military capabilities of its proxies in general and the Houthis in particular, especially with regard to the supplies of missiles and drones. The Houthi militia revealed the possession of a  Samad-4 drones, which has a range greater than 2,000 kilometers, and double the bombload of the previous drones in the militia possession. The announcement of the new drone coincided with the militia’s rejection of the Saudi initiative, another indication of its readiness to continue military operations.

Iran considers that it has won the war in Yemen by prolonging it over a period of six years, and according to what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, there is still a tendency to further prolong it for the seventh year. In fact, Iran’s calculations of winning the war in Yemen or other regional conflict areas are based on an equation it imposed in the context of indirect warfare through its proxies in various squares outside its borders, but it is not believed that reversing this path may be in Tehran’s interest, if it decides.

Several observers believe that the initiative offers the last chance for Iran before the United States and its international and regional partners change the current equation of engagement and wage a direct war against it.

As Iran have used the Yemen war to target international interests by obstructing maritime navigation through repeated attacks on ships, and disrupting global supply chains by attacking production sites and oil shipping ports in the Gulf.

The third factor is the fact that the International Quartet namely: the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are throwing their weight behind the Saudi initiative that was proposed, most likely, in coordination with this international group. Also, those countries issued warning and immediate statements to Iran and the Houthis as soon as they launched attacks on Saudi Arabia as a response to the initiative, as that group was considered to undermine the efforts of the peace process in Yemen, and these parties, with the exception of Germany, participated in joint maneuvers in various theaters in the Middle East in partnership with Saudi Arabia during March.

Thus, it can be concluded that the Saudi initiative is an international initiative presented by Riyadh as a response to the international forces calling for stopping the war, which was confirmed by those countries in their statements of support for the initiative by saying that Saudi Arabia confirmed its true desire to end the war in Yemen.

This indicator confirms that international and regional powers seek to ensure Iran’s initiative to change its regional policy and its support for proxies before returning to the nuclear agreement as a precondition, a step that was focused on by the group of US Congressmen who stressed the need for Joe Biden’s administration not to make a concession to Iran in this file.

The initiative’s address to the Houthis directly represents a bet on the extent to which they will accept the “disengagement” with Tehran on the other hand.

It also will indicate whether the Houthi militia will be move towards participating in the political process on a national ground in which the rest of the political forces participate, or will the militia chose to stay under the Iranian influence.

The response to this particular point was mentioned at the beginning of the speech of Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, the militia leader on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the war, as he thanked Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah for their support. He also compared the initative with the Taif Agreement which put an end to the Lebanese civil war.

His speech shows that he has no intention to accept the sharing of power with the Yemeni government under Saudi sponsorship, but rather the domination of power in Yemen under Iranian sponsorship.

Possible Scenarios

At the moment, each of the parties has a settlement plan and another for war.

Iran wants to settle the Yemeni file within the framework of a clear goal, coupling the American return to the nuclear agreement with the withdrawal of its support for the proxies. Iran which has a long history of building and supporting proxy, Tehran has rebuilt the military capabilities of the Hezbollah militia over decades, which caused an imbalance in the political equation in Lebanon and the party’s involvement in wars with Israel and then expanding it in Syria.

In the best possible scenarios, it can be said that reaching an interim “armistice” and not a comprehensive settlement is the most likely possibility.

Once reached, this truce will impose the features of a future project for a settlement that will emerge from the “subjugation” battle that the two sides run. Settling the Yemeni crisis could be the start of  a broader regional settlement, while the failure of the settlement project might expand the circle of war in the region.

Likewise, the worst-case scenario became on the table as well, direct war, as 10 simultaneous maneuvers were conducted in the region, the theater of which extended from the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf, through the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

Dealing with a scenario of a new war in the region centered on Yemen, is clear through one of the maneuvers led by the US Navy alongside Belgium, France and Japan dubbed the “Group Arabian Sea Warfare Exercise”.

And between the two previous scenarios, the opportunity still exists. Despite Iran and the Houthi’s rejection of the Saudi initiative, the international negotiation movement continues on the part of the US and UN envoys through the Omani mediator with the Houthis and Iran, indicating that the international powers have not lost hope in the possibility of peace.

In conclusion, there is still a long way to go to reach the a settlement and end the war in Yemen. As Yemen stands at a crossroads between war and settlement, an armistice could be an indicator to the possibility that all parties could commit to ending the conflict.

Humanitarian challenges in Yemen and KSRelief role

According to the UN OCHA,  two-thirds or 20.7 million people need protection, food and nutrition, WASH, shelter, and medical support. While more than half of the population in Yemen (17.8 million people) require assistance to access safe drinking water and sanitation.

In mid-March 2021, Martin Griffiths, said, “an ongoing offensive by the Houthi rebels on Marib province – the last northern stronghold of Yemen’s Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government – was putting civilians, including an estimated one million internally displaced people, at risk.”

There are about four million internally displaced people in Yemen, 73% of whom are women and children

Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has directed $3.533 billion in aid to the war torn country, according to his Excellency Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Centre (KSRelief) Supervisor General; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Royal Court Advisor; Former Saudi Arabia Minister of Health.

These funds were allocated to several projects, one  of which is MASAM Project for Clearing Landmines in Yemen. According to Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, Houthi militia has planted almost 2 million landmines. So far, KSRelief has managed to deactivate 232,257 of those mines.

Another program launched by the organization is the Child Soldiers Rehabilitation Program, which aims to rehabilitate 25,000 child soldiers that have been recruited.

Moreover, KSRelief launched several nutrition-focused, and educational programs in Yemen. Regarding women empowerment, the center launched My Skills My Livelihood program, to help them gain skills and being able to earn an income.

On the health front, KSRelief concentrated on women health programs in cooperation with UNICEF and WHO. The center also launched four amputee clinics to rehabilitate landmines victims, the clinics also teach Yemeni cadres to be able to handle these problems in the future.

Abdullah Al Rabeeah revealed that during Taiz siege by Houthi militias four years ago, the center managed to provide medical supplies through airdrops to four hospitals that were suffering from lack of supplies.

Overall, the center has implemented 590 projects in Yemen, worth $3.533 billion to all Yemenis from border to border. Food security programs allocations took the lion’s share with $1.063 billion, health with $745.5 million, followed by humanitarian and emergency relief with $669.2 million.

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