The two-year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen is on March 26. The coalition’s plan to resolve the conflict in Yemen is not clear. The current approach has not generated enough momentum for the coalition to compel the al Houthi-Saleh faction to come to the negotiating table. It further entangled Yemen in the Iranian-Saudi conflict and worsened a dire humanitarian situation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) uses the conditions set by the conflict to expand its support base within Yemen’s Sunni population.
Progress in de-escalating the civil war and in negotiating a political settlement has stopped. Current mediation efforts focus on securing a ceasefire on the ground in order to allow for negotiations toward a political resolution. Internationally recognized President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has refused to agree to terms and is unlikely to participate in negotiations that may lead to a transition of power from him to a consensus government. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed relayed to the UN Security Council that Hadi was a hindrance to the peace process in January 2017. Hadi refused to meet with Ould Cheikh Ahmed to discuss the terms of a ceasefire on March 11. The last ceasefire collapsed rapidly in November 2016, and Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government rejected a peace plan put forward by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016 that the al Houthi-Saleh faction had accepted.
The Trump administration indicated that it will increase U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition against Iran in Yemen. Saudi officials anticipate a substantial increase in U.S. support after a series of meetings between the Trump administration and senior Saudi defense officials in Washington, DC. The White House released a statement following these meetings expressing both governments’ desire to confront Iran. The Trump administration is moving to approve a $300 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration blocked in December 2016. Trump administration officials portray the engaging in the Yemeni civil war as an opportunity to confront Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Iran seeks to preempt the American re-engagement in Yemen by increasing its support for al Houthi-Saleh forces. Iran provided GPS-directed offensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to al Houthi-Saleh forces, which uses the drones to destroy Saudi-led coalition air defense systems in Yemen. Al Houthi-Saleh forces used an unmanned remote-controlled boat to bomb a Saudi frigate off the coast of Mokha district in western Taiz governorate on January 30. Iran or its network very likely provided the technological support for the attack. Saudi Civil Defense forces reported interdicting explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) near the Saudi-Yemeni border between March 10 and 18. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen traced EFPs discovered in Yemen from February to October 2016 to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC Quds Force may assist the deployment of additional support to the al Houthi-Saleh faction.
The seizure of launched Operation Golden Spear in mid-January 2017 to seize and secure the Red Sea coastline from to al Hudaydah. The operation intends to isolate the al Houthi-Saleh faction in central Yemen to compel it to negotiate a political settlement. Al Houthi-Saleh-fired Scud missiles and Iranian-provided anti-tank weapons slowed coalition-backed forces’ advance. The coalition-backed forces have been unable to secure small towns along the route of advance and do not have much popular support, further degraded by a deadly airstrike near al Hudaydah. The seizure of al Hudaydah may not necessarily be sufficient to change the al Houthi-Saleh coalition’s calculus. There are alternate supply routes into central Yemen, including through Oman across the eastern desert, and the wars frontlines remain relatively fixed. Hadi government forces have made little progress against al Houthi-Saleh strongholds in northern Sa’ada and Sana’a governorates, for example., Yemen’s second-largest port on its Red Sea coast, from al Houthi-Saleh forces may not occur as rapidly as forecast and may not have systemic effects on the al Houthi-Saleh faction. The Saudi-led coalition
AQAP promotes its role as the lone defender of Sunni Yemenis to build its legitimacy. AQAP propaganda emphasized the group’s connection to Yemeni tribes, its role in the anti-al Houthi fight, and its justification for targeting the U.S. and its partners. Anti–al Houthi-Saleh militias lost ground in after the U.S. conducted dozens of airstrikes against AQAP between March 2 and 6, which AQAP pointed to as evidence that the U.S. supports the Shia al Houthi movement. AQAP also seeks to reassure tribal allies, especially as some tribal militias consider forming an anti-AQAP coalition to avoid U.S. strikes. AQAP resumed attacks against al Houthi-Saleh forces in central Yemen after a short period of inactivity possibly caused by the airstrike campaign. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
The Yemeni civil war has deepened a humanitarian crisis that now includes a cholera epidemic, looming famine, and medical aid shortage. The continued conflict will only further drive the al Houthi movement to seek support from Iran and prolong the ground conditions that AQAP exploits to insinuate itself within the Sunni population. A cessation of hostilities may allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid, but should not be a precursor for political negotiations. The U.S. must work to reshape the Saudi-led effort to promote engagement with the al Houthi-Saleh faction and direct military operations against AQAP.