February 12, 2021

IntelBrief: After Years of Stalemate, Recent Changes in Yemen Could Impact the War

Men are silhouetted against a large representation of the Yemeni flag (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • Following years of stalemate in the conflict in Yemen, policy shifts are underway that could impact conflict dynamics throughout the country.
  • The Houthis continue to launch attacks, making the U.S. decision to revoke the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation a tougher sell.
  • Power-sharing negotiations in southern Yemen have been plagued by numerous setbacks over the last several months.
  • These political and security dynamics in Yemen are further complicated by the deteriorating humanitarian situation, with over 24 million people in need of aid.

Following years of a military stalemate in the disastrous Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war, policy shifts are underway that could impact conflict dynamics throughout the country. In a drastic shift from the ‘blank check’ provided to Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration, the Biden administration announced that the United States would stop selling offensive weaponry to Riyadh. The United States is also elevating the role of diplomacy, appointing Timothy Lenderking as a Special Envoy to Yemen. President Biden recently commented on Yemen, declaring that “this war has to end,” and labeling it a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” The administration is also moving to revoke the designation of the Ansarallah movement, dominated by the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), citing humanitarian reasons for reversing the sanctions which do not contain a carveout or exemption for humanitarian assistance. In Yemen, as well as other places like Somalia and Syria, the lack of a humanitarian exception in counterterrorism sanctions and measures has led NGOs to warn of a “chilling effect” and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL); these impede humanitarians’ capacity to deliver critical assistance in conflict zones.

The Houthis, however, are not making it easy for the Biden administration to sell its decision to revoke the FTO designation. Just days after the announcement to repeal the designation, the Houthis launched several explosive-laden drones targeting Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport. The Houthis also launched operations to seize control of the oil-rich city of Ma’rib. The Saudis continue to target Houthi positions in Yemen, including in Sirwah district, and fighting on the ground has raged throughout parts of central Yemen, including in Ma’rib. The Iran-backed Houthis have repeatedly used drones to strike Saudi Arabia, including in September 2019 when they struck Saudi oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq. In addition to instability stemming from Houthi offensives, Yemen is also dealing with the threat posed by Salafi-jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State-Yemen (IS-Y). These groups have both been weakened over the course of the past year, but remain opportunistic, capable of taking advantage of security vacuums, and at least in the case of AQAP, cognizant of the importance of burnishing legitimacy among Yemen’s tribes and clans.

Meanwhile, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is seeking to implement the terms of the November 2019 Riyadh agreement, but struggling to unite various powerbrokers in southern Yemen, some with influential backers. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by the United Arab Emirates, is maneuvering to consolidate recent gains. The STC has threatened to secede from Yemen at various points, declared self-rule in April 2020, and has fought for control of Aden, the southern port city and temporary capital of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government. Power-sharing negotiations have been plagued by numerous setbacks over the last several months. In December 2020, missiles struck the tarmac as a plane arrived in Aden carrying members of the country’s newly formed government. At least 26 people were reportedly killed in the attack, with more than 100 wounded. Yemen’s prime minister blamed the attack on the Houthis.

These political and security dynamics in Yemen are further complicated by the deteriorating humanitarian situation, despite efforts by the United Nations to create safe passage for humanitarian assistance in the port of Hudaydah. According to the World Food Program, 16 million Yemenis are suffering from food insecurity. In addition to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, cholera, dengue fever, and malaria are rampant. Six years of armed conflict have caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including over 18,400 civilians, and have destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, compounding the suffering. While the Biden administration’s resolve to support an end to the conflict in Yemen is welcome news, prior peace efforts have progressed very slowly, painting any near-term resolution as a nearly impossible task. In his January briefing to the Security Council, Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, renewed his call for all parties to agree to the Joint Declaration that has been under negotiation – covering a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic relief, and a resumption of the political process. He noted that two parties have agreed to the ceasefire, though not proposals relating to the payment of salaries to civil servants, the opening of the port of Hudaydah, or the reopening of Sana’a airport for international flights.

The conflict is multi-layered and far more complex than the simplified narrative of proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, there are a range of war profiteers who benefit from prolonged conflict, including smuggling networks, terrorists, and other criminals, who stand to gain from Yemen existing in a state of durable disorder.