For the past decade Yemen has been torn apart by civil conflict, an extension of internecine strife that goes back much further. The main protagonists in the current struggle are the Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia militia group heavily dependent on Iran, and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Sunni states determined to prevent Iran gaining complete control of Yemen, and thus vastly extending its power in the region.
The battle has flowed this way and that over the past ten years, but the Houthis have gained more than they have lost. They ‒ and that means the Iranian regime ‒ are now the de facto rulers of a broad swathe of Yemen, controlling much of the commerce through which humanitarian aid flows. From time to time they give lip service to the idea of a negotiated truce or peace deal, but none has stuck.
The growing strength of the Houthis was demonstrated on February 25, when they targeted the city of Marib with a ballistic missile that landed in a residential area. Marib is an important stronghold of the legitimate government, and houses the headquarters of the Yemeni Defense Ministry. The missile strike came as the Houthis launched their attack on the city. On February 26 the Saudi-led coalition said that it had intercepted and destroyed two explosive-laden drones launched by the Houthis toward Saudi Arabia.
It is generally accepted that one key factor, among others, uniting Israel and the Arab signatories to the Abraham Accords is to frustrate Iran’s aspiration to dominate the Middle East. The Iranian regime pursues this ambition unremittingly across the region, both directly by way of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Iraq, and through a variety of proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, extremist groups in Iraq and the Gulf, and in Yemen by way of the Houthis.
The Biden administration’s reaction to the Iranian threat, and in particular to Iran’s increasingly powerful position in Yemen via its Houthi proxy, has been less than comforting to the Sunni Arab world and to Israel. Rejecting the hard line adopted by Donald Trump, Biden has declared his intention to re-engage with Iran in an attempt to renew the nuclear deal. Early approaches may have resulted in a standoff, but it is early days as yet.
The Biden White House is downgrading the effort led by Saudi Arabia to deny Iran a major role in Yemen’s future. Instead it is giving first priority to relieving the humanitarian disaster facing the country. On February 16, the Treasury Department formally revoked the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terror organization because, it was explained, maintaining it would exacerbate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
At the same time the US urged the Houthi rebels to cease all military operations in the northern Yemen province of Marib and return to negotiations.
Referring to UN figures that estimate a million Yemenis have sought refuge in Marib to escape Houthi violence, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “Marib is controlled by the legitimate government of Yemen. This assault will only increase the number of internally displaced persons and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, already home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.”
Emphasizing that there is “no military solution,” Price said: “The time to end this conflict is now.”
Perhaps to emphasize the point, Biden has imposed a temporary freeze on sales of F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.
It can only be hoped that the full shape of Biden’s reconceived policy in Yemen and beyond has not yet been revealed. As it stands, the US appears to be reverting to the failed assumptions of the Obama administration ‒ namely that appeasing the Iranian regime will somehow result in it complying with the norms of international conduct. That approach certainly did not work over the eight years of the Obama administration, and it will not again.
What the world’s political leaders cannot, or will not, believe is that Iran has its own agenda. It is pursuing domination of the Middle East and supports a widespread Shi’ite terrorist network to achieve it. The regime’s enmity toward Western democracy in general, and the US and Israel in particular, is fundamental to its purpose. To renege on it would be to deny its very raison d’être. Equally unshakeable is its intention to acquire nuclear weapons.
Early in 2018 British born Martin Griffiths was appointed UN Special Envoy for Yemen. Before the end of the year he succeeded in what was regarded as the near-impossible – he brought the two main protagonists in the Yemen conflict to the negotiating table. On 6 December 2018 delegations from the government of President Hadi and from the Houthi rebels sat down, facing each other. The atmosphere was far from hostile. Both sides appreciated the humanitarian disaster that had overtaken Yemen’s civilian population as a result of the conflict, and seemed willing to compromise on at least some of the key issues.
Eventually these arrangements petered out, overtaken by renewed conflict. But the fact that negotiations are possible should be the template on which US policy is designed. UN Resolution 2216, which aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen, should be the basis. This new effort will have to be backed by a UN peace-keeping force. Through whatever means would be most effective – new sanctions if necessary – Iran must be deterred from supplying the Houthis with military hardware. Humanitarian aid must be given unfettered access to all parts of Yemen.
A lasting political deal would of course involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi Arabia to fund the rebuilding of the country.
Finally the Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen, and perhaps a constitutional conference possibly leading to a form of federal constitution.
Can Biden sponsor an initiative of this sort? Or is he content to see a rampant Iran actually conquer Yemen?