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An Eye on Riyadh and Another on Gaza: Escalation and Peace in Yemen


Thu, 26-10-2023 12:01 AM, Aden Time

The expansion of the conflict in Gaza will likely push Iran to use the Houthis to threaten navigation in the Red Sea. This will necessarily threaten the collapse of the long pacification in Yemen that began in April 2022.

Farida Ahmed (South24)

The intensified diplomatic movement by Riyadh regarding the Yemeni conflict over the past few days reveals a kind of progress in the crisis. Probably, some approaches would lead to practical political paths to end the Yemeni war that began nine years ago.

Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, during a meeting with Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, in Riyadh on October 18, urged the Yemeni parties “to reach a comprehensive and permanent political solution to end the Yemeni crisis under the supervision of the United Nations, and in a way achieving security, peace, stability and development of Yemen”. This shows that Saudi Arabia has indeed become exhausted by the long Yemen war and wants an exit from this dilemma as soon as possible. The practical evidence for this has been demonstrated through Riyadh’s strong commitment to the de-facto truce and its reluctance to respond to the Houthi attack on the Saudi borders in September which killed and injured some soldiers affiliated with the Bahraini forces.

The several meetings conducted by the respective UN and US envoys to Yemen, Hans Grundberg and Tim Lenderking, in Riyadh with Yemeni and Saudi officials along with Western ambassadors would create an opportunity to move forward towards political solutions that can end the war in Yemen. However, according to indications the Houthis have been apparently unready for such a move as yet. Amid the talks, a 16-year-old girl was killed while others were injured in a Houthi attack on a residential district in Taiz. Meanwhile, Mahdi Al-Mashat, the Head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, on October 17 announced an initiative to stop the Houthi military operations in Taiz and form a joint administration in the governorate.* 

The local authorities in Taiz argue that this is a Houthi maneuver to justify targeting the governorate. Taiz has been under siege by the Houthi militia for the past nine years, causing untold suffering to the citizens. The Houthis have brazenly flouted the most basic of common rights and privileges of the citizens, including denying the opening of roads to allow access to essential goods and services and healthcare, that would help in alleviating the suffering of the Taizi people. The Houthi initiative doesn't seem logical in practical terms, and is possibly more appropriate for the later stages in the peace talks than now. Mahdi Al-Mashat's statement means that the Houthis aim to leapfrog the status quo and all conditions set by the legitimate authorities. Moreover, the Houthis haven’t shown any sign of consideration as they opened fighting fronts in Al-Dhalea, Marib, and other places. It is obvious that they have chosen to challenge the attempts to perpetuate the truce and defy the peace efforts led by the regional and international actors.

On the external front, the Houthis appear keen to mark their presence on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was seen with the Pentagon’s announcement that on October 19 “the Guided Missile Destroyer, USS Carney, operating in the Northern Red Sea, shot down three land-attack cruise missiles and several drones that were launched by Houthi forces in Yemen”. The Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder added that the missiles “were launched from Yemen, heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel”. This move by the Houthis is consistent with the threat issued by Houthi Leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi on October 10 to launch missiles and drones against Israel. The important thing to be noted here is that the timing of the bombing coincided with a visit by Yemen Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sagheer Bin Aziz to an island which is on the opposite side of ’Midi port‘ on the Red Sea, following his recent visits to the United States and Riyadh. Military sources told ’South24 Center‘ that the Houthis believe that Bin Aziz’s visit to Washington on October 10 is related to information leaks that there is an American-Yemeni coordination for military deployment which would pave the way to install an advanced warning system overlooking the Red Sea, coinciding with the Israeli war in Gaza.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for carrying out the purported attack against Israel. The group tries to make use of its engagement in regional crises with a nationalist and religious turn in order to win the loyalty of those who stand solidly with Palestine. Their aim is to make the most of the situation and achieve political and economic gains on the ground whenever some international and regional parties may ultimately pressure them to stop such attacks. In the meantime, it appears that Washington stands to benefit from this situation, as evidence of the risks it may face in the Red Sea and create pretexts by which it will convince the US Congress to deliver more support for Israel.

It is important to note that there are no accurate estimates about the maximum range to which the Houthi missiles can reach. However, according to Israeli media platforms, the Houthi statements confirm that they possess the guided missile made in Iran called ’Toophan‘ with a range of 1,350-1,950 km. This is enough to hit Israel as the shortest distance between the two countries is about 1,580 km. Military experts believe that the Houthis possess traditional missiles with a maximum range of 500 km, which can’t reach Israel. However, these missiles can attack ships passing through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and navigation in the Red Sea.

The United States has adopted a double-standard approach on many issues related to the Middle East, including its stance on what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the most relevant part of this analysis relates to the American mechanism for designating its rival groups in the region. Can the United States re-designate the Houthis as a “terrorist group” now after removing them from the list in 2021, on the pretext of endeavors to end the war in Yemen? It is to be noted that the US and other countries have classified Hamas as a “terrorist group”.

Significantly, both the Houthis and Hamas adopt the same stance as expressed by the so-called ’Axis of Resistance’, which is funded and supported by Iran against Israel and the United States. The US’ stance towards the Houthis could stir doubts against Washington, on whether it is maintaining the Houthis as a strategic interest in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Washington probably wants to use the Houthis as a swap card in the light of the main issues in the region, or to facilitate its efforts to expand the Arab normalization circle with Israel which will likely be affected by the ongoing violent war in Gaza. One can’t predict what the Arab political stance will be. The intensification of the conflict against the civilians in Gaza will certainly feed the anti-Israeli sentiment in the region. 

Back to Yemen; it will be proper for Riyadh to gain more time to renew a truce that can protect its strategic interests. Therefore, Saudi Arabia will continue facilitating these intensified diplomatic meetings and play a mediation role in the negotiations among the Yemeni parties. Over the past few days, it has exerted relentless efforts to reach a roadmap consisting of three phases to make progress in the peace efforts in Yemen after nine years of the conflict. The Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) ratified the names of its negotiation delegation that will meet with the Houthis in any future talks. The South Yemeni issue remains a cause of disagreements among the PLC members. Informed sources told ’South24 Center’ that “a proposal was presented to its members, including an agreement to sign a contract that consists of some principles to ensure the unity of PLC. The latter, according to the contract, should adopt the issue of the South Yemeni people over all the peace stages”. The proposal included a military deterrence plan if the Houthis refuse to engage in negotiations and resort to procrastination. However, other sources told ’South24 Center‘ that PLC members failed to reach a consensus over this proposal without explaining the reason for that.

Despite the intensified efforts in this context, the Houthis have refused to engage in Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations to end the conflict, according to their official sources. They consider the Saudi insistence on pushing the legitimate government to the forefront as an indication of the lack of seriousness in reaching a real and fair peace by what they call “the aggressor countries” For the Houthis, the attempt to impose the legitimate authority as a main party of the negotiations openly aims to present Saudi Arabia as a mediator in a way that allows the Houthis to disavow any commitments.

Accordingly, the outcome of this development will be linked to the flaring events in the region. The expansion of the conflict in Gaza will likely push Iran to use the Houthis to threaten navigation in the Red Sea. This will in turn necessarily threaten the collapse of the long pacification in the Yemeni file that began in April 2022. This would cut hope and optimism of achieving any progress in the political settlement. The possible collapse of the pacification and the renewal of the confrontations against the Houthis would push the parties of the conflict to try to change the map of control on the ground in a way that would reshape the political and military scene in the country before surrendering to the pacification efforts again.

Farida Ahmed 

South24 Center for News and Studies Executive Director

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

YemenYemeni crisisHouthisPLCSaudi ArabiaGazaIsraelPalestineHamasIranUS