Next month marks the seventh year since the Ansar Allah movement – commonly known as the Houthis – captured Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, in September 2014. Since then, the war in Yemen has intensified, leading the country into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There are no signs of a political solution that could end this crisis, as the stalemate between the warring parties endures.
Despite the Houthis launching their offensive to capture oil-rich Marib in February 2021, the battle remains ongoing, with little progress on either side. While the rebels attempted to capture the governorate in the past, Marib is increasingly emerging as a decisive battle in this war. To both the rebels and the internationally recognized government, led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the governorate is of paramount significance. For the Houthis, capturing Marib would be both politically and economically beneficial; most importantly, it would enable them to strengthen their position in future peace talks. For Hadi, on the other hand, Marib is a province that he cannot afford to lose. As Marib is his last northern stronghold, and given the strength of UAE-backed secessionists in Yemen’s south, it could be argued that this is where his political survival could hang.
Although it has been over half a year since the rebels launched their latest offensive, they have not given up on capturing the city. In turn, the government’s forces are seemingly attempting to restore their position. Last month, they made a rare advance against the Houthis in the Rahabah district, which is located along a major road connecting Marib to the capital. While the battle has displaced over 18,000 people thus far, there is no indication when it will lead to a decisive result.
What About the Peace Process?
Marib appears to be one of the various obstacles faced by the US Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, as no agreement has yet been reached about establishing a ceasefire in the province. In February 2021, the Biden administration is said to have opened talks with the rebels. While these are not the first U.S.-Houthi talks to have occurred, they seem to have been fruitless – for now, at least – due to a number of reasons. First, the Houthis have refused to halt their offensive on Marib, hoping to achieve a military victory outright. Second, they rejected Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire proposal five months ago. Third, they have continued to launch attacks against Saudi territory. On the rebels’ side, they want the blockade, which was imposed by Saudi Arabia six years ago, to end. But Hadi and Riyadh remain unwilling to meet this request if the rebels continue their assault and reject the implementation of a ceasefire across the country.
Middle East expert and former State Department analyst Gregory Aftandilian explains this dilemma: “The Biden administration has little leverage right now in Yemen. It cannot go back to arming the Saudi-led effort there without incurring the wrath of Congress and the human rights community, nor can it get involved militarily in Yemen by itself because that would lead to a quagmire that it wants to avoid.” Aftandilian, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, continues, “The one hope is that, if the Iran nuclear negotiations resume and lead to a successful outcome, it can then persuade Iran to stop supplying the Houthis with weapons.”
Concessions First, Negotiations Later
Since the war is progressing in the rebels’ favor, they do not currently seem to have any desire to support the peace process. On recent days, they refused to meet with Hans Grundberg, the newly appointed UN Special Envoy to Yemen. “There is no use in having any dialogue before airports and ports are opened as a humanitarian necessity and priority,” Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam said in response to the new UN envoy’s appointment. The Houthis want to maintain the impression that they speak from a strong position, and are consequently setting conditions before sitting with Grundberg, which is unsurprising. If the blockade ends merely as a precondition to talks, the Houthis will gain a victory even if the talks collapse. They will likely use such a victory for domestic consumption, in an attempt to boost their popularity among their supporters.
In contrast, it is not difficult to discern that Hadi wants to maintain control over as many areas in the north as possible, especially Marib. In the governorate, the government receives the backing of the Saudi-led coalition. If Hadi loses Marib, the Saudis’ image is also likely to suffer, as the Houthis’ success would serve as further evidence that Riyadh has failed to achieve its declared objective of reinstalling Hadi in power.
There are various obstacles which the new UN envoy is likely to face. One action he could take would be to push for UN Security Council Resolution 2216 to be replaced. The resolution has become outdated, as it deals with Hadi and the rebels as the only warring parties; this is no longer the case, as this war currently contains many local actors in addition to the government and the Houthis. These local actors will not accept their elimination from the equation.
Iran’s Approach Under Raisi
On August 5, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who has long been cultivated by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was sworn in as the nation’s new president. Over the years, the Iranian role in Yemen has gradually increased. as The ongoing civil war, particularly, has strengthened the relationship between the Houthi rebels and Iran.
Tehran’s support of Ansar Allah is evidently set to continue. “In the Yemen context, we have seen more attacks from the Houthis launched at Saudi Arabia in the first half of this year than we have for several prior years,” Dana Stroul, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, told lawmakers on August 10. “Iran is increasing the lethality and complexity of both the equipment and the knowledge it transfers to the Houthis so that they can attack Saudi territory [and] Saudi civilians.”
In Iran, hardliners perceive the war as a way to impose pressure on Riyadh, which has spent at least $265 billion on maintaining its intervention. With a hardliner having now assumed leadership in Iran, it is unclear to what extent he will cooperate in supporting the peace process in Yemen.
Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group, Ali Vaez, says, “Raisi has put early emphasis on regional engagement as a priority for his administration, offering “a hand of friendship and brotherhood to all countries in the region” during his inauguration and meeting with a UAE delegation in Tehran. On the Iranian side, the benefits of de-escalating with its neighbors are significant: expanding economic ties could help offset the financial impact of ongoing U.S. sanctions, and defusing diplomatic tensions would give the new government greater space for addressing the myriad internal challenges it faces. But the JCPOA’s fate looms over Iran’s foreign policy writ large, with negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 agreement in limbo since June, and tensions between Tehran and Washington, as well as U.S. regional allies, still high.”
Vaez continues, “While the Iranian government may seek to insulate its outreach to Gulf rivals from these wider dynamics, pursuing parallel paths of de-escalation with neighbors and escalation with the West is unlikely to succeed. One arena where this is likely to translate into continued proxy conflict is Yemen. As such, without restoring the JCPOA, it is hard to imagine that Iran would play a constructive role in bringing an end to the war in Yemen.”
Clearly, the foreign role in Yemen has only complicated the civil war. Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s seemingly attempts to use the war against each other prolonged the conflict. Unless they stop their apparent use of Yemen as a battleground for their regional contest, the country will unlikely come out from the dark tunnel it has entered anytime soon.
Adulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region.