Last week witnessed a significant escalation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi rebels, eroding around six months of discussions in Yemen following the Yemen Peace Talks in Sweden at the end of 2018.
The latest deadly episode in the four-year conflict was a Saudi-UAE airstrike attack on Sanaa, in retaliation for Houthi drone strikes on Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, near the Straits of Hormuz, and drone attacks on two Saudi oil pumping stations west of the capital Riyadh.
The Houthi Defence Ministry stated that the recent drone strikes came as the first shot of a military operation which includes a list of 300 targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Even the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who is known to be optimistic, expressed serious concerns about the Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities, and admitted that recent developments “affect the political process".
“Affect” seems too soft a word to describe the potential fallout from the recent military confrontations, especially when one places it within the context of the war of words raging between the United States and Iran, and Washington’s efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero.
Recent developments have severely undermined all peace efforts following the talks in Sweden, and have revealed the true nature of the military sophistication of the Houthis.
The huge focus on resolving the conflict in Hodeidah has only posed as a distraction from the other major emerging conflict in the country. The UN recently announced that the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa ports has begun and in parallel both the Houthis and the Yemeni government have initiated discussions over the economic provisions of the Hodeida Agreement.
These steps would seem positive ones only if new major fighting fronts did not emerge; such as the Houthi drone strikes against Saudi Arabia, the ground fighting in Hajjah, Taiz and Al Dhale, among other areas in Yemen, causing more civilian casualties, and the fact that the fight against famine and cholera is still not over.
The failure to completely resolve the Hodeidah battle means that we are now back to square one. UN peace efforts will remain limited in what they can achieve because international dynamics tend to play a more decisive role in the trajectory of the conflict and its resolution.
We have seen that with the Qatar Crisis and Al Jazeera, unshackled from Saudi-UAE pressure, broadcasting nonstop coverage on the atrocities in Yemen, eventually influencing public opinion.
The Jamal Khashoggi killing and the international movement and sentiment that followed has played a significant role, along with many other matters, bringing about peace talks in Sweden.
Nothing enhances or undermines peace efforts in Yemen as much as external factors do.
Evolved military capacity
While UN peace efforts have been impeded, there has been an opportunity for the Houthis to reposition themselves and improve their ballistic missile technology - primarily obtained from assassinated former president Saleh’s air munitions.
In other words, crippling peace efforts helped the Houthis buy time to enhance their military force.
In November 2017, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia’s capital, which was intercepted. In July last year, Houthis attacked two Saudi ships near the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandeb strait without inflicting significant damage. Then, in January this year, the Houthis launched drone strikes attacking a military parade run by the Yemeni government in Yemen’s southern province of Lahaj, killing several military officials.
Recent Houthi drone strikes, however, are different. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of 'ordering' the attack, something the Saudis didn’t do in the previous incidents. The geopolitical dimension in this war is slowly coming to the fore.
Stuck between the US and Iran
Amidst the economic, proxy, and information wars between the US (and its close allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Iran, Yemen is a battleground for them all. Iran’s desire not to go into a direct military confrontation with the US or Saudi Arabia has only meant that it has a desire to confront through proxy, with Yemen and the Houthis as its trump card.
With little or no evidence that Iran was militarily supporting the Houthis, the Saudis imposed themselves in this war. As it raged on, the Saudi claim has come true.
Iran’s influence throughout the war has dramatically increased - which is crucial to understanding the conflict’s direction. An investigation by Conflict Armament Research points out that some “Iranian technology transfers to Houthi rebels”.
In his first interview with his channel, al Masirah TV, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al Houthi last month did not deny or confirm direct military support. He asserted, however, that Houthis receive 'how-to' military teaching from some friends.
Objectively, whether militarily or diplomatically, the Saudi-UAE coalition enjoys global goodwill and support while the Houthis have only the support of Iran and Hezbollah. Attacking Saudi oil facilities – claimed by Houthis – and the Iran-US crisis is connected. It's impossible to believe the timing is coincidental.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated the attacks, as a Norwegian insurers’ report indicates. For Iran’s convenience and in line with its cautious strategy, it wants to show a military operation which is strong enough to shock but not pull them into a full-scale military confrontation. There is no better tool for that than Yemen and the Houthis.
The logical conclusion is that the higher the tensions between the US and Iran, the more Iran will use Yemen as a battleground to antagonise the US and its partner, Saudi Arabia.
All UN diplomatic efforts seem futile, as international actors involved in the conflict continue to shape it through their rivalries. Unless we witness a drastic shift in these states, greater violence is coming.
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