For the first time since the beginning of the war, Washington’s administration heavyweights, Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) and James Mattis (Secretary of Defence), publicly called for the end of the Saudi and Emirati-led military intervention in Yemen, begun in March 2015. But what appears to be the new stance of Trump’s presidency on the Yemeni issue is likely triggered, first of all, by geopolitical concerns, rather than the humanitarian.
“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities” Pompeo stated on October 31, thus breaking, at least in words, with President Trump’s uncritical stance vis-à-vis Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. But Saudi Arabia was not impressed by its main ally’s reaction, and even less so by Antonio Gutierres and the United Nations’ reiterated call for diplomatic talks (maybe, this time, to be held in Sweden).
As a matter of fact, Riyadh escalated its pressure against the Houthi rebels on multiple fronts, bombing the international airport and a drone base in Sana’a (still controlled by the Houthis), pushing a symbolic offensive in the Marran district of Sa’da (the birthplace of Husayn Al-Houthi, the founder of the movement, who died there in 2004) and, most of all, intensifying the encirclement of Hodeida with military reinforcements and heavy weapons, with risks of full-scale urban warfare.
As the war continues without winners and famine advances rapidly, the United States attempts, with increasing fatigue, to justify its support for the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen against the Houthis (intelligence and mid-air refueling), not only in the eyes of public opinion, but also with respect to a reluctant Congress. With the Democrats’ victory in the House of Representatives, American support for the military intervention in Yemen - which was started by the Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman - will certainly meet higher political opposition and legal scrutiny. Moreover, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul adds new discomfort, in Washington as in London, with the controversial foreign policy posture of MbS. Although realpolitik will still likely win out, the allies’ moral price for supporting Riyadh’s adventurism has definitely increased in the last month, and this has implications for Yemen.
Surely, what happens in Hodeida, 600,000 inhabitants, matters. This is the main commercial port controlled by the Houthis (the other is Al-Salif, north of Hodeida province), linking their northern fiefdom of Sa’da and the occupied capital, Sana’a, with the Red Sea coast, and providing them with a lucrative smuggling route to feed the fighting. Recapturing Hodeida would be a strategic victory for the Arab military coalition. However, the Hodeida port is the entrance for 80% of food, medical and fuel imports: this is why long-lasting urban warfare, especially in the port area, would generate a real collapse of humanitarian conditions in most of Yemen’s regions that depend on the Red Sea line. The battle started in June 2018: like the whole Yemeni conflict, it is not a blitzkrieg, but rather a war of attrition, even though the number of fighters on the ground favour Yemen’s Emirati-backed forces, not the Houthis. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have attempted to prevent a large-scale operation in the city so far, in order to limit the humanitarian impact of the crisis, but since the battle remains without a clear winner, the risk of showdown rises, as demonstrated by the surge of violence in the last week.
Nobody is able to win this war: if Hodeida remains on the brink between the Houthis and the varied anti-Houthi groups (which include recognized pro-President Hadi forces and local militias tied to the UAE), peace talks could be further postponed, while only a deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement could stop the war. All the parties will try to profit from Hodeida’s outcome to start negotiations from a position of force.
As the battle for Hodeida escalates, international and regional diplomacy on Yemen has intensified, with Iran and most of all Russia as main players, often in coordination: something already experienced in Syria. On October 16, Russian’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Vershinin and the Iranian Senior Adviser to the Foreign Ministry, Jaber Ansari, met, separately, with Oman’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi, in Muscat. Oman hosted representatives of the Houthi movement, as well as informal talks between the warring parties. On October 21, the same Ansari met with a United Nations’ official in Tehran, discussing the situation in Yemen and, on October 23, he was in Moscow for diplomatic talks on the region with Russian officials. On November 5, Vershinin and Ansari met again in Moscow regarding Yemen.
While the Americans are perceived as biased actors, given their special relationship with the Saudis, the Russians have been able to maintain relations with almost all Yemen’s local players: this could undermine Washington’s leverage post-conflict and in reconstruction. On February 2018, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that condemned the transfer of Iranian-made missiles to the Houthis. The family of the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Russia. Capitalizing on enduring connections with former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’s socialist representatives, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) maintains warm ties with Moscow: this is the informally Emirati-backed institutional body claiming southern independence. Moreover, Russia has a consolidated relationship with the United Arab Emirates, now the most influential regional player in the south of Yemen (and in its port cities): Moscow would reportedly be seeking to re-establish a naval base in the country to gain access to the Red Sea and, for this reason, it is also pursuing outreach efforts in the Horn of Africa.
The United States’ policy on Yemen has not been decoupled from its harsh stance against Iran so far. However, more than the impending spread of famine in the country, geopolitical alignments sidelining the Americans, and giving Tehran and Moscow the upper hand in future political-military balances, could push the Trump administration to recalibrate its position on Yemen. But this option will likely have to contend with Mohammed bin Salman’s zero-sum, no-compromise policy on Yemen.