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With an escalating humanitarian disaster still at the fore, does this mean that political stability is what awaits the war-torn country as it enters a new year? So, are the Houthi rebels losing their battle?

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IPRI # 4, 16 February 2019

West Asia
Yemen: Will Sa'nna fall?

  Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer

Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer is a Research Associate at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

While latest reports from the United Nations suggest a staggering increase in the number of civilian causalities in Yemen, signaling that the country is sure to see worse days in 2019, a statement from the oil minister of Yemen hinted otherwise. It mentioned that the state’s oil export is set to improve and that Yemen will soon increase its crude oil production to 110,000 barrels per day in 2019. In addition, popular media has also been publishing successful advances of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, reflecting that things are already getting better there. This reads that the Houthi capital of Sa’nna is almost losing its grounds and will eventually surrender.

With an escalating humanitarian disaster still at the fore, does this mean that political stability is what awaits the war-torn country as it enters a new year? So, are the Houthi rebels losing their battle?

Houthis and the regional ideological war

Within the Arab world, the prolonging Yemeni crisis is viewed as an extension of the larger regional cold war between the Sunni-Shia divide led by Saudi and Iran. This, they believe is bound to continue. Now, at the regional level, institutional mechanisms such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) conveniently continues to favor the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, given their ideological inclinations. Whilst, the Arab League has also been vocal about their doubts on the Houthi intent towards a peaceful resolution of the strife.

As far as the major regional powers heading the Middle Eastern Cold War are concerned, Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia will only want to project Yemen as a success story and expand the Sunni domination in the region. Quite in resonance with this, the Saudi-led coalition has already managed to capture several sites along the northern parts of Al Sa’ada including the temporary capital city of Aden. Adding to this, a number of functional ports have also been captured from the rebel groups. This includes the ports of Aden, Rudhum Oil Exporting Terminal, Mukalla, Ash Shihr Oil Exporting Terminal, Nishtun, Saleef and Hodeidah.

Clearly, Houthis are losing their territorial grounds. On the other side, Tehran is significantly trying to use its military clientele’ to export its Shia identity and support the Houthi rebels. But essentially, Tehran should realize that it remains an isolated player in the region and any further attack on Riyadh by backing the Houthis would mean more sanctions. Keeping its own survival first, it should possibly become a secular player and, support in easing the situation in Yemen and join efforts to peace.

Trump, UN and the War in Yemen

 The Trump administration recently rejected a proposal to reintroduce war power resolutions against Riyadh which intended to signal Washington’s disapproval surrounding the aggravating tensions in Yemen at the US congress. Re-emphasizing its inclination towards the region and the Saudi leadership, the White House had deemed the measure inappropriate stating that the US forces had only been providing auxiliary support like mid-air refueling to Saudi troops and did not have boots on the ground in combat.

Keeping the Yemeni interests intact is certainly not in Washington’s agenda but maintaining bilateral affairs with Saudi and the rest of the region does matter to it. Hence, it is transparent that the Saudi-led coalition will continue to receive support from its western ally. In another sense, Trump’s veto could also be read as one of being responsible in protecting America’s ability to fight the spread of extremism as a superpower. As for options to peace, the US could go on to compel Saudi to ponder into an Afghan model of reconciliation involving Houthis as stakeholders especially at a time when the conflict has intensified into a humanitarian catastrophe.

A pure military solution is not a fair price for a war which is taking newer dimensions. The UN-brokered Stockholm agreement of December 2018 with support from all stakeholders is possibly one of biggest means reached so far in these lines. The agreement provides a channel to deliver aid through the port of Hodeidah to contain the existing situation there. But, continuous ceasefire violations from the Iran-backed Houthis has not just delayed efforts in sending aid, it has also raised skepticism among Saudi and US forces whether Houthis would ever abide to the agreement. The Houthis had earlier agreed to join efforts to initiate ceasefire and demilitarization of the ports of Salif, Ras Issa and Hodeida and, the agreement was reached in accordance to this. One of the most deliberate agitation of these has been attacks on the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) which includes members from the Saudi-led coalition supported Yemeni government and the Iran backed Houthi militias overseen by the UN deputed to monitor the implementation of ceasefire. Such acts of displeasure come at a time when the UN hosted third of its RCC meetings in a ship anchored off the port of Hodeidah in search of a neutral venue.

If a mutual ceasefire is what comes into being, the Houthis might expect anything from access to resources to autonomy within a proper federal structure. This would be unlike the proposed 2014 constitutional reform which tried to divide the country into six provinces. The recommendation had failed due to unequal distribution of resources and territory and, no access to the seas to the Houthis. Given this scenario, seems like, the Houthi rebels would never want to give up the Red Sea ports which gives them access to commercial goods and probably never want to resolve conflict or the least agree for a long-term ceasefire.

Sa’nna will fall

Evidently, the Houthis have come to enjoy shrinking support within the region. Subsequent efforts from institutions like the United Nations to curb the crisis have also come to a standstill due to indifference from Sa’nna. Houthis should remind themselves that major support systems like ISIS are losing their influence in Syria and the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are already being decimated by the coalition forces.

 Iran as a major power pretty much remains a lone player in the region. This will certainly make their survival harder in the coming days. Within the state, what remains is a fading territorial stronghold and a dying population of hunger. If the Houthis continue to stay away from conflict resolution and let the prevailing famine escalate, what lies ahead for them in the days to come would be certainly discontent, more blockades and growing mistrust over their legitimacy leading to an absolute isolation. This will inevitably make Sa’nna surrender and fall.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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