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Foreign Support to Proxies Exacerbates the War in Yemen

Yemen is today one of the world’s most ill-fated countries. The ongoing civil war has ravaged the nation; the presence of outside forces presents a dilemma that it cannot handle on top of its existing challenges, including widespread poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the conflict, local forces have undermined Yemen’s unity and sovereignty in pursuit of minority and factional interests. Recent developments in the war have made it clear that there is no solution in sight that would restore the country’s unity, rebuild its geography, and prevent the interference of regional powers in its internal affairs.

Former US President Barack Obama effectively legalized the war on Yemen by supporting what was known as the “Decisive Storm” campaign in 2015, a military operation led by Saudi Arabia to restore the UN-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi after the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, by force of arms. At the time, the Saudi government promised that the operation would take three weeks. Six years later, the war continues; the Saudis have been unable to make progress against the Houthis, thousands of Yemenis have lost their lives, and all sides in the conflict have been implicated in war crimes.

America Needs a Better Plan

Against this backdrop, the United States has become increasingly reluctant to participate in the conflict. While President Trump continued President Obama’s policy and provided total support to the Saudis against the Houthis, newly elected President Biden cut off U.S. military support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition and urged the Saudis to end the military operation. In his statement regarding Yemen, President Biden specifically stated that the United States would “end […] all American support for offensive operations” by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, an approach consistent with his statements during his 2020 presidential campaign. Biden also appointed a special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, with experience in the affairs of the Middle East region. Three tasks were entrusted to Lenderking: ensuring the arrival of humanitarian aid, resuming the import of basic commodities, and reviving American diplomacy with the United Nations to facilitate these goals.

However, it has been recently noted that President Biden’s reversal of President Trump’s decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization has increased its combat effectiveness in Marib against the UN-recognized government and its missile attacks against Saudi cities. The Biden administration’s permission to license transactions, including banking, with the Houthis, under humanitarian pretexts, shows that the new U.S. administration does not have a specific plan on how to end the war in Yemen and restore peace to the country.

The STC’s Outreach

On the other hand, the leaders of the separatist Southern Transitional Council have become more active with Emirati support, while Saudi Arabia, nominally supporting the Hadi government, is turning a blind eye. The STC is also expanding its reach to other factions; the head of the STC, Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, recently paid a visit to Moscow to seek help for his separatist project, announcing on Russian TV that his visit was in response to an official invitation, (the Russian government said he requested the meeting.) In either case, Al-Zubaidi insisted “that Moscow have a hand in the southern Yemeni issue and support [the STC’s] claim for the right to self-determination,” expressly contradicting the idea that Yemen should remain united as one republic.

Al-Zubeidi’s televised interview contained contradictions and uncertainties. He insisted on retaining his own armed militias and categorically rejected putting weapons in the hands of a unified government army. He also confirmed his refusal for the appointment of Chairman of the Shura Council by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, stating that there was no role for the head of this appointed council and that he would not recognize it. One might wonder why, if President Hadi was as powerless as Al-Zubeidi asserted, there was any need to object so vehemently to him in the first place.

Al-Zubaidi went even further, saying that if Southern Yemen was re-established, it would reserve the right to recognize Israel – as Abu Dhabi, the STC’s main patron, did in August 2020. Although it is unclear what Al-Zubaidi’s intentions were in making this assertion, it reinforces the idea that the Yemen conflict is not solely an internal affair, but a battleground for a regional struggle, with the Israel-friendly Saudis, Emiratis, and STC on one side and the Iranians and Houthis on the other.  Whether intentionally or not, Al-Zubaidi’s remarks underlined the international context of the Yemeni situation and invited more states to interfere in Yemen, which will invariably lead to further destabilization of the country.

How to Restore Yemen

Ultimately, the top priority in Yemen is to stop the war in both its internal and external forms, and as soon as possible, and to force all Yemeni forces to accept the sovereignty of the Hadi government for a transitional period. After that, the nation should be free to choose its own fate, free of external actors and in accordance with international law and UN Security Council resolutions. It is also important that national dialogue be restored through a pan-Yemeni conference with representation from all factions. A renewed Yemeni government must collect weapons from all forces outside the authority of the state under international supervision, respect the sovereignty of the borders of neighboring countries, reject all external support for internal factions, and hold a referendum, under international supervision, on the secession of southern Yemen. All countries involved in the armed conflict in Yemen must withdraw from the country, disband the militias they have recruited, and agree not to interfere in its internal affairs. If all participating parties agree to take this step, there is a chance that Yemen might finally have peace.


Dr. Mohammad Saleh Al-Mesfer is Professor of Political Science in Qatar University

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Professor of Political Science at Qatar University

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