The Gaza war threatens a Yemen peace deal

Summary: with the Huthis raising the temperature in the Red Sea in support of the Palestinian cause fragile hopes for a peace deal with the Saudis could easily be swept aside with the Yemeni people consigned once again to pay the heaviest price.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast “Remember Yemen!” is available here.

As 2023 nears its end, Yemenis are torn between mixed feelings at the prospect of a Huthi-Saudi agreement being reached and fear that Huthi attacks in the Red Sea against shipping with Israeli connections will lead to serious retaliation strikes. There is little doubt that, thanks to their reaction to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, the Huthis, known officially as Ansar Allah, have achieved unparalleled national and international prominence. While attention is focused on Huthi projectiles in the Red Sea, the UN Special Envoy is attempting to bring the year-long Huthi-Saudi negotiations to a successful conclusion and somehow transform this prospective agreement into a step towards peace negotiations between the warring Yemeni parties.

Throughout the year, internal political developments have been characterised by the squabbles and rivalries within the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and its factions. Some of them have strengthened their positions, mainly pro-unity Tareq Saleh and separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose leader, al Zubaidi, has attended international fora alongside PLC President Al Alimi, where he has moderated his language and demands thus weakening his internal position. Hadhramaut governorate has been the focus of the competition between President Al Alimi and the STC, reflecting the Saudi-Emirati rivalry. As the end of 2023 approaches, this stalemate persists (see posting of June 2023).

Meanwhile living conditions of Yemenis continue to deteriorate, despite the low level of military action. In 2022 the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan was financed at 55%; two weeks before the end of this year, financing is only 38%. The World Food Programme announced that due to the depletion of its stocks, it will interrupt its general distributions in Huthi-controlled areas as of the beginning of 2024, leaving millions destitute.

A Huthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea on November 19, 2023
A Huthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea on November 19, 2023 [photo credit: Ansar Allah]
Since late 2022, Ansar Allah and the Saudi authorities have negotiated directly. An agreement would enable the Saudis to declare a ‘successful’ end to their involvement in the Yemen civil war, their objective for at least three full years. In April 2023, a senior Saudi delegation visited Sana’a officially and agreement appeared close. It did not happen. In September a senior Ansar Allah delegation visited Riyadh and was officially received by Prince Khaled bin Salman, the defence minister but, again, contrary to expectation, no agreement was announced.

Since then, negotiations have continued and recent statements have suggested that agreement is about to be reached. The main Huthi concession to date has been to agree that Saudi Arabia would sign as mediator, not participant, as the latter would leave the kingdom open to legal accusations of war crimes for its actions in the war. This means that any agreement would be formally between the Huthis and the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG), despite the latter having had no input of substance in negotiations. In addition to a ceasefire and ending cross-border attacks by both sides, the Saudis agree to pay all Yemeni government staff salaries for a year including Huthi military and security forces, the full re-opening of Hodeida ports, and additional destinations for flights from Sana’a airport. The Huthis would ‘allow’ the IRG to export oil (interrupted since November 2022 following Huthi strikes on ships in the Arabian Sea exporting ports). The UN Special Envoy’s team would be left with the task of forming economic, political and military committees to prepare ‘peace’ negotiations between the two Yemeni parties. Such a deal would only mean ending Saudi open involvement. On the ground it would further weaken the anti-Huthi front.

While the likely Ansar Allah reluctance to formally put an end to the war against the Saudis remains an issue, (see our posting of January 2023) the new element, which may well sink the agreement, is the war in Gaza. Within weeks of Israeli genocidal bombing in Gaza, the Huthis have taken military action to support the Palestinians (our posting of October 2023). By contrast with the situation in Iraq and Syria where the US has responded militarily to attacks, it has been remarkably mild in its response to Huthi strikes against Israeli connected shipping in the Red Sea.

Since mid-October Huthi missiles and drones are frequently launched northwards, attempting to reach sites in southern Israel. Most of them are intercepted in the Red Sea by US and other naval forces and, given distance and range, the Huthis are not a serious military threat to the Israelis.

By contrast, their ability to attack ships in the Red Sea is more effective. The seizure of the Galaxy Leader on 19 November has enabled the Huthis to turn it into a tourist attraction staging cultural events onboard. The movement has increased its attacks on ships with any connection to Israel, including hitting the Norwegian Strinda on 11 December and the Maersk Gibraltar on 14 December and others causing, at most, minor fires. Ships with Israeli connections have been diverted and re-routed creating additional costs of up to US$ 3 billion for Israel whose officials have pointed out that they will take action unless the international community does. Most significantly, the major shipping companies have diverted their fleets away from the Red Sea, an expensive decision.

Huthi actions are deeply embarrassing for both the Saudis and the US. The Saudis want their deal with the Huthis to be signed and sealed before the situation deteriorates further and it becomes politically impossible to proceed and thus scupper their determination to declare an end to the Yemeni war. At the same time, they cannot publicly object to attacks against Israel and draw attention to their own passivity as Palestinians are being killed by the thousands. So they have gone so far as to encourage the US to exercise restraint in response to Huthi attacks in the Red Sea.

For the US administration, the situation is, if anything, worse. Having deployed massive naval hardware in the region, lack of response raises questions at home and in Israel. The Biden regime is caught between unquestioned support for Israel and its objective to end the war in Yemen, an early ambition of his presidency and one of its few potential successes, given the stalemate in the ongoing war in Ukraine and the growing unpopularity of support for Israel. On 5 December US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said “We are in talks with other countries about a maritime task force of sorts involving the ships from partner nations alongside the United States in ensuring safe passage,” and on Thursday 14 December he said that Washington wanted the “broadest possible” maritime coalition to protect ships in the Red Sea and he signalled to the Huthis that “attacks would not be tolerated.” It isn’t clear whether Yemen’s IRG has been invited to join the maritime coalition. On 18 December, Secretary for Defence Lloyd Austin announced its composition in the Bahraini capital Manama, home to the US Fifth Fleet.

In the fog of wars at the end of 2023 the situation in Yemen remains fraught and the population’s suffering is worsening. Huthi actions in support of Palestine may lead to military attacks on Yemen. The Saudi-Huthi agreement hangs in the balance. As elsewhere prospects for 2024 are grim.

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