The prospects for a political settlement to Yemen’s civil war remain dim on the three-year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. The al Houthi movement’s advancing asymmetrical weapons capabilities, facilitated by Iran, have lessened the impact of the Saudi-led coalition’s gains on the ground. The al Houthis remain unlikely to accept the preconditions for negotiations demanded by the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
Iranian-sourced weapons and technology provide the al Houthi movement with the capability to threaten Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, and to challenge Saudi-led coalition ground forces in Yemen. Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al Maliki claimed that Saudi Patriot missile defense systems shot down seven ballistic missiles fired from Yemen, most likely from its northern Sa’ada governorate, into the Kingdom on March 25, the three-year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition air campaign in Yemen. (Videos raise questions about this claim.) An al Houthi source reported that a Burkan 2-H (Qiam) ballistic missile targeted the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, a Qaher 2-M ballistic missile targeted Abha Regional Airport in Khamis Mushayt in southwestern Saudi Arabia, and Badr 1 ballistic missiles targeted additional sites in Najran and Jizan. The al Houthis unveiled the solid-fuel Badr 1 ballistic missile on March 22, firing the new short-range missile at the ARAMCO facilities in Najran province. Recovered fragments of Burkan 2-H missiles include evidence of an Iranian origin. Al Houthi forces also use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) signature to Iran’s network, specifically radio-controlled IEDs containing explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) that have been recovered along the Red Sea battlefront. It is not clear whether coalition-led and U.S.-backed efforts to halt weapons smuggling to the al Houthis have reduced their stockpiles.
The new UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths faces an uphill battle to bring belligerent parties to the negotiating table. The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Malik al Mikhlafi accused the al Houthis of blocking peace efforts after their March 25 missile attack on Saudi Arabia. Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi’s tone remained combative in a March 23 interview, saying he sees no indication of a “serious approach” toward arriving at a political solution and dismissed the terms of UNSCR 2216 as a “totally irrational demand.” President of the al Houthi’s Supreme Council Saleh al Samad announced the start of a new state-building project for Yemen to regain its independence on March 26, noting that the March 25 missile attack was a “message of peace” and that the al Houthis will come to the table once the air campaign ends, the blockade is lifted, and dialogue starts. Griffiths met with al Houthi officials in Sana’a on March 25. High- and working-level engagements have been ongoing ahead of Griffiths’ appointment, which has driven a renewed focus within the factions on peace talks. Senior U.S. and UK officials discussed Yemen with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visits, and the Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani to discuss a resolution to the Yemeni conflict. These discussions are still siloed and may not be sufficient to compel the parties to enter into negotiations. Griffiths has pledged to engage all Yemeni stakeholders based on the outcomes of the 2011 GCC transition deal, the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, and UN Security Council resolutions, which the al Houthis find problematic. Both the Houthis and the Yemeni government denied reports of back-channel talks between Saudi officials and the al Houthis that surfaced in mid-March.
A series of resignations from Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s cabinet cited the Saudi-led coalition’s perceived control over the Yemeni government as cause. Minister of State Saleh al Sayadi, who resigned on March 20, described what he termed the Saudi-led coalition’s prevention of the government’s return to Aden, the de facto capital, and other areas as weakening state institutions. Sayadi also accused the coalition of making the Yemeni government dependent on the coalition, robbing Yemen of its sovereignty. Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Aziz Jubari announced his intent to resign the day before because of the absence of the Hadi government on the ground and the government’s inability to execute its responsibilities. The complaints parallel some that the Political Transitional Council of the South (STC) lodged in late January 2018, though they differ on issues of southern separatism. Continued insecurity in Aden and other areas under Hadi government control has been a contributing reason for certain Yemeni officials not to return, as well as the unrest that their presence in Yemen’s former southern capital causes.
Counterterrorism operations sustain pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). UAE-backed Yemeni forces conducted a clearing operation, “Sweeping Torrent,” in the northeastern al Mahfad and Wadi Hamara districts in Abyan governorate in southern Yemen from March 7 to March 11. Abdul Latif al Sayyed, who led the efforts against AQAP in Abyan in 2011 and 2012, commanded the Hizam security forces, attacking from the east from Shabwah governorate. UAE-backed forces had conducted successive clearing operations in Hadramawt and Shabwah in February. U.S. airstrikes targeting AQAP members occurred in Abr district, Hadramawt, in early March, and in southern Ma’rib governorate in central Yemen in mid-March. AQAP continued to claim attacks in al Bayda governorate in central Yemen, outside of the Emirati area of operations, against the al Houthis on affiliated Telegram channels. It resumed reporting on its formal social media wires after a three-week break and media production of its “Madad” news bulletin after a 5-year hiatus on March 13. Separately, Aden security and police forces continue to target ISIS cells, raiding a safe house most recently on March 21 and arresting a small cell on March 25.
The arrival of the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has revived efforts on both sides of the war to position for a new round of peace talks. Neither side appears to have shifted its demands, however, and both sides have continued military operations.
Miranda Morton and Tomas Perez contributed research to this report.