The war in Yemen rumbles on

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis
Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continues to harm civilians, drive displacement in the region and restrict humanitarian access.

The conflict has its roots in the failure of a political process supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an uprising in 2011 that forced its long-time authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

As president, Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

The Houthis came to prominence after seizing control of Saada province in early 2014. They later moved southwards to seize Sanaa, forcing Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee into exile.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition – backed logistically by the United States – intervened militarily in a bid to fight the Houthis, restore Hadi’s government, and reverse what they say is growing Iranian influence in the region.

The conflict is as much a domestic insurgency against an internationally recognised government, as it is a war characterised by regional and international involvement, making it all the more complex.

Escalation in the conflict

Saudi-led coalition forces continue to make considerable gains against the Houthi rebels in southern and eastern provinces, namely Marib, which represents the last stronghold of Yemen’s international recognised government, and shabwa, which has recently been liberated from Houthi rebels.

Of late, there has been an uptick in violence including both aerial and maritime attacks. There have been several incidents of note including the hijacking a UAE flagged ship which the Houthis claimed was engaged in ‘hostile acts’; alongside a number of Houthi missile and drone attacks on the UAE; one of the attacks targeted an Emirati military base hosting U.S. and British forces. Only last week, two ballistic missiles were intercepted by the Emirate Air Force.

These latest developments have confirmed the long-range capabilities of the Houthis, alongside a change in strategy. As the UAE doesn’t share a border with Yemen, the country has largely been immune from attacks. There also appeared to have long been an active strategy by the Houthis not to target the UAE.

The most recent escalation in violence follows several years of Emirate disengagement in the country. However, in the past few weeks, UAE-backed forces have ramped up attacks on the Houthis.

What next?

It is likely the conflict on the ground escalate, with coalition forces targeting military infrastructure and Houthi fighters. Meanwhile, the Houthis have warned of further attacks with the group saying that the headquarters of international companies in the UAE will be targeted in the coming period.

The escalation has raised concerns of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where the World Food Programme has warned that more than five million people are on the brink of famine, and 50,000 others are living in famine-like conditions.

In terms of international engagement, a notable shift in Biden’s foreign policy is not off the cards. In light of Afghanistan and the possible withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a more aggressive US posture would signify a move away from diplomacy. His hand may be dealt in many ways. with domestic demands to respond to the targeting of US interests in the region increasing.

The UAE, and the broader Arab league, have reiterated their calls for the resignation of the Houthis as a terrorist group. President Joe Biden’s administration revoked the terrorist designation of the Houthis introduced by former President Donald Trump last February. Despite rescinding Mr Trump’s designation, the Biden administration has maintained and expanded sanctions on individual Houthi leaders. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have maintained over the course of the past year that they will continue to treat the Houthis as a terrorist organization, regardless of whether the US decides to designate the group as such.

If the US decides to go ahead with the redesignation, it may have broader spillover effects. Firstly, it would almost certainly end any attempts at dialogue, all but ending any possibility of a peace agreement. Additionally, one of the main reasons for Biden revoking the designation in the first place was because of the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. The legal complications that surround providing aid after a redesignation make it increasingly difficult to deliver aid to certain Houthi held areas, some of the worst-affected.

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