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A Yemen Ceasefire? Believe It When You See It

While Pompeo and Mattis talk tough, the Saudis are readying for another offensive designed to starve civilians.
yemen children

In an October 30 press release issued by the State Department, the Trump administration called “on all parties to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—both of whom have long defended the Yemen war—are now calling for a ceasefire within 30 days.

Yet these exhortations are meaningless without real pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are poised to launch yet another offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

The first offensive on the port, dubbed ”Operation Golden Victory,” began five months ago and was meant to be a quick strike that would eject the Houthi rebels and their allied forces. It has been anything but quick. The Houthis have launched successive and largely successful counter-offensives.

Meanwhile, as a tragic result of this horrible war, millions of Yemenis face starvation in what is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. That may be exactly what is desired by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their backers—which so far has included the United States.

Incompetent Saudi forces, the mercenary-dependent Emirati allies, and their proxies cannot defeat the Houthis. So the plan is to starve them out. Taking the port of Hodeidah, through which as much as 70 percent of Yemen’s food is imported, is key to this strategy. If the Saudi-led coalition seizes Hodeidah—which remains doubtful—they can choke off food and supplies to the Houthi-controlled northern highlands where most of the Yemeni population resides. The hope is that there will then be an uprising against the Houthis.

The first stage of this strategy—a modern variation on siege warfare—has already been carried out. For more than three years, Saudi jets, which are dependent on U.S. midair refueling, have targeted and destroyed Yemen’s once productive farms and water wells. This is in addition to the coalition’s ongoing attacks on funeral halls, hospitals, factories, school buses, and, most recently, a vegetable packing facility where 21 more civilians were killed.

So why spend billions of dollars—the Saudis are estimated to be bankrolling as much as $6 billion a month in Yemen—and considerable political capital to continue a futile war against a determined and capable foe? Because the Houthis are supposedly allied with, and serving as proxies for, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s greatest regional foe.

Iran is aiding the Houthis with technical advice, some weaponry, and funds. However, Iran’s influence over the highly insular Houthi leadership has been exaggerated. The Houthis are distinctly Yemeni in their outlook and have no interest in projecting power beyond their country’s borders. It is frequently claimed that Iran has dispatched advisors to train and fight alongside the Houthis. Yet to date, no members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or intelligence services have been captured in Yemen. This despite the fact that the Saudis and Emiratis would pay millions for such operatives in order to parade them before cameras to validate their claims.

The Saudis and Emiratis are really in Yemen because of its resources and its strategic position alongside the Bab al-Mandeb, a shipping choke point. Both countries are attempting, and largely failing, to implement a kind of neo-colonial policy. They are trying to carve Yemen into spheres of influence where they can rule through pliant proxies.

In the Yemeni governorate of al-Mahrah, which borders Oman, the Saudis are trying to construct a long sought-after pipeline that would allow them to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. So far, residents have blocked the construction of the pipeline and additional Saudi military bases. Across coalition-“controlled” southern Yemen, Yemenis are protesting Saudi and Emirati efforts to garrison the country and strip it of its assets. In all likelihood, they will be successful. As one former senior Western advisor to the Gulf states told this author, “Yemen is one of the worst places on the planet to try to implement a neo-colonial foreign policy.” The country has a couple thousand years’ worth of experience in frustrating invaders.

Ironically, for a fraction of the cost of the war, the Saudis could have bought off much of the Houthi leadership and allied tribal leaders. In turn, they could have received guarantees about Iranian influence. Before the rise of Saudi Arabia’s young and woefully inept ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, patronage formed the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s policy in Yemen.

Dr. Marieke Brandt, a researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is one of the foremost Western experts on the Houthis and has spent years conducting field research in Yemen. She explained to me:

There is only one instrument of power in highland Yemen and that is patronage. The imams and the Ottomans, and later the Yemeni Republic, have used the politics of patronage to rule in tribal Yemen. Saudi Arabia—prior to the current policy shift under Mohammad bin Salman, who focuses on military solutions—was a proven expert in patronage politics in Yemen whereby it exerted its influence from the capital to the remotest peripheries of Yemen.

Rather than continuing to pursue a low cost, effective, and low risk policy for all involved, Saudi Arabia has chosen to fight a protracted war that it cannot win. The end result of the war will be years—possibly decades—of instability in Yemen and an ongoing investment of billions of dollars in unreliable proxy forces. The major beneficiary of the war—much as it was with the U.S.-led war in Iraq—is Iran. It costs Iran very little to offer minimal but meaningful aid to the Houthis. The Houthis, who were world class guerrilla fighters long before the start of the current war, can fight on for years.

When asked if the tribal alliances that the Houthis rely on for support were in any danger of unraveling, Brandt explained, “no, I do not think so. What one must understand is that according to tribal customs and traditions there is no possibility for them to accept the military conquest and occupation of their territories: tribal territory is sacrosanct. The inviolability of their territory is why the highland tribes will defend their territories to the death, and any violation of their areas by external forces, or even foreigners, will only reinforce their resistance.”

So far the Houthis’ alliances with both their tribal allies and parts of what was the Yemeni army remain intact. In many respects, it is the war, the presence of outside forces, and the threat of a takeover by foreign powers—even if only by their proxies—that gives the Houthis what legitimacy they have. In many parts of highland Yemen, the Houthis are deeply unpopular. As their power has grown, they have become oppressive, corrupt, and authoritarian.

The Houthis are accused, just like their coalition-backed rivals, of disappearing dissidents and carrying out extra-judicial killings. Yet despite their growing unpopularity, the population that they preside over—the bulk of Yemen’s 26 million people—fear the chaos that would likely follow a coalition takeover of highland Yemen. The areas that the coalition claims to control in southern Yemen are plagued by daily violence. Much of the bloodshed, if recent reports about UAE-funded assassination teams are true, is sanctioned and paid for by the coalition itself.

Saudi Arabia and its backers could pursue meaningful negotiations that would provide the guarantees regarding Iranian influence that they desire. More from Brandt:

…all signals from Sanaa indicate that the Houthis’ leadership is interested in a negotiated peace. The Houthis are ready to give guarantees regarding the border and political participation of other groups and even the alleged “Iranian influence,” whatever that may be. However, the Houthis expect the same guarantees and concessions from their negotiating partners. As long as their negotiating partners refuse real negotiations and insist on their unrealistic maximum demands disconnected from the realities on the ground, there will be no negotiated peace.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman is determined to fight a war that may doom millions to a slow death by starvation. And this is likely the goal. As Brandt explains, “the only possibility of a military conquest of highland Yemen would be to starve Yemen for years to come. This is a classic siege tactic applied today to a whole population. The Houthis and their local allies are preparing for very hard times to come.”

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including Intelligence Review, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, The National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor.