Yemen Descends into Protracted Violence

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Meda, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The violence in Yemen has worsened. This time Marib and Hodeidah are the site of a pitched battle between government forces and the Iranian-backed Houthis. This comes after a series of meetings in Yemen and elsewhere in the region had raised the possibility of achieving a much-needed ceasefire. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, developments in the region will have on prospects for this result.

Earlier this week, PM Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed of the internationally recognized Yemeni government spoke out against the Houthis, accusing them of “terrorist crimes” and “attacks against civilians.” According to the Saudi Gazette, PM Abdulmalik warned that the violence “will not pass without the culprits being held accountable as the Yemeni government will also not accept that the Yemeni people remain mortgaged to such violations by the terrorist Houthi militias. Dr. Abdulmalik paid tribute to the continuing stand of the Coalition Forces to Support Legitimacy in Yemen by the side of the Yemeni people in defense of their identity and well-being, calling on the UN Security Council and the international community to take deterrent measures to coerce the Iran-backed Houthis to stop threatening the security and stability of Yemen and the region.”

The events in Marib and elsewhere run against the narrative of recent weeks, during which time visits by regional and international officials raised the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. An Asharq Alawsat report noted a meeting at the beginning of June between Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and British Defense Secretary Dominic Raab, where, among other things, “[t]hey tackled the developments in Yemen in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s offering, earlier this year, of a comprehensive settlement to resolve its crisis. The initiative will pave the way for a permanent and comprehensive political solution. More pressure must be exerted on Iran-backed Houthi militias to make them join efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully.”

Prior to that, Yemen Online reflected comments made by British and American officials, both of whom had called on the Houthis to cease military actions against government positions in the north,:“after at least 17 people were killed in an explosion that the Saudi-backed government said was caused by a Houthi missile attack…. Marib has become the epicenter of the conflict since the Houthis launched an offensive to seize the gas-rich region and the government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen. ‘This inhuman conflict must stop,’ said Kathy Wesley, Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy. Michael Aaron, the British ambassador to Yemen, wrote on Twitter that the Houthis’ serious participation in the UN efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire would ‘prevent such tragic losses’.”

Yemeni government officials have made efforts to reach out to countries in the region in an effort to shore up support and put pressure on the Houthis. It is perhaps not surprising that, as this Arab News article points out, Oman was one of the first countries Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak visited, given the fact that Oman “borders both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, is a close US ally but at the same time has good relations with Iran. It has regularly played the role of mediator in regional conflicts. Muscat has hosted UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and US envoy Tim Lenderking in recent weeks, while Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Abdul Salam in Oman in late April.”

Leila Gharagozlou, in an article written for The National, outlines a series of efforts made by the Saudis and their allies to create conditions for a ceasefire with the Houthi rebels: “The Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen said it has stopped military operations to work towards a peaceful settlement. Over the past few months, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen have been moving towards a ceasefire agreement to bring to an end the six-year conflict. Saudi Arabia and Iran restarted talks in April with their first high-level meeting since Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016…. Other Gulf countries have joined the ceasefire efforts. Omani officials visited Sanaa this month to begin diplomatic talks with the Houthi rebels and Oman’s foreign minister, Sayyid Badr Hamad Al Busaidi, visited Riyadh on Wednesday.”

Meanwhile, following the latest uptick in violence, Iranian observers suggest that the Saudis may be negotiating from a position of weakness. In an interview with Tehran Times’ Reza Moshfegh, analyst Talib al-Hassani contended that “Saudi Arabia is looking for a way to exit from this war, which has entered its seventh year. Meanwhile, Saudis have lost more cards facing more military and economic pressures, and this means that time is not going in their favor, but rather in the interest of Yemen. The decision to end this catastrophe will not be in hands of Saudis, as the war decision was. The United States of America is a major partner in decision-making, and therefore today they are partners in the search for a safe exit from Yemen.”

But not all are convinced that the involved parties are interested in a peaceful resolution. Writing for the Daily Sabah, Muhittin Ataman frames the violence in Yemen not simply as a consequence of domestic instability but driven primarily by regional and international developments: “Neither intervening regional powers nor international organizations succeeded in ending the crisis. Regional powers prioritize their national interests, not the benefit of the Yemeni people. Therefore, none of these regional powers play a constructive role in ending the conflict. Riyadh, Tehran and Abu Dhabi do not want a final resolution of the crisis in a way that would provide an atmosphere of peace and tranquility, allowing for the independence of the Yemeni people…. The new U.S. approach has pushed the two countries to get closer and start resolving their longstanding disputes….It seems that the two countries will continue their dialogue as long as they are “otherized” by the U.S.”

And yet, others are holding out hope that important developments, like the Iran nuclear talks, may provide some way out of the conflict in Yemen. For example, the author of an Al Ahram op-ed, Ahmed Eleiba, believes “Some chance exists for overcoming the seemingly endless frustration on the Yemeni front if Tehran and Washington can come to an understanding on the Iranian nuclear question…. Tehran possesses the ability to rein in the Houthi militia and to influence the Houthis’ political decisions. If and how it uses this influence also hinges on the give-and-take in the framework of the ‘regional solution’ that now appears to be the option that these and other regional stakeholders have decided to pursue. But much will depend on how the war plays out on the ground, especially if either side holds on to the hope that it can obtain a decisive upper hand despite the years of experience that should tell them this is as remote as ever.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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