Given Biden’s decision that the United States would end its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen, and revoke the terrorist designation of the Houthis, one can discern that the Houthis wanted to take advantage of such a situation.
Last month, President Joe Biden revoked the designation of the Yemeni Ansar Allah movement — also known as the Houthi movement — as a terrorist organization, less than a month after former President Donald Trump enacted this designation, merely 11hours before leaving office. The Biden Administration acknowledged that maintaining this designation would have negatively impacted the already-horrific humanitarian situation in Yemen. Biden’s administration may have also concluded that the terrorist designation would lower the possibility of any U.S.–Houthi talks, the absence of which would have posed yet another obstacle to the resolution of the war in Yemen. Clearly, the Houthis play a significant role in any possible U.S. peacebuilding measure in Yemen. Thus, a Houthi presence in any negotiations or peace process in Yemen is essential. These moves come amid diplomatic efforts by the Biden Administration to find a solution to the Yemeni war.
The Houthis’ Response
While the United States’ terrorist designation would have hurt the Houthis’ finances, it would not have not changed the balance of power in Yemen, which is increasingly trending in the Houthi rebels’ favor. The rebels nonetheless welcomed the Biden Administration’s reversal. Abdulelah Hajar, an advisor to the head of the rebels’ Supreme Political Council, told AFP that “cancelling the designation is an advanced step towards peace.” Hajar said the new U.S. administration had “got off to a good start”, but warned the credibility of these steps “will not be achieved unless they are proven on the ground and felt by the Yemeni people – by lifting the siege and stopping the war.”
Despite Hajar’s remarks, the Houthis launched an offensive on the oil-rich Marib just one day after Biden’s decision to revoke the designation of the rebels, a move that pushed the warring parties further away from the peace process. That offensive was followed by the Houthis’ escalation in their attacks on the Saudi territory.
The Driving Factors
The Houthis’ desire to capture Marib is not a new goal, and they appear to have launched their recent assault on Marib for various reasons. First, they are trying to establish a new political reality in the six-year-old conflict to strengthen their position in future negotiations. Capturing Marib would give the Houthis leverage in possible peace talks. Second, the Houthis have made recent territorial gains in both the Al-Jawf Province and Nehm. So, capturing Marib would make their advances in the previous two areas solid rather than fragile. Third, Marib has oil, gas, and electricity facilities. If the Houthis seize these facilities, they will benefit in many ways, especially economically.
As for the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s territory, the Saudi-led coalition reportedly redeployed troops to the Marib region and increased air strikes in an attempt to prevent the Houthis’ advancement. As such, the rebels’ increased attacks on the Saudi territory can be seen as a Houthi attempt to alienate the Saudis’ role in this battle. In other words, their repeated attacks on Saudi Arabia’s territory may be viewed as a message to Riyadh to halt the airstrikes on the Houthi forces marching toward Marib.
Given Biden’s decision that the United States would end its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen, and revoke the terrorist designation of the Houthis, one can discern that the Houthis wanted to take advantage of such a situation. This would explain their timing with their assault on Marib and the increase in attacks on Saudi territory.
Houthis Won’t Halt their Attacks
Amidst these changes in U.S. policy and Houthi aggressions, the Biden administration has also reached out to the Houthis. On February 16, U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking said that the U.S. has “ways of getting messages to the Houthis and [it is] using those channels very aggressively as [it is] engaging… in person with the leadership of the key countries involved.” Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, foreign minister of the Houthis’ self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, acknowledged his government’s contacts with the new U.S. administration.
The question remains, how will the Houthis engage with the Biden Administration? On February 26, Lenderking met the Houthis’ chief negotiator Mohammed Abdusalam in Oman, according to Reuters. This came following Lenderking’s meeting with Saudi and U.N. officials in Riyadh. The U.S. special envoy pressed the rebels to halt their offensive on Marib and encouraged them to engage actively with Riyadh in virtual talks on a ceasefire.
However, it is important to note that the Houthis are unlikely to halt their offensive on Marib unless the situation on the ground does not go in their favor and there are no chances of seizing the province. Like all of the warring actors in Yemen, the Houthis seem to be more concerned with territorial gains than the peace process. Even with the new changes in the White House, Washington has no leverage over the Houthis.
However, other than Iran, which provides support to the Houthis, Oman also maintains good relations with the rebels. Undoubtedly, Muscat has proven itself as an important player in the Yemeni war, which will enable it to play a constructive role in the peace process. However, if the Omanis, or even the Iranians, asked the Houthis to stop their assault on Marib, the rebels are not necessarily going to listen. Despite the popular narrative that claims that the Houthis are Iranian proxies, neither of these countries control the Houthis’ actions. Thus, portraying the Houthis as being Iranian proxies is simply imprecise. While Iran has stepped up its support for the Houthis in recent years, there is little evidence that Tehran shapes the group’s strategy or controls their decision-making in the way local alliances and conflict dynamics do.
Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. His articles and work have been published by several media outlets, including Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The American Conservative, and The Globe Post. He tweets as @AZ_Kilani.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.