Varsha Koduvayur, senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), spoke to a May 14 Middle East Forum webinar (video) on prospects for ending Yemen's civil war and the U.S. response to the conflict under the Biden administration.
Yemen's Houthis (or Ansar Allah), a Zaidi Shia militant group backed by Iran, revolted against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in September 2014 and quickly seized control of the capital Sana'a. After peace negotiations broke down and Hadi fled into exile in Riyadh, in March 2015 the Saudis launched an air campaign and naval blockade intended to restore Hadi to power. Sharing a long, porous border with Yemen, the Saudis feared that the Houthis would establish "a permanent foothold of Iran on their southern border," or in Koduvayer's words, a "Hezbollah in the Gulf."
Six years later, not only have the Saudis failed to achieve their objective, but the Houthis have gained more territory. Iran's relatively "low grade investment in the Houthis" has enabled it to "bleed Saudi Arabia, quite literally, both in terms of manpower and treasure," reportedly to the tune of $200 million a day. Additionally, Saudi Arabia's reputation on Capitol Hill has suffered because of mounting civilian casualties attributable to Saudi air strikes.
The war has also exposed the depths of Houthi cruelty. Houthi "humanitarian crimes" range from the use of child soldiers, the torture of activists, and the use of human shields. "Brazenly" fueled by Saudi Arabia's "arch-rival" Iran, the rebels steal food aid from the starving Yemeni populace and block all attempts at negotiating a resolution.
Riyadh has found itself "unable to extricate" itself from the conflict, despite an unprecedented willingness to compromise. In March 2021, the Saudis made a "significant and comprehensive offer" providing for a nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of air traffic to Sana'a airport, allowing food and fuel imports and tax revenue sharing at the port of Hudaydah, and direct talks between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government.
The Houthi rebels rejected the Saudi offer, insisting that all blockades be lifted before they stop fighting. Negotiations are not a priority for the Houthis, who appear to believe that continued fighting will only improve their position. They're determined to continue their military offensive to seize control of Marib, the last government stronghold in north Yemen, believing the capture of this "crown jewel" will give them "an upper hand going into negotiations." Having been "painting this battle with overt religious symbolism," referring to Marib as the "Gate to Jerusalem," a decision to call it off seems unlikely.
For Iran, the Houthis are a "pressure point ... to encircle Saudi Arabia."
The Houthis have also vastly increased their ability to strike Saudi territory with drones and missiles and want to continue these strikes "as a way of further pressing their advantage."
Iran appears to be encouraging their refusal to compromise. Iran's regional network of proxies are designed to advance its "revanchist goals ... and hegemonic ambitions," said Koduvayur, not bring peace to their host countries. The Houthis are a "pressure point ... to encircle Saudi Arabia," and a very effective one.
The Obama administration provided assistance to Saudi Arabia's intervention six years ago. One of the main reasons for this support was the conflict's threat to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, "one of the world's three major maritime choke points." At the time, the Saudis were confident they could reverse the course of the civil war in a matter of weeks.
The Trump administration continued support for the Saudi intervention, despite mounting opposition to the Saudi war effort in Congress. In April 2019, it vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have forced an end to American military support for Saudi operations. In 2020, the administration designated the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
In 2021, the Biden administration quickly ended "offensive support" for the Saudi war effort and revoked the FTO designation. Although Koduvayur said it had "valid grounds" for revoking the designation, which had a "chilling effect" on aid agencies providing much needed humanitarian assistance on the ground, doing so unconditionally removed Washington's "source of leverage over the Houthis."
Koduvayur sees no end in sight to the Yemen conflict. Although Saudi Arabia is today more closely aligned with the U.S. in seeking "a diplomatic solution," Washington has "hit a wall" with the Houthis because it simply doesn't have "leverage ... to get them to come to the table." And getting the Houthis to come to the table will only be the end of the beginning in bringing peace to Yemen. After years of devastation and fragmentation, said Koduvayur, "it's going to be pretty hard to stitch the country back together."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.