Russia pushed through a UN Security Council resolution draft on Yemen that did not mention Iran's provision of asymmetrical capabilities to the al Houthi movement, effectively blocking a U.S.-led effort to hold Iran accountable for its role in Yemen. Russian and Iranian interests largely converge in the Middle East, which includes the shared interests of reducing American influence in the region.
The United States will not be able to bring additional pressure against Iran through UN channels. The U.S. led a campaign in the UN beginning in mid-December 2017 to hold Iran accountable for violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution supporting the Iranian nuclear deal, and UNSCR 2216, which established an arms embargo against sanctioned Yemeni actors in April 2015. The U.S. contends Iran has provided Yemen’s al Houthi movement with ballistic missiles and other materiel. The U.S. effort occurred as American officials also pressured Saudi Arabia to open the blockade of Yemen and pursue a political resolution to the Yemeni war. Russia vetoed a UK-drafted resolution in the Security Council that condemned Iran for violating the arms embargo and called for additional measures against Iran to address the violations on February 26. The Security Council passed a Russian draft resolution (Resolution 2402) preserving the current Yemen sanctions that excluded language on Iran. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley announced the U.S. would take action against Iran outside the UN. The U.S. released a joint statement with the UK, France, and Germany condemning Iran.
The arrival of a new UN Special Envoy for Yemen has sparked renewed diplomatic engagements for Yemeni actors as they maneuver ahead of predicted peace talks. It is not clear that the two sides will be able to reach a mediated settlement, however. The outgoing special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced on February 9 that his successor will facilitate new talks in Muscat, Oman and briefed on February 27 that the previous round collapsed because “the Houthis were not prepared to make concessions on the proposed security arrangements.”
- Head of the al Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee Mohammed Ali al Houthi submitted a new six-point plan on February 21 to the UN outlining the way forward. Al Houthi officials held a series of meetings the month prior. Senior al Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdul Salam traveled to Oman on January 25 to release Danny Burch, an American citizen the al Houthis held captive since September 2017. The timing of the decision to release Burch and Salam’s departure from Yemen coincided with renewed al Houthi overtures for negotiations, and it is possible Salam met with Omani and Western officials in Oman before he left. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi met with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin al Said during this time, for example. Salam traveled from Oman to Iran, where he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari on February 10 and 12, respectively.
- Russia could be positioning itself as an opportunistic mediator in the Yemeni conflict. Members of the anti-al Houthi bloc notably met with Russian officials and continued discussions with Saudi and Emirati officials. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdul Malik al Mikhlafi on January 22 in Moscow, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with Ahmed Ali Saleh, the son of late former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, on January 26, in Abu Dhabi.
- The Transitional Political Council for the South (STC) may have successfully gained a seat at the negotiating table through its brief uprising against the internationally recognized Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Aden in late January. The STC followed through on its January 21, 2018 threat against Hadi’s government in Aden by seizing military bases, taking over government buildings, and trapping Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghir in the presidential palace in Aden. The Saudi-led coalition, and possibly the UN, negotiated a settlement between the Hadi government and the STC, but the details of the deal are unclear. The STC turned over Aden to the Hadi government throughout the first week of February. STC President Aydrus al Zubaidi met with UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed in the UAE on February 14, and the STC allowed Daghir to leave Aden on February 16.
The UAE launched two sequential operations to dismantle al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) strongholds in eastern Yemen in February. The first operation Operation Faisal began on February 16 when Hadhrami Elite Forces, backed by Emirati ground and air forces, started clearing AQAP from al Masini valley, roughly 100 kilometers west of Yemen’s third-largest port city, al Mukalla city. The operation aimed to disrupt AQAP’s supply routes that run along the Hadhrami coastline. Yemeni and coalition officers announced its successful conclusion on February 18, though clashes continued until AQAP forces withdrew to nearby Yab’ath district near the Shabwah border on February 23. Emirati-backed Shabwani Elite Forces then launched Operation Decisive Sword to clear AQAP from Wadi Yeshbum, al Said district in neighboring Shabwah governorate on February 26. The operation likely aims to prevent fleeing AQAP militants from Hadramawt from reinforcing AQAP’s stronghold in al Said, which Yemeni forces had claimed to clear in early January 2018.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Wilayat Aden-Abyan seems to be launching a campaign of complex attacks against Yemeni government sites in Aden that mirrors an AQAP signature tactic. Wilayat Aden-Abyan detonated twin suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs) outside of a counterterrorism headquarters in Aden city before militants attacked the base with small arms. This attack was almost certainly perpetrated by the same cell responsible for resuming explosive suicide attacks in Aden in November 2017 after a nearly year-long gap in attacks. ISIS is likely building the VBIEDs either in Aden or neighboring Lahij, where ISIS previously maintained a VBIED factory. One of the militants responsible for the attack also participated in the Yemeni Army 22nd Mechanized Brigade in Taiz city, according to a local news source. (ISIS statements translated by SITE.)
Delivery of humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen remains delayed, further exacerbating the humanitarian situation. The Saudi-led coalition Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO) is hindering humanitarian efforts by diverting cargo away from al Houthi ports, according to the UN. The coalition designed YCHO to enable the coalition to shape the delivery of aid for its own benefit. The humanitarian situation remains “catastrophic” despite an increase in international and coalition funding for aid relief. The rate of cholera cases and associated deaths are declining, but this trend will likely reverse during Yemen’s rainy season in April. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) increased due to an escalation in the civil war since December 2017. This increase will likely strain humanitarian services and accelerate the spread of disease.
The Saudi-led coalition may perceive Russia’s veto in the UNSC as an indicator that the international community is not capable of diplomatically pushing back on Iran’s actions in Yemen. The coalition will likely continue to pursue a military solution to the conflict as a result. The coalition’s efforts to end the war militarily have been unsuccessful and will likely continue to fail, perpetuating conditions that allow groups like AQAP to flourish.