The lack of a coherent Western strategy for the containment and rollback of Iran in the Middle East in worrying.
In the last month, clashes have intensified between fighters loyal to the legally constituted Yemeni government of Prime Minister Abd Rabbo Mansour al Hadi, and forces of the Ansar Allah movement, popularly known as the Houthis, around the city of Marib, in the north of Yemen. Hadi’s forces are backed and actively supported by Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are a client of the Iranian regime.
Observation of the situation in Marib, and Yemen more generally, offers insights into the outlook of the current US Administration toward efforts by regional actors to contain Iran. As such, the situation in Yemen is of direct relevance to Israel, in spite of the distance between the two countries. The Houthis have not engaged in direct action against Israel (yet). Their opposition to the existence of Israel, however, is a central aspect of their propaganda. While the origins of this movement are in independent Shia Islamist organization in Yemen (unlike Lebanese and Iraqi Hizballah, they are not the direct creation of the IRGC), the Houthis/Ansar Allah are today a fully-fledged element of the pro-Iran regional axis, dependent on Iranian support and involvement in their war effort.
Picture of the Houthi Marib Offensive
The Houthis’ Marib offensive commenced in February 2021. It was accompanied by increased Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Marib is the last governorate in the north of the country to remain outside of Houthi control. The capture of the oil rich city would consolidate Houthi control over north and central Yemen. Marib is home to a refinery that produces 90% of Yemen’s liquefied natural gas. This is used for cooking and heating purposes across the country. Thus, control of the city would also enable the Houthis to cut off supplies to other parts of Yemen.
Marib is currently the main active front in a fragmented country. The conflict, which began in 2014, is elsewhere largely characterized by low intensity fighting and stalemate. The Houthis control the north, with the exception of Marib Province. The Saudi-backed Hadi government controls Marib, northern Hadhramaut, Shabwah, al-Mahra, Abyan and the city of Taiz. The UAE backed, separatist Southern Transitional Council holds Aden and its surrounding areas. The ‘Joint Forces’, led by Tareq Saleh, control part of the western coast.
The UAE backed forces were largely responsible for expelling the Houthis from the south in 2016. Their relations with the Saudi backed Hadi government are strained. The conflict is nowhere close to conclusion. Yemen, in a manner which has become familiar in the Middle East over the last decade, is in a state of de facto fragmentation.
Graphic created by the Congressional Research Service using data from Risk Intelligence (2020); Esri (2017 & 2018); NOAA (2018); USGS (2018); Department of State (2015). https://crsreports.congress.gov
The fall of Marib would mark the end of the battle for north Yemen, and would leave the Houthis well placed to solidify their rule in subsequent negotiations with the pro-Saudi side. Control of Marib would increase the economic sustainability of the Houthi controlled part of Yemen. The movement’s main demands in negotiations would be for the reopening of Sanaa airport to international traffic, and the ending of restrictions on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The capture of Marib and the achievement of these goals would set the Houthis on the path to the normalization and economic consolidation of their area of control in Yemen.
In addition to its role as the last hub of control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, in the north of the country, and the presence of a large refugee population in the city, Marib is of strategic importance because of its centrality in Yemeni oil and gas production. As noted above, the refinery and power plants of Marib provide power to a large part of Yemen. A gas pipeline, in addition, passes through Marib on the way to Aden and the Red Sea. The pipeline is controlled by pro-government military commander Abdullah al Shadaddi. The state-run Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company is based in Marib. A number of foreign companies active in energy production are also based in the city. Marib is located 173 km from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. As such, it would form a natural staging point for any government assault on the capital, and its loss would severely complicate any hopes for an operation of this kind. Marib province adjoins the mainly Sunni provinces of Al Jawf, Al Baitha and Shabwa, where Houthi control and legitimacy is weak. So, if held, it could also serve as a platform for an eventual attack on these areas.
The US Response
The Marib offensive followed significant diplomatic setbacks for the anti-Houthi coalition. US President Joe Biden, on assuming office, swiftly reversed the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, enacted in the last days of the Trump presidency. The revocation of this decision was justified by claims that the designation complicated efforts to address the dire humanitarian situation in the country, given the fact of Houthi control over large parts of Yemen. In reality, however, the desire to placate Iran in the context of renewal of negotiations over the nuclear program is the probable real motivation for this move.
In the same month, President Biden announced the ending of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, and the termination of arms sales to Riyadh deemed to be associated with such operations.
The US at this time appointed a special envoy to Yemen, veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking. Clearly, Washington’s intention was to negotiate an early end to the conflict, presumably hoping that the moves to limit the Saudi offensive capacity would be well received by the Houthis and their backers in Teheran, and would assist in creating a positive atmosphere in negotiations with Iran on broader issues.
The US moves also sent an early signal regarding the desire of the Biden Administration to reset relations with regional allies, sharply downgrading the alliance with Saudi Arabia. This, in turn, formed part of a move away from the strategic conception accepted by key officials in the former Administration, such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, according to which the US ought to seek to strengthen allies and build a rival group of states to face the key challenge of Iran.
According to a Yemeni official quoted by Associated Press on July 7, the US Administration is pressuring the Saudi led coalition not to provide more weapons for Marib. The unnamed official told AP that the US fears the ‘graft and incompetence’ of the government forces.
Houthis Insist on Prior Moves
The US moves have not produced a corresponding flexibility on the part of the Houthis and their backers. Oman is currently brokering a diplomatic process between the warring sides. The Houthis are demanding the prior lifting of what they refer to as the ‘blockade’ of Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port, before any ceasefire. Mohammed Abd al Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, was quoted on al-Jazeera saying that “The humanitarian side must be separated from the military one…We were asked for a comprehensive ceasefire… but the first stage is to open the sea ports and airports, then go towards the process of a strategic ceasefire, which is stopping the strikes, missiles and drones.”
But while the political process is stalled, the Marib offensive has also failed to make headway. Nearly half a year after it commenced, the city remains in the hands of the government. Saudi airstrikes on the Houthi forces in the deserts surrounding the city have reaped a heavy toll. Government forces are asking for more weapons in order to continue the successful defense of the city and launch a counter- attack. The fighting is ongoing.
Divisions Within the Anti-Houthi Coalition
While receiving little international media coverage, the outcome of the war in Yemen is of strategic significance to the central contest currently under way in the region – namely, that between Iran and its proxies, and a loose coalition of countries and authorities which for a variety of reasons find themselves disadvantaged or threatened by Iran’s advance.
While often depicted as a fight between Iranian and Saudi proxies, the situation is made more complex by the Emirati interest in the country, with Abu Dhabi closely associated with the separatist Southern Transitional Council, and Tariq Saleh’s forces. The UAE officially withdrew forces from Yemen in 2019. However, it is now clear that the UAE has not ended its interest in the country, deriving from its concerns at Iranian ambitions. Rather, the UAE is now, like Iran, working through a Yemeni proxy. That proxy is the Southern Transitional Council, which seeks to recreate the partition of Yemen and the south Yemeni republic. The UAE are in particular concerned at the issue of security in the Bab al Mandeb region, regarding shipping.
The Saudi-led intervention, beginning in 2015, prevented the Houthis from reaching the south western coast of Yemen, and in so doing taking control of the Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Tears) Strait. This Strait, connecting the Red Seas to the Gulf of Aden, is a vital transit point between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, for oil traffic. Control of the Straits by the Houthis would have given Iran the ability to harass and even prevent shipping from passing through the Strait. Around 3 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait daily. 9% of total seaborne trade petroleum passes through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. Thus, preventing Teheran from gaining this leverage was a vital objective, achieved in the first year of the war by Saudi and Emirati forces.
The Emiratis are currently building an air base on Mayun Island, located 3.5km from the south west coast of Yemen. The base will enable their forces to monitor the area and may also function as a base for operations into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and East Africa. In addition, Socotra Island, located 350 km from Yemen’s southern coast, is also under control of the UAE, in cooperation with Southern Transitional Council forces. This area forms an important hub, overseeing busy shipping lanes between the African coast and Yemen.
The anti-Houthi coalition is indeed a disparate grouping, including a Muslim Brotherhood associated party (al-Islah) and separatist forces. The presence of the latter is an additional reason for the Emirati decision to pursue an independent effort in the Yemeni context. Yet while government and STC forces have tensions between them, and differing agendas, the prospect of a three-way civil war seems unlikely, given the core common interest in resisting the further advance of the Houthis. Further, the divisions are not proving a fatal flaw for the anti-Houthi forces. Rather, the Houthis, with the exception of contested Marib, are currently being held in place.
The events described here lead to several conclusions.
The Saudi and Emirati effort to stem the advance of the Houthis is not, contrary to western media reports, a fiasco, and has been partly successful. Houthi conquest of southern and eastern Yemen has been prevented. The Houthi assault on Marib, similarly, is currently being contained. The stalemate, at the very least, should be maintained. Ideally, an offensive capacity capable eventually of recapturing the Houthi area of control should be constructed.
The current successful defense of Marib is taking place despite the withdrawal of US support, and in the face of an absence of US assistance, despite the nature of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as western allies/clients, and the nature of the Houthis as a franchise of Teheran. These facts taken together should cause some concern regarding the commitment of the current US Administration to the common cause of restricting Iranian advances across the region.
While not indifferent to the imperative of containing Iran, in the case of Yemen, the Administration appears to place greater value on its desire to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, and its concern not to be seen to be directly supporting a military effort against an Iranian proxy at a time that it is engaged in negotiations with Teheran.
Israel, perhaps working via the framework of private military companies, would be well placed to cooperate with the ongoing Emirati efforts in the country to secure joint interests. In this regard, Israeli capabilities in technical and intelligence fields could be of particular relevance. It is not known if such efforts are already taking place. They would make sense. Given the regional logic whereby Iran and its assets operate as a single unit across the region, it is logical that their opponents should develop similar levels of cooperation. These, of course, would be very different to the structures maintained by Iran, in that they would represent cooperation between independent, sovereign partner states. But for the development of effective responses to Iranian plans, the pooling of capacities and resources where relevant makes sense, for obvious reasons.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
Photo: Big Stock