Late March will mark the sixth anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in the war in Yemen. As the Houthi rebels intensify their offensive in Marib governorate, there is renewed optimism for diplomacy as the new administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has listed resolving the conflict in Yemen as one of its main foreign policy initiatives. The Biden administration ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen. Moreover, creating a new post, Biden appointed Timothy Lenderking as the U.S. special envoy for Yemen. The administration also revoked the designation of the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization, reversing a move by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump.
A New U.S. Policy on Yemen?
With its recent moves, the Biden administration appears serious about fulfilling the pledge the president made on the campaign trail that he would end the war in Yemen. However, the moves also raise the question of whether the United States is developing a policy that is focused sufficiently on Yemen. For a long time, the United States has not had a Yemen policy, and its stance on the tiny Arabian Peninsula country has had more to do with Saudi Arabia and the region. In fact, over recent decades, there have only been only a few instances when Washington was not on the same side as Saudi Arabia regarding matters involving Yemen.
Moreover, when the war in Yemen erupted and Saudi Arabia led a coalition launching a military intervention in March 2015, the administration of former President Barack Obama backed Riyadh, sharing some of the kingdom’s concerns regarding Iran’s regional influence. Subsequently, the Trump administration increasingly supported Riyadh. In fact, Trump’s support for Riyadh seemed “unconditional” in an unprecedented way, which was apparent in how he dealt with the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul or even his support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. In April 2019, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution on Yemen in an attempt to end U.S. support for the coalition. However, less than two-thirds of the Senate supported the resolution, so Trump was able to veto it.
Though Biden served as vice president during the Obama administration, as president he has changed the U.S. course on Yemen and shifted Washington’s policy regarding the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, much has changed since the Obama administration backed the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen. And there is increasing criticism of Riyadh’s military campaign. The war is much more complicated than when it began, as new actors, fault lines, and tactics have emerged, so it remains to be seen what impact the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts might have on resolving the conflict.
The Importance of Marib for Hadi’s Government
In early February, the Houthi rebels launched an offensive from three directions on Marib governorate, east of the capital of Sanaa. Back in January 2015, Sanaa fell to the Houthis. By then, the rebels controlled most of the other cities in the country’s north, and the fighting pushed many people to flee to Marib. Since that time, the tribes in Marib have been able to fight back and resist the Houthis. The U.N.-backed Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has considered Marib the unofficial capital in the north, and over time it became a launching pad for the Hadi government’s operations against the rebels.
Today, Marib is the government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen. If it falls to the Houthis, it would deal a heavy blow to Hadi’s government. First, the Houthis would be able to increasingly assert themselves as the de facto rulers of the north; this would not only constitute a territorial loss for the Hadi government but would also weaken its position politically. Second, Marib is known for an abundance of gas and oil fields. If the government does not maintain its control over Marib, it will lose its control over those resources, causing economic harm for the government. Third, Houthi control over Marib would mean that what was effectively the bulwark that had blocked the rebels’ advances toward the oil-rich Hadramout and Shabwa governorates had collapsed. Thus, the Houthis would likely advance into Shabwa, where the government’s forces would probably be redeployed.
This could open the door to increased tensions between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council. “Already controlling the southern governorates of Lahj, al-Dhale and Aden, the STC aspires to expand its reach across the territories of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen: between 1967 and 1990, this independent state encompassed Shebwa as well as government-held Abyan, which sits between Shebwa and STC-controlled Aden,” notes an International Crisis Group report. “Some STC leaders even see cutting a deal with the Huthis that would enhance prospects for renewed southern independence – a move that would spell disaster for Hadi – as preferable to staying in the uneasy unity government they formed with the president in December 2020. Such sentiment would likely grow were the government to fall in Marib and seek to shore up its position in the south.”
Weak Government-STC Alliance
Despite diplomatic efforts, government-STC tensions have not eased completely. On November 5, 2019, the Hadi-led Yemeni government and the STC signed the Riyadh Agreement. It aimed to achieve at least two goals: Put an end to the clashes between the government and the STC, which had reignited in August 2019, and mend the rift between the two nominal allies. Hussam Radman writes, “The agreement focused on three things: forming a national partnership cabinet, changing local authorities and security chiefs in all southern governorates to improve the livelihood situation in liberated governorates, and restructuring military and security forces in the south as a way of bringing all units under the umbrella of either the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior.” Although some steps have been taken, such as forming a power-sharing government that includes STC members, the agreement has not been fully implemented.
There is still not complete trust between the government and the STC. The STC seemingly views the Riyadh accord as an interim agreement, entered into for pragmatic reasons, and it is still intent on pursuing its separatist agenda. In April 2020, the STC announced plans to establish a self-rule administration in the territory it controls in the south. The Hadi government responded that such a course of action bears “dangerous and catastrophic consequences.” The STC rescinded its declaration in July. But that does not mean that it has necessarily given up on such aspirations. Divisions remain between the Hadi government and the STC, and the frail Riyadh Agreement may be vulnerable to collapse if tensions between the government and the STC increase.
While there are intensified diplomatic efforts to end the war that has caused Yemen to become what is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, tensions among the key actors on the ground are also escalating, ensuring that resolution of the conflict is not going to be straightforward. Optimally, for peace to prevail in Yemen, the warring parties should have the determination to put the future of their country first and prioritize the peace process. The more likely scenario is that diplomatic efforts will face tough challenges along the way, as stakeholders with competing interests jockey for advantage and attempt to shape the diplomatic outcome. Under such conditions, success is possible but will almost certainly be exceedingly difficult.