US signals in Yemen encourage Houthis to push ahead in Marib

The UN envoy to Tehran's visit was considered by observers as tantamount to exposing Iran's role in Yemen but also reserving a seat for Tehran at the negotiating table for a final settlement in Yemen.
Tuesday 09/02/2021
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-L) meets with Martin Griffiths (C-R), special representative of the United Nations' secretary general for Yemen, in Tehran on February 8, 2021. (AFP)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-L) meets with Martin Griffiths (C-R), special representative of the United Nations' secretary general for Yemen, in Tehran on February 8, 2021. (AFP)

ADEN - Yemeni political sources told The Arab Weekly that the Iran-backed Houthis are seeking to achieve as many military gains on the ground as possible before a final regional and international position is fleshed out regarding a ceasefire and the push for a political settlement to the Yemeni crisis.

The sources say that the Houthi attack on the strategic governorate of Marib is an attempt by the Houthis to take advantage of US leniency towards Iran and Washington's decision to remove the Yemeni militant group from the list of terrorist organisations, following pressure from the United Nations and affiliated humanitarian organisations.

Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdul-Malik said, according to the Yemeni cabinet's official website, that the Houthi militias' targeting of residential neighborhoods in Marib and Al-Jawf with ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones, in conjunction with international calls and moves to find a political solution to the Yemen conflict, “provides new evidence to the international community that these militias do not believe in peace and are continuing to carry out Iran's subversive agenda in the region."

The Houthis' military escalation in Marib coincided with a visit by UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to the Iranian capital, Tehran, where he met with Iranian officials to discuss the Yemeni conflict.

The escalation also comes in the wake of the US administration's removal of the Houthis from its terror designation list, its appointment of a US special envoy to Yemen and the announcement that it will halt military support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in the Yemen war. Analysts believe these US stances will further motivate the Houthis to strengthen their military and political gains and consolidate the fait accompli on the ground they have imposed during six years of war.

Tehran escalated its rhetoric on the Yemeni file after announcing its appointment of an Iranian ambassador to Sana'a. The UN envoy''s visit to Tehran was considered by observers as tantamount to exposing Iran's role in Yemen but also reserving a seat for Tehran at the negotiating table for a final settlement in Yemen. Prior to that, Iran was satisfied with playing an undeclared role in Yemen by providing the Houthi militias with money and weapons, including ballistic missiles and drones to target Saudi Arabia with.

The statement put out by the Iranian foreign ministry after Griffiths held talks in Tehran on Monday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted that, "If Saudi Arabia stops the war and ends its military raids on Yemen, the Yemeni-Yemeni talks can be launched the next day. Peace in Yemen is tied to Saudi Arabia stopping its war on Yemen."

The implicit message is that Tehran has taken ownership of Houthi decisions. Ending the war in Yemen and entering into a settlement there is now linked by Tehran to international concessions in its favour on the nuclear file and the recognition of it as a regional power.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly about the Houthis' exploitation and shifting US positions, Yemeni political researcher Faris al-Beel said that the Houthis' strategy is to take advantage of political changes to achieve advances on the ground. He added that the new US stance indicating Washington's desire to follow a traditional negotiating course has encouraged the Houthis to change the equation on the ground regardless of long-term political consequences.

Explaining the reasons the Houthis opted to attack Marib at this point, Beel said, "The Houthis are clearly keen on clinching more military gains, and Marib is a precious catch if they can keep it under their control. So beyond the economic context and the oil and gas resources it contains, Marib will shift the equation internally in favour of the Houthis."

Yemeni political researcher and head of the Fanar Centre for Policy Research, Ezzat Mustafa, said that Iran is using the Houthi pressure card with military escalation in Marib and the launching of drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia after the US administration announced the participation of Washington's Gulf allies in discussing the Iranian nuclear file.

Mustafa told The Arab Weekly he expects further Iranian escalation in the Red Sea through the Houthis to target maritime navigation with remotely-controlled booby-trapped boats and perhaps larger terrorist missile attacks. These scenarios are all-the-more plausible now that the Houthis control areas in Yemen that are considered among the most important missile bases of Iran's Quds Force, where two Iranian experts on Yemen, General Mahmoud Bagheri Kazemabad and General Javid Berdbar Sher Amin, are based.

"With Griffiths' expected failure to convince Iran to adhere to a ceasefire in Yemen, the Houthi militias' pressure will increase and pose a greater threat in the oil-rich province bordering Saudi Arabia, especially considering the reluctance of the Yemeni Defence Ministry forces to repel the Houthi attacks," he added.

Faced with Houthi escalation on the ground and the ratcheting up of Iranian rhetoric regarding Yemen, the new US administration continues to display an ambivalent stance, which combines a conciliatory position towards the Houthi militias in Yemen with the US's commitment to protecting the security of its allies in the region.

The US State Department has called on the Houthis to immediately stop their attacks against Saudi Arabia and to refrain from carrying out military action inside Yemen. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Monday “We call on the Houthis to immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people.”

Diplomatic sources told the Arab Weekly that Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, will begin his mission in the next few days by visiting the Saudi capital, Riyadh, at the same time Griffiths is expected to visit Yemen's interim capital Aden after meeting with Saudi officials and Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resides in Riyadh.

Commenting on Washington's conflicting signals on the situation, Yemeni political researcher Mustafa said, “I think that the US administration should further clarify its messages to the Houthis. The American position wavers between easing the restrictions against the Houthis after their removal from  terrorist lists and US commitment to protecting the security of allied countries in the region. This was misinterpreted by the Houthis and Iran and considered to be a change in the US policy towards Yemeni, which offered the militias room to escalate their moves and intensify their terrorist activities against Saudi Arabia."