During the Houthi militia meeting with US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Linderking on 4 March the Houthis rejected the US ceasefire proposal. While the negotiating parties kept a lid on the content of the US initiative that followed Linderking’s visit to Saudi Arabia during which he met with officials of both the Yemeni Legitimate Government and the Arab Coalition, and Marine Griffiths, the UN Envoy, the Houthis revealed in various statements that the initiative didn’t deviate from the Saudi vision and wasn’t any different from what Griffiths had put on the table in previous talks.
On the ground, the war took a different turn after the US State Department announced in February revoking designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. Biden administration decision came less than two months after Trump’s administration decision to designate the Houthi movement a terrorist organization, a decision that the Houthis met with escalation of internal military operations in Marib and doubling of drone strikes and ballistic missiles attacks, the most violent of which – as per the militia allegations – have been their wide-scale attacks on Dhahran, Dammam, and Khobar on 7 March.
In return, the Yemeni joint forces have developed their military capabilities on different axes making the move from defense and counter-attacks to multi-pronged attacks for the first time in years which enabled them, backed by the Coalition to Support legitimacy in Yemen, to carry out counter-attacks on Houthi militias, and managed to advance to Taizz and regain strategic areas in Al-Kadha, in an attempt to break Houthis’ siege surrounding the city, opening a road to the Western coast where army forces in Taizz unite with Giants Brigades and could, later, be of support in Marib confrontations. In parallel, the coalition expanded its air strikes on Houthi targets in these fronts and increased its attacks on Houthi targets in Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda, Hajjah, and Saada.
And if the outcomes of these developments are any indicator, they would suggest that the war seem to be unfolding as war drums are heard louder than actions of peace. Further, satisfactory settlement seems to be long way off, gradually tapering off with each party hoping of a victory that would turn the course of the war in their favor depending on a number of indicators, as detailed below.
The Iranian approach
Since its outbreak, the Yemeni war had had a regional dimension. Iran is pushing the Houthis towards escalation as part of its escalation against the US and US regional allies in light of its balance of power equation. It takes a counter-US position as to the cessation of war in Yemen as a way of exerting pressure on the US for settlement of its nuclear program. The Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, known as P5+ 1, negotiations have come to a standstill and Washington is ready to rejoin negotiations only if the Iranian missile program and the Iranian regional expansion files are put on the table, a thing which Iran refuses adhering to going back to the original framework of the Action Plan negotiated under Obamas’ administration.
Despite the US attempts to constrain Iran’s missile program, Iran worked on increasing its missile capabilities, kept supplying its regional proxies with a large stock of missiles, and is actively seeking expanding its regional influence by further empowering its regional proxies. On the ground, Iran increased attacks on areas where American forces are stationed, particularly in Iraq. Recent attacks on Aramco facilities and Port of Ras Tanura conveys the same message i.e. targeting oil facilities where Americans work. Parallelly, it fueled a tanker shipping war in the Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea.
The Iranian approach was made as clear as day with statements of Esmail Qaani, Commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds, on 12 March in which he supported Houthis’ attacks on Dhahran, Dammam, and Khobar: “Yemeni fighters surprised the world launching eight successful operations in less than ten days, targeting sites of the Saudi regime”, he declared to Tasnim News Agency, adding “We have made it clear that we will break the bones of the criminal US. The sound of them being fractured will be heard at proper time”. The Iranian diplomacy position wasn’t a far cry from that of Qaani’s. Following his first meeting with the UN envoy, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said in an interview with Iranian TV Press on 21 February 2021 “We informed the UN envoy of our readiness to end the Yemeni war but Iran has not received any proposal to cut off its support to the Houthis, in return for Washington cutting off its support for the Saudi-led coalition.”
The Saudi approach
Saudi Arabia reiterated its willingness to respond to the demands of the US and international community of ending the war, supporting humanitarian operations trajectory, and giving precedence to settlement. However, clashes on the ground have another say with Iran-backed Houthis and Saudi Arabia taking contradictory positions. Saudi Arabia does everything it can to prevent Houthis’ taking control of Marib, a province that has a symbolic value for the Coalition being the residence of the Joint Forces Command, and taking control of it would open the way for Houthis to set foot in Safer’s facilities, the company which produces 40 percent of the Yemeni oil. Moreover, if Saudi Arabia is to remove restrictions on Sanaa airport and Al Hudaydah port, this would give the Houthis political legitimacy as a de facto authority which means the recognized Yemeni government will be left with no chance to return to Sanaa.
Observers believe, though, that the Saudi position reflects a wider geopolitical perspective. Houthis’ seizing control of Marib would mean Saudi Arabia living under a constant geopolitical threat. Houthis taking control of Marib would give revival to what Houthis call the “Old Zaidi Imamate” – the pre-republic era that came to an end in the 1960s – and this would isolate Saudi Arabia from its areas of influence in Hadhramaut. Iran is quite aware of this context, as is evidenced by Hassan’s Erlo declaration calling on ending the war in Marib seeing “ceasefire a decoy that will weaken Houthis’ stance in negotiations that will establish borders and power balance in conflict area.”, as per local Yemeni reports.
On the other side, the US withdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition didn’t constitute a paradigm shift in the war. Indeed, the US will likely need to re-assess its position. The primary vision of the US administration was of treating Houthis’ threat against the KSA as a border security issue and supported the Saudi forces accordingly. The Houthis seek keeping Riyadh out of the game to solely re-distribute balance of power and draw up borders thereby serving their denominational project, as evidenced by the Houthi militants leader, Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, who clearly stated that the Houthis will stop targeting Saudi Arabia only if Saudi Arabia stopped its airstrikes and support to the national army and lifted the siege on Sanaa airport and Al-Hudaydah port.
American moves: Fragile “power of diplomacy” theory
Despite the Houthis’ refusal of the US initiative for ceasefire aimed at allowing for humanitarian relief and establishing a favorable climate for settlement, the US Secretary of State reiterated the US’s intention to resume diplomatic efforts for ceasefire, a strategy that Biden administration has adopted since first day, and supported further by the remarkable visit of President Joe Biden to the State Department where he confirmed the necessity of ending war through diplomacy. But what are the chances of Biden’s policy yielding results given Tehran’s response of “breaking US bones”, as per Qaani, or “betting diplomacy” of Zarif’s?
Realistically, Washington cannot convince Riyadh of stepping back from the military action against the Houthi escalation as the US itself has gone that route in Syria and resorted to the military option against the Iran-backed Iraqi Militia following similar attacks on its forces in Iraq. Recently, the US decided to increase its military bases in Syria (Al-Yarubiyah base in Al-Hasakah East countryside) only ten days after Biden taking office. In Iraq, the US is unlikely to proceed withdrawing its troops, expected to be completed in 2022, as Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, recently stated that the “the current situation in Iraq under Iran-backed attacks demonstrate the need to stay there”. In negotiations with Iran, the US sticks to its guns and is willing to resume negotiations only on its terms to protect its interests in the region and interests of its allies without making any concessions that would give Iran regional supremacy or help it strengthen its military capabilities as has been experienced during the period of nuclear agreement of 205-2018.
The US initiative for ceasefire in Yemen is likely to face a similar fate as that of the UN initiative proposed by the UN mission that would – just as Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 – require several rounds of talks before an acceptable agreement – that turns to be unworkable – is reached, a lesson the US hadn’t learned from its war in Yemen. While the new US administration took the initiative and revoked designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, Houthis militia didn’t act similarly. After only one month of providing aid, the US State Department expressed concerns about the militias intercepting and diverting aid particularly fuel, meaning the militia exploited the US position for their favor by channeling humanitarian aid to serve their military operations, let alone selling it in black market and making profits.
In conclusion, clashes are developing but the game isn’t likely to change in the near future with the engaging parties choosing the military option. And amid regional and local complexities, parties are likely to turn a deaf ear to the ceasefire initiative until each manages to win the war and shift balance of power into their favor. The Houthis’ sectarian and geopolitical project continuing to mature indicates that penetration of the Iranian influence in Yemen now goes beyond using Houthis as a pressure card in Iran’s regional conflict, which poses a strategic threat to Riyadh, leaving it in a fateful war to prevent the Houthis’ from creating sectarian force on its borders – similar to that of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon – and threatening its historical influence in Yemen. The conflicting parties seem to have a long breath to resume war for an extended period, which poses a challenge to the American diplomacy that has a little role to play before the balance of power is altered to the Coalition’s advantage.