Though hardly ever prosperous and stable, the last five years or so have been particularly harsh on Yemen where a civil war has ensued between the Saudi-supported government and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
The resulting violence has taken over 100,000 lives and displaced millions, largely attributable to ruthless airstrikes by Saudi Arabia, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Attempts at diplomacy have been scarce and half-hearted but the end of 2019 offered some reprieve to Yemenis following a scale-down in the war.
However, only a few months after relative calm following the first Houthi (or possibly Iranian) airstrike that hit Saudi Arabia in its jugular vein — oil — and then the Riyadh agreement which tried to mend the differences between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and it’s back to business as usual in Yemen: horrific war.
Conflict is Re-Intensifying in Yemen
Building up since late January, the conflict has been intensifying with each passing day with close to a hundred fighters from both sides killed in just the last two weeks. This death toll included an attack on Yemeni defence minister which took the lives of his six guards, which came just a day after battle near the port of Hodeidah that killed 18.
Since the attack on Aramco’s oil facility at Abqaiq — which Houthis claimed responsibility for but the Kingdom blamed on Iran — Saudi Arabia had gone a little under the radar, toning down its aggression by a notch or two. But of late, things seem to have changed as the conflict in Yemen escalates and airstrikes resumed.
US Support Encourages Riyadh
Much of Saudi Arabia’s aggression is thanks to the confidence boost Saudis received after the US increased its military presence both in the Kingdom and around the region after taking out Iranian General Qasem Solemani. And that certainly looked like the case too when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia on Feb 21 and discussed the rise in conflict in Yemen with his hosts, including the king, crown prince and the deputy defense minister.
In a show of strength and cooperation with Riyadh, Pompeo also touched down at Prince Sultan Airbase where some 2,500 American troops are stationed, signalling that Washington stands strong with its allies. The message was heard clearly in Sanaa and Tehran.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Abizaid talked about the threat to Saudi territory from Houthi rockets, which he traced back to Iran. “We’ve just recently interdicted two dhows down there filled with Iranian-produced equipment that is being used by the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia. So I think it’s really important for us to understand who is the aggressor in the region, and it’s no doubt it’s the Iranians,” he said on Feb. 20 in a press briefing.
“…a lot of people don’t understand there’s been an awful lot of missile strikes that have been supplied by missiles, supplied by the IRGC Qods Force launched from Yemen, 400 strikes, as a matter of fact, on – about – on Saudi Arabia,” the ambassador continued.
And just like that, he put the onus of responsibility on Iran giving clean chit to the Saudis in Yemen’s theater of war.
The Multi Polar Yemen Conflict
Adding another layer of complexity to the conflict is the internal divide between the coalition. Where Saudi Arabia has its weight behind the Hadi government, the UAE is supporting separatists in the south. And despite their common animosity with the Houthis, the two haven’t always been able to see eye to eye.
The Riyadh Agreement, signed in November 2019, was a major step to bridge those differences but a missile attack in Marib on Jan. 18 that killed 118 men has cast doubts on its sustainability. So far the two Arab states have done just enough to keep the coalition alive, intervening in time before things go out of control. However, the window of opportunity might be closing. Unless a more comprehensive pact, with a streamlined execution timeline is framed, Yemen could very well see a many-sided and intensified war with strings pulled by three regional capitals.