A pro-government fighter in Yemen at an anti-Houthi front in Marib, June 19, 2021 (AP)

Will the War in Yemen Return?


Mon, 01-04-2024 04:52 PM, Aden

“The inherent motives that sparked the war in Yemen in 2015 are still in place. The Houthi’s forced control over North Yemen constitutes an ongoing threat along with their relentless pursuit for expansion.”

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24) 

Although the Yemeni war began weeks before March 26, 2015, the Houthis date it to this day when Sanaa and other Yemeni cities were hit by a wave of airstrikes by the Saudi and Emirati-led Arab Coalition under the so-called ‘Operation Decisive Storm’.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024, marked nine years since launch of this Arab military intervention that was carried out on the request of the then internationally-recognized government. It contributed in effectively repelling the forces belonging to the Houthis and their then ally ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh’ as well as driving them out of the coastal city of Aden and other cities in South Yemen.

Despite the UN-sponsored humanitarian truce between April and October 2022 and the subsequent de-escalation phase, the sounds of guns haven't totally fallen silent. In fact, they have escalated recently. This has pushed UN Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, to warn of the return of the war during two briefings at the UN Security Council. 

Due to the latest developments and with the new layer of violence added to the scene by the Houthis through their unprecedented attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea, the possibilities of war making a comeback appear to have become more worrying than ever. This is enhanced by the clinical death of the roadmap that aims to reach a political solution, and was just a step away from being officially signed, at least between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis last year.

Related: Between Maritime and Land Routes, The Yemeni Crisis is Becoming More Complicated 

The new complexities and developments in Yemen have led to serious thinking about the possible next scenarios. This has been relatively clear over the past period due to the progress achieved in the political path. This comes amid talk by the anti-Houthi camp of the possibility of wresting back control of Yemen's western coast from the Iran-backed militia as well as taking back the key Port of Hodeidah. This would be feasible with Western support or at least with the West giving the green light that has been blocked since 2018 after signing of the Stockholm Agreement 1

So, will the war In Yemen return?

The Houthi Option

American expert and former member of the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen, Fernando Carvajal, believes that the return of war may be a Houthi option. He noted that “While recruitment and training (by Houthis) continues across areas controlled by the Internationally-Recognized Government, the anti-Houthi forces are hesitant to engage the militia along any battlefront for a number of reasons.”

He told ‘South24 Center’: “There is no assurance for any party that the Coalition will deliver the necessary weapons and sustain the flow of munitions to units fighting the Houthis. This is why a number of Yemeni leaders have made comments trying to pressure the US for closer relations.”

He added: “However, there is no way the Biden Administration will join the war or establish direct relations with any party bypassing the Coalition.” 

He indicated that “from a military strategic point, it would make sense for a group to challenge the Houthis and try to overstretch them as they focus missile and drone strikes on vessels. However, the anti-Houthi forces lack the means to do so. They also prioritize local political rivalries that threaten their own hold on physical territory.”

“The Houthi threat on Marib remains, and we can also see how the Houthis could test government troops in Marib and the Southern forces in either western Shabwa or Al-Dhalea,” he added. 

The expert believes that “the Houthis, as a typical tactic, expect to build leverage from every military operation they engage in. The strikes on ships in the Red Sea build on their reputation within the Axis of Resistance but do not advance their interests at the national level. Now they will try to pressure Saudi Arabia to deliver a deal in talks over their strikes on ships.”

He added: “Since they are highly unlikely to get much in concessions from Saudi Arabia or the UAE, we can expect the Houthis to re-engage on the ground at a time when Riyadh cannot afford to see Yemeni armed forces losing any ground against the Houthis.” 

Continuing Motives

Southern military expert Brigadier General Thabet Hussein Salih believes that “the inherent motives that sparked the war in Yemen in 2015 are still in place”. He told ‘South24 Center’ that “the Houthis’ forced control over North Yemen constitutes an ongoing threat along with their relentless pursuit for expansion into the remaining territories outside their control such as Marib and Taiz.”

He added: “The Houthi militia are continuing with their attacks in South Yemen in addition to the new front they have opened in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and the Gulf of Aden which has led to the militarization of this strategic vital waterway.”

On the other hand, political analyst Nabil Al-Soufi told ‘South24 Center’: “The Arab Coalition’s war against North Yemen ended in 2019 after the cessation of the Hodeidah war and liberating Shabwa in South Yemen. The war is likely to remain like this for decades if the Houthis aren’t crushed. The cessation of the war is linked to vanquishing the Houthis. There are no other options.”

Commenting on the possibility of the situation returning to ”square one” and the failure of the current political path, Al-Soufi said: “We are still actually inside square one.”

The Possibility of War is Excluded

Political analyst Rasheed A-Haddad, who lives in Sanaa, said: “All indications currently point to a strong international desire to successfully complete the path of peace in Yemen.”

He told ‘South24 Center’: “This has been clear through the intense diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and the European Union that focus on supporting peace and efforts to reach a comprehensive agreement which would end the ongoing conflict in the country.”

According to him “Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab Coalition in Yemen, is considered one of the most important states that supports the peace path. It has confirmed its commitment to its agreement with Sanaa to ensure the success of this path. Moreover, Saudi Arabia continues its diplomatic efforts to achieve this goal. Russia also has participated in supporting the peace path. It seeks to play a positive role in bringing together the different perspectives adopted by the competing Yemeni parties.”

Nevertheless, Al-Haddad believes that “the United States is seeking to re-ignite the war in Yemen”, adding that “Sanaa is working to make Washington miss this opportunity by intensifying its military capabilities and preparing for any possible military confrontation.” He believes that “the Houthis’ military aerial superiority enhances their position in the negotiations and reduces the possibility of a return of a comprehensive war.”

Saudi political writer Mobarak Alatty shares a similar view regarding ruling out the return of the war in Yemen. He told ‘South24 Center’: “The US-UK intervention south of the Red Sea, under the so-called ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’, has certainly led to the overlapping of some cards. However, the Saudi-Emirati reluctance to take part in the operation has deepened the trust between the Arab Coalition and the Houthis.”

In light of these developments, he “rules out any sudden outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, especially between the Arab Coalition and the Houthis, due to the obvious commitment to an undeclared truce”.

Alatty pointed to the meetings conducted by the Saudi diplomacy with Iran, Washington, and the Yemeni parties. He explained: “These have enhanced the feelings of trust toward Riyadh and confirm the importance of the continuation of the Saudi commitment to support peace choices and leave the Yemeni-Yemeni issues to the Yemeni people to decide their future according to what they see.”

The Readiness of the anti-Houthi Forces

The latest Houthi naval attacks have demonstrated the militia’s superiority in weapons such as the ballistic and winged missiles as well as drones. On the other hand, the Houthis’ rivals don’t apparently have the same number of armaments or even the defenses needed to fight the Houthi capabilities that have forcibly halted oil exports since November 2022 2. This raises a question about the readiness of these parties.

Commenting on this, Brigadier General Thabet Hussein said: “There are no field indications about the readiness of the Yemeni government and the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) to confront the Houthis, whether in the North or South. The Stockholm Agreement has apparently provided the government and the resistance forces in North Yemen a sufficient pretext to evade confronting the Houthis. The Southern forces have continued with an ongoing defensive war since 2015, not only against the Houthis but also against the AQAP as well as combating the chaos and poor services.”

He added: “The Arab Coalition has to support the Southern forces and any anti-Houthi forces to close this dangerous gap in military capabilities. In principle, wars aren’t decided by missiles and air forces. They are decided by strong will, ground forces, popular support, and other factors.”

According to expert Carvajal, “The United States can only provide political and diplomatic support to the anti-Houthi forces. (US President Joe) Biden is facing internal restrictions. His party opposes the increase in military sales to Saudi Arabia or UAE before the November 2024 elections. Moreover, Biden can’t bypass Saudi Arabia or the UAE to directly fund or provide military aid to the anti-Houthi forces.”

He said: “The United States is aware that the Houthi strikes (in the Red Sea) will continue regardless of what happens in Gaza. This is a permanent threat in the hands of Iran and the Houthis. The United States primarily focuses on anti-smuggling operations through the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. The strikes against the Houthis focuses on launch sites, factories, and their arsenal of aircraft and missiles."

Expected Scenarios

According to Carvajal, at the political level “the Houthis will likely continue to reject the UN-sponsored peace talks unless Saudi Arabia fulfills some of their demands. Currently, the UN has nothing to deliver to the Houthis, who know that the donors won't supply money to the UN-sponsored humanitarian plan. Saudi Arabia alone can provide cash for humanitarian operations.”

He believes that “If Saudi Arabia funds the UN humanitarian operations in North Yemen, this would serve as an incentive to the Houthis to deal with the UN Envoy Grundberg. However, this will be futile. The Houthis apparently aren't interested in lifting the siege imposed on Taiz 3 or to give a space to the United Nations in (the Houthi-controlled Red Sea ports of) Hodeidah or Ras Issa.”
Carvajal stressed that “any new prisoner exchange deal won't likely include the extradition of high-profile detainees based on the government's list”.

According to Carvajal, “the Houthis will try to militarily split the PLC parties by distributing the threat across Marib, Shabwa, Al-Dhalea, and Yafa”. “This would pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE again and present a weak image of the anti-Houthi forces. This would serve the Houthi interests during the talks with Saudi Arabia and the UN Envoy,” he added.

Nabil Al Sufi believes that the future of Yemen is inseparable from the significant international developments. He said: “With regard to the international community, we are in an election year in Britain and the United States. Therefore, these elections will cast a shadow on the Houthi and Iranian relations on the one hand, and the American and European relations on the other hand. Thus, nothing will happen during this year. The winners of the next elections are those who will decide the fate of these relations.”

Rasheed Al-Haddad remains optimistic about the political path of the Yemeni crisis. He explained: “There are strong speculations about a political breakthrough over the coming weeks. Saudi Arabia shows great keenness for the success of the peace path. It summoned Yemeni Prime Minister, Ahmed Bin Mubarak, to Riyadh. The Gulf Cooperation Council also held meetings with political parties.”

However, it seems that any talk about the political path of the Yemeni crisis should be accompanied by warnings against pursuing distorted solutions that only postpone the problems and crises and create future circles of conflict and violence which would turn concerns of the war's comeback into reality. Some parties in Yemen have warned about this factor, especially the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which hasn't welcomed the roadmap announced by the UN Envoy in December 2023.

In a statement at the time, the STC said: “We follow the statement issued by the UN Special Envoy regarding the road map. The STC welcomes any peace efforts after consultations are completed with all significant parties to ensure the achievement of a comprehensive and successful political process. The STC emphasizes the necessity of having a political process that resolves the issue of the people of the South by including it in the political negotiations that will be under UN auspices.”

1. The UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement was signed on 13 December 2018 between the Houthis and the Yemen government, which committed the parties to a ceasefire in the city of Hodeida and the ports of Hodeida, Salif, and Ras Issa, as well as redeployment of forces on both sides, and an opening of humanitarian corridors.

2. The Houthis had carried out four drone attacks in October and November 2022 on oil ports in Hadramout and Shabwa (South Yemen), which led to the cessation of the Yemeni government’s oil exports, which continues even today.

3. Taiz governorate is divided between Houthi and government control. In 2015, the Houthis entered Taiz governate and surrounded its capital, Taiz city. Today, the city remains under Yemeni government control and is also under siege by the Houthis. The Houthis have rejected all UN efforts and proposals to lift the siege in spite of receiving several gains from humanitarian agreements.

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

Participated in editing this report:
Jacob Al-Sufyani, Director of the Regional Office of the South24 Center in Aden

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic

South YemenHadramoutAdenShabwaHouthisTaizNorth YemenYemeni warUN Envoypeace processMaribHumanitarian truceRed Sea