In Yemen’s War, the Rebels, Not the Saudis, Hold All the Cards
A Yemeni government fighter waits on the front line in battle against Shiite-Houthi rebels outside of Sana’a, Yemen. (Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg)

In Yemen’s War, the Rebels, Not the Saudis, Hold All the Cards

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Hours after Saudi Arabia proposed a cease-fire to end Yemen’s six-year war, jets from the Saudi-led coalition bombed military positions in the capital of Sana’a belonging to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. We shouldn’t be surprised. It is not unusual in long-running wars for a truce to be followed by a spasm of fighting, as the belligerents try to gain some advantage they can use at the negotiating table.

But if that is what the coalition was seeking, it is certain to be disappointed. The rebels, having dismissed the Saudi offer as “not serious and [containing] nothing new,” are working toward a more ambitious goal: the capture of Marib in the eponymous hydrocarbon-rich governorate east of Sana’a.

The Houthis are determined to take the town, which would consolidate their control of northern and central Yemen. The Saudis and their allies appear just as keen to prevent Marib from falling into rebel hands. Discussions about ending what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis may have to wait until the outcome of this battle.

It might be a long wait, though, as the rebels are in no rush. The Houthis, a fanatical Shiite militia supported by Iran, have been at war with the internationally recognized Yemeni government since 2014. The following year, a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened on the government’s side, with limited effect: The rebels still took control of much of the country, including Sana’a. UN efforts to mediate a peace have come to naught, and previous coalition calls for a cease-fire have gone unheeded.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has also presented the Houthis with what he called a comprehensive plan to end the war. He, too, has been rebuffed.

The war has so far claimed over 230,000 lives, displaced millions and utterly devastated the poorest nation in the Middle East. The conflict has also changed the demographics of Marib, with its peacetime population of barely 20,000 swelled by Yemenis fleeing the fighting elsewhere in the country. The UN reckons over 800,000 refugees live there now, making it the second-largest population center after the capital.

Emboldened by their success and armed with Iranian weapons for long-distance warfare, the Houthis have kept up a campaign of attacks into Saudi territory, striking at oil installations and airports. Their rockets and drones have been intercepted over Riyadh. Desperate, the Saudis have been forced to seek more assistance from the U.S., despite the Biden administration’s unconcealed contempt for the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Under the circumstances, the Houthis will likely interpret the Saudi offer of parley as a sign of weakness, and press for much more than a UN-supervised cessation of hostilities. They will recognize that much has changed, mostly to their advantage, since the short-lived, UN-brokered peace deal in Stockholm over two years ago.

Saudi Arabia now faces attacks from Iranian proxies to the north, from Iraq as well as the south. Biden has suspended U.S. military support for its coalition in Yemen and put a hold on arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Houthis, meanwhile, have more Iranian arms and Tehran’s encouragement to keep menacing their mutual enemy.

Continued attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure — such as last Friday’s assault on a Saudi Aramco refinery in the capital and other strikes on a fuel depot in Jeddah and on the world’s biggest oil-export terminal of Ras Tanura — will heighten international concerns over energy supplies. As the global economy begins to recover from the pandemic, there will be more pressure on Riyadh to make peace. Biden, having vowed to end the conflict in Yemen, may push the Saudis to offer the Houthis better terms.   

The Houthis, in short, already have the stronger hand for any future negotiations, and the capture of Marib would make it stronger still. The Saudis shouldn’t expect them at the negotiating table anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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