The Houthis Are the Problem in Yemen, Not the Saudis

The Biden administration needs to reconsider its policy towards Yemen if it seeks a longstanding solution to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

After more than half a decade of conflict, one might think that the West, and particularly the US, would know how to deal strategically with and understand the Houthis’ behavior in the Yemeni civil war. However, in recent weeks US policy regarding the group continues to highlight the country’s failure, or perhaps unwillingness, to grasp the Iranian-backed militia’s role in the conflict.

As the popular saying goes, “If you give the Houthis a finger, they will take the whole hand.” True to this saying, the group has exploited every concession or ceasefire during the conflict to reorganize and improve its standing. Once it does, it blatantly violates these agreements to make further advances.

The lack of Western comprehension concerning Houthi strategy was on full display in late 2017 and throughout 2018. In the months following the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017 by his Houthi then-partners, the Saudi-led coalition made significant military gains, as immediately after the death of Saleh many of his loyalists left the alliance with the Iranian-backed group.

Such gains by Saudi Arabia and its allies included the seizure of large swaths of the Yemeni coast along the Red Sea.

Western Intervention Allowed Houthis to Strengthen, Regroup

Ahead of the assault on the port city of Hodeidah, the international community intervened to stop the offensive and brokered the Stockholm agreement in December 2018 to prevent a “humanitarian disaster.” The intervention prevented a decisive blow against the Houthis, who were on the ropes at the time, in the capture of the port. 

This could have not only weakened the Houthis militarily but better facilitated humanitarian aid deliveries, as the Houthis are known to steal and abuse its distribution for profit. It would have also increased the Saudi-led coalition’s leverage in negotiations.

Instead, the intervention strengthened and emboldened the Houthis. By doing so, it contributed to the extension of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis, as it diminished the Houthis’ willingness to compromise.

The Biden administration’s delisting of the group as a foreign terrorist organization, coupled with the withdrawal of US support for the Kingdom in the war a week earlier, is yet another example of the short-sightedness and lack of understanding of the Houthis as rogue actors. Such measures only remove any sort of leverage over the Houthis, merely encouraging them, as clearly illustrated by its stepping up of attacks and eventual offensive to take Marib Province from Saudi Arabia and its local allies.

Campaign Against Saudi Strengthens Tehran, Houthis

Furthermore, in the broader picture, the latest campaign against the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the new administration is detrimental to the goal of hindering the growing influence of Tehran across the region, including through its Yemeni ally.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2018. Photo: AFP

Although avoiding imposing sanctions on the crown prince himself, the blacklisting of his confidants and pointing the finger at Bin Salman, while at the same time providing concessions to the Houthis, further encourages the Iran-backed group to act aggressively. 

The Houthis likely view the latest developments as a green light for more offensives, as their attacks are not going to result in any negative consequences.

This does not preclude a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Yemen. Nevertheless, diplomacy should be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself. To engage in effective diplomacy and negotiations, particularly with ill-intentioned movements such as the Houthis, it is required to gain a position of power ahead of any round of talks with the group’s representatives.

The Biden administration needs to reconsider its policy towards the conflict in Yemen, as well as the Middle East in general, even strengthening its Saudi ally militarily and politically if it seeks a longstanding solution to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst

Asaf Day is a security and Due Diligence analyst at a Luxemburg-based firm. Asaf is a Political Science PhD student at the University of Kansas and has an MA Degree in Arabic Studies and a BA in Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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