War without end27 July 2021
With President Biden’s campaign pledge to halt US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and reopen negotiations with Iran, there was reason to think that an end to the civil war in Yemen could be within reach. Nicholas Kenny speaks to Dr Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, and Michael Knights, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to find out how the new US administration has shifted the balance of the war.
On 30 December 2020, an aircraft touched down on the tarmac of Aden International Airport in south-west Yemen, carrying representatives from the newly elected Yemeni government. This journey, ostensibly, was made in the name of peace – an attempt at reconciliation between the Yemeni government under President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, backed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by the UAE.
As the passengers disembarked, they must have felt that an end to at least part of the conflict was achievable, in a war that had been raging since 2015. In August 2019, the STC had seized control of Aden, and it went on to declare self-rule in southern Yemen the following April. This declaration was rescinded three months later, and the Hadi government and the STC agreed to a power-sharing deal with equal representation in the 24-member Cabinet.
This trip, then, was in some ways a victory tour – the final seal on this alliance. However, this made it a prime target for the other key player in this conflict – the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, who occupy the capital of Sanaa and much of northwestern Yemen.
As the crowd gathered on the tarmac to welcome the visiting ministers, three mortar shells landed on the runway, leaving 28 people dead and 107 others injured. And after the smoke cleared, and the injured and dead were taken away, peace seemed as distant as it had ever been.
In the wake of the attack, the Trump administration announced its intention to formally designate the Houthi forces as a terrorist organisation. This went into effect on 19 January 2021, a day before the president left office. The Biden administration quickly made clear that it had a very different set of objectives than its predecessor, ending offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia on 4 February and going on to revoke the Houthi terrorist designation a few days later.
“I think there has been sort of a bipartisan shift in the US policy establishment. One that is more critical that the war has not accomplished its goals to eradicate terrorism or to address the growing influence of Iran in Yemen,” says Dr Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. On top of this, of course, we’ve witnessed a growing humanitarian crisis made worse by the pandemic.”
At the same time, there has also been growing anti- Saudi Arabian influence within Congress, due in part to the human rights abuses laid out against Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged involvement in the death of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. And with the US still entrenched in the war in Iraq and currently withdrawing from Afghanistan, the appetite for direct US involvement in foreign conflicts is at an all-time low. “President Biden is executing this shift to address his campaign promises,” says Vakil, “but really also to draw down US military commitments to what are perceived to be forever wars in the Middle East.”
A halt on arms sales
Speaking on the US’s end to offensive arms sales in Yemen, Biden publicly stated that “this war has to end”, but his actions did not come without criticism. On one hand, they reversed a Trump-era sanction that had been heavily criticised by humanitarian organisations and theoretically reduced weapons for Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen. On the other, removing the designation without extracting a concession from the Houthis risked projecting weakness and disorder among the allies supporting the Hadi government.
“It’s a bit of a feel-good gesture,” says Michael Knights, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who points out some of the issues with a blanket ban on offensive weapon sales. “For years, we’ve been telling the Saudis to discriminate in their campaign, and we just blocked their first-ever purchases of 250lb small-diameter bombs. Instead, they have to use their huge 1,000lb bombs to strike a target as small as a guy on a motorcycle.”
At this point in the conflict, according to Knights, the only area that is still regularly experiencing Saudi air strikes is the oil hub of Marib, which has been under a steady stream of attacks from Houthi forces for the past few years. Given the decreasing scale of the strikes, previous munitions sales under the Trump and Obama administrations will most likely allow Saudi Arabia to continue its current level of support for the foreseeable future.
However, far from being the invading force that it’s commonly been perceived as, the Saudi military intervention began on 25 March 2015 in response to a request by the internationally recognised Hadi government. Restrictions like the US’s halt on arms sales, then, punish the side with the greater claim to legitimacy in the face of the global community. “It’s potentially stopping one side in the civil war, but not both – and not the side that is actually sanctioned by the UN,” Knights adds.
Since then, the conflict has very much developed into a theatre for the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leaving the Saudis reluctant to step away from the war effort. Sanctions have simply pushed them to buy weapons elsewhere. While the US and several EU member states including Germany, Italy and Belgium have restricted sales of arms for use in Yemen, the UK exported £1.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia in the third quarter of 2020 alone.
Even if these countries did issue their own sales restrictions, this wouldn’t impede the Saudis too greatly. “They can move to more UK-made Paveway-type munitions that they can put onto the European platforms and use them,” Knights adds. “They can move to a guided bomb system from the UAE, they can buy old stocks like 1,000–2,000lb bombs and older kits from the Jordanians.”
And while some members of the US political sphere might suggest raising sanctions against countries continuing to sell weapons for use in Yemen, such action is unlikely to garner widespread support. Ultimately, the US’s decision was not made with the goal of ending the war in Yemen, Knights adds, but is more to do with keeping its hands clean.
“It’s really about absolving the US of obvious direct responsibility,” he says. “What people don’t realise is that the Saudi campaign in Yemen is already at such a low level, that what we do to it will probably not alter it much at this point.”
The rebel front
If the halt on arms sales will not greatly interfere with the Saudi Arabian war effort, it is likely to increase the perception of delegitimisation over its involvement in the war. That, in turn, can only provide a boost to the Houthi forces, just as previous attempts to hinder foreign involvement in the war had before.
“The conflict dynamics are very much hot and on the rise,” says Vakil. “Despite the fact that they have received some positive signals from the Biden administration – removing, for example, the ‘foreign terrorist’ designation that was imposed by Trump – the Houthis have continued to march on Marib and are trying to expand their territorial control.”
Value of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the third quarter of 2020.
The Houthi forces have received considerable support and consultancy from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Through adapting light infantry tactics, they’ve been shaped into a highly effective raiding force, able to blunt their disadvantage in air power by atomising their forces into tiny pockets. This has all worked very well for them in mountain terrain and when they’re put on the defensive by superior forces, according to Knights.
“They’re also very good at what I would call ‘preparation of the battlefield with precision fires’,” he claims, citing the Aden Airport attack on the Yemeni Cabinet. “They’re always doing strikes on leadership figures using precision drones that the Iranians have helped them to develop or using precision tactical rocket systems like the Badr-1.”
So, when you put all of that against the demoralised, poorly armed Yemeni forces, the Houthis typically have had an advantage in the war. At this point in the conflict, the Saudi air power has been the main obstacle holding them back from taking Marib, according to Knights. But with the US arms sales restrictions, it raises questions over how long the Saudis will remain willing to stay involved.
Little progress towards peace
If the Houthis have an advantage on the field, stepdowns like the US’s arms sales restrictions will only embolden them further, giving them less reason to come to the negotiation table. After all, why would they give up their current advantage, when everything is starting to go their way?
“There are two people in the world who have really, very actively tried to end this war in Yemen. One is Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy, and the other is Tim Lenderking,” Knights says, noting that both have worked closely with the Saudi Arabian government on the peace process – Griffiths since February 2018 and Lenderking since February 2021 as the UN and US special envoy to Yemen, respectively. Both have been heavily involved in negotiations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tehran, Iran, and Muscat, Oman, with the Omanis serving as mediators between the coalition and the Houthi forces. On the surface, these talks have made minimal progress, with Griffiths offering a few signs of hope in his final briefing to the UN Security Council before being replaced by former UK MP Alistair Burt. At this point, as Knights explains, Saudi Arabia isn’t a major obstacle in ending the war, as its investment has waned in the past few years. The main issue is that various internal factions in Yemen are all too entrenched in the conflict to allow it to end, whether that’s due to the Houthi forces’ current advantage, or the international aid and support being enjoyed by the Hadi government.
“The post-war settlement can probably only disadvantage [either side] from where they are now,” Knight notes. “The Hadi government’s mandate simply expires the moment this war isn’t there anymore. And why would the Houthis stop fighting? If you’re only giving them carrots and there’s no stick, why would they stop when any settlement is going to result in them losing?”
The question, then, is how can peace be achieved when it goes against the interests of both sides, especially when each side has various clashing interests of their own? The UAE, for example, has very different long-term objectives for Yemen than its military partner and ally Saudi Arabia does, Vakil explains. The Saudis’ main aim is to see the Hadi government restored and the territorial integrity of Yemen maintained. The UAE, on the other hand, is in favour of the idea of a federalised system in the region, which is why it began supporting the STC after it broke with the Hadi government.
At the same time, both the internal and external players feed off one another. Iran, in Vakil’s opinion, often exaggerates its level of control over the Houthis, who are hardly a monolithic group in any case. “Turning to Iran to manage the Houthis and ask them to restrain missile attacks towards Saudi Arabia isn’t necessarily going to guarantee the Houthis’ restraint,” she notes. “Both conflicts have to be resolved in tandem – you have to find a mechanism or a pathway to bring the external actors into a coordinated discourse, while simultaneously managing the internal civil war dynamics. No meaningful peace or division of government can be arrived at ultimately without an internal acceptance of peace.”
There is still considerable work to be done before this conflict can be brought to a close, and much uncertainty lies ahead. The Biden administration’s efforts may have ceded control of the war to the Houthis or may yet prove to have provided the necessary first step towards a resolution. What is clear, however, is that until all parties are willing to come to the table, peace in Yemen remains a distant prospect.