By: Kaitlin Presnell, Analyst, Middle East Section
Analytical Question: Who is winning the proxy war in Yemen?
The Houthi rebels, a contender in the Yemeni civil war, have reportedly threatened to increase their use of violence against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) if the Stockholm Agreement, a ceasefire that is in place at the port of Hudaydah, is breached by their adversaries. This threat could indicate a potential failure of the Stockholm Agreement in the port of Hudaydah due to rising escalations between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, as well as the provision of weaponry to the Houthi rebels by Iran.
Last week, the Houthi rebels stated that they were strengthening their weapons capabilities in preparation for a potential strike against Saudi Arabia and the UAE if the Stockholm Agreement were to be breached in Hudaydah[vi]. The Stockholm Agreement is a deal that outlines de-militarization in the port of Hudaydah[ii], a major port in Yemen where more than half of the country’s imports arrive[i]. While the agreement was meant to be fully implemented by January 2019, it was never fully committed to by the Houthi rebels or the Yemeni government[iii]. The Houthi rebels remain in control of Hudaydah and have continuously delayed withdrawals. If these threats against Saudi Arabia were to escalate into action, there would be potential for a re-emergence of violence within Yemen and the port of Hudaydah, breaching the Stockholm Agreement and rendering it invalid.
The Stockholm Agreement was a ceasefire deal drafted in Sweden between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government in December 2018. This agreement was crafted as a direct response to the escalation of violence within Yemen as an attempt to potentially end the ongoing civil war[ii]. This agreement outlined a ceasefire and mutual redeployment of all military forces in the ports of Hudaydah, Ras Isa, and Salif[iii] so that aid could successfully make its way into Yemen[i]. Because neither side fully implemented this peace deal, the Houthi rebels still maintain control of the port of Hudaydah and have a presence in Ras Isa and Salif. Both sides to the conflict have blamed one another for the lack of action in implementing the ceasefire agreement. Last month, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, visited Yemen in order to salvage the ceasefire agreement and push both sides towards withdrawal and de-militarization of these ports[iv]. The United Nations recently responded to the lack of implementation within these ports by stating that the Houthi rebels were to blame for the delay of the peace deals due to “political immaturity”[v].
The Houthi rebels recently stated that if Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved on Hudaydah in an effort to further the peace deal and remove the Houthis from power, they would strike back with ballistic missiles and military forces[vi]. While the attempted use of ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia is not new, the renewed strength of the Houthi weapons capabilities is. Iran has been providing the Houthi rebels with ballistic missiles to use in the ongoing war. According to the Houthi rebels, the number of missiles they possess has recently increased through their stockpiling of a weapons cache. In the past, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have managed to limit the Houthis’ territorial gains through the use of airstrikes. Fearing a re-occurrence of this in the port of Hudaydah, the Houthi rebels released this warning in order to deter the Saudis from attacking. If Saudi Arabia or the UAE were to move in on the port of Hudaydah, there could be an outbreak of violence leading to a complete failure of the Stockholm Agreement. This would lead to the continuation of the civil war and an opportunity for Iran to gain momentum and become the new winner of the proxy war in Yemen.
There seems to be potential for a re-escalation of violence in Hudaydah in the near to medium term due to the Houthi rebels’ postponement of withdrawal from the port city. It can be assessed with moderate confidence that the threat and escalation of violence against Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Hudaydah could lead to a potential failure of the Stockholm Agreement. With an outbreak of violence in this port, the agreement would be considered null and void, and the civil war would continue on with no end in sight. This failure would be dependent on Saudi Arabia or the UAE militarily striking the port of Hudaydah and breaching the ceasefire agreement. Until this occurs, it cannot be accurately assessed whether the Stockholm Agreement could fail from this threat by the Houthi rebels.
Bibliography of References Cited
Byman, Daniel. “The Stockholm Agreement and Yemen’s Other Wars” Lawfare. February 13, 2019. Accessed March 21, 2019.
“Full Text of the Stockholm Agreement” OSESGY. December 13, 2018. Accessed March 21, 2019.
“U.S. Envoy Blames Houthis for Yemen Peace Deal Delays” Reuters. March 21, 2019. Accessed March 21, 2019. .
El-Yaakoubi, Aziz. “Peace Deal in Yemen’s Main Port Hits Snag as UN Seeks Aid Pledges” Reuters. February 26, 2019. Accessed March 21, 2019.
“Yemen’s Houthis Say Ready to Strike Riyadh, Abu Dhabi If Coalition” Reuters. March 17, 2019. Accessed March 21, 2019.
“Yemen’s Houthis Say Ready to Strike Saudi, UAE If Coalition Moves on Hudaydah” Middle East Monitor. March 17, 2019. Accessed March 22, 2019.
“Yemen War: Why the Battle for Hudaydah Matters” BBC News. June 13, 2018. Accessed March 21, 2019.
[i] Yemen War: Why the Battle for Hudaydah Matters
[ii] Byman, Daniel
[iii] Full Text of the Stockholm Agreement
[iv] El-Yaakoubi, Aziz
[v] U.S. Envoy Blames Houthis for Yemen Peace Deal Delays
[vi] Yemen’s Houthis Say Ready to Strike Riyadh, Abu Dhabi If Coalition