As violence escalates, what's next for Yemen's conflict?

7 min read
09 September, 2021
Analysis: With a deadly attack on a military base and continued fighting in the Marib province, there is no end in sight to Yemen's devastating war.

After an alleged Houthi missile and drone attack hit Saudi-backed forces in a military base in southwest Yemen on 29 August, a new-flare up between Houthi rebel forces and their coalition adversaries seems imminent.

Following the incident, which killed at least 30 pro-government soldiers and wounded 60, the Houthis reportedly launched a drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, wounding eight, the Saudi-led coalition said.

The Houthis declared responsibility for the airport attack, although they did not claim culpability for the deadly incident at al-Anad military base near Aden.

The coalition also intercepted a second attack on the airport in southern Saudi Arabia, which has been frequently targeted by the Iran-aligned faction. The coalition declared that the move “constitutes a war crime,” indicating that tensions may indeed escalate again.

"An alleged Houthi missile and drone attack on a military base in southwest Yemen killed at least 30 pro-government soldiers"

Crucially, these deadly attacks come following an escalation in violence in the contested Marib governorate, which the Houthis have been trying to capture in a renewed offensive since February.

On 1 September, 65 Houthi rebels and pro-government soldiers were killed as the rebel group attempted to take the strategic Marib city. The Houthis attacked government positions south of the city, while they also lost several fighters in coalition airstrikes.

Despite US President Joe Biden pledging efforts to end the war in Yemen earlier this year, violence is evidently escalating, raising concerns over the effectiveness of his approach to the conflict.

The UAE's curious role

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its proxy the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have certainly played a curious role following the deadly attacks on al-Anad military base.

The UAE says it has withdrawn from Yemen, and indeed it has mostly scaled back its forces compared to 2019 prior to the Riyadh Agreement. However, it has still operated a military presence in parts of the south and has used the STC to bolster its geostrategic control over southern Yemen throughout the six-year-long war.

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The president of the STC, Aidarous Qassem Al-Zubaidi, denounced the recent attacks, showing that the faction was on the coalition’s side. The UAE also condemned the alleged Houthi attack and urged the international community to hold the faction to account.

On the surface, this could be an indication that the Saudi-led coalition is reunifying, given that the UAE and STC condemned violence against government forces. After all, the STC and Abu Dhabi have been less competitive against the Houthis, particularly as the separatist faction has faced tensions with the Yemeni government in various southern provinces.

Should the UAE and STC be genuine in opposing the Houthis' escalatory role, it would indicate that the coalition could find a new front to unite against the rebel faction.

However, Hesham al-Ziady, a journalist and anchor at Yemen’s Shabab TV, suggests that while the Houthis were accused of being responsible for the attacks, Abu Dhabi may have had some involvement.

“The Houthis usually claim responsibility for its attacks, and boast of them proudly, as it did with the latest attacks on al-Abha airport. However, the Houthis did not claim responsibility for attacks on Aden,” al-Ziady told The New Arab.

Marib [AFP]
The Houthis are hell-bent on capturing the geostrategic Marib governorate. [Getty]

“A couple of days ago I was in a TV interview with Shabwa governors’ assistant Muhsen al-Haj, discussing the Belhaf facility tension with the UAE forces inside the facility, he blamed the UAE for attacking al-Anad airbase,” he added.

“When I asked him to confirm this claim, he said that the UAE is the closest suspect due to its full control of the Yemen air zone in the south. This time the victims of the attack belong to pro-UAE Giants Brigades that were transferred a few days ago from the west coast of Yemen to the airbase The transfer happened after tension was raised between the soldiers and their leaders.”

This would not be the first time that the UAE has been accused of being responsible for an attack associated with the Houthis. In January 2020, Helen Lackner, a renowned Yemen expert and research associate at SOAS University of London, wrote for the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) that the UAE could have been behind an attack on Marib that was blamed on the Houthis.

At the time, some observers claimed that Abu Dhabi sought to disrupt the Riyadh Agreement, which could have marginalised its proxy the STC, despite its withdrawal. Emirati warplanes have also attacked Hadi government forces in the past, such as in Aden in 2019, after it tried to reclaim the then-contested city from the STC.

"The Houthis see themselves as the strongest on the ground, and they want to earn more than they were offered, they want the blockade on Sana'a airport and Hodeida port to end unconditionally"

And on 6 September, Emirati warplanes were seen flying above Ataq, the capital of the Shabwa governorate, as protesters prevented an Emirati military convoy from heading to Al-Alam camp, reported Al Masdar Online.

With the oil-rich Shabwa governorate contested between the STC and Hadi government, such reports indicate the UAE still seeks to empower the STC.

In recent months, the UAE has also faced a growing divergence with Saudi Arabia, its traditional ally and coalition partner in Yemen, particularly over OPEC+ oil output and their own economic competition.

For now, however, it is unclear whether the UAE did in fact play any role, and Houthi rebels may well have been responsible, as medical sources and southern forces claim. Yet for the wider conflict in Yemen, it appears that tensions can only worsen.

Relentless offensive in Marib

The Houthis are hell-bent on capturing the geostrategic Marib governorate, pursuing a months-long offensive which has both held the population hostage and prevented a wider settlement of the conflict.

“The Houthis won’t stop until they achieve the victory to take over the city that has natural resources like gas and oil,” said al-Ziady. “On the other side, the government forces seem in a bad situation with a lack of weapons and ammunition, incohesive, weak leadership, and the unwillingness of the Saudis to support these fronts.”

Yemen Saudi
Critics say that US efforts to resolve the Yemen war have been flawed. [Getty]

Government soldiers haven’t received their salaries for months and have no proper weapons to counter the Houthis, according to al-Ziady, with the rebels having inherited military supplies from Yemen’s army after capturing Sana’a.

“The Houthis see themselves as the strongest on the ground, and they want to earn more than they were offered, they want the blockade on Sana’a airport and Hodeida port to end unconditionally before any talks for further agreements.”

Earlier in August, the United States acknowledged that violence in Yemen was increasing.

“In the Yemen context, we have seen more attacks from the Houthis launched at Saudi Arabia in the first half of this year than we have for several prior years,” Dana Stroul, the Pentagon’s top official for policy in the Middle East, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

"The efforts of the UN won't be fruitful if the major players in Yemen are not interested in making peace"

“Iran is increasing the lethality and complexity of both the equipment and the knowledge it transfers to the Houthis so that they can attack Saudi territory [and] Saudi civilians,” she added.

Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, recently acknowledged that the Houthis have struggled to advance further in Marib and that a stalemate may eventually occur. His comments show the need for urgent international action.

However, critics say that US efforts to resolve the Yemen war have been flawed. On the one hand, the Houthis claim that Saudi war efforts have not fully ended. This includes the failure to remove the blockade on the country that has been in place throughout the war.

Although Saudi Arabia has asserted that the blockade is designed to stop weapons entering Yemen, NGOs have warned it also blocks vital aid and fuel from entering the country, exacerbating its devastating humanitarian crisis.

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Meanwhile, military cooperation between the Saudis and the US has continued, and there have been few efforts to conclude the peace talks or end the blockade, despite Biden’s pledge to reduce the violence there.

“The efforts of the UN won’t be fruitful if the major players in Yemen are not interested in making peace,” said al-Ziady.

“Although the US has sent Tim Lenderking as a representative to Yemen, things did not change for the better either,” al-Ziady added.

“His vision for peace in Yemen is quite similar to the [other] UN envoys, especially Martin Griffiths, who proved that he failed to achieve a single achievement in his career in Yemen. Even the Stockholm agreement that Griffiths engineered did not succeed, and just aggravated the problem and endangered the lives of many civilians.”

For al-Ziady, both the US and UK must focus more on pressing the UAE to halt its secessionist policies in the south, while doing the same for Iran and Saudi Arabia to push the Houthis and Hadi government, respectively, into making concessions.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey