Regional focus

UN special envoy of the secretary-general for Yemen Martin Griffiths briefs the Security Council on the situation in Yemen.

The Houthi forces have received considerable support and consultancy from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Through adapting light infantry tactics, they’ve been shaped into a highly effective raiding force, able to blunt their disadvantage in air power by atomising their forces into tiny pockets. This has all worked very well for them in mountain terrain and when they’re put on the defensive by superior forces, according to Knights.

“They’re also very good at what I would call ‘preparation of the battlefield with precision fires’,” he claims, citing the Aden Airport attack on the Yemeni Cabinet. “They’re always doing strikes on leadership figures using precision drones that the Iranians have helped them to develop or using precision tactical rocket systems like the Badr-1.” So, when you put all of that against the demoralised, poorly armed Yemeni forces, the Houthis typically have had an advantage in the war. At this point in the conflict, the Saudi air power has been the main obstacle holding them back from taking Marib, according to Knights. But with the US arms sales restrictions, it raises questions over how long the Saudis will remain willing to stay involved.

Little progress towards peace If the Houthis have an advantage on the field, stepdowns like the US’s arms sales restrictions will only embolden them further, giving them less reason to come to the negotiation table. After all, why would they give up their current advantage, when everything is starting to go their way? “There are two people in the world who have

really, very actively tried to end this war in Yemen. One is Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy, and the other is Tim Lenderking,” Knights says, noting that both have worked closely with the Saudi Arabian government on the peace process – Griffiths since February 2018 and Lenderking since February 2021 as the UN and US special envoy to Yemen, respectively. Both have been heavily involved in


negotiations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tehran, Iran, and Muscat, Oman, with the Omanis serving as mediators between the coalition and the Houthi forces. On the surface, these talks have made minimal progress, with Griffiths offering a few signs of hope in his final briefing to the UN Security Council before being replaced by former UK MP Alistair Burt. At this point, as Knights explains, Saudi Arabia isn’t a major obstacle in ending the war, as its investment has waned in the past few years. The main issue is that various internal factions in Yemen are all too entrenched in the conflict to allow it to end, whether that’s due to the Houthi forces’ current advantage, or the international aid and support being enjoyed by the Hadi government. “The post-war settlement can probably only disadvantage [either side] from where they are now,” Knight notes. “The Hadi government’s mandate simply expires the moment this war isn’t there anymore. And why would the Houthis stop fighting? If you’re only giving them carrots and there’s no stick, why would they stop when any settlement is going to result in them losing?”

The question, then, is how can peace be achieved when it goes against the interests of both sides, especially when each side has various clashing interests of their own? The UAE, for example, has very different long-term objectives for Yemen than its military partner and ally Saudi Arabia does, Vakil explains. The Saudis’ main aim is to see the Hadi government restored and the territorial integrity of Yemen maintained. The UAE, on the other hand, is in favour of the idea of a federalised system in the region, which is why it began supporting the STC after it broke with the Hadi government.

At the same time, both the internal and external players feed off one another. Iran, in Vakil’s opinion, often exaggerates its level of control over the Houthis, who are hardly a monolithic group in any case. “Turning to Iran to manage the Houthis and ask them to restrain missile attacks towards Saudi Arabia isn’t necessarily going to guarantee the Houthis’ restraint,” she notes. “Both conflicts have to be resolved in tandem – you have to find a mechanism or a pathway to bring the external actors into a coordinated discourse, while simultaneously managing the internal civil war dynamics. No meaningful peace or division of government can be arrived at ultimately without an internal acceptance of peace.”

There is still considerable work to be done before this conflict can be brought to a close, and much uncertainty lies ahead. The Biden administration’s efforts may have ceded control of the war to the Houthis or may yet prove to have provided the necessary first step towards a resolution. What is clear, however, is that until all parties are willing to come to the table, peace in Yemen remains a distant prospect. ●

Defence & Security Systems International /

lev radin/

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