November 29, 2022

IntelBrief: Fighting Starts to Escalate in Yemen

AP Photo/Wail al-Qubaty

Bottom Line up Front

  • The ceasefire between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and Houthi opposition forces formally expired in early October and continues to deteriorate.
  • In November, the Houthis attacked government-controlled energy infrastructure targets, but they have thus far stopped short of resuming strikes on targets inside neighboring Saudi Arabia.
  • U.N. officials are negotiating with the contending Yemeni factions and their outside backers to prevent escalation and to reinstitute the formal ceasefire.
  • The U.S. interception of an Iranian shipment of missile-capable fuel to the Houthis in November demonstrates that Tehran seeks to improve the Houthis’ bargaining leverage and to blame internal unrest on Iran’s adversaries.

A ceasefire, agreed in early April between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi opposition movement, expired on October 2 over unmet Houthi demands that the Arab state backers of Yemen’s government further ease their blockade of Houthi-controlled ports and transportation hubs. The warring factions tacitly agreed to refrain from major combat. On November 22, U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg briefed the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) that: “[W]e have fortunately not seen a return to full-fledged war, and I note the courageous and difficult decisions to avoid this path.” He qualified that overarching conclusion by adding that: “Even though overall levels of violence have only increased slightly compared to the six-month truce period, in recent weeks we have seen a concerning uptick in incidents in Ma’rib, in Taiz, including incidents involving civilian casualties.”

Furthermore, the Special Envoy mentioned that the Houthis in November carried out missile attacks against oil terminals and ports in Hadramawt and Shabwa governorates with the aim of depriving the Republic of Yemen government of its main source of revenue – the exportation of oil. Grundberg and other international officials have noted that the renewed Houthi attacks are likely to worsen the already severe humanitarian situation in the country, which had begun to improve since the ceasefire was first implemented in April. The missile strikes followed a Houthi drone attack in late October on a Greek cargo ship near the port city of Mukalla, although the vessel was not damaged. The key backers of Yemen’s government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), appear to be abiding by their main ceasefire-related commitments, including allowing passenger flights from Sana’a to Amman, Jordan, and permitting deliveries of fuel to the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.

The Houthis, backed by Tehran, believe that their selective new missile and drone attacks will improve their position at the bargaining table without provoking a return to all-out warfare. However, the Houthis have not, to date, resumed strikes on Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Achieving a cessation of attacks on their territory was a key driver for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back the ceasefire in April, and will likely guide a cautious response from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to Houthi missile and drone attacks inside Yemen. Further, the Houthis also calculate that U.S. critics of Saudi Arabia’s premier Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and of Saudi policy in Yemen will restrain the Kingdom and the UAE from extensive retaliation to modest Houthi provocations. The Houthis appear to believe that it is Saudi and Emirati leaders that would bear most of the blame for renewed warfare, worsening the still severely adverse humanitarian conditions throughout the country. Yet, the Gulf states still do not see a pathway to a permanent resolution to the conflict that would enable them to disengage militarily and deny predominant control of Yemen to the Houthis and, indirectly, to Tehran.

Achieving a political solution is an objective the Gulf states share with major powers, the United Nations, and international humanitarian agencies. U.N. Special Envoy Grundberg stressed in his November 22 UNSC briefing that: “I am engaging the parties not only expanding the truce but initiating discussions on a path toward a more comprehensive settlement of the conflict. I have outlined ideas and options to them on steps to be taken and I repeat my message that the international community and, more importantly, Yemenis expect them to demonstrate actionable commitment to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”

From Tehran’s perspective, supporting renewed, if limited, Houthi attacks in Yemen serves the Islamic Republic’s interests.  Clear evidence has emerged in recent weeks that Tehran supports the renewed Houthi attacks. On November 14, the U.S. Navy said it found 70 tons of a missile fuel component (ammonium perchlorate) hidden among bags of fertilizer aboard a traditional “dhow” ship bound for Yemen from Iran - the first-such seizure since the ceasefire formally terminated on October 2. U.S. Navy officials told journalists that the amount of ammonium perchlorate discovered could fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles. The shipment would appear to represent an Iranian violation of the United Nations arms embargo that has prohibited weapons transfers to the Houthis since 2014 and will add to the mounting international scrutiny of Iran’s recent actions. On November 24, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to investigate Iran’s crackdown against protesters, and European Union and U.S. officials have increased sanctions against Iran for its abuses of protesters and provision of armed drones to Russia for use against Ukraine. Iran’s attempts to resupply the Houthis with weapons technology corroborate accusations from the Yemen government and its backers, such as the November 24 statement by the Chief of General Staff of the Yemeni Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Sagheer bin Aziz, that the Houthis will not agree to peace because they are obliged to fulfill Iran’s destructive agenda in the region. As long as Tehran and the Houthis calculate that they gain an advantage through armed provocations, the prospects for a reinstatement of a formal ceasefire or a permanent settlement in Yemen are slim.