Is Yemen bracing for bloody flare-up as Houthis resume hostilities?

The Houthis have shown scant respect for global calls to end hostilities and used the six-month truce to strengthen itself. The war in Yemen could go from bad to worse.

The international community is clinging onto the false hope that the truce in Yemen is salvageable.

But it’s time to face the facts — the Houthis aren’t returning to the negotiation table anytime soon. And even if they did, it wouldn’t be the step toward sustainable peace that Yemen so desperately needs.

It’s undeniable that the six-month truce had many positive impacts on the situation in Yemen. To name just a few, there was a drastic decline in civilian casualties, increased aid relief to Yemen’s most vulnerable populations, and previously restricted flights connected many Yemenis to urgent medical care abroad.

But the Houthis are already undoing that and most other progress with a string of devastating attacks on civilians. In one particularly concerning case, the Houthis targeted an internally displaced peoples (IDP) camp in the oil-rich Marib province with drones and ballistic missiles — killing four people, including two children.

Even the UN, which is continuing to advocate a revived truce, has acknowledged that the Houthis are responsible for a host of war crimes in the short time since the truce expired.

Worse, the Houthis have used the truce to strengthen themselves in preparation for resuming fighting with the Yemeni government. The rebels took advantage of the lull in fighting and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes to regroup and fortify their positions on various frontlines — including in Marib, where they sent reinforcements of men and armoured vehicles.

But the Houthis are also emerging from the truce strengthened diplomatically. In the six months that the ceasefire was in place, the Saudi-led coalition made significant concessions like opening the Sanaa international airport, allowing additional fuel imports and recognising Houthi-issued passports.

International parties like the UN and US that continue to call on the Houthis to rejoin the ceasefire need to acknowledge that their pleas are falling on deaf ears. The Houthis only agreed to the truce because they saw it as a strategic opportunity to extract concessions and regain strength. Now that they’re re-energised, they don’t see a need to rejoin it when a military offensive offers them more — with less diplomatic strings attached.

The Houthis have shown little interest in engaging in diplomatic efforts to renew the truce. And in the meantime, they have virtually spelt out their intentions by releasing a three-stage strategy to escalate military operations in Yemen — and abroad.

The plan states that the group will target energy infrastructure within Yemen before striking critical Saudi and Emirati infrastructure and eventually attacking international shipping in the Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb Strait.

And it’s clear that the Houthis have already started executing their plan. The rebels attacked oil export facilities at the al Nashima port on October 18 and 19, the Al Dhaba port on October 22 and November 21, and the Qena port on November 9.

Moreover, the Iran-backed group appears to be progressing to the second phase of its plan — cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even before announcing its blueprint for further conflict, the group renewed threats against both countries and now appears to be preparing for attacks.

The United States Navy and Coast Guard revealed on November 14 that they intercepted an unflagged fishing boat that was transporting 180 tons of explosive material — including ammonium perchlorate used to make fuel for ballistic missiles — from Iran to the Houthis. The Houthis undoubtedly have access to other explosives, but the large shipment suggests they’re planning to resume cross-border attacks soon.

But what is most concerning is that the Houthis are planning for the final stage of their scheme — attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb Strait, both vital strategic links in maritime trade between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. On November 19, the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of testing an anti-ship missile, which, if true, would constitute a significant threat to both military and civilian ships in the region — the missile even landed in the Red Sea.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia was forced to suspend oil shipments via the Bab al Mandeb Strait after the Houthis attacked two oil tankers. If the Houthis can disrupt operations in these critical waterways again, shipping companies travelling from the Gulf to Europe and North Africa would be forced to travel around the southern tip of Africa, an adjustment that would add to shipping and fuel costs and disrupt supply at a time when the energy market is already volatile.

For the past eight years, the war in Yemen has been low on the world’s priority list. Maybe now that the Houthis are threatening attacks on global shipping operations that could cause hikes in oil prices worldwide, the international community will take necessary action to end the war before the Houthis’ next gruesome attack.

Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC, a Middle East-focused defence and intelligence consultancy firm.