When a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a military intervention against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on March 26, 2015, the Yemeni people had no idea they were witnessing the start of the costliest conflict in the long and tumultuous history of his country. .
Indeed, although Yemen has experienced several civil wars and military interventions in the past, none have had such dire consequences as the ongoing war. According to the United Nations, since 2015, the war has caused “more than 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 of indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure”. In addition, over 20 million people in Yemen are food insecure, 10 million of whom are at risk of starvation.
And on its sixth anniversary, this devastating conflict continues with force. Recent military escalations between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis in strategically important areas such as Marib, the city of Sana’a and Ta’izz have added to fears among Yemenis that their country’s unprecedented humanitarian crisis may continue. to get worse in the months and years to come.
So what does the Saudi-led Houthi-led coalition intend to accomplish with these ongoing tit-for-state attacks? Are they making one last attempt to gain influence before finally entering into negotiations to diplomatically end the conflict? Or are they still trying to achieve a decisive military victory and end the conflict that way? And above all, is there any hope for lasting peace in Yemen?
To be able to answer these crucial questions, it is necessary to examine the objectives set and the strategies employed by both sides since the beginning of the conflict.
The Houthis’ ultimate goal: to control Yemen in its entirety
Even before the Saudi-led coalition’s first airstrikes in Yemen, the Houthis had one main goal they were working towards: wiping out all of their domestic rivals in any way they could and taking control of all of Yemen.
At the start of Yemen’s uprising in 2011 against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis joined opposition parties and participated in their sit-ins in several cities. But after Saleh’s ousting from power later that year, the Houthis quickly turned the tide in the face of the opposition. They established an alliance with Saleh and, with forces still loyal to the former president, they managed to take control of most Yemeni towns in mid-2015. However, two years later, in December 2017, they decided that they had exhausted any military and political advantages they could derive from their alliance with Saleh and assassinated him.
The short-lived alliance between the Houthis and Saleh is a testament to the rebel group’s pragmatic policies and its determination to gain power at all costs. Indeed, the Houthis were the only political actors in Yemen to have succeeded in surpassing Saleh, known in Yemen and beyond for his unparalleled Machiavellianism. During his 22-year rule, Saleh defeated countless political rivals – from Arab Nasserists to the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah – with his cunning political strategies, but could not protect himself from being used and eliminated by the Houthis.
The recent Houthi attacks on the Saudi-led coalition and efforts to expand their dominance over the strategic city of Marib are the next chapter in the group’s grand plan to create the conditions for it to take control. from all over the country.
Capturing Marib would not only bring a myriad of economic and security benefits to the group by strengthening its control over northern Yemen, but would also give it access to the region’s rich oil fields.
The United Nations recently expressed concern over the Houthi military offensive in Marib, saying the escalation would likely risk the lives of a million internally displaced Yemenis currently residing in the region.
As their past actions and their apparent disregard for the human cost of their political ambitions indicate, the Houthis are unlikely to give up their desire to control Marib.
The Houthis can agree to a temporary ceasefire if it guarantees – at a minimum – the lifting of the Saudi-imposed blockade on the port of Hodeidah – the main entry point for food shipments to the country. But even if a temporary ceasefire is agreed, there is reason to believe their eyes will remain focused on their potential price in Marib.
While there are many reasons to believe that the Houthis are still as determined to control Yemen as they were six years ago, they are not invincible.
The biggest threat they face, however, is not from the Saudi-led coalition, but from the people currently living under their rule.
The inability or unwillingness of the Houthis to tackle issues such as unemployment, poor health care, and rising gas and food prices in the areas they control have turned the public opinion against them. Although the Houthis officially continue to blame the Saudi-led coalition for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, most Yemenis privately hold both sides equally responsible.
This growing public frustration with the Houthis’ iron-fisted approach to local governance has the potential to fuel future uprisings against them, or at least to help the Saudi-led coalition grow. they breach one of the group’s strongholds.
In addition, there are signs of a fracture even within the group. The Houthi leadership maintained a strong hold on the movement for a very long time. But recently, its second-tier members have openly criticized the group’s leadership on issues such as administrative corruption and the emergence of black markets controlled by pro-Houthi elements. This seemingly growing internal discontent could eventually undermine the authority of the movement’s leadership and make it more vulnerable to attacks from opponents.
Saudi-led coalition lacks a clear strategy in Yemen
Unlike the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition does not have a clear military strategy or an end goal agreed to by all of its members. After six years of war, coalition members appear to have different political expectations in Yemen.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia’s former main ally in the Yemen war, for example, announced its decision to withdraw troops from Yemen in July 2019, following bloody fighting between the separatist group Qu ‘they supported, the South. Transition Council (STC) and the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia, however, is unable to withdraw from the war simply because it has become too costly politically and economically.
Riyadh’s main objective in Yemen is to prevent its regional rivals, and in particular Iran, from gaining uncontrolled control over the country and threatening its national security.
Saudi Arabia did not initially see the group as the main threat to its interests in Yemen. Had the Houthis shown a serious commitment to protecting Saudi interests in the country when they took power in late 2014, the oil-rich kingdom would have tolerated their growing political power in Yemen.
But after six years of war, the Saudis have only two paths to follow in Yemen.
They can either refuse to compromise and pledge to continue the war until they achieve a decisive military victory, or enter into negotiations knowing that the Houthis (and through them the Iranians) will have an important role in the struggle. politics of Yemen.
Both options are costly for the kingdom. The election of Joe Biden as President of the United States and his decision to cease all direct US military support to the Saudi-led offensives put enormous pressure on Riyadh to end the war. In addition, the rest of the international community is also exerting significant pressure on the kingdom to end the war quickly due to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country.
But ending the war now and allowing the Houthis to play a dominant role in running the country is also not an acceptable option for Saudi Arabia, as it would cause it to lose significant weight against Iran in the region.
The Yemeni actors in the Saudi camp also do not have a common end goal or a unified strategy to end the conflict. The STC, for example, focuses on establishing an independent state in the south rather than fighting the Houthis in the north, while Tariq Saleh – who now represents forces loyal to former President Saleh who , months before his death, switched sides and started supporting Saudi Arabia. – led coalition – continues to operate with virtual autonomy outside the military command of President Hadi.
Although President Hadi and some of his allied forces – such as Islah – remain committed to the liberation of Sana’a from the Houthis, they lack the political and military will to act independently of Saudi Arabia. They do not fully control their military strategies and, as such, are vulnerable to external pressures.
Overall, no actor in the war in Yemen has a clear path to victory or a plan to end the conflict quickly and bring peace to the country. On the sixth anniversary of this murderous war, tragically there is no indication that the suffering of the Yemeni people will end anytime soon.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.